Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
I wish to thank Mr. Koumoutsakos for this question, as it is indeed timely and provides me with the opportunity, especially after we all witnessed on television – and I’m referring to yesterday’s tragic shipwreck, one of dozens that occur on an almost daily basis tin the Aegean – to express in Parliament deepest regrets, my sincere anguish for so many losses, for this human tragedy that is taking place in our waters.
I wish to stress that these days the waves of the Aegean are not only washing dead refugees, dead children, to shore; they are washing European civilization itself to shore; Because no one can remain untouched for months to a human tragedy that is unfolding with the responsibility of the West, with the responsibility of Western governments; Because military interventions in the region were not interventions that took place in order to bring forth the necessary democratization of these states, but in order to bring forth geopolitical interests, which were wrongly evaluated to have no such tragic consequences by governments of the West and of the European Union. Those who sow winds harvest storms today. These storms though mostly affect frontline countries.
I wish to stress also, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues, that I personally, as a member of this European leadership, representing my country in these summit meetings, as of this past February, it was at our – mine and the Italian prime minister’s – request, that the first summit meeting took place on how to deal with this humanitarian crisis and the refugee problem, which back then in the EU was not considered an issue concerning the Aegean, concerning Turkey. They were only asking – and such a meeting will take place in Malta on November 145 – for a conference involving the European Union and the countries of Africa, thinking that the problem involved Libya only, the migration flows in the Mediterranean from Libya, with the dramatic shipwrecks at Lampedusa at their epicenter. We had asked at that time for an understanding with Turkey, knowing as everyone does – and you do as well, I imagine – that there were already at that time thousands and hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria on the shores of Turkey.
I wish to say, therefore, that as a member of this European leadership I feel shame as much for the incapacity of Europe to deal effectively with this human drama as I feel for the way in which the discussion is being conducted at the summit level, with efforts to pass the buck down the line. These are hypocritical tears for dead children on the shores of the Aegean. Everyone’s sympathy and grief are being extended to the dead children, while no one extends any sympathy to the children who are alive and are coming in thousands on the refugee roads.
I wish to say that the level of discussion as far as the European Union leadership is concerned is a sorry level that shows the incapacity of Europe to defend its values, at the same time, in fact, when certain governments – perhaps following the same mindset that you, not you personally, Mr. Koumoutsakos, but a component of your partisan side has – adopt the logic of raising walls and barbed wire on the borders between EU member states.
And as I believe that I am responding to Deputies who share, from different ideological perspectives, a common European vision let me tell you that from my perspective, from a left point of view, the European vision was born when the Berlin wall that separated people of the same nation was razed. And this European vision is dying today, when certain countries are raising walls and barbed wire to prevent refuges from crossing their borders.
Our first responsibility, therefore, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues, at this moment is our humanitarian duty. And I wish on this occasion to express my support, solidarity, and congratulations to the men and women of the Greek Coast Guard who save dozens, hundreds of human lives on a daily basis.
Undoubtedly, the principal responsibility of the Coast Guard involves legality and the protection of borders. During these days, however, an even greater responsibility is to save human lives. When a life is in danger at sea, saving it is the principal human duty.
And indeed I felt ill at ease when certain leaders – and there is no point in referring to them specifically – during last Sunday’s summit, in the very same way that certain individuals from the Opposition were stigmatizing the Greek government before the elections, when it spoke of the humanitarian rescue responsibility, blamed us that we could not, as they argued, our borders. And when the question was posed, on the basis of international law, as to what is the principal responsