Saturday, March 12, 2016

An Opportunity for Greece to Save Europe and Itself

EU President and Turkey Prime Minister, photo Burhan Ozbilici AP


This week the EU and Turkey held an emergency summit in Brussels to address a refugee crisis that is trapping a flood of men, women, and children inside Greece’s borders. The massive warm weather migration season hasn’t begun but thousands sit penned up in makeshift shelters amid conditions it seems few journalists are allowed to witness. Tempers are flaring all across the region, and as frustration grows, there is no doubt things will get worse. 

Photo by Marko Djuirica, Reuters

So, what game’s afoot?

To me it’s obvious.  A half-dozen years ago I wrote this sentence in a book: “Member states kept returning immigrant asylum seekers to Greece claiming that, as their original E.U. entry point, by law they’re a Greek problem—as if Greece were the European Union’s immigration filter trap.”

Today there’s not even the pretext of some other arrangement. Greece is the EU’s de facto refugee filter trap, holding pen, relocation center, or whatever other euphemism one wishes to use.  And with Greece’s ever-worsening financial circumstances—and make no mistake about that reality—it is the EU’s the most vulnerable and malleable candidate for the title. 

As I see it, negotiations are now underway to make Greece the de jure location, with name-calling and finger pointing in full swing to give politicians on all sides of the borders political cover for what is coming.  It seems the perfect scenario is shaping up for Greece to turn to its benefit a situation it can’t escape no matter what.  I say “can’t escape” because the Greek people would never abandon the refugees to drown at sea, or die on land of starvation, disease, or violence at the hands of extremists, despite the apparent indifference of Austria and its surrounding Balkan neighbors to leaving those refugees to such fates. 

Greeks donating food in Athens Constitution Square

Piraeus food distribution center, photo Thanassis Stavrakis AP 

As hard as some in the EU may try to make Greece seem the bad guy, the ploy isn’t working.  Everyone knows Greece’s financial crisis keeps it from properly tending to the refugee flow, and harsh visuals and words out of countries tied to memories they’d rather forget of World War II are beginning to percolate in the media, and will only intensify if things do not change.

A betting man would say the answer to the question, “What will happen?” is found in what matters most to the involved nations’ electorates: debt repayment or repelling refugees.  That’s a harsh way to put it, but obvious from the behavior of the parties concerned.

The refugee crisis has the EU showing sudden flexibility toward Greece on pension cuts the EU long insisted were immutable conditions of a third bailout, and “debt relief” is now formally on the table for discussion. Undoubtedly other financial incentives are there for Greece should it agree to serve Europe in this refugee crisis, a crisis I hasten to point out was not of Greece’s making.  But whether it’s the fates or something else, the Greek government now has the opportunity of extricating itself from a financial crisis for which it most certainly shares a great deal of responsibility.

The question is how will the Greek government handle this opportunity to rescue both the refugees and its own people from parallel crises?  Europe is desperate to rescue itself from the refugee influx—perhaps even so much so as to bite at Turkey’s (current) latest demands for cutting off the flow—but cannot do so without Greece front and center in the mix.  Greece best think long and hard on what it wants in return, for it will not likely have this clear an opportunity again.

It is a time for firm—but civil—negotiations. 

For those cynics of you who see my suggestion as encouraging mercenary financial opportunism to profit off a humanitarian crisis, look closer.  You’ll see Greeks in the depths of their own Great Depression reaching selflessly out to help families fleeing World War II-like horrors.  Then recite this simple phrase: “Greek lives matter too.”



  1. A great commentary, Jeff. Even if they get debt relief, though, I think they'll come out holding the short end of the sticl. What we need in addition is an EU-wide official recognition that this refugee crisis is a temporary humanitarian tragedy that will be reversed. forcibly if necessary, when relative peace returns to the regions from which the immigrants come. No one in entitled to lifelong support by a nation that has not benefited from its work and its taxes. All settlement of these people should be conditional on the restoration of some kind of order in their home countries.

