“Is this a game changer?”, Dutch Newshour asks yesterday night, as it interviews Social Democrat leader Diederick Samsom about the proposals he presented on how to address the current refugee crisis. On the one hand, he notes, there has to be readmission from Greece to Turkey. On the other hand there has to be an effective coalition of willing EU members to take refugees directly from Turkey.
The interview is here (in Dutch). I explain the thinking behind our plan (in English):
5 October: both Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung write about impact of ESI plan on EU policy debate:Süddeutsche Zeitung – 5 October 2015“Die Kernpunkte des europäischen Angebots stützen sich auf Ideen von Experten der “Europäischen Stabilitätsinitiative”. Ihr Präsident Gerald Knaus sagte im ORF, die Zusammenarbeit mit der Türkei sei die einzige Möglichkeit, die Krise effektiv zu bekämpfen. Die Initiative dazu müsse aber von Deutschland ausgehen, nur dann werde sie von Erdoğan ernst genommen, der angesichts des russischen Vorgehens in Syrien nach Partnern suche.”Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – 5 October 2015“As soon as mid-September, ESI had already proposed a solution to the refugee crisis, which in large part has now been adopted by the European Commission. At the core of ESI’s proposal is the idea that the German government should take the lead and commit to resettling 500,000 Syrian refugees directly from Turkey to Germany … In return, Ankara should immediately readmit all migrants reaching Greece via the Aegean or the Turkish-Greek land border in Thracia. Substantial elements of this idea apparently are part of a plan that the EU Commission says it has negotiated with Turkey, but there is no official confirmation from Ankara about the existence of such an agreement. Before Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Brussels this Monday, ESI continued to advocate for a “package deal”: readmission of a number of refugees to be determined in return for the immediate application of the readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey.”
7 October: Angela Merkel on German TV (Anne Will) where she explains her plan:“We must better protect our external borders, but this is only possible if we reach agreements with our neighbours, for example with Turkey, on how to better share the task of dealing with the refugees. And this will mean more money for Turkey, which has many expenses because of the refugees. This will mean that we will accept a set number of refugees, in a way so that the human traffickers and smugglers in the Aegean will not earn money, but in an orderly way … “
15 October interview in Die Zeit with Gerald Knaus: ZEIT: The plan that Angela Merkel will bring to Ankara comes close to a proposal you made already weeks ago – and now it became EU foreign policy. What exactly did you propose?”
“If Turkey is ready to make a big contribution to securing the common border with the EU and, at the same time, will readmit refugees who try crossing that border, then the European Union has to actively support Turkey in return … then Germany should – in return – resettle contingents of Syrian refugees within the framework of a European effort as it already did in the case of other civil wars. The people on these contingents shall be safely brought to Europe and Germany. Instead of chaotic and uncontrolled immigration on dangerous routes as it is now, orderly and safe resettlement of civil war refugees.”
“The new Dutch proposal was hailed by the thinktank that first proposed a version of the scheme, the European Stability Initiative, who published several papers on mass resettlement in September and October. Gerald Knaus, the head of the ESI, said: “What we have seen this week is a race between two ideas – the Hungarian idea of building a fence, and the German and now Dutch idea of making a deal with Turkey that works.” Knaus added: “It’s much too early to say that this is a breakthrough, but it’s much better than the other ideas that have been proposed.”
“The Netherlands is gathering support among a group of EU countries for a plan to accept “a couple hundred thousand refugees per year” from Turkey, in exchange for sending back all illegal migrants that arrive in Greece. The plan was revealed on Thursday (28 January) by Dutch social-democrat leader Diederik Samsom in an interview with newspaper De Volkskrant, and has the support of prime minister Mark Rutte. The Netherlands currently holds the rotating six-month EU presidency. “I think there is a realistic chance that by this spring a leading group of EU countries will have an agreement with Turkey about a legal migration route for a couple hundred thousand refugees per year, in exchange for [Turkey] accepting back everyone who enters [the EU] via Greece,” Samsom told the paper’s Brussels correspondent. The idea is to distribute “between 150,000 and 250,000” refugees among EU countries who voluntarily take part in the plan. A first meeting about the plan took place in December, with Rutte, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish prime minister Stefan Loefven, and Dutch EU commissioner Frans Timmermans. Samsom noted he has been speaking “intensively” with Germany, Austria, and Sweden “because they have social-democrats in the government”. “In the worst case scenario, only these countries plus a few like France, Spain, and Portugal take part,” he said, adding that France has been “dodging” the issue.”
We will from now on call this the “Merkel-Samsom Plan”; a German and a Dutch, a Christian Democrat and a Social Democrat: a grand European coalition of the willing. This a very promising development indeed.
