A test for Europe

greece A migrant lies on the railway track in front of Macedonian policemen during clashes at the Greek-Macedonian border, near Idomeni | AP

A question of identity—for member states and for the European Union as a whole

The deceptively beautiful waters between Greek islands in the eastern Aegean and the Turkish mainland are the border between Greeks and Turks, a dividing line that has been shifting since Muslim Seljuk Turks pushed westward into the Christian Byzantine Empire a thousand years ago. It’s also the European Union’s external border, where ideals collide with reality.

This is where member states must ask themselves whether they truly trust one another for protection, see the European Union’s borders as their own and can accept closer union. Will they be able to reconcile the need for collective security with reduced national sovereignty, and bear the political cost that is entailed? The answers will determine the union’s future.

Borders are the symbol but also the reality of national sovereignty. The fear of their violation by neighbours, transnational institutions, terrorists or refugees is an existential one. Economic problems may have a more immediate impact on people, but borders are still the greatest taboo—especially when they have been fought over, and troubles with neighbours are still deeply ingrained in the national consciousness.

Now the question of whether national borders are primarily European Union borders becomes a question of identity—for member states and for the union as a whole. Are we French, German, Slovak, Greek and so on, or are we Europeans first?

Compared with the total European Union population of about 500 million, the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe is small—some one million this year. Yet the refugee crisis, a growing fear of terrorism and a surge of nationalism have shaken the union’s foundations, an edifice already damaged by the euro crisis. Harsh words exchanged then have left a legacy in the way member states see one another.

As in that crisis, Greece is at the centre of the debate—part of the problem and, necessarily, part of the solution. “Europe must understand that Greece is guarding the European Union’s borders,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in November. “Neither fences nor transferring the problem from one country to another will stop the human flood caused by war and poverty.” At the time, Greece was being criticised for not stopping the thousands passing through each day.

Greece’s border with Turkey pulsates with history, stoking powerful emotions on both sides. For over a millennium, Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks have coexisted and fought in this region. In 1922, after Turkish forces routed an invading Greek army, the same islands that are most refugees’ first stop in Europe were havens for hundreds of thousands of Greeks fleeing ancestral homes in Asia Minor. Part of modern Turkey’s founding myth is that it rose from the Ottoman Empire’s ashes with the expulsion of foreign forces.

On Cyprus, Turkey still maintains occupying forces after invading and dividing the independent island in 1974, following a coup by Greek Cypriots wanting union with Greece. Turkey’s Parliament has voted that if Greece extends its territorial waters from the current six miles to 12, as the Law of the Sea convention allows, this will be cause for war. Greece and Turkey nearly went to war in 1996, when Ankara challenged Athens’s sovereignty over what it calls “grey areas”—territory not named specifically in peace treaties. Earlier this month, Turkish F-16s buzzed inhabited Greek islets to press these claims.

So, this is not the border between France and Belgium, marked by a sign on a highway. This is why Greek officials have been cool to proposals from Brussels and Berlin for joint patrols with Turkey, arguing that cooperation with Turkish military vessels in Greek waters would have long-term consequences.

But something had to be done. By Monday, national authorities had registered 1,005,504 arrivals in Europe, with 821,008 coming through Greece, the International Organization for Migration noted. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome to refugees had encouraged this flow, and Greece was identifying and registering arrivals, in so-called hot spots, but was overwhelmed. “In November 2015 alone, of the 54,000 registrations carried out in hot spots in Europe, 51,300 were carried out in Greece,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The I.O.M. reported that in the same month, November, 1,10,000 had arrived and 1,05,000 had left the country. Of five hot spots in Greece mandated by the European Union, Greece had set up one. The ministry noted that the Greek Coast Guard had rescued more than 90,000 people in recent months. In early December, the United Nations agency for refugees said that 217 people had drowned in Greek waters in the Aegean and 126 were missing.

After it emerged that at least two of the attackers in the November 13 massacre in Paris had entered Europe with refugees via the Greek island of Leros (even though all identified killers had European citizenship), Greece was accused of not doing enough to secure its borders. Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister, said it was “high time” to evict Greece from the Schengen agreement allowing for free movement among countries. He added that other governments thought the same.

greece2 German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during a round table meeting an EU summit in Brussels | AP

Desperate to stop the flow of people, European Union leaders promised to resume accession talks with Turkey, relax Turks’ visa requirements for the Schengen area and provide 3 billion euros in aid for refugees. Even as Greece was trying to cope with thousands of daily arrivals, countries that had rejected an earlier European Union decision to relocate refugees across the union were demanding Greece’s eviction from the Schengen area while Turkey was being promised easier entry.

Last week, European Union leaders finally took serious action, proposing to create a European Border and Coast Guard Agency that will act even when sovereign nations do not call for help. (The current agency, Frontex, simply plays a coordinating role for member states.) This is a big step toward a stronger European Union, an explicit declaration that member states’ borders are the European Union’s borders. It’s what Greece has long wanted, but it needs guarantees that it does not come with a loss of rights in contested areas.

It will take a collective effort on Europe’s part to assure citizens that they are not in danger of losing their national identity because of new arrivals, that providing hope and sanctuary to those in need will not come at the cost of Europeans and their institutions. What happens on the Greek border will show whether this can be done without betraying Europe’s principles—and without tearing the union apart.

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