COMMENT

Greece is ‘the Real Madrid of the Balkans’

ALEXIS PAPACHELAS

TAGS: Interview, EU, Migration, Turkey, Politics

Margaritis Schinas was the obvious choice for Greece’s commissioner at the European Union. He has been involved in the core of European decision-making for years, without ever losing sight of realities in Greece. And not Greece through the lens of “Kolonaki Square and thereabouts,” he says, referring to the upscale central Athens neighborhood, but that of Greek society as a whole. Indeed, his first public appearance after being appointed European Commission vice president was an open discussion with young people in the port city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece.


Schinas has experienced some key moments in Greece’s recent history and played an important role as well. In this interview with Kathimerini, he talks about the negotiations following the controversial 2015 referendum and the near-Grexit, and responds to questions about the critical and sensitive subject of the migration/refugee crisis, which comes under his purview. He also refers to relations with Skopje and notes the need for Greece to assume a starring role in the region, like the “Real Madrid of the Balkans,” he says, referring to the Spanish soccer powerhouse.

The Greek commissioner also believes that the channels of communication with Ankara need to remain open, a subject that he says he discussed in talks last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

How do you feel about being the first Greek to be appointed a European Commission vice president.

I feel a mixture of pride and responsibility, because it really is a great and unprecedented honor. I am confident that I can serve the purposes of this position well, but the surprise of being appointed has given me the added responsibility of having to go beyond what I know I can achieve, giving even more than is called for.

In your role as European Commission spokesman, you were close to the front line of many crucial moments in the Greek crisis. What was the one incident that stands out the most, that frightening you the most, as a Greek?

It was the weekend after the announcement of the July 2015 referendum. It was announced late on Friday, at midnight, and that weekend was a complete nightmare. We had the impression that Greece and the eurozone were on the brink of an abyss. We struggled with the message and issued an announcement – I remember it to this day – which gave the Greek people a much-needed explanation and was published on Sunday morning – that press release had the biggest number of readers ever. That was a standout moment, as was the following Monday when [then Commission president Jean-Claude] Juncker held a press conference that ended with his dramatic entreaty that “Greece is Europe and Europe is Greece.”

Was there a moment when you thought Grexit was possible?

Yes, on the night of the referendum after the result was announced, and the second time was at the July 13 summit when around 4.30-5 in the morning I saw Juncker come out of the conference room looking quite green and say, “Toujours rien” – Still nothing. That’s when I thought that there was no way to reverse the tide and we were headed for the worst.

Having worked so closely with Juncker, can you tell us how catalytic his role was in the Greek crisis?

Yes, it was catalytic mainly with regard to reversing the opinion that was becoming prevalent in Berlin and Frankfurt that a Greek exit from the euro was inevitable and that it was not just part of the experimentations of [then finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis, but that the new government had a structured exit plan. Juncker dedicated a lot of time to reversing this notion. It started with the famous photograph where he’s seen basically dragging the Greek prime minister [Alexis Tsipras] to Berlaymont [an EU Commission building] on his first visit – showing him that he was ready to invest in him – and peaked with the numerous conversations he had with Tsipras at the same time, against strong reactions from Germany and Frankfurt, where some said, “Don’t bother, you have no role there, you have no money there, it’s not your business.” But he persisted and that’s what made a difference – together with [ex-French president Francois] Hollande and, of course, [former European Central Bank chief Mario] Draghi in the last stretch – when Draghi was convinced that there was a change of mood in Greece.

That incident came at a great cost for Greece, where there is now an impression that primary surplus targets will be relaxed. This is also one of the primary objectives of the government – a national goal we could even say. How likely is it that this will be accomplished?

The opinion in Europe right now is that Greece, with the help of its partners of course, managed to stand on its feet through the crisis. It is even more strongly believed that what kept Greece on its feet was that the Greeks consciously factored in the cost of the adjustment by acknowledging, politically, the value of the country’s participation in the eurozone. This is political capital that has earned interest and will certainly come back to the country. So, there’s a belief that the country needs to be rewarded for its efforts and the Greeks for what they came to terms with. This, of course, will depend on the continued ownership of reforms, mainly in the state, justice and taxation. If – there are so many ifs – these terms are satisfactorily met, then I believe that a review of the targets is possible, so as to allow Greece to focus on growth without the worry of payments, which, as you know, has already been taken away from the country. Greece will be in a greenhouse state for the next 10 years, because it has no payments and no worries and can focus on the reform drive.

How do you respond to the bitterness felt by citizens about the migration crisis? Is it justified?