Wenn der türkische Premierminister Ahmet Davutoglu diese Woche nach Berlin kommt geht es um viel: die Zukunft europäischer Asylpolitik, die Glaubwürdigkeit Deutschlands in der Flüchtlingskrise, und die Frage, ob Angela Merkel einen Plan hat, der funktionieren kann. Regierungschefs in Europa beschuldigen Merkel sie habe Hunderttausende „eingeladen“ und wisse nicht weiter. Ehemalige Verfassungsrichter und Bundeskanzler beklagen Planlosigkeit. Dabei hat Merkel einen Plan: er beruht auf der Erkenntnis, dass sich Kontrolle über Europas Außengrenze nur in Zusammenarbeit mit der Türkei zurückgewinnen lässt. Dafür muss die EU der Türkei etwas bieten: die geregelte Übernahme von Flüchtlingen, Finanzhilfen, Visumfreiheit. Dafür setzt sich Merkel seit Oktober ein.
Hat sie sich geirrt? Nichts deutet darauf hin, dass sich 2016 weniger Menschen über die Ägäis auf den Weg machen werden als im letzten Jahr. Oder dass weniger Kinder ertrinken werden. Dennoch ist die deutsche Kanzlerin ihren Kritikern voraus. Wer deren Alternativen durchdenkt, erkennt, wie wenig Substanz sie haben. Manche träumen von einem Zaun nach israelischem Vorbild an der deutsch-österreichischen Grenze; oder von Australien, wo Flüchtlinge, die über das Meer kommen, auf Inseln gebracht werden. Doch der israelische Zaun wird von Soldaten mit Schussbefehl bewacht; der Bau hatte Jahren gebraucht. Und die EU hat im Gegensatz zu Australien keine Nachbarn wie Nauru, wo sie Flüchtlinge absetzten könnte. Von rechtlichen, politischen, moralischen Fragen einmal abgesehen: wie das „Schließen“ der Grenzen Deutschlands praktisch aussehen solle sagen Merkels Kritiker nicht.
Denn Merkel hat grundsätzlich recht: wenn Europa die Kontrolle über seine Grenzen wiedergewinnen will, geht das nur mit Hilfe der Türkei. Doch ihre Kritiker haben auch recht, wenn sie an der derzeitigen Strategie zweifeln. So wie man sich in Brüssel die Zusammenarbeit mit Ankara vorgestellt hat wird sie nicht gelingen. Versprechen sind zu vage. Es fehlt an Vertrauen und an klaren Signalen.
Und auch an Realismus. Selbst wenn türkische Politiker etwa regelmäßig versprechen, die Ägäis für Migration schließen zu wollen, wird ihnen das nicht gelingen und es genügt auch nicht zu versichern, dass sie „sich bemühen“. Notwendig ist eine Zusammenarbeit zwischen Griechenland und der Türkei wie es sie noch nie zuvor gab. Die Türkei müsste sich bereit erklären, jeden Flüchtling, der die griechischen Inseln erreicht, zurückzunehmen. Dafür gibt es schon das griechisch-türkische Rücknahmeabkommen; es ist kein rechtliches, sondern ein politisches Problem. Denn es fehlen noch zwei Voraussetzungen: die Türkei müsste im Einklang mit dem griechischen Recht ein sicherer Drittstaat sein, und dafür ihr Flüchtlingsgesetz, das seit 2014 in Kraft ist, umsetzen und bereits gestellte Asylanträge im Land sofort bearbeiten. Und Griechenland müsste sich logistisch vorbereiten, um jeden, der etwa nach dem 31. Januar Lesbos und andere Inseln erreicht, in die Türkei zurückschicken zu können. Das wäre sinnvoller als Hotspots für die Verteilung von Flüchtlingen aus Griechenland in andere EU Staaten, denn letzteres würde an der Zahl der Ankommenden nichts ändern. Die Planung müsste heute beginnen. Dafür bräuchte Athen Hilfe und die erklärte Bereitschaft der Türkei. Dann ginge es um zählbare Ergebnisse: wie viele Asylverfahren werden in der Türkei abgewickelt? Wie viele Leute werden von Griechenland jeden Tag zurückgenommen? Die Umsetzung türkischer Zusagen könnte man täglich überprüfen.
Warum sollte die Türkei darauf eingehen? Hier kommt Deutschland ins Spiel. Es ist unvorstellbar, dass die Türkei in den nächsten Monaten jeden Flüchtling, der Griechenland erreicht, zurücknehmen wird ohne konkrete, substantielle und sofortige Hilfe. Es fehlt in Ankara an Vertrauen in die Zusagen der EU, und dafür gibt es gute Gründe. Von den drei
Milliarden Euro Hilfe für Flüchtlinge ist nichts zu sehen. Das Versprechen auf Visaliberalisierung ist unverbindlich. Der Plan, Kontingente von Flüchtlingen aus der Türkei aufzunehmen, ist derzeit so wenig glaubwürdig wie der blamabel scheiternde Plan 160,000 Flüchtlinge innerhalb der EU zu verteilen. Bei der Kontingentlösung versteckt sich Deutschland hinter der Europäischen Kommission, und diese hinter dem Flüchtlingskommissariat der UN. Man kann eine richtige Idee auch durch schlechte Planung ad absurdum führen.
