Greece’s Migration Card in the Austerity Waiting Game / Angelos Chryssogelos

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Featured imageTsipras knows that his austerity program will not be viable without tangible returns or ‘victories’ over Europe — either on migration or, most importantly for him, the debt issue

The migration crisis of this summer and autumn in the Aegean takes place at the same time that the government of Alexis Tsipras is struggling to implement the harsh conditions contained in the third bailout it signed with its Eurozone creditors.

The recent flip-flops with regards to reform of the pension system and a new tax on private school tuition fees show that the government lacks a clear reform agenda and the real commitment to go through with the measures contained in the bailout it signed in August.

Yet for now, Syriza and Tsipras have little choice but to stick to their obligations. The reason is that the bailout agreement foresees the recapitalization of the Greek banking system before the end of this calendar year, under condition of Greece delivering on a list of reforms during this period. Greece has to stick to the timetable if it wants to avoid a depositor bail-in.

At the same time, Greece is struggling to cope with a total of 420,000 migrant arrivals this year by official estimates (some claim they are already more than 500,000), with its already weakened infrastructure stretched to the extreme. The hopes that the number of migrants would decrease after the summer proved futile: In late October, Greek islands still saw an average of 9,600 daily arrivals.

Greece is in a double bind. On the one hand, while the magnitude of the migrant crisis has in practice nullified the framework created by the Dublin regulation for management of asylum seekers that was reviled in Greece, the EU’s new relocation quota scheme is too timid to be a blueprint for a permanent solution. On the other hand, if Greece tries to evade its EU obligations or act unilaterally it will give rise to voices calling for its suspension from the Schengen free movement zone.

Given all this, Tsipras’ acquiescence to the measures agreed in the EU-Western Balkans summit on October 25 was a surprise. The outcome of that summit was a complete assertion of Germany’s positions and a retreat by Greece, which agreed to register and host 50,000 migrants as well as curb the flow of migrants to the Western Balkans. Such was the imbalance in the final negotiated outcome, that the Greek media speculated that there must have been a parallel agreement between Greece and Germany or a linkage with other outstanding issues between the two countries, especially the question of Greek debt that remains Tsipras’ cause celebre.

During its first term in office, the Tsipras government’s antagonistic stance on the economic front was coupled with a little noticed but unmistaken passive-aggressive attitude on migration. Syriza relaxed substantially controls in the Aegean and took little care or interest in whether new migrants continued their way to northern Europe. If the EU did not ameliorate the Dublin framework that was patently unfair, Greece would force the EU to change its course under the weight of its internal contradictions.

The first Tsipras government also employed migration in the context of economic renegotiations. The minister of defence Panos Kammenos famously threatened the EU in April that Greece could unleash waves of migrants, including jihadists, to Europe.

By the same token, there are interesting analogies in how the second, post-bailout Syriza government approaches the economy and migration. Tsipras’ cooperativeness on migration for now must be seen in the context of a waiting strategy in economic matters, which remain the top priority for his government and Greek public opinion.

Under this strategy, Greece goes along with the EU, but only until it finds the opportunity to exploit signs of weakness or discord within the EU. At the same time, it is looking for ways to create and maintain levers of pressure. Despite the huge migratory flows, Greece has not made any significant moves towards stronger patrolling of the Aegean, resisting assistance offered by the border agency Frontex. Tsipras and other Syriza members have also used very harsh language against the EU and its “incompetence” to avert a “humanitarian disaster” in the Aegean, thus raising the spectre of disagreements in the future.

Over the last month, Tsipras has offered hints about linking migration to the economy — most recently during the visit of the commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis to Athens.

Tsipras’ decision to maintain a kind of low-level tension between Greece and the EU on the migration front highlights his willingness to foster grievances that he can trade off in economic negotiations when the timing allows.

Tsipras knows that his austerity program will not be viable for long without tangible returns or ‘victories’ by Athens over Europe — either on migration or, most importantly for Tsipras, the debt issue.

In early 2016, after the Greek banking system has been recapitalized, and once the implications of Greece’s commitments in the migration issue become apparent to Greek public opinion alongside a depressed economy, it should not come as a surprise if Athens again becomes the epicentre of a renewed crisis of European governance — this time not just in economics or in migration, but in a very toxic combination of both.

Angelos Chryssogelos / Money News International

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