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.
Since the beginning of the year, Europe stood witness to ever-augmenting migratory flows. These immigrants seek to reach Europe in an effort to get away from the war and instability that plagues their home-countries. The attempts to reach the European borders were underlined by ever-increasing fatalities of immigrants drowned in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. In the beginning of the year, these flows mainly used Libya to gain access to Italy through the Mediterranean, however, during the second quarter of 2015 the flows shifted their focus towards Greece since the passage to Europe through Turkey and Greece was deemed safer. Europe’s response to this crisis was slow and, in most cases, inadequate. The first attempt for the implementation of a quotas plan that would distribute the immigrants to the European countries was met with strong opposition from many European countries that deemed the plan as unfair. In the past months the only plan that found the European states in agreement was the provision of financial aid to the countries that carry the main burden of the problem to help handle the flows. While Europe stood frozen and unable to agree on the proper way to handle the crisis, the immigrants continued entering EU through Greece and Italy, and from there traveling central and north European countries.
Many countries chose to handle the problem individually, and in a mostly unsuccessful way. Greece and Italy, already burdened with the responsibility to save thousands of immigrants daily from half-sank dinghies at their sea borders, had to create, in a limited timeframe, the necessary infrastructure to identify these individuals, and divide them between refugees that have a legitimate claim to asylum and to economic immigrants that need to be returned to their home-countries. That proved to be challenging both for Greece and Italy, with the first facing at the same time an economic and political crisis that did not allow for an effective implementation of policies that would help alleviate the crisis. Hungary chose to handle the crisis in an unsuccessful, and for many unethical, way by building in a matter of weeks a fence along its Balkan frontiers and using the army to ensure that no one will pass this fence. This measure was deemed unethical since it violates the EU’s fundamental principles that oblige the member-states to provide asylum to anyone that has legitimate reasons to flee his home country because his life is in danger. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban achieved gaining the public’s support of his strategy through a series of campaigns, amplified by friendly media, that projected the immigrants as an imminent threat for the Hungarians. After the fence went up, and plans for its extension were announced, riot police used gas and water cannon on stone-throwing immigrants. At the same time, it was an unsuccessful measure since it has been proven in the past that fences do not stop these flows, they simply redirect them to seek other routes. That resulted in the shift of the migratory flows towards Croatia in an to attempt reach their destination countries. Under the burden, Croatia reacted in a similar, rather instinctive, way by closing seven of its eight road border crossings with Serbia following the ever-increasing influx of immigrants that redirected their routes after Hungary fenced off its borders and closed its borders with Serbia. Additionally, Czech Republic was severely criticised after it used the police to remove the immigrants from the trains headed to Germany, and started detaining and numbering immigrants using permanent markers to write registration numbers on the wrists and arms of immigrants. Even Germany, that announced during the last week of August the temporary suspension of the Dublin Agreements stating that it would accept all Syrian asylum-seekers, decided, barely eight days later, to close its borders with Austria leaving thousands of immigrants stranded in Austria’s train stations. The continuation of these practises will not solve the problem, contrary, they will only succeed in trapping these immigrants to Greece, creating a situation which could take unthinkable dimensions.
With a plethora of similar measures being implemented across Europe many started discussing the suspension of Schengen Agreement, one of the pillars upon which European Union is based on and promotes the freedom of movement between the member states. This is not the first time the Schengen Agreement seems to be under threat. In 2011, fearing an influx of North African refugees, Italy and France pushed for a review of the agreement. Earlier this year the Dutch Prime Minister threatened Greece with expulsion if it allowed immigrants free passage to the rest of Europe. Neither eventuality came to pass. What Germany did by temporarily closing its borders with Austria is not a direct violation of the agreement, since Schengen allows countries to briefly reinstate border controls for reasons of national security. However, if these controls become a way to handle the influx of immigrants then they risk reversing decades of European integration.