Denn auch hier gilt: Versprechen genügen nicht. Wenn Deutschland will, dass die Türkei ab dem nächsten Monat Flüchtlinge zurücknehmen soll, dann muss Deutschland bereit sein in diesem Jahr hundertausende Syrer direkt aus der Türkei aufzunehmen. Das kann gelingen, wenn deutsche Behörden dies direkt mit den Behörden in Ankara planen. Dafür bedarf es weder der Europäischen Kommission noch der UN. Merkel könnte Davutoglu anbieten, in einem ersten Schritt bis April 100,000 anerkannte syrische Flüchtlinge direkt aus den türkischen Flüchtlingslagern aufzunehmen. Diese sind bereits erfasst, man kennt ihre Nationalität, es kämen Familien, nicht nur Männer, und man könnte die Fingerabdrücke mit europäischen Datenbanken abgleichen. Dann könnte die Türkei täglich zählen, wie viele Flüchtlinge ihr abgenommen werden. Es gibt auch keinen guten Grund, warum Deutschland oder Schweden ihren Anteil an den 3 Milliarden Hilfe nicht direkt über nationale Organisationen ausgeben sollen, ohne Umweg über Brüssel. Es geht darum Schulen und Kliniken für Flüchtlinge noch in diesem Jahr zu bauen, Lehrer zu bezahlen. Wo Vertrauen fehlt, wie heute zwischen Ankara und der EU, müssen konkrete Resultate dieses erst aufbauen.
Bedeutet dies, dass sich Deutschland damit von einer notwendigen Reform des europäischen Asylwesens abwendet? Nein, im Gegenteil. Eine solche Reform kann nur gelingen, wenn die akute Krise unter Kontrolle ist. Erst dann kann Berlin fordern, dass ab jetzt in jedem Jahr bis zu 100,000 Flüchtlinge, die die EU erreichen, verteilt werden, als Preis für Schengen und Ersatz für das Dublin-regime. Dies entspräche der Anzahl von Menschen, die vor 2014 im Durchschnitt jedes Jahr die EU Außengrenzen überwunden haben. Gelingt es Merkel aber nicht in den nächsten Wochen einen Plan zu entwickeln, der Ergebnisse zeigt, dann führt dies zum weiteren Erstarken jener Kräfte in der EU, die das Asylrecht überhaupt abschaffen wollen; jener die gegen Flüchtlinge, die EU, die Türkei, für Putin und gegen Muslime agitieren.
Deutschland, Europa und die Türkei brauchen einen Merkel Plan B. Darüber müssen Merkel und Davutoglu reden. Davon muss Berlin Ankara überzeugen.
Another refugee summit in Brussels, and another dishearteningly confused set of conclusions. Which most likely leave everything more or less as it is.
ON THE POSITIVE SIDE: ASPIRATION
“Refugees need to be treated in a humane manner along the length of the Western Balkans route to avoid a humanitarian tragedy in Europe.”
That was the promise made by Juncker before the conference. If this would be realised, it would obviously be a very good thing: “Increasing the capacity to provide temporary shelter, food, health, water and sanitation to all in need.” A worthy aspiration.
How realistic are these commitments, though? It is the end of October. Some conclusions suggest that additional resources may not be available soon:
“Working with International Financial Institutions such as the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Development Bank of the Council of Europe which are ready to support financially efforts of the countries willing to make use of these resources”
Slovenia noted that 60,000 people arrived there in recent days. What does the summit do to help Slovenia, concretely, in the coming weeks? Or Croatia? Or Greece?
Is there a working group to determine where capacities for temporary shelter are most needed? In Slovenia? in Croatia? In Serbia? in Macedonia?
DREAMING AND REST
It would help to know where temporary shelters are needed, or exist now; or how many new ones have to be found. Perhaps this is known, but it is not stated in the conclusions:
“Greece to increase reception capacity to 30,000 places by the end of the year, and to support UNHCR to provide rent subsidies and host family programmes for at least 20,000 more – a pre-condition to make the emergency relocation scheme work; Financial support for Greece and UNHCR is expected”
Note; this does not say how many such places Greece has now. So it is not clear what “increasing” capacity to 30,000 means in terms of additional capacity. Which makes budgeting and raising funding for it tricky. Or assessing the meaning of this commitment.
Note also: this would be sufficient for the number of refugees who will arrive between today, Monday, and next Friday. By the end of the year, these refugees would unlikely still be in Greece.
Plus: these are still rest stations. Nobody will stay in any of these shelters one day longer than necessary. “Host families” for rest stations?
