OPINION

Schengen and the borders of inertia

The two greatest achievements of European unification are monetary union and the system of open borders enjoyed by the 400 million citizens whose 25 countries are signatories of the Schengen Treaty. Both of them depend on the principle that each member state shoulders the same burdens and shares the same benefits stemming from unhindered participation in a union that provides greater security and more opportunities. This demands the smooth functioning of each country and open lines of communication between the bloc’s members.

It is no coincidence, then, that Greece is at the epicenter of intense debate regarding its future in the eurozone and the borderless zone — a discussion that forces us, for the first time, to see ourselves within the European context, to consider our responsibilities as well as the cost of our lack of responsibility. With regard to both the eurozone and the Schengen Treaty, our leaders tolerated (indeed, they cultivated) a public administration that was incapable of serving the needs of a modern state, leading to systemic incompetence and failure. Today Greece remains in the eurozone thanks to the aid of its partners, while also facing the threat of ejection from the Schengen area, accused of not being able to police its borders nor handle the resulting influx of illegal immigrants, most of whom have made their way to other EU member states.

The criticism that Greece faces is very dangerous, because these days there is intense debate over the issue of illegal immigration and the need to revise Schengen Treaty procedures. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — taking a hard right tack in his effort to get re-elected — has threatened to pull France from the pact if other countries do not agree to stricter measures against illegal migration. Denmark, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, last year restored passport checks on its border with Germany and has opened the discussion for stronger cooperation among Schengen Treaty signatories. With all this, we can be justified in fearing that Greece — as the gateway to Europe for most illegal immigrants — is in danger of finding itself on the wrong side of the borderless union’s border.

In the past two years, as the ?Greek crisis? has dominated world headlines, the issue of our country’s Schengen membership has been bubbling away under the surface. Our partners understand that Greece faces huge practical and political difficulties in guarding its long land and sea borders. They understand the cynical position of Ankara, which facilitates the entry into Turkey of citizens from North African countries and then, when they are caught crossing the border into Greece, refuses to take them back. Turkey wants the EU to liberalize the issuing of visas for Turks before it will agree to take back migrants.

So, with all the understanding that they show, our partners still cannot understand why Greece does so little to implement its commitments. In 2010, under pressure, Athens adopted the Greek National Action Plan for migration, asylum and the management of external borders. To help implement it, our partners allocated 234 million euros for 2010-12. So we were under pressure to do something, a plan was adopted and we had the funds to make it work; but the problem remained unsolved. As the Task Force for Greece noted in its most recent quarterly report last week: ?A first priority set out in the Greek Action Plan on migration and asylum is the creation of a new Asylum Service, Initial Reception Service and Appeals Authority. Efforts to second or transfer staff within the public administration have not yet resulted in sufficient recruitments and the new services are not yet operational. This issue is under discussion with the relevant Ministries with a view to finding solutions.? (And to think that ministers should be keen to transfer staff that would otherwise have to be let go.) The Task Force report does not specify the culprits for this inertia, but they are well known to anyone who has experience of Greece’s public administration: red tape, complex procedures, confusion of authority (with seven ministers needed for one decision), the lack of infrastructure, the general state dysfunction, and so on.

The result: Greece is repeatedly accused of violating principles regarding its failure to stop illegal immigrants but also in relation to the inhumane treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. Last year, the flood of refugees from North Africa shook relations between France and Italy. Today, tens of thousands of Syrians are expected to seek refuge in Turkey — and, from there, perhaps Europe. The river of despair never stops. If Greece does not solve the chronic problems of its public administration — those which plague citizens, immigrants, visitors and businesses alike — it cannot be a credible guardian of the Union’s borders. It will then have to bear the consequences of such a failure as well.