The signing of the refugee accord between Europe and Turkey last Friday came none too soon for Greece.
In fact, the Hellenic Republic – which even before the flood of immigrants was teetering on the brink of economic collapse – has since the start of the worst crisis of displaced people since the Second World War witnessed more than 2 million Middle Eastern and North African refugees flock to its shores seeking asylum from the mayhem in their own countries.
And when Athens’ neighbors slammed their doors shut on these desperate refugees, the frontline European country had no other option but to try to accommodate them by setting up provisional camps to house the stranded migrants until Europe and Turkey could come to an agreement as to their ultimate fate.
Dire unemployment and extreme austerity measures imposed by the European Union have left Greece ill-equipped to provide for its own people, let alone a flood of refugees who do not speak Greek and often lack professional skills.
And while the EU-Turkish accord promises to eventually ease the refugee crisis in Greece, it will be some time before it begins to take effect.
Although Turkey and the rest of Europe have promised to assimilate a portion of these displaced exiles, Greece – which has turned out to be Ground Zero for the migrant crisis – is having to bear a disproportionate weight in the interim, a point which was not lost on Greek Ambassador to Mexico Petros Panayotopoulos when he delivered his national day speech last week during a diplomatic reception at his residence.
“Greece is a continental country, but it also has more than 3,000 islands, many of which are very near the coasts of Asia Minor, which makes it very accessible to maritime traffic,” he said.
“The refugee problem is a concern for all of Europe, not just Greece or Turkey. War and insecurity have forced entire families to move out of their homes and toward new promised lands like the countries of the European Union.”
But Panayotopoulos said that it is nearly impossible for any single nation to provide the social services and infrastructure needed for such large numbers of migrants, adding that there is also the problem of trying to identify potential extremists passing themselves off as refugees.
“The mechanisms needed to control their entry into Europe are very complex,” he said. “It simply isn’t possible for one country – in this case, Greece – to try to do it all by ourselves and be successful.”
Panayotopoulos concluded his discourse by issuing a plea for external financial and political support.
“Greece needs help,” he said blatantly. “It needs the understanding and support of the rest of the world to help it confront this phenomenon of the mass movement of people. That is what Greece is looking for: international and European assistance to confront the flood of desperate people who are coming to our shores and to help curb the possible dangers that all this might provoke.”
So far, Europe has responded to Athens’ appeals by allocating 700 million euros to a new aid program to help offset the financial challenges Greece faces in coping with the migrants, and much of that relief will be coming in the form of tents, blankets and sleeping bags.
But Greece needs more than bedding and linens to get through this emergency.
Plainly put, Greece is calling on Europe and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to wave the terms of its international bailout, or at least soften them.
The fragile bailout negotiated last August to keep Greece in the eurozone did not contemplate the financial and social strains of the refugee crisis.
Leftist Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been itching for a conclusion of the review of that plan so he can move on to more substantial debt-relief talks which would cap annual servicing costs and, hopefully, give the Greek economy enough elbow room to get back on track.
The IMF has refused to budge on its insistence that Greece become self-reliant by 2018, and Tsipras has been just as obstinate in refusing to impose more restrictions on public spending, particularly on pensions.
This has put the two sides at loggerheads, creating an impasse for negotiations to proceed.
But, as it stands now, the draconian and unsustainable austerity measures imposed by the lenders have Greece in a financial stranglehold, and the migrant crisis might just prove to be the knockout blow for the Tsipras administration.
There is only so much austerity any nation can endure and remain stable.
In order to entice Turkey to help slow the tide of migrants into Europe and even take back some that are already on European soil, the EU was willing to make a compromise with Ankara to fast-track its entry into the 28-member bloc and even sweetened the pot with a 6 billion euro carrot.
Greece, meanwhile, is a political ticking time bomb where social and economic tensions are threatening to explode into an even greater catastrophe that would have severe repercussions throughout the region.
Cancelling Greece’s debt or ratcheting it down would represent a heavy cost for Europe and the IMF, and Greece should not be allowed to get off the hook for its obligations without paying a penalty or implementing more substantial reforms.
But Greece’s lenders are going to have to soften their stance and throw Athens yet another lifeline, even if it means not getting everything they want from Tsipras in exchange.
The alternative is an unstable Greece, which translates into an unstable Europe.
Thérèse Margolis can be contacted at [email protected].