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The recent Council summit of the EU was termed a make-or-break moment by some of its participants. Numerous media representatives gathered in Brussels reported that the raison d’être of the EU was at risk. Most financial analysts predicted a stormy reaction in bond markets if a compromise could not be reached.
Such alarmist classifications are nothing new to EU Council meetings in the course of the past eight years. But the drama of late night compromises did not anymore (for the time being at least) focus on the euro area, rescue programmes and the usual suspect, namely Greece. Instead, the agenda was overtaken by the challenges of migration, refugees and asylum policies across Europe.
But Greece still managed to make rather unexpected headlines at the EU summit, albeit this time for more positive reasons. The German chancellor Angela Merkel - embattled politically at home by her Bavarian sister party and governing coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), emerged in the early hours of the Brussels meeting to praise two bilateral agreements that had been reached between Germany and Spain as well as between Berlin and Athens.
The political details of these agreements still await legal and administrative clarification in their respective countries. But what is known so far stipulates that the governments in Madrid and Athens have explicitly approved the return of asylum seekers from Germany, who were initially registered as such in Spain or Greece. Moreover, these asylum seekers will not have any legal or administrative recourse available to them. If any registered applicant is caught by the police in Germany or seeks to enter the country, he or she can immediately be brought to an airport and flown back to either Spain or Greece.
Can such a bilateral agreement work in practice? Based on the evidence available for the past year, one should be cautious about jumping too quickly to optimistic conclusions. In 2017, the German authorities (federal and regional) requested that Greece take back 2,300 people. In 80 of these cases, the request was approved. But how many individuals were in fact returned to Greece? You may guess the number: zero!
Thus, the implementation of the new bilateral agreement between Greece and Germany on registered asylum seekers will be a formidable test case of execution between the two countries’ legal and administrative capacities. While the political will exists at the highest level in the chancellery in Berlin and the Maximou Mansion in Athens to make the agreement a success story, it is by no means guaranteed that German courts, Greek municipalities and the individual asylum seekers will succumb to such a narrative.
As has been argued by some in the past (including the author of this piece), Greece and Germany both need to cooperate in key policy areas, despite their political interests not always being in sync in the course of the past years. Chancellor Merkel needed to return to Berlin after the Brussels summit with something of a political compromise on refugees and migration in her hands. Otherwise, her interior minister – Horst Seehofer – from the junior coalition partner CSU had threatened to implement unilateral asylum policies that would have brought the downfall of her five months-old government.
So who came to the rescue of chancellor Merkel in such dire political times? No other than Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Spain’s recently appointed new prime minister – Pedro Sanchez – who was attending his first EU summit. Without their willingness to offer bilateral agreements on registered asylum seekers as a temporary compromise solution, the Brussels summit would have ended in acrimony and most likely triggered a series of events in Berlin that would ultimately have terminated Angela Merkel’s term in office.
This is a remarkable change of fortunes for the Greek prime minister. The rescue of Merkel’s remaining political capital did not come via France with President Macron, nor the Netherlands, and definitely not Italy. Rather, two countries at opposite ends of Europe’s periphery which have frequently been criticized and at times humiliated in the German media and by some of its political representatives threw Merkel the lifeline she so desperately needed.
The Greek prime minister’s strategy in Brussels underlined his political instincts, i.e. when to strike a much-needed political compromise (as controversial as it may appear). Furthermore, it illustrated the special relationship Tsipras has established with Merkel since leaving behind him the confrontational approach he practiced in early 2015.
Today, both office holders in Athens and Berlin face numerous domestic challenges in the political minefield of refugees and migration policies. They require cross-border solutions and “voluntary solidarity” – as it is now termed - at the European level. The voluntarism displayed by Greece’s prime minister vis-à-vis the German chancellor may come at a cost domestically. But his diplomatic success in Brussels underscores that your one-time political adversary may indeed be your most important political asset in the near future.
But let me offer one observation in conclusion. These new bilateral agreements on registered asylum seekers may well extend the duration of individual politicians in office. But those who are most immediately the subjects of these agreements are the ones that have to pay the highest price. It has become ever more apparent that they are citizens of nowhere, pushed around Europe for reasons of political expediency. They will now be confined to areas at external borders called “anchor centres” or “controlled centres”. What that means in practice has been witnessed for years in Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos. Welcome to the new reality of Europe. Goodbye to what was once termed Willkommenskultur in Germany.
*You can follow Jens on Twitter: @Jens_Bastian