From here on the conclusions become ever less realistic:
“Working with the European Commission and Frontex to step up practical cooperation on readmission with third countries and intensifying cooperation in particular with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan; Commission to work to implement existing readmission agreements fully and start work on new readmission agreements with relevant countries;”
Anybody who has examined the difficulties of readmitting even rejected Balkan asylum seekers from Germany to Western Balkans countries – which do not oppose taking back their citizens – knows that expecting to do this, on a large scale, with Pakistan or Afghanistan is not a plan, but closer to day dreaming.
This is the least serious part of the conclusions.
“- Finalising and implementing the EU-Turkey Action Plan;
– Making full use of the potential of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement and the visa liberalisation roadmap;”
Turkey was not even invited to this summit. The EU-Turkey Action Plan is empty of content. “Making full use of the visa liberalisation roadmap” means what concretely? We have to wait for another summit.
“- Upscaling the Poseidon Sea Joint Operation in Greece;
– Reinforcing Frontex support at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey;”
What is this supposed to achieve? How will it make any difference?
“- Strengthening border cooperation between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with increased UNHCR engagement;
– Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania will strengthen the management of the external land border, with Frontex to support registration in Greece;”
Is the aim to slow down people leaving Greece … and has Greece agreed to this? Where would those who are made to stay longer stay in Greece?
Or is the idea to register everyone in Greece … and people then move on? What difference would this make?
“- Working together with Frontex to monitor border crossings and support registration and fingerprinting at the Croatian-Serbian border crossing points;
– Deploying in Slovenia 400 police officers and essential equipment within a week, through bilateral support;
– Strengthening the Frontex Western Balkans Risk Analysis Network with intensified reporting from all participants;”
So there will be more Frontex and more reporting, everywhere! But Frontex is essentially just other European border guards, not magicians or super-heroes. And this seems to assume that the problem in Slovenia or Croatia is a lack of people.
“14. Reconfirming the principle of refusing entry to third country nationals who do not confirm a wish to apply for international protection (in line with international and EU refugee law and subject to prior non-refoulement and proportionality checks);”
How many of those who reach the EU’s borders do NOT wish to apply for international protection? ANYBODY?
Finally, there is this:
“Under the current circumstances, we will discourage the movement of refugees or migrants to the border of another country of the region. A policy of waving through refugees without informing a neighbouring country is not acceptable. This should apply to all countries along the route.”
This either means a dramatic change which will likely cause the humanitarian tragedy Juncker wanted to avoid or it means that waving through refugees should happen “while informing a neighbouring country” a little better. Most likely – and fortunately – it is the second.
If this is what the countries most concerned by this crisis come up with as their operational conclusions we know that there is no plan. It was another summit without a serious discussion. Another missed opportunity.
The political scientist Gerald Knaus on working together with Turkey, border controls and Germany’s role in receiving refugees.
DIE ZEIT: Mr Knaus, while Germany finds itself confronted with one million refugees, you are calling for taking in another 500,000.
Gerald Knaus: This is not as absurd as it looks at first sight. After helpless politicians proposed many faulty solutions in the past few weeks, chancellor Merkel needs to present something credible and tangible.
ZEIT: The plan that Angela Merkel will bring to Ankara comes close to a proposal you made already weeks ago – and now it became EU foreign policy. What exactly did you propose?
Knaus: Greece declares Turkey a safe third country. Turkey commits to readmitting all refugees that reach Greek islands through the Aegean, from a point in time to be specified. In return, Germany commits to granting asylum to 500,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey in the next twelve months. In addition, the EU visa requirement for Turkish nationals will be waived next year.
ZEIT: Why should this reduce the number of refugees who want to come to Europe?
Knaus: This offer is only for refugees who are already registered in Turkey. Thus no new incentives for refugees to travel to Turkey would be created by this plan. Then refugee families – half of the Syrians in Turkey are children – would no longer need to make the dangerous trip across the sea and the Balkans. This would quickly reduce the number of boats heading towards the Greek coast. The result would be what Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer both demand: control of the external borders and an orderly process – and German emergency relief for refugees in a real crisis situation.
ZEIT: But Turkey is currently reeling from a terrorist attack of which nobody knows who was behind it. Kurds and members of the opposition are brutally persecuted. How is one supposed to declare such a country a safe third country?
Knaus: You have to differentiate between a safe third country and a safe country of origin. For refugees Turkey is a safe third country – even if it is not necessarily a country of safe origin for its own citizens. Currently, these two things are often confused. Under the new Turkish asylum law, refugees can apply for asylum, are not persecuted in Turkey, and are also not deported to Syria. And that’s decisive for this proposal. Whether the EU should declare Turkey a safe country of origin as the EU Commission suggested, raises doubts indeed.
ZEIT: But is it wise to demonstrate to an autocrat like Erdoğan in the run up to the elections how much one is dependent on him?
Knaus: Even Erdoğan needs Germany. Turkey finds itself in the biggest security crisis since the end of the Cold War. Russia is waging war north of Turkey, in Ukraine. The Russian air force is bombing Turkish allies in Syria in an alliance with Assad and Iran, both adversaries of Turkey. And Turkey itself is at war with the »Islamic State« and the PKK. The economy is no longer growing as it was in the last decade, and taking care of two million Syrian refugees is not easy. The refugee issue plays hardly any role in the electoral campaign.
