It’s the last time a Greek PM might have the chance to stand up for his people and demand that the EU and Turkey change their plans before making the Greek islands of Chios and Lesbos into a modern Ellis Island for Europe.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained on Saturday that his country has not received the financial assistance it needs from the European Union to deal with the approximately four million refugees and migrants Ankara is housing on its territory.
For this reason, he said, Turkey was ready to allow these people to enter the European Union, instead of waiting for Brussels to help him financially to deal with this gigantic problem.
As we have seen in recent years, the Turkish leadership has never hesitated to act abruptly and blackmail Europe in broad daylight.
We can now easily say that when Erdogan says ”enough is enough,” he means it; but what about Greece’s leadership?
Because, as we all know, Greece is the first EU member-state where all these refugees and migrants from Turkey will go when they decide to cross the Turkish border with Europe.
Greece’s Phobic Obedience
Up until now, we haven’t seen a single Greek politician stand up to Brussels in a coherent and dynamic manner. Europe’s elites have gotten used all these years to seeing passive obedience, especially from the Union’s financially and politically weaker states, one of which is Greece.
Most of the time, the leaders of the smaller nations of the EU feel and act like powerless pawns in a board game designed to be played solely by the stronger players.
Greece felt that in 2015 when the leadership of the country at that time dared to challenge Brussels’ austerity imposed on an already-bankrupt nation, but soon after, former PM Tsipras was humiliated into accepting everything the EU wanted. The results of this incident are well-known and are now history.
All of Greece’s recent Premiers have not aimed any higher than aspiring to be liked in Brussels’ circles of power, hoping that Europe’s sympathy will also be translated into more favorable policies for their states.
In that sense, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the current Prime Minister of Greece, saw that the only way to be liked and be viewed as proper to Europe was to force a plan served up by Europe’s anti-migration national leaderships, which are happy with the situation in Greece, as long as refugees and migrants do not reach their own national borders.
And by saying European national leadership, we specifically mean Germany and all those Eastern EU member states which stubbornly deny any responsibility for this urgent global issue.
Mitsotakis did what every Greek Prime Minister has done in the past.
However, this time, the people of Greece’s Eastern Aegean islands, the same figures who you might have seen in photos taking care of refugees and migrants in recent years, have simply had it.
It’s Not a Matter of Camps, It’s a Matter of Principle
The residents of Lesvos, Samos, Chios and all the other Eastern Aegean islands have been struggling to survive in a country that has forgotten them, as well as in a Union that sees them as Europe’s backyard sheds.
After what they have gone through all these years, tolerating their own financial destruction to save Greece’s and Europe’s humanitarian face, the last thing they wanted to see was Athens sending hundreds of riot police to force them to accept yet another migrant detention center — without any actual plans on how the constant influx of new arrivals would eventually be stopped.
For the islanders, the promise that the already-existing camps will shut down was nothing more than another pointless lie.
The problem these people have is not where the next camp will be built, or how many of these exist, but how Greece will stop needing them.
This is what led the situation to spiral out of control. The realization that Athens will never be able to reverse a situation that has been created to please these EU states that are happy to congratulate Greece’s stance, as far as this stance does not threaten their own domestic serenity and peace.
In fact, on these islands, there aren’t two opposing sides as many might think. Both residents, and well as refugees and migrants, want the same thing: To move on.
The refugees and migrants with their families want to move on from the place where they have been stuck, while living in horrible conditions, and residents want to finally move on with their lives and see their islands the way they used to be: Places of tranquillity, happiness, and calm.
The Greek Government’s Disastrous Mistake
Thus, instead of joining the islanders’ reasonable concerns and dealing with the real problem, the Greek Prime Minister, apparently under international pressure, decided to play tough.
Mitsotakis was driven to his worst political decision so far, turning the islands into civil war zones by sending several units of riot police to calm the ”untamed” islanders.
According to local people on Chios, the riot police disembarked from the ferries with the attitude of being there to enforce the law by any means necessary — and they actually did exactly that: They used unprecedented excessive force.
When Mitsotakis saw that the situation had dangerously escalated, with civilians threatening police officers with guns, he tried to cover up the fiasco by asking riot police to withdraw from the islands of Chios and Lesvos.
The Maximos Mansion realized that its plans were now perceived as a blatant act against the people’s will.
The police withdrawal was indeed a much-needed move to de-escalate tensions, particularly after two days of clashes that left dozens injured on both sides.
However, it was too little, too late as the government’s earlier decisions had conveyed the worst message they could send to an already suffering population: that the islanders and Athens are on different sides, instead of fighting together.
While this might be true for the specific instance of where to build the new detention center, the real problem of the islanders was that they wanted measures that will eventually stop the influx; not promises, maps, timetables and hopes. And they want them now!
People on Lesvos, on Chios and the rest of these islands, want to make sure that their homelands come back to normality, and their future will not be that of a modern Ellis Island on Europe’s border with an aggressive neighbor.
Athens Needs to Take a Different Direction
Following these sad realizations, the Greek PM should have taken his plane and gone to speak to these local communities about the government’s plan – if there is any.
He could also ask for the local community’s proposals, even if they don’t sound good to Athens’ ears. At the end of the day, we ate talking about their islands, their properties, and their lives.
PM Mitsotakis himself should be there to explain to these people the complex situation and dare to ask a few officials right on the spot to board his plane and go immediately to Brussels to request special actions and much-needed assistance.
It is time for Greece to take a harder, national, and not party-political stance on the issue, and this could not be a better time. Even the opposition SYRIZA party says that it will assist the government to demand an extraordinary EU summit, as Turkey is blackmailing the entire Union, not just Greece.
Mitsotakis must demand — not ask — additional EU staff to man the asylum services and registration centers, as well as additional Frontex personnel and vessels to guard what are Europe’s waters, not just Greece’s.
It would be even better for Mitsotakis to show some strength and talk to the Greek and the European people honestly. To admit that most of the asylum seekers are here to stay, either in Greece or in Europe in general.
The Syrian refugees, fleeing war, will certainly stay. Others will have to be sent back to their place of origin, while yet more will be the exceptions and stay in Greece or be transferred to the more affluent North, just as they had originally wished.
Words of honesty and truth are preferred over actions of violence inside the country, and pathetic obedience abroad.
The Greek PM had pledged in his election campaign that his administration would tackle the migrant problem. However, the task is admittedly gargantuan.
The islanders are not just the gate-keepers of Greece but of Europe as well, and the actual problem is not a local, not even a national one, but a global reality the big powers are enabling at the expense of Greece (and others).
The situation on these islands is a European and global emergency; and right there on the spot, there was and still is an optimal opportunity to hit the nail on the head and transfer the fight to where it should be: Brussels.
(Nick Kampouris and Anastasios Papapostolou contributed to this report.)