Guest post by Apostolis Fotiadis, freelance journalist based in Athens, Greece. Over the past ten years Apostolis has contributed to various national and international media outlets. He focuses on issues related to ethnic conflict, human rights and population movements in the broader region and the politics of the financial European crisis. He also works regularly as a stringer or output producer for various international media. Apostolis tweets @Balkanizator.

Electoral failures of the Cristian Democratic Party (CDU) and Merkel in Germany have been credited extensively to her refugee policy. Equally, the Bratislava and Vienna summits have pushed again the refugee crisis on the forefront of EU diplomatic brinkmanship. In this context, Greece is set to be affected, yet again, more than any other member state. Furthermore, the objective to have Greece back in the Dublin system, as well as the future of the EU-Turkey deal are both crucial issues that put tremendous pressure on the Greek government. This could further be manipulated as a strategy tool to force Greece implement harsher policies in case the number of refugee arrivals rises again.

It is now more important than ever that the Greek government is ready to provide alternative proposals to the mainstream narrative of enhancing border controls and restricting access to asylum. A possible way forward would be a common European reception system, as this post will propose.

At the moment the political narrative seems to be unfavorable to Greece’s interests. Firstly, the outcome of the diplomatic tactics around the technical details of the EU – Turkey deal is still uncertain and could lead to either a limited implementation of the agreement or to its gradual degeneration. Turkey could stay onboard aiming to get as much as it can and making sure that the EU will refrain from criticism regarding their internal post-coup developments as well as its intervention in Syria. This seems attainable given the relative indifference EU officials have shown to both issues so far. Instead, in the absence of solutions, EU officials have mainly focused on two objectives; first, the deterrence capacity of the EU-Turkey deal and second offering financial support to Greece to manage the population that it is already hosting. The idea is that EU member states receive small and manageable numbers of people and maintain slow but ongoing asylum and relocation procedures that can keep EU policy alive. 

Indeed, resuming Dublin transfers to Greece would reinforce the deterrence aspect of the EU-Turkey deal while at the same time serve as a safety precaution against large numbers of people entering central and northern European member states. The proposed reforms of the Dublin system cannot be effective without Greece being part of it. If these reforms are to succeed, it is obvious that Greece cannot continue to be excluded, as the Commission explicitly stated in its recommendations to Greece in June; otherwise the reform would immediately turn into a void bureaucratic exercise. 

Against this background, the Greek government has been working, since August, to consolidate arguments that it can use when the refugee crisis comes to the forefront again in view of the consideration of the visa liberalization scheme for Turkey later this month. It is very possible, though, that the Greek government will arrive in Brussels with a familiar set of arguments that aim to explain why it is unfair and ineffective to implement Dublin under the current circumstances to an indifferent, if not hostile, audience.  EU officials can put political pressure on Athens and they will if they think they need to, as was the case at the end of 2015, when Greece was threatened to be kicked out of Schengen if it did not comply with other member states’ priorities. That is to say that security concerns over humanitarian imperatives will again be part of the debate. 

Therefore it is critical that Greece’s set of arguments become part of a solid alternative proposal in dealing with the population influx. The Commission currently insists on disconnecting the structure of the Common European Asylum System from any kind of European Reception System. More specifically, Dublin IV aims to neutralize asylum as the last possible regular institutional pathway towards Europe while at the same time allocating responsibility for the economic and administrative management to Greece and, partially, to UNHCR and international NGOs. A miserable system that renders the migrant population in limbo for an indeterminate period can only further reinforce the deterrence imperative. What is more, a system of reception that deters flows arguably suits the agenda of the Commission.

Moving away from this agenda, Greece should counter propose to the EU an approach that will encourage member states to share the administrative and organisational burden of the reception system in Greece. A European Reception System would practically mean that the Greek government would cooperate with EU Member States, which will be in charge of parts of the reception system, mainly overseeing new arrivals or running camps along the Greek mainland. This will, further, include the EU states providing all necessary personnel to boost Greece’s asylum services, medical professionals, social workers as well as experts on dealing with vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors in all reception facilities. 

Moria hotspot on the island of Lesvos (Photo: Salinia Stroux)
There are, of course, issues one can have with such an idea. Firstly, some would argue that the Europeanisation of reception on Greece’s territory would compromise its sovereignty. However, this is not necessary so as long as the process is regulated, mandates are clarified and Greece can have an overview of standard operation procedures implemented in the reception facilities run by the other member states. Furthermore, one ought to consider that if the current diplomatic balance, in the form of the EU-Turkey deal, collapses Greece will be framed as the next possible buffer zone. As the ‘architect’ of the deal, Gerald Knaus, claimed, if the deal collapses, Greece will end up being the ‘Nauru of Europe’, i.e. a place where the unwanted population in Europe is disposed of.

Secondly, some also might say that the presence of more EU officials on the ground would offer them the possibility to monitor flows and close any territorial and systemic holes through which people might still get through to reach northern Europe. In the absence of a formal European reception system, systemic holes have been employed for years by people who wanted to get around the increasingly securitised EU border control policy and by Southern European countries, which attempted to evade their reception responsibilities. However, this is about to end, in any case, with the implementation of the new European Border and Coast Guard. In essence, the new EU regulation, which became operational last week, offers to the Commission the capacity of oversight on population flows and extended impact over refugee and migration policy-making in any European country. Elusive policy tricks, that used to be successfully employed in the past, will not do the trick anymore if it does not suit the Commission and its wider strategy.

Thirdly, some might also argue that the system of relocation and resettlement envisioned by the Commission has already provided for a fair allocation of responsibility. However, this is not entirely accurate. It is a system that still lets front line countries deal with the majority of the issues that arise with refugee and migrant population influxes. The solidarity clauses of the reformed Dublin system are activated only when a country has overcome its capacity by 150%. It also lacks any convincing way of coercing Member States into sharing responsibility except by introducing fines and possibly limiting EU financing to non-complying states.

Indeed, the only aspect the Commission is not attempting to Europeanise, through novel regulations, like the new border Agency, Dublin IV, and new Common European Asylum Service, is the reception system. Instead, the Commission is happy to provide funds to Greece and the private sector to carry the burden. Therefore, proposing a European Reception System could turn out to be advantageous for all parties. It provides the EU with a system of regulating access to Europe in an orderly and transparent manner. Orderly reception can, in turn, provide for safe passage and be used as a remedy for inflated security concerns mostly utilized by conservative political forces. It can further involve a rational solidarity mechanism that is not based on penalising unwilling countries but rewarding the willing ones. It can eventually create a more humane system for dealing with this crisis instead of the inhumane border controls regime promoted by xenophobic politicians and the security-industry's lobbies in Brussels.

Perhaps realistically, there is no possibility of such a proposal, no matter how solid it appears, since there is no fertile ground within the current political context for establishing it. It will be welcomed, though, by many who are trying to stand up to anti-refugee policies promoted by EU circles and could also provide a platform for possible bilateral or multilateral cooperation possibilities among some EU partners sooner or later. The rejection of such a proposal could also provide important political capital to the Greek government. The next time European officials ask Greece to implement EU regulations, Greek officials could answer that EU partners demand compliance while they are unwilling to contribute to the debate in any meaningful way.

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