ZEIT: Part of your proposal is visa free travel for Turkish nationals to the EU – what effects would this have in practice?
Knaus: I do not believe in a mass exodus of Turks. In the past few years the trend went the other way; especially from Germany more Turks immigrated to Turkey than did immigrate to Germany. For the young generation in Turkey, Europe only has a real meaning if they can actually travel there. The only danger that I see is if the situation in Southeast Turkey would descend into a full blown war like in the 90s.
ZEIT: But in the current political climate it is completely unthinkable that the chancellor would speak about a number of 500,000 she actively wants to bring to Germany.
Knaus: I know that in the first moment this sounds counterproductive. But you can make it clear to people that without an agreement more refugees are to be expected. Even now there is talk of one million. And in talk shows superficial solutions like fighting root causes, solving the situation in Syria and Libya, or sharing the burden in the EU are being floated.
ZEIT: What about the magic formula “transit zones”?
Knaus: What the German federal minister of the interior proposes would indeed reduce the number of applicants from Balkan countries who are being rejected anyway – but this is not about them. Above all, it is about civil war refugees. Often people will say that the EU needs to better secure its borders, introduce stricter border controls and better equip refugee camps in the region. But none of these proposals will solve our most acute problem: How to reduce the number of refugees reaching the external borders of the EU. No Frontex mission, no European quota, no perfectly equipped refugee camp will stop the desperate from trying to flee to Europe. But if there’s an impression in the public debate that there’s no limit at all for the number of refugees, then soon the readiness to help will turn into fear. That’s why I believe that we need to move fast. Angela Merkel and her political allies in Europe need to show that they – and not the extreme right – have a real solution to offer.
ZEIT: Why should European solidarity suddenly work now if there was already a lack of it in past months?
Knaus: If hundreds of thousands of Syrian children grow up without schooling and without perspective, if we lose an entire generation, this will not be without consequence for European security. There’s a helplessness among the political elite in the entire EU, from Greece to Sweden, nobody has an idea what to do. And extreme right parties profit from this, while having no real solutions to offer either. In this situation Germany is the only country that has the political credibility and economic clout to take the initiative. If Germany can’t deal with the problem, nobody else will manage to do so. But if Germany takes the lead, countries like Austria, Italy, France and Sweden will follow.
ZEIT: Viktor Orban accuses Angela Merkel of moral imperialism. This argument also goes down well with many Germans.
Knaus: Orban is right if he calls the hitherto existing international refugee policy hypocritical. On paper there’s a generous right to asylum. But at the same time everything has been done to prevent refugees from claiming this asylum. In recent years, UNHCR resettled only 100,000 refugees worldwide per year to wealthy countries. That’s of course a ridiculously low figure. But Orban’s response to this is to by de facto get rid of the right to asylum altogether. He regards refugees as criminals, as enemies, and refers to Hungarian experiences with the Ottomans, as if they were an invading army. He also says that the refugee crisis is a good opportunity to overcome the “liberal age of human rights.” Le Pen in France, Strache in Austria and others join in into that chorus. In the general helplessness such slogans are becoming more and more appealing.
ZEIT: The right and the left claim that 60 million people are fleeing and that we are only talking about a fraction.
Knaus: That figure is totally misleading. The biggest part of all refugees worldwide stay within their home countries. Syria is the biggest disaster. One fourth of all refugees outside of their home country are Syrians. Most of them now live in Turkey, in Jordan, and in Lebanon. Only a few years ago the number of migrants who tried to enter the EU illegally was 72,000. So this is not about a massive migration of the planet’s poor to the rich North that has been going on for a long time and will never end. This is a specific emergency situation.
ZEIT: Why should erecting borders not work?
Knaus: Angela Merkel said that she has lived behind a fence long enough and she knows that fences won’t help. At first sight that’s a strange argument: The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall worked very well and repelled refugees for decades. But for that you need a death strip and a firing order. And even that could not deter many desperate people to try nevertheless. Merkel made it clear that she will not build this kind of fence. You could militarise your borders and regard refugees as enemies. But then you would need to give up European asylum law as we know it.
Gerald Knaus is chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank advocating unconventional solutions to European crises.
“People only accept change in necessity and see necessity only in crisis.”
This weekend Greeks vote in a referendum whose outcome could have dramatic consequences for their country. Polls show that the result is on a knife-edge. Every vote counts. The stakes for Greece could not be higher.
Please find the full ESI newsletter on the Greek Referendum here:
“The truth is that the recession in Greece has little to do with an excessive debt burden. Until 2014, the country did not pay, in net terms, a single euro in interest: it borrowed enough from official sources at subsidized rates to pay 100% of its interest bill and then some. This situation supposedly changed a bit in 2014, the first year that the country made a small contribution to its interest bill, having run a primary surplus of barely 0.8% of GDP (or 0.5% of its debt of 170% of GDP).
To watch “One Step Ahead” (on the 2010 Thessaloniki elections) go here.
When the Syriza government fails this must not mean that the only alternative are the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn.
There are pro-European and pro-reform Greeks who will make their voice heard. And there would be a huge reservoir of good-will across Europe for a Greek government that is serious about reforms, does not blame outside forces for its problems and really designs credible reform strategies to replace inchoate reforms proposed by foreigners.
Imagine the next Greek prime minister speaking like this, in Athens as well as in Berlin, in Thessaloniki as well as in Brussels, and also in Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw and Bratislava:
“As you all know Greece is going through an excruciating financial crisis. Under these conditions we need common sense …
… in Greece we are still hesitant to liberate the administration from the rule of the politicians. We are all embedded in a culture which resists the separation between politics and administration.
In the Greek state as a whole, this is the most important reform which is desperately needed. Unfortunately, in reality it has not advanced much.
The current system of a strikingly unreliable administration tends to reproduce itself. And this is clearly the responsibility of both the Greek government as well as of the EU since it hasn’t touched upon this during the last 34 years.
I dare to say that reforms and changes are not enough in the case of the Greek state. We need to revamp the state and its mentality almost from scratch! A new political culture needs to emerge in order to host a genuine separation of powers within the state.
The current institutional framework under which we operate is excessively centralist and any effort of decentralisation has proved to be inefficient. We are still unable to cooperate effectively with the private sector and increase our productivity. An inextricable web of laws determines the framework within which we are forced to operate.
The state needs to stop being hostile to its citizens. We need a government that will stop fooling citizens and proceeds immediately to some common sense action.
Greece is going through a crucial phase. After the biggest recession ever experienced by a developed country in the post-war period, people are in despair.
Political forces must form a united front on certain fundamental issues – like the state’s modernisation – and negotiate from a better position the country’s future.
The view that we can resort to excessive public spending in order to revive the prosperity of the past is not only surreal; it also ignores the current balance of power in our continent.
In order to distribute wealth you need to create favourable conditions in order to produce it. Unfortunately, there are too many Greek politicians suggesting that sustainable growth can come without radical reforms but in some magic way.
What Greece desperately needs, is radical transformation of its state which can in turn bring change to its political culture. This will be our task.”
PS: Note: this speech was actually delivered by a Greek politician in 2014. A politician who was elected on this platform in 2010 and reelected in 2014 in Greece’s second biggest city.
” … we have an obligation to act in order to preserve Greece’s stability and prosperity. This can only be attained within the Eurozone and the EU. In the unfortunate event that things will go astray, we should all unite and protect the people’s well-being from irresponsible political manoeuvring. Greece cannot afford to waste more time and consume itself in endless and irrational political conflict. I will do whatever I can in my power to avert this. If we manage to pass the dire straits of the immediate future, I am hopeful that our country will enter a phase of creative reform and sustainable growth. Greece has demonstrated in the past and Greeks have demonstrated abroad that if they work under decent conditions, they can definitely thrive.”
Sometimes you meet a person that is a force of nature. A person of convictions, with the modesty that comes from true charisma and the confidence that comes from not having to pretend. A person inspiring others by personal example, making words like engagement, citizenship and dignity shine in all their splendour. Somebody who makes you feel proud to belong to their generation. And who makes you wonder whether you are really doing enough yourself.
In recent weeks I felt this sense of awe working on old and new European dissidents. Meeting Khadija Ismayil and other human rights defenders from Azerbaijan, has this effect. So does rereading the writings of Havel, of the Russian Memorial generation of human rights defenders, of Adam Michnik and other Poles of his generation.
And so does meeting the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, to talk about what is possible in local politics at a moment of deep crisis. In a city shaped by decades of deep conservatism and fear of neighbours, from the Cold War to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and later. 72 years old, chain-smoking, with an ear-ring and tatoos, for decades a succesful entrepeneur, a recovered alcoholic, a long time civic and environmental activists, and now twice elected mayor of Greece’s second city.
I tell the tragic story of Soviet dissidents like Sergei Kovalev, who went to jail under Brezhnev, then became government human rights officials, and in 2014 face renewed pressure from their state. It is a tragic story with no happy end, with Russia like that fabled creature from Greek mythology, the Ouroboros: a snake that devours itself. Often history is like this. Too often.
Ouroboros – societies sometimes resemble this ancient creature,
Then I meet with Boutaris for an interview. This was already a rich and memorable Sunday. It only got better.
Boutaris explains the value of civic engagement, voluntarism and how he strives to make his city embrace a multiethnic past. He explains how even conservatives silently tell him that they approve of his open support for gay pride … though lack the courage to say so openly. He explains why opening to Turkey, Israel and Jews across the world is vital for his city, given its history. And why having a Holocaust museum (at a cost of an estimated 25 million Euro, the design has already been done) will be so important.
