But the decision must be understood alongside the call, made at the same time, to strengthen the borders of what we Greeks call the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia with northern Greece, as well as the political pressure in several member states to react strongly against uncontrolled migration.
Now calls are being made to seal off Greece from the rest of the EU. The motivation behind the rhetoric seems clear: it is expedient for some EU leaders to present Greece as the villain of the migration crisis. They are effectively proposing to move the external EU border northward and cast Greece off or turn it away, as if it were itself an unwanted boat packed with refugees.
The populist message being touted about by certain politicians is that there are some bad people out there and there are good people right here, and that the good leaders will keep the bad people out – but the Greeks won’t. This is being said even though some aspects of it would be contrary to EU law. Not to mention the fact that it wouldn’t have the desired effect. Closing one border will do little to stem the flow of migrants; they will simply move to other routes.
Greece’s critics are right, however, about some things. Over the past year, the Syriza government has shown extraordinary incompetence in dealing with the refugee crisis. Before Alexis Tsipras took power, the authorities distinguished between asylum seekers, say from Syria, and economic migrants from other countries. Everyone was registered and fingerprinted according to EU rules. Those judged to be economic migrants – and not genuine refugees – would be detained or bailed with a view to being deported.
When Syriza took power last year this system was put on ice. It refused to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants as a matter of principle. The system of registration collapsed and so unregistered migrants had no reason to fear deportation, which meant more and more of them crossed into Greece on the way to northern Europe. As Greece provided what appeared to be safe passage, it received far more migrants than Bulgaria, which also shares a land border with Turkey but which carries out a far more stringent approach with migrants. Syriza’s response to the migration crisis was no better than its stewardship of the economy.
Yet, the EU’s proposed response to the Tsipras government’s incompetence is draconian and deeply unfair. First, because the increased numbers are not just a result of Greece’s actions: they are also a result of Mrs Merkel’s very public announcement in August that refugees were welcome in Germany. Since that statement, the number of Syrian refugees has fallen in Lebanon and increased in Turkey as they make their way to what has been perhaps misunderstood as Germany’s open door.
Second, the Syriza government has now started working towards complying with its European obligations. It has agreed to co-operate with Frontex, the EU border agency and to use EU funds to deal with the problem. A new, non-partisan, immigration minister took over in September. Four new refugee reception centres are being built, as agreed. Registration has now come back into effect. So the criticism that Greece is not doing enough is no longer true.
Meanwhile Greece will be left to deal with the real problem that sealing the borders would bring: hundreds of thousands of people en route to northern Europe would suddenly be stranded there. The authorities, already overwhelmed and unable to cope, would be left with the responsibility of providing food, shelter and medical care for all of them. In a country still reeling from almost six years of austerity, where hospitals and social services are at breaking point, political and social chaos would be the almost certain result.
If such a rash decision to cast off Greece were made, it would be the second time in six years thatGreece had been made a scapegoat by populist politicians in Northern Europe. In 2010, the EU rejected the IMF’s plan for a generous write-off of the unpayable Greek debt, in order to bail out the incompetent German, Dutch and French banks, whose own irresponsible lending - waved through by the ECB - had brought them to the brink of collapse. The full cost of the bungled eurozone policies was passed on to the Greek people and, if it failed, to the European taxpayer as a whole.
Some politicians again want to make the Greeks pay the full price for a crisis in which they played but a small part.
So far, European leaders such as Mrs Merkel have bravely resisted the populist strategy. They speak, correctly, of a global crisis that can only have a long-term collective solution through existing legal frameworks and by way of multilateral cooperation. The EU’s plan is to work together in order to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants, to provide appropriate reception centres, to share refugees, to convince Turkey to cooperate, to strengthen the external borders and to work for a peace plan for Syria. There is no better or easier solution.
Will the EU do the right thing this time? One cannot be sure any more. Narrow self-interest and populism is everywhere now. But given the scale of the crisis, its future depends on it.
Pavlos Eleftheriadis is a fellow in law at Mansfield College, Oxford