On September 22 and 23, Europe made another attempt to handle the immigration crisis, since as the time passes and the problem persists, it seems that the European leaders realise that it is a situation that has to be faced collectively. Not only within the borders of the EU, but also by collaborating with other countries that are affected by this problem such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The European states agreed by a strong majority on a mandatory plan to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers across the continent over the next to years. Four governments – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania- opposed the proposal, and Finland abstained. This plan, however, shares the burden of only a fraction of the total number of asylum seekers who have come to Europe during this year, a total that already surpasses 500,000. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that his government will not honour the ministerial decision even of it risks a lawsuit by the European Commission. Additionally, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said after the vote that this plan will encourage more immigration and that Europe’s culture will be irrevocably diluted by allowing more Muslims to settle.
Under the plan agreed by the EU’s Foreign Ministers, some 66,000 asylum seekers will be relocated from Italy and Greece to other EU member states in coming months (15,600 from Italy and 50,400 from Greece). That leaves around 54,000 people who could be relocated from other countries if they experience a sudden influx of migrants and appeal for help. After one year, Italy and Greece will be reallocated the remainder of this reserve, meaning that they will be able to send additional number of asylum seekers elsewhere in the EU. From the plan are excluded only the three countries who have a partial opt-out from EU immigration rules, the UK, Ireland and Denmark. Despite UK being officially excluded by the quotas system, it has been repeatedly under pressure, mainly from France and Germany, to share the burden and accept immigrants. The British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that UK will commit another 100 million pounds to supporting refugees camps bordering Syria and has agreed to accept 20,000 refugees from these camps over the next five years. Ireland stated that it will participate in the quotas plan despite its opt-out. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, which are not in the EU are also taking part. To assuage concerns from some Central and Eastern European member states, EU governments may seek a one-year delay for accepting up to 30 percent of the asylum seekers they are allocated. That could be further extended by a second year if other member states and the European Commission agree.
The quotas were determined largely by the size of each country’s population and its GDP. Also taken into account was the country’s unemployment rate and its number of spontaneous asylum applications and resettled refugees per one million inhabitants in the last five years. That has as a result that 60 percent of asylum-seekers be moved to just three countries, Germany, France and Spain. However, the plan does not account for the migrants who will continue to flood into Europe this fall. At the same time, there is a provision for the creation of ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy by the end of November where EU experts can quickly register and identify people for refugee protections. The quotas plan will be paired by a simultaneous effort to provide more help to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries in the region in the hopes of at least dissuading some people who are fleeing conflicts and poverty to stay in the Middle East. EU will allocate one billion euros to the region in cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program. At the same time, the European leaders agreed during their meeting on September 23 to strengthen the management and the control of EU’s external borders, since it would be unfair to expect that Greece and Italy to handle on their own this huge influx of immigrants.
However, this agreement is nothing more than a temporary solution to the problem. To begin with, the decision to override the dissenter countries means the EU will be sending thousands of people to nations that do not wants them, raising questions about both the future of the 28-national bloc and the well-being of the asylum-seekers consigned to this countries. The acceptance and integration of the immigrants into the local communities is further disturbed when countries, such as Germany through its Chief of Intelligence Hans-Georg Maassen, circulate the view that the refugees could be recruited by radical Islamists already in the country to organise terrorist attacks. It is apparent that this kind of rhetoric does not facilitate their integration and acceptance to the local communities. Additionally, EU has not announced according to which criteria the refugees will be chosen to be allocated to each country, creating rumours that countries such as Germany that are in need of specialised workforce will accept mainly the refugees with high qualifications and distribute the ones with a limited educational and professional background to the other countries. Finally, while the majority of the European leaders seem to be satisfied with the agreement reached, they did not highlight that this plan deals with only a portion of the 500,000 immigrants currently in Europe and they did not acknowledge the fact that the biggest migratory flow has not as of yet commenced. Turkey currently hosts 2,5 million refugees, Lebanon around 1,5 million and Jordan some 700,000 refugees. It seems apparent that the allocation of one billion euros is a temporary solution and will not dissuade them from attempting to seek a better future in Europe. Nevertheless, the value of the agreement reached should not be undermined. It is the first organised and cohesive reaction of a Europe that proved during this crisis that its crisis management reflexes are extremely slow. However, it should not be considered as a viable solution to a problem that its route causes have not yet been addressed.
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.