    1. I agree, Tim, that the only longterm solution is to address the situation in their home countries, for as long as people feel that to remain in their homelands means near certain death or persecution, the only rational decision is to flee...but as you point out, the countries to which they look to go do not have unlimited patience (or funds), and thus the tinderbox dilemma now facing a desperate Europe that for far too long ignored the writing on the wall.

  2. All I can say at this point without entering into the arena of Greece's "debt" to the European bankers, is that the Greek people have not only not forgotten what solidarity means, but they are exemplary at showing it.

    The refugees are fleeing wars they did not cause, wars which are tearing up their homelands.

    Susan Sarandon recently went to Lesbos to interview refugees. Those she saw were mothers and children.

    If the wealthiest world powers can't rise to the occasion and solve this crisis (and end the wars), then what?

    I agree that the Greek people won't turn their backs on the refugees to their credit. They should be held in the highest esteem and emulated. That's it, simple.

    But will that happen? Will the wealthiest countries contribute what they should? Or will Greece continue to carry on helping?

    It's a tough situation. I extend my respect and solidarity to the Greek people for doing what all people should do for other human beings in worst situations than their own. That's called empathy and compassion. And solidarity. The best of human traits.

    1. Thank you Kathy. As I mentioned in my reply to comments on my Facebook page put up in response to this post, there's an "elephant in the room" I chose not to address in my post. I decided instead to focus on a short-lived opportunity, confronting what has proven to be a short-sighted government, to avoid a human catastrophe. Greece cannot continue to sustain the unchecked influx of desperate refugees without an inevitable bursting at the seams. It is no longer a time for government leaders to mouth words and empty promises, effectively trusting the heavy lifting and eventual outcome to the Fates. It is a time to be vigorously pro-active with the EU in fashioning a rational bold plan for the region's most significant threat to EU stability.

      A societal disaster waits in the wings if this government can't get its act together, abandon its instinctive smoke and mirrors approach to crises and address the nation's JOB-like tests constructively in a manner that puts the nation's health above party. And by government, I mean all in power who recognize the horrid chaos facing their beloved country if business continues as usual.

  3. Oh, Bro, I hope your scenario works in favor of Greece and the refugees. In January and February, I had so many discussions of this with Italian and French family and friends. They are all horrified at the EU's hardheartedness on both fronts. The EU is not a union in any sense of the word but financial. This refugee crisis has revealed its weak--I could say nonexistent underpinnings. But the Greeks and the Italians see clearly that NO ONE puts a two year old in a boat unless being on the water is less dangerous than being on land.

    During my years in New York, I have noticed the changing nationalities of day-laborers on construction sites. They were Hispanic, then Russian, then Chinese, now often Middle Eastern. In Italy, this year, they are almost all speaking Arabic.

    The Greek people are bearing such a burden and doing it with such generosity and humanity. I wish I could be optimistic that the rest of Europe will match their compassion. But I have serious doubts. I hope, I hope, I HOPE they prove me wrong.

    1. I think when the history of the EU experiment is written, its epitaph--should it follow that course--will simply say "NIMBY did it in."

  4. It has always interested me to see how often those with nothing are willing to share what little they have, while those with plenty hoard it. People outside the situation have been so fast to point to Greece as a model of how NOT to behave...and yet, on this particular point, the rest of the world could learn a lot from people so poor that they can barely take care of themselves attempting to help those the rest of the world is trying hard to ignore.

    I wish there was a good solution that would help Greece get back on its feet AND give these refugees a measure of hope.

    1. I wish there were too, and that those who so fervently claim to embrace the Bible proved themselves to actually follow its teachings.

  5. Impossible to imagine that this clarity of position would have any arguments opposed. Jeff, you have made the point. Now to get those heads out of dark places and on board a solution to a situation approaching a shameful humanitarian disaster

    1. Regrettably, it's looking that these days there are far more dark places than heads.