EU, Turkey, and Migrants: One Way or Another Europe Will Pay Dearly

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Adem Altan, AFP

Although Turkey appears to have stepped back from a direct confrontation with Greece over the thousands of migrants trying to pass through the latter’s border, the last month has been extremely challenging for the Greek state. Since February 28, when Turkey announced it would no longer stop those wishing to go to Europe, thousands of people have attempted to break through the E.U.’s easternmost border, Greece.

Up until twelve days ago, the Greek forces were repelling this invasion alone. “Invasion” may not be everyone’s choice of word, but that is exactly what it is. The migrants camped at the border did not set off on their own. They were implicitly instructed to go there by Turkey’s president and, in many cases, were even bused to the region by the state.

This has been a coordinated and spiteful agenda on behalf of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – payback to a Europe that has refused to cower to his demands.

Greece as ‘Europe’s Shield’

Although the E.U. has now sent some of its human resources to the region, its original response was unimpressive. One would have expected it to leap to the defense of its most vulnerable borders, immediately dispatching military personal from each of the 27 member states to the eastern Mediterranean. Instead, its leaders praised Greece for being “Europe’s shield” and promised to send it another 100 members of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

Migrants wait in the buffer zone at the Turkey-Greece border, Turkey, on March 5, 2020. Photo: Bulent Kilic, AFP

Even so, it is a pitiable contribution when one considers that Turkey swiftly dispatched an additional 1000 Special Forces to the same area to prevent migrants from being repelled by the Greek army from re-entering Turkey.

The images coming out of the region have not always been flattering.

Greek border guards have been under enormous pressure firing teargas and using water cannons to push back people trying to cut through the wire. They have also had to contend with Turkish troops firing teargas back at them or attempting to pull down the border fence. Erdogan has compared Greek actions to the barbarism of Nazis in World War II – an interesting claim considering Greece suffered three and a half brutal years of Nazi occupation while Turkey did not.

Need for EU Solidarity

Greece needs much more than flattering metaphors and tokenistic gestures of a few hundred personnel in the face of 25,000 desperate and determined migrants at its frontier. Even a few hundred soldiers from each member state would have sent a powerful message to Erdogan, who has no doubt been enjoying all the chaos he unleashed after having duped hundreds of thousands of migrants into believing Europe’s border was open for all.

A more immediate and substantial response would have told him that on issues of sovereignty the E.U. stands together and will not be threatened by despots prone to throwing tantrums. This is an opportunity for the bloc to demonstrate that it actually stands for something. So far, it has only reinforced the rationale behind Brexit – that is, of an E.U. that is inept, dysfunctional, and failing.

Blackmailing Europe

Erdogan has repeatedly proven that he does not share the same values as the West. He does not speak, and refuses to learn, the language of their secular, liberal democratic politics. This is also the reason he has incarcerated thousands of his countrymen, journalists, politicians, and average Turks.

For years he has threatened Greece and Cyprus while the E.U.’s political elite has essentially watched from afar, hoping that it would all just go away. E.U. heads of state have occasionally come out in shows of solidarity towards Greece and Cyprus, imposing “sanctions” and supposedly reprimanding Turkey for its unending belligerence in the eastern Mediterranean.

However, none of these has proven effective or sincere. For months Erdogan has been threatening to flood Europe with refugees, even former ISIS fighters. The “floodgates” have finally been opened, and Greece has effectively been left to drown. Its Aegean islands, part of its main export, have been turned into squalid internment camps for thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa, and the subcontinent, thus destroying the locals’ income source – tourism.

This has unfortunately resulted in the emergence of certain hothead vigilantes who are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Erdogan knows that the pressure is taking its toll on Greece and is banking on some disastrous Greek blunder that will vindicate him. In the meantime, he continues to blackmail the bloc. It either supports his Syrian “peace missions” or the migrants keep on coming.

Messing with the Sultan

By procrastinating, the E.U. has further solidified discord on the edges of its ailing experiment. It may not be immediately obvious to the average observer, but for years now there has been a growing resentment amongst Greeks towards the European Union.

Ask the average person and they will tell you they have never really felt European. That Greece has never been viewed as an equal partner but rather a liability on the impoverished southern fringes of the E.U.; a buffer, or Plan B, for when the Turkish buffer fails.

With the Turkish buffer now down and the Greek one at risk of collapsing, Europe is confronted with the very real prospect of being swamped, this time, with millions of people who desperately want to go to Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, and other affluent and quiet northern European states. Those who think this cannot happen should think twice.

Erdogan has been cornered and his ego badly bruised. His approval ratings are down, and many Turks have had enough of his escapades. He is, however, far too conceited to let this issue just quietly peter out. This is not over. One way or another, Europe will pay dearly for messing with the Sultan.

Dimitri Gonis: Lecturer in the Department of Languages and Linguistics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia