Europe’s Dangerous Ambivalence

Migrants arriving from Turkey by dinghy landing Friday on the Greek island of Lesbos. Credit Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press
Migrants arriving from Turkey by dinghy landing Friday on the Greek island of Lesbos. Credit Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press

For the first time in years, Greece’s debt problem and the challenge this poses to the eurozone’s integrity have been upstaged — pushed aside by the surge of refugees entering the European Union, most of them through Greek islands just off the Turkish coast. For us Greeks, however, as we prepare to vote on Sunday in our second national election this year, the prospect of our political impasse continuing makes us almost oblivious to the human river flowing northward through our country.

The latest polls suggest a close race between the radical-leftist Syriza party, which governed between January and August, and the center-right New Democracy, which led the coalition government before that. With neither party appearing within reach of a clear majority in Parliament, many voters are hoping for a coalition that will provide stability and implement measures to revive the economy. Two bailout deals since 2010 have not achieved this; we have now negotiated a third.

Greece’s continuing economic crisis and the surge of refugees into the European Union have very different origins but both reflect the same phenomenon, a fundamental structural paradox: The European Union is as strong as its most powerful member, but as weak as its weakest. This allows each member to punch above its weight when things are going well, but when trouble comes, it can also expose members to forces they cannot control. As long as national interests determine European Union policy, and there is no collective response reflecting the union’s political and economic power, individual states will improvise and struggle, they will quarrel among themselves, the union will look shaky and people will suffer.

Syrian refugees risking their lives to get to Germany, Greece’s well-educated but jobless youth, worried workers and pensioners in rich and poor countries alike — all are victims of the European Union’s scattershot approach to challenges. Lacking a comprehensive policy, the union adopts measures that are a compromise among vastly different needs and positions, are often inadequate and are immediately ignored.

The euro crisis reflects Europe’s fears about moving toward closer political union, adopting a single currency without the appropriate structure to support it. When the first crisis arose — with Greece’s unsustainable debt — the response was so haphazard that the common currency was jeopardized. Similarly, the lack of a viable policy on refugees and migrants is now testing the other core principle of the union — open borders between members.

In the push and pull between national interests and collective policy, the country with the strongest economy, Germany, has been rearranging the union’s political and economic relationships over the past few years. But even as it wields decisive influence on European Union policy, Berlin remains largely ambivalent toward accepting this leadership role. This imbalance between power and institutional responsibility has influenced developments not only in Greece but also in the refugee influx.

Greece’s membership in the eurozone allowed it to run up unsustainable debt because of the unspoken understanding that the euro was underwritten by the economic might of Germany. This allowed Athens to borrow easily to fund a deficit that in 2009 reached 15.7 percent of gross domestic product; the public debt stood at 129.7 percent of G.D.P. Greece was borrowing at rates just slightly higher than those of Germany. But when the shock waves from the 2008 global crisis hit Europe, Greece had to ask its European Union partners for support. It had borrowed like a prince, but now it faced creditors like a pauper.

Similarly, the sincere welcome toward refugees on the part of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany gave hope to countless desperate people, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This enticed them to begin a precarious journey in a rush to get to Germany. One of the reasons the issue has not featured strongly in Greece’s election campaign is that most of the 205,000 migrants and refugees who entered the country between Jan. 1 and Aug. 28 this year have moved on, even as thousands more arrive each day.

With Germany’s sudden imposition of temporary border controls last Sunday, Greece, and other stations on the way like Hungary and the former Yugoslav republics of Macedonia and Serbia, find themselves with large numbers of migrants who do not want to be there. The European Commission’s proposal to divide 160,000 refugees among European Union members on a mandatory quota basis will most likely be ignored by refugees who want to choose where they will go, and by countries that do not want them but cannot stop them from entering. The “Dublin Regulation,” which demands that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the country they enter, has already fallen by the wayside.

If Greece is forced to keep refugees out, it will not be able to cope. Its eastern border is a lacework of islands just off Turkey’s coast that cannot be patrolled adequately. Also, in dealing with desperate people there can be no military solution, nor are borders and fences inviolable. People will keep coming as long as they fear for their lives at home. And once on European soil, they must be cared for.

Clearly, no country can deal with a refugee crisis of this magnitude on its own, just as no national economy can survive a crisis like the one that hit Greece. On the economic front, the European Union has shaped institutions and procedures to help members that run into trouble. But Greece’s inability to revive its economy has meant it risks (perhaps temporary) suspension from the euro. On migration, the European Union’s response has been equally ambivalent and dangerous — a jumble of national and collective interests, of solidarity, fear and impatience.

Without any clear policy, the European Union delays responding to challenges until they cannot be ignored. But then, as each country focuses on its domestic politics, any collective actions end up being hasty and haphazard, undermining achievements, raising tension among members — in short, jeopardizing the union.

Nikos Konstandaras
is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini and a contributing opinion writer.

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