I tell them that Europe has done a lot for the migration crisis, but it hasn’t done everything yet. Where we are today is definitely better compared to where we were when the crisis erupted in the summer of 2015. We have the European Coast Guard, we provide significant resources, we can distinguish asylum seekers from the others, we have given a lot of money to reception countries, we have saved 700,000 lives in the Mediterranean – all that has been done. But it’s not everything that needs to be done. What we still need is a solidarity mechanism that will take some of the burden off frontline countries and distribute it fairly to the others. What we call Dublin II, a change to the Dublin rules. Europe has failed on this front and we need to have the courage to admit it. We have a new opportunity now with the new Commission. This is also one of the main elements of my portfolio. Together with the responsible Swedish commissioner [Ylva Johansson], we can make a fresh start, an aggressive new beginning, because frontline countries cannot be left alone. As long as this imbalance is not fixed, I understand that people will be unhappy, and justifiably so, with Europe.

Are the political conditions favorable in Northern Europe for such a change?

We have some indications that make us feel quite optimistic. First of all, we’re in a new political cycle; second, [Matteo] Salvini is no longer in charge in Italy; third, Germany and France appear determined for the first time to agree in this area; and fourth, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have learned a lot from their previous experience and have restored some channels of communication with the new [Commission] president. All of these factors are favorable, but we won’t know the answer until next year. We aim to have the proposal ready by the end of February and the final agreement signed during the German presidency in 2020.

The Greek government recently announced a new action plan for migration. How does it look to you?

It proposes moves that are in the right direction. Anyone who has reason to be placed under protection should know that they will achieve this in Europe, because Europe will continue to be an asylum destination, a part of what Europe represents to the world today. But it also needs to be made clear that anyone who is not entitled to protection must be returned – and this must happen. The measures by the government are aimed at making this differentiation. Europe will continue providing support with means and resources. And there’s another thing that many people don’t know: that in a few months, Europe’s borders will be controlled by the European Coast Guard, which will be the first European agency that will be armed and have its own vessels. All of these things strengthen the belief that we are headed to a new European reality with regard to migration.

There is some debate about whether Turkey is using migration as a lever bilaterally or whether this is part of a broader negotiation with Europe. What do you think?

I’m not an expert on Turkey, but I do know that Turkey has been hosting more than 3.5 million Syrians in its territory with consistency and dignity, and this is something that deserves recognition, which is something it rarely gets. What is true is that as long as the uncertainties in the broader context of Greek-Turkish relations linger, the issue of migration will be a valve that adds rather than releases pressure. It is also true that there is a sense of strategic insecurity in Turkey vis-a-vis Europe, which translates into actions and rhetoric that do not honor the cooperation we expect from Turkey on migration. My personal opinion is that we need to invest in restoring Euro-Turkish relations on migration and on all the other issues, which I had the opportunity to speak frankly about with Mr Erdogan last Friday. I think it is more useful to talk to the Turks than to analyze the Turks.

That said, Turkey has displayed behavior that some say is provocative toward Cyprus. What has Europe’s response been?

There is no doubt that such practices on Turkey’s part have not helped Turkey, or Euro-Turkish relations, or accomplished the goals that Turkey had proclaimed. These moves are more about sensationalism and provocation. There has been a European reaction and there will be a European reaction every time it makes such “cowboy” moves. At the same time, though, we must admit that the Cyprus energy issue will only be settled once and for all when we have progress in the resolution of the Cyprus issue. The longer we don’t see the prospects of a resolution, the more such unilateral tactics will intensify, without contributing to something specific.

The European leadership and German Chancellor Angela Merkel invested heavily in a resolution of the Athens-Skopje name dispute and Albania’s and North Macedonia’s European Union membership prospects. That now hangs in the balance. First of all, do you think the accession of the two countries can be decoupled? And also will the geopolitical impact of these developments be?

I’ll start by saying that I am very happy and satisfied to see that despite all of Greece’s tribulations in the past few years, our influence and the soft power we exercise over all of our Balkan neighbors continues unabated and has intensified. We continue to represent an image to our neighbors of what they want to be one day. And this political capital – which stems not just from the fact that we are the only fully fledged EU democracy in the region but also that we haven’t turned our back on our neighbors – is something we need to maintain. And of course the recent denial of Albania and North Macedonia’s accession bid hasn’t helped. There is no doubt that Europe effectively moved the goalposts on this issue and did the two countries an injustice.

My opinion is that a new effort needs to be made next year during the Croatian presidency, which will ideally cover both countries, perhaps with a new framework or road map, but North Macedonia at the very least.

Coming from northern Greece yourself, where the name issue with Skopje is particularly sensitive, you must have heard a lot of criticism about the name deal. How do you respond to these critics?

I have always been consistent in my beliefs and I believe that Greece needs to free itself of such phobias. I believe that we are stronger than we think and I believe that on such issues of neighborly and regional cooperation there are not 15 different paths, but just one. I repeat that, as the most powerful player, we are the Real Madrid of the Balkans and have nothing to fear from anyone. Quite the opposite: We are a paradigm for the others and I have been very comfortable defending these ideas in Brussels and Athens, in Thessaloniki and the Balkans.

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