How he is happy to have a Durres Park in the city now, and hopes to build many more links with other Balkan cities. How reaching out to Izmir is vital – proposing to have “days of Izmir” in Thessaloniki, and “days of Thessaloniki” there. Why having a Muslim cemetary is the most obvious thing in a city like Thessaloniki. How “Turks are our bothers and Europeans are our partners.” And how, as a Vlach, he recognises the common regional heritage when he visits the village of his ancestors in today’s Republic of Macedonia near Krusevo.
He explains how it is possible to cut the public administration (from 5,000, when he came into office in 2011 to 3,500 today) and reduce the deficit, while moving towards green urbanism and a different traffic policy. How he is encouraged that the number of bicycle shops has gone from 2 to more than 20 in a few years. And how much remains to be done. How he has worked to encourage budget flight connections and direct links by ferries to his city, with increasing success. How this has resulted in sharply rising numbers of foreign visitors.
How his political goal is to make people proud of this, their liberal and open city. With the new slogan “I love my city and adopt my neighbourhood.” How he hopes city employees will be able to walk in the streets and citizens will respect them for their honesty and competence.
Remember: this is Greece, the EU country in its deepest economic and social crisis in decades. This is the country where the self-proclaimed fascists of Golden Dawn won 16 percent in recent local elections in Athens. With a prime minister who made his name by fostering nationalism in the early 1990s. A country all too often described in the foreign press as a hopeless case, a patient at best, an ungrateful recipient of aid at worst.
But this is also now the Greece of Boutaris and the cosmopolitanism of the new Thessaloniki.
When he became mayor, he tells me, Thessaloniki had a number of big taboos, including Turkey and the Jewish history of the town (where Jews were the largest ethnic group until 1912 and the port was closed on the Sabbath). Not long ago the City Council declared Mark Mazower, author of the great book Salonica, symbolically a persona non grata – for having described the multiethnic past of the city. This was the time when the local bishop called on people not to vote for Boutaris.
Now Boutaris looks forward to the day when citizens of Thessaloniki will be proud of the history of their city, as described in Mazower’s book. The book ends with the observation, true for all of Europe:
“As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, and even the largest learn how much they need their neighbours’ help to tackle the problems that face them all, the stringently patrolled and narrow-minded conception of history which they once nurtured and which gave them a kind of justification starts to look less plausible and less necessary. Other futures may require other pasts.
The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendez-vous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. It is an odd and implausible version of the past …”
As Boutaris tells it, being open to the past and to others is simple good sense: “if you accept differences, life is better”. This explains his support for gay pride in this orthodox city, and how he sees attidues changing. He talks about this priorities for the second term: moving towards a green city, a city in which “rich people are proud to take public transport” instead of poor people required to have a car.
When we made the 2008 ESI film on Thessaloniki Boutaris was still in opposition. Now he has been twice elected. The first time by the narrrowest of margins (some 300 votes). The second time with a clear and strong majority and 58 percent. In some elections ever single vote matters. Civic engagement matters. Having convictions matters. And fighting for them for decades can bring results.
If Bosnia had just one mayor like this in one of its big cities, ideally young and full of eneregy, so that he or she could then go on to show what is possible: the country might be a different place If only Greece or Turkey had more independents, former entrepreneurs and social activists, entering politics like this.
Thessaloniki, thank you for the inspiration. It is great to be back.
“The mayor’s greatest legacy, however, may be the city’s much-improved performance in tourism. However, his unconventional approach has made him some enemies among traditionalists. Between end-2010 and end-2013, Thessaloniki achieved 19% growth in tourist arrivals according to data from the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE), compared with a decline of 13% for Athens over the same period.
To a great extent, this has been achieved through approaching a “traditional enemy” such as Turkey as a potential tourism market, leading to allegations that the mayor was “serving foreign interests”. Mr Boutaris is unapologetic about his bid to present Thessaloniki as a Balkan “melting pot”, stressing the city’s multi-ethnic history, a place where Greeks, Turks, Jews and Slavs lived together until the upheavals of the early 20th century, when the Turks left, the Greeks from Asia Minor arrived and the Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust. The attraction of Thessaloniki to Turkish visitors stems from the fact that it is the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish state. In addition, the Boutaris administration has made much of the fact that for centuries Thessaloniki had a large and vibrant Sephardic Jewish community. In broadening the city’s tourism profile, a previously rather claustrophobic city is starting to become a more open one, embracing its multicultural past.
