According to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, NATO ships are being deployed to the Aegean sea in a bid to deter people-smugglers taking migrants from Turkey to Greece. The announcement follows a request from Turkey, Greece and Germany at a defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
MR Stoltenberg has disclosed that the mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” adding that instead, NATO will contribute “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking.” He further disclosed that the decision was made in order to help Greece and Turkey “manage a human tragedy in a better way then we have managed to do so far.” Earlier, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter commented that targeting the “criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people” would have the greatest humanitarian impact.
NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2, which is under German command, will lead the operation in co-operation with Greek and Turkish authorities. According to the United Nations refugee agency, almost 75,000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Greece by sea in 2016.
Over the past several years, Greece has been increasingly strained by the tens of thousands of migrants reaching its shores. Perhaps more than ever before, Greece could potentially be close to the breaking point. Starting in Sweden and Denmark, governments across Europe have imposed new border restrictions, inadvertently creating a chain-reaction. In mid and late-January, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia announced new restrictions on migrants. Several governments, including Austria, are developing plans to cap the total number of migrants. Almost all the countries recently imposing border restrictions are focusing on original country of origin. The asylum process will increasingly prioritize migrants from conflict areas, particularly Syria. Over this past fall and winter, Macedonia has repeatedly closed important crossings at the Greek border with no warning. One closure on 21 January, for example, resulted in a backlog that took multiple days to clear. When such closures occur, many migrants are left without adequate food or shelter, creating a stressful situation that often results in violence.
The Wall Street Journal has quoted a confidential Bank of Greece report, which estimates the Greek Government could spend 600 million Euros in 2016 assisting migrants. The migrant-related costs could potentially reach 0.3% of Greece’s Gross Domestic Product. The operation of migrant reception centres could constitute 35% of the total cost, followed by search and rescue efforts 26%. Since the beginning of January, the UNHCR has reported that over 74,000 migrants have reached Greece alone. Over the course of 2015, over 821,000 migrants reached Greece, the vast majority doing so in small boats. Greek officials and international observers are expressing concerns that Greece will have to support tens of thousands more migrants in 2016 if border restrictions further north remain in effect. The European Agenda on Migration had been intended to ease the migrant-related pressures faced by the Italian and Greek governments. However, the European Commission announced on 10 February that only 218 migrants had been relocated from Greece. Only 15 European Member-States agreed to participate, providing a total of 1081 places (far below the 66,400 target).
As spring starts to approach, the total number of migrants attempting to reach Europe is anticipated to increase once again. As the European Union struggles to develop a coordinated approach, Greece will remain at the forefront of the migration crisis. Even with European Union and NATO support, it may well be unable to sustain tens of thousands more migrants, especially if many of them cannot travel further into Europe.
Reports have surfaced that police in Greece tried to capture the suspected ringleader of the 13 November terror attacks in Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, in January however the operation failed.
According to a Belgian anti-terrorism source, the Athens operation planned to target Abaaoud before anti-terror raids in Belgium, however that did not happen. Abaaoud, who died in a battle with French police just five days after the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, had been directing the Belgian cell by phone from Athens. According to a source, the Greek operation was supposed to have taken place before one that was carried out by security forces in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on 15 January. That raid saw an exchange of fire and resulted in the death of two suspected jihadists.
Greek authorities were on Abaaoud’s trail, believing that he was running the Belgian cell by mobile phone from Athens. Anti-terror sources have disclosed that a senior Belgian police officer was in Athens, where he was co-ordinating the hunt for Abaaoud with his Greek counterparts prior to the raid on the Verviers cell. While it remains unclear why or how Abaaoud was able to get away, there may have been an attempt to track him down to a city square by tracing the signal of his mobile phone, however that did not work. The Greek authorities are not confirming any details, and all that is known is that he was able to successfully get away. What else is known is that two days after the Veviers raids, Greek police carried out raids in Athens on 17 January. Earlier that day, Belgian media had reported that Greek authorities were searching for Abaaoud, a Brussels resident of Moroccan origin who was believed to be hiding in Greece. Greek police raided two flats in Athens. While one Algerian man was eventually extradited to Belgium, Abaaoud was not found. It is now known that traces of DNA recovered in both flats match samples that were recovered from Abaaoud’s body in Paris. A neighbour at one of the flats also reported seeing Abdelhamid Abaaoud in the street outside on at least two occasions.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud had been implicated in four out of six foiled attacks since this spring in France. However he is not the only link between Greece and the Paris attacks. Salah Abdeslam, who remains on the run, travelled to Greece by ferry from Italy on 1 August. He left three days later. Furthermore, two of the suicide bombers who attacked the Stade de France crossed by boat from Turkey to the island of Leros in October. They were posing as refugees.
