Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“Winter is Coming.” The Game of Thrones’ doom-laden warning could sum up a new campaign by Greece to boost the country’s off-season tourism.
With Europe’s northerners threatened not by White Walkers, but by equally monstrous heating bills, the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis is hoping that those who normally flee to Andalucia might instead consider Athens.
With the pandemic-related restrictions now behind us, overseas travel is possible once again. Consequently, the battle for Brexit is revisited by many Brits at EU entry points: the 48ers fuming about their passports being stamped; 52ers remembering that, with the UK never signing up to Schengen, borders were never exactly queue-free, with passports given the once-over by a yawning official.
Provence- and Puglia-philes in the UK might carp about the loss of their freedom of movement – that founding article of EU faith – but governments across Europe might not be too sympathetic about foot-stamping over passport stamping, particularly if they are on the continent’s frontline.
Winter-warmspots dotted around the Med are currently sending out mixed messages. While keen to welcome tourists, they are less enthusiastic about the huddled migrant masses just across their waters in Africa and the Middle East, who, like an expeditionary force, seem to be awaiting their moment.
The British Government might under pressure over the refugee/asylum seeker/migrant/economic migrant issue. But its troubles should be compared with those facing Greece – not least because of the escalating tensions with Turkey.
A conflict between the two NATO allies “appears not only possible but probable”, stated War on the Rocks’ Ryan Gingeras last week.
The ostensible cause of this latest neighbourly spat is Athens’ alleged reinforcement of its military installations in several Aegean islands close to the Turkish mainland. This act of provocation, Ankara argues, breaks the terms of historic treaties.
After Turkey’s Recep Erdogan invasion threat last month – “We can come all of a sudden overnight” – both the US and NATO appealed to both countries to resolve their differences through dialogue. But with inflation surging to 80 per cent and elections next year, Erdogan might be looking for a small war to rally patriotic sentiment and boost his popularity.
The autocratic Turkish president consistently provides plenty of ammunition for his international critics, for example raising the possibility he might veto Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership – although this should be balanced against his being a useful conduit to Putin, reflected by his role in facilitating grain exports from Ukraine.
There are also currently four million refugees and migrants in Turkey, 3,650,000 of them from Syria, according to the United Nations refugee agency. While Britain and Europe can be grateful to Turkey’s generosity as the world’s largest haven, this must be offset by caution. Those millions can easily become political pawns; a possibility of which Greece is particularly mindful.
The 2015 migrant crisis – mostly due to continuing civil war in Syria – saw the biggest movement of people since the Second World War. The following year, after an agreement between Ankara and Brussels, Turkey closed its borders with Europe. The EU paid Turkey €6 billion in aid to contain the migrant problem: out of sight, out of mind.
In February 2020, Turkey re-opened those European borders. Within days, tens of thousands sought to enter Greece, not only via the sea routes to Aegean islands including Lesbos, but in the Evros river region in the country’s north-east.
Trying to impose order on the sudden chaos at Greece’s frontier crossings, the EU beefed up its Frontex border force and gave Athens €700 million. Ursula von der Leyen described Greece as Europe’s “shield”, with the implication – judged controversial by some – that the continent needed defending.
Since then, Greece has built a formidable steel wall along the part of its north-eastern land border – set to be tripled in length to 120km later this year. It also enforces “pushback”, at Evros and in its territorial waters, with the Coast Guard returning migrants’ small boats to Turkish-controlled waters. In July, however, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the policy violated the European Convention on Human Rights, although Athens has long argued that Turkey is a “safe third country”.
Working in local refugee camps with the Greek Council for Refugees, Oxfam reports that since 2015 more than one million migrants and refugees have entered or passed through Greece, “fleeing war, persecution, natural disaster and poverty”.
So far this year more than 150,000 attempts to enter Greece have been averted, according to Greece’s Minister of Migration and Asylum. In August alone, 50,000 tried. A fortnight ago, 22 people drowned in heavy seas near the islands of Kythera and Lesbos when two migrant boats sank; 80 were rescued.
With Athens-Ankara relations worsening, there are concerns that Turkey will withdraw its cooperation and, as in 2020, simply re-open its borders. Russian ally Belarus similarly weaponised migrants last year. As thousands amassed on the Polish border, Aleksandr Lukashenko was accused of an act of hybrid war.
Almost 36,000 migrants have crossed the Channel and made it to Britain so far this year, according to Migration Watch, up from 299 in 2018. More than 2,100 Albanians arrived in small boats between January and June, with many claiming asylum. Yet with British Airways offering holidays to Albania, even the most cynical of lawyers pleading the human rights’ cause should be able to admit the country is hardly the hotbed of war and persecution.
Blatant mickey-taking and gaming the asylum system have given human rights a bad name. It also gets in the way of the rational debate needed to address the most intractable problem facing the UK and the EU: uncontrolled illegal migration and the criminality surrounding it.
Seen from the perspective of Greece, however, Britain’s regular meltdowns over migrant numbers seem baffling – and the Rwanda “solution” anything but. If we in the UK want to defend our borders, we must do all we can to work with EU countries like Greece to defend theirs.