The rebranding of Thessaloniki based on this new perception of its past has managed to increase the influx of visitors from Turkey and from Israel. Overnight stays at the city’s hotels increased during the past four years by 226% for Turks and 358% for Israelis, reaching 80,000 and 50,000, respectively, by the end of 2013. Coinciding with a period of deepening national economic crisis, the tourism revival has been welcome. The shift in public opinion in the city has been radical, and previous detractors now firmly support a similar rapprochement with all neighbouring countries … “
In his wonderful book on Turkish history – The Young Turk Legacy And Nation Building – Dutch historian Eric J Zuercher has an intriguing chapter on “Turning Points and Missed Opportunitities in the Modern History of Turkey: Where Could Things Have Gone Differently?”. Here he discusses how Ottoman and later Turkey history might have developed if the wars of 1877 and 1912 had NOT taken place; if there had NOT been the Istanbul uprising of April 1909; if Kemal Ataturk had NOT established “an almost totalitarian grip” over the country in the 1920s; and if the transition to democracy after World War II had happened differently. And Zuercher concludes:
“it is a very useful exercise for us historians to remind ourselves that the historical developments with which we are all too familiar, should not be seen as inevitable … Thinking about what could have been makes us more sensitive to processes and contingencies that we too easily overlook when we already know how the story ends.”
It is indeed a useful exercise and I only regret that Zuercher stops his what if in the 1950s.
One of the most intriguing missed opportunities in Turkey’s modern history surely took place in the late 1970s, when Turkey decided not to follow Greece, Spain and Portugal and did not submit an application for full EU accession. Why did it not? Would it have succeeded? Was it discouraged by EU member states or was this above all a result of its internal politics?
I have long been puzzled by this question; and so far I have found it difficult to find detailed accounts of what actually happened then. For now I only hope that Zuercher, or some other curious historian, will go and look in the diplomatic archives to tell us the full and real story.
Here are, for now, the outlines of this missed opportunity as I have pieced them together from different sources.
On 12 June 1975 Greece, having just emerged from military rule, submitted its application to the (then) European Economic Community (EEC). Negotiations started in July 1976. On 28 March 1977 Spain submitted its application. This was followed by Portugal in July that same year.
If Turkey had submitted an application at the time chances are that it would have been very difficult for the EEC to reject it while accepting Greece. While some EEC countries (including, not surprisingly, the France led by president Valery Giscard d’Estaing) did not believe that a Greek and Turkish application would necessarily be treated together, others apparently disagreed. Armagan Emre Cakir discusses evidence that some high level European politicians and officials travelled to Ankara and urged the government of the prime minister Bulent Ecevit in 1978 to apply. Ecevit was opposed; so was his deputy prime minister at the time, the Islamist Necemettin Erbakan. It seems that for Ecevit the EU was too capitalist; for Erbakan it was too much a “Christian club.”
There were even then those in Turkey who urged the country to be more proactive. The Turkish ambassador in Brussels, Tevfik Saracoglu, returned to Ankara in summer 1975 (after Greece had just applied) urging the prime minister Demirel, and party leaders Turkes and Erbakan to do the same. He left empty handed.
In May 1978, as the membership for Greece was finalized, Ecevit, instead of submitting a Turkish application, froze relations with the EEC.
But this was not the last chance. In 1980 the foreign minister of Turkey, Hayrettin Erkmen, told the government of Suleyman Demirel that Turkey should apply urgently. Erkmen failed. In fact, in July 1980 the Islamist Erbakan brought a motion against him into the parliament because of his idea to take Turkey into the EEC. This motion was supported by the left-wing Kemalist Bulent Ecevit. And so Erkmen was removed from office on 5 September 1980.
A week later, on 12 September, tanks rolled in streets of Ankara and Istanbul, as a military junta took control of the country. One of Turkey’s darkest periods was about to begin.
This is the rough outline of what must surely be regarded as one of the great missed opportunities of modern European history. I wonder if a Turkey on route to joining the EEC would have experienced the brutal coup in 1980 that finally and decisively separated its fate from that of other European Mediterranean countries with autocratic traditions. Greece joined the EU in 1981. Spain and Portugal followed in 1986. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the division of Europe ended. During this time Turkey first adopted a military-inspired constitution, then fought a bitter counterinsurgency campaign against the PKK – while trying in vain to suppress all expressions of a separate Kurdish identity. Economically the gap between Turkey on the one hand and Spain, Portugal and Greece on the other became ever wider during the two decades that followed.
I hope this fascinating episode will one day soon be researched in depth. Unfortunately Hayretting Erkmen died in 1999, so it is no longer possible to interview him. Erbakan also died, as did Ecevit. And yet, there must be witnesses and documents that would allow a diligent historian to reconstruct the events that led to such a tragic denouement.
This also qualifies a claim sometimes still made by Turkish politicians that the EU has prevented them from joining the EU “for half a century”. For much of that period it appears Turkey’s biggest obstacle were the attitudes of Turkey’s leaders.
One also hopes that Turkey’s leaders do not repeat the mistakes of this time and miss further windows of opportunities. I could think of a few even now. This is, however, another story.
PS: If any readers know of any more detailed study of this period, in English , German or Turkish, please let me know at email@example.com!