Much of the information that has emerged about the operation in Athens ha raised questions about how to create a better exchange of information and close cooperation between anti-terrorism authorities in difference European countries.
Greek banks have opened their doors for the first time in three weeks, signifying a tentative step towards normalcy and a possible turnaround in the fortunes of prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who has found himself at the centre of a revolt within the ruling Syriza party over the tough terms of the bailout agreement.
Opposition to the proposed reforms has come from all sectors of society, with shops closing their doors in protest and civil servants going on 24 hour strike. On Thursday 16 July, ahead of a key vote on Greece’s bailout deal, anti-austerity protestors clashed with police outside the parliament in Athens, trading petrol bombs for tear gas in some of the most serious acts of public disorder seen in over two years. Earlier in the day, thousands of people took to the streets in a series of mostly peaceful demonstrations, protesting against the bailout agreement that will require the implementation of numerous unpopular reforms, including tax hikes, pension cuts, limits to public spending, a review of collective bargaining laws and the transfer of 50 billion euros of state assets into a special privatised fund.
Not even the Syriza party – which was elected in January on an anti-austerity platform – has been able to present a unified front in the face of such vehement public opposition, with much internal wrangling over the four bills the government will need to adopt in order to secure the 86 billion euro bailout. While Thursday’s vote saw the Greek parliament approve the bailout package, Tsipras was forced to rely on opposition support after 39 Syriza party members refused to back the government. Deputy finance minister Nadia Valavani even went so far as to resign her position in protest against the changes taking place, saying: “I’m not going to vote for this amendment and this means I cannot stay in the government.”
A second vote on measures relating to justice and banking reforms is due to be held on Wednesday and while they are expected to pass, the Syriza party’s internal ructions have cast some doubt on Tsipras’s future as leader. Under Greek constitutional law, a political party must have at least 120 seats before it can form a minority government. Before the defection of 39 Syriza party members, Tsipras and his coalition partner, the Independent Greek’s party, held 162 seats in the 300 seat parliament. This has now been cut down to 123 seats. Should this number be reduced any further, a leadership crisis seems likely to follow. As Tsipras said to his Syriza colleagues before Thursday’s vote: “I am prime minister because I have a parliamentary group that supports me. If I do not have its support, it will be difficult to be prime minister the day after.”
For the first time since the collapse of the military junta in 1974, Greek people decided to put an end to the domination of the two principal parties, New Democracy and PASOK. Syriza, a radical left wing party, won 36,3 per cent of the votes, surpassing New Democracy’s 27,9 per cent. Syriza, won 149 seats in the parliament, just two short of an overall majority. The new government is a coalition between Syriza and the right-wing populist party Independent Greeks. After the end of the elections, Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, reconfirmed his party’s intent to reject the TINA argument (There is No Alternative) that previous Greek administrations used to justify the imposed austerity measures. However, Syriza’s win was not the only note-worthy event during the Greek elections. The neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, came third with 6,3 per cent of the votes. The party is politically isolated, with its leadership and many of its members in prison with no access to mainstream media. Golden Dawn’s electoral results follow the general rise of far-right parties across Europe.
The rise of Syriza has been fuelled by the economic crisis. After the 2008 economic crisis, Syriza had a steady rise on the electoral rounds that followed. On the 2009 elections it won 4,6 percent of the vote, and after the two electoral rounds in May and June of 2012, it succeeded in winning 26,8 percent of the votes. It surpassed the governmental party, New Democracy, for the first time during the European elections in May 2014 where it won 26,6 percent of the votes, against New Democracy’s percentage of 22,7 per cent. Syriza’s meteoric rise reflects Greek people’s indignation with the choices of the previous governments and the austerity measures that they imposed. It is quite possible that this win is going to affect Syriza’s relationship with its supporters and change the dynamics between the party. Up to 2012, Syriza was a coalition of left parties and organisations. Its history contains a series of splits and consolidations involving numerous left-wing political formations that, in many ways can trail their origins to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). In its current formation it is a strategic coalition comprising of a wide spectrum of political platforms that include social democrats, radical socialists and communists, environmentalists, anti-globalisation campaigners and human rights advocates. Its synthesis creates friction between the members and could affect its ability to implement a unanimous policy.
