Greek Business File, April-May 2020, No 125
By A. D. Papagiannidis
Of geopolitical tensions, of borders and talks
Time flies at a dizzying speed: months feel like weeks, weeks seem like days. The coronavirus/ Covid-19 onslaught, an epidemic that started in China and has ended up as a pandemic engulfing all of the world, in particular Europe (where Italy was the epicenter, with Spain, then France and Germany joining before mid-March) and the unparalleled disruption it has brought about, all of which monopolized public debate in Greece – as it should. For a country with 20% of GDP derived from tourism, such a shift to lock-down situations throughout Europe along with the drying-up of Chinese/Asian tourist traffic is in itself a shock. Far more massive could be the impact to be expected from the slump in consumer spending resulting from job losses and business closures as well as from social distancing in a country accustomed to close socializing.
But the wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has crashed over Greece at the same time as we were experiencing a period of sudden and ominous increase in Greek-Turkish tensions. This front should not be ignored. Its most important aspect is the one of the refugee-migrant population that Turkey has suddenly pushed – in their tens of thousands – toward the Greek borders in Thrace, as well as towards crossings in the North Aegean islands.
The situation at the Kastanies/Pazarkule border area, where migrants were brought in late February in droves by chartered buses or even on foot all the way from Istanbul in February/early March caused an untenable situation. The Greek Government decided to close down the border crossing; the refugee/ migrant crowd, prodded or at least encouraged by the Turkish authorities who not only opened their side of the border but disseminated “news” that the Greek side was to open and allow passage to Europe/EU, soon became chaotic; the fact that Greece suspended for a month the right of those crossing over to even apply for asylum added to the tension; trying to force the border, desperate people – possibly alongside less well-intentioned elements – clashed with Greek police and border-guards; images from the border area started looking war-like. Greece asked for the support of its EU partners, partly so as to enforce Schengen area prerequisites of external border control: this time around, EU leaders obliged. The presidents of the European Council, the Commission and the Parliament helicoptered over the border area with Greek P.M. Kyriakos Mitsotakis as their guide; Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president said: “This border is not only a Greek border it is also a European border... I thank Greece for being our European ασπιδα/shield in these times”.
Meanwhile, in a handful of Aegean islands, overflowing camps caused the local population – who had been quite welcoming to the migrant wave when it washed over their shores in 2015-16 – to turn distant, mistrustful, and at times even hostile. Renewed arrivals of refugee/migrant boats caused further strain; shady, extremist groups – some of them “imported” from Europe, with extreme right-wing/racist hues – joined the fray; Greek police were at times overwhelmed.
Throughout all of this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wielded the refugee/migrant issue “weaponizing people” to renegotiate the March 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement that was supposed to contain and regulate migrant flows, but also to obtain EU/Western support in Turkey’s forays in Syria (and Libya). Last but not least, Turkish fighter planes, increasingly overflying the Greek islands, as well as (a dangerous new tactic...) the Evros border area, are causing ever more concern.
Such was the situation of Greek-Turkish relations, with East Mediterranean tensions and Turkish claims over hydrocarbon resources serving as their backdrop. A mini Summit of Turkey-Germany-France-UK initiated talks over these issues, with Greece conspicuously absent.
And then came the coronavirus pandemic, with border closures and deeper unease...