Syriza promised to rescind many of the austerity measures that the previous governments signed with the EU and the IMF. Since 2010, and partly due to the austerity measures, the country has seen its GDP shrink nearly a quarter, its unemployment rate reached a third of the labour force (26%) and almost half of its population fell bellow the poverty line. The national debt instead of decreasing has risen to 175 per cent of the annual GDP. Due to these factors, and despite the governmental change, the political system in Greece remains extremely vulnerable. Syriza’s position differs from the previous governments’ positions in two key factors. First, Syriza believes that the only way of making the European Union treat Greece reasonably and limit the austerity measures is to spearhead an immediate re-think of the Greek bailout program through the suspension of the policies demanded from the Troika and through the threat of using its veto power in the European Council. Secondly, Syriza wants to apply a tough bargaining line with a radical agenda that will entail a deep social change in Greece, including a big swift in the tax base, the re-introduction of a decent minimum wage – currently the minimum wage in Greece is 586 euros – and increase the funding for social security and public health provisions.
At the same time, it is quite possible that Syriza’s election is going to be a jolt in European politics. The people from the crisis-plagued countries of the South can identify with the win of a pro-European party that is committed to the European dimension of its country, but also a party that, due to its radical disposition, is ready to pressure the European Council to address the problems they have been ignoring over the past five years. Syriza’s biggest threat is the path of compromise that may be pressured to follow. For Greek people Syriza represents their last hope after a series of betrayals from their governments since the crisis started. Its political battle could reignite other similar anti-austerity movements across European countries that face economic problems, namely Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal. Like Greece, these countries were pressured to implement strict fiscal programs. Even though the measures proved to bring positive results in the macroeconomics sector, the economy’s growth halted and the economic crisis was combined with a big humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless, if Syriza fails in fulfilling its promises against the Greek people and does not improve Greece’s performance both internally and at the international forums, similar European anti-austerity parties that now benefit from Syriza’s political dynamic could be negatively affected. Spain, Ireland and Italy are due to hold elections over the next two years. In Spain, the anti-austerity party Podemos continues to gain popularity as the country moves closer to the December 2015 elections. Spain is battling a 24 per cent unemployment rate, second only to Greece’s 26 per cent. Similarly, in Ireland the Anti-austerity Alliance party has increased its power since the 2009 elections, amid protests against the new austerity measures implemented by the government. Italy faces similar problems that underline the people’s dissatisfaction with the high rates of unemployment, the lack of healthcare and the increase of poverty rates.
Syriza does not promote Greece’s exit from the Eurozone. What it aspires to do is to create breathing room from the imposed fiscal programs to undertake basic restorative policies, and to lay the ground for a more cohesive and long-term economic strategy. Syriza’s leader has explicitly stated that his party does not intend to destroy the euro or to force Greece out of the Eurozone. Nevertheless, he has mentioned that he is not willing to keep Greece in the economic alliance under any cost. If Greece follows that path it will not be voluntary but a choice forced to make. This attitude allows him to appease Greek people internally, and promote the image that he is willing to negotiate with his European partners externally. By generating a campaign that focused on change not only for Greece but for Europe as a total, he succeeded in deflecting the narrative of Greek exceptionalism regarding the sovereign debt. Using the widespread crisis and the struggle of many European countries, he makes the case that the issue of the Greek debt must not be regarded as an isolated problem, but as a variable of a wider issue that has at its core a problematic European economic governance.
Syriza’s win rekindled the ‘’Grexit’’ speculations. However, that does not seem to be the case. The various EU Treaties do not include a clause regarding how a country could leave the euro. Currently there is no treaty provision that legally contains the requirements for a member state to be expelled from the EU or EMU. Even though a withdrawal from the EU is not legally impossible, the exit clause itself is, prima facie, not in harmony with that rationale of the European unification project and can create many legal problems, as an exit from the EMU without simultaneous exit from the EU is legally inconceivable. At the same time, even if a negotiated exit can be achieved and the European economy can limit its losses considerably, which is dubious at best, a member’s exit will provoke a general vulnerability at the core of everything the EU represents. The EU’s existence can come into question, due to the fact that there are going to be no guarantees for countries that face similar problems, such as Spain and Italy, that they will not have to follow Greece’s path.
Despite Syriza’s aspiring announcements, a radical revolution both in Greece and in Europe does not seems to be in the cards. The most possible scenario is that Syriza will succeed in finding a more flexible financial agreement, which is not going to deviate substantially from what the previous government agreed to. An agreement is necessary for the new government to continue receiving financial aid in form of loans from the IMF and European partners, and include Greece in the new program of quantitative easing that the European Central Bank announced recently. Syriza’s win represents the need for change in Europe, especially in the European South. Mostly, it reflects a reality that most European governments do not seem to fully comprehend and be prepared to address effectively. This change is expected to further challenge the European cohesion amid the multiple security, economical and political problems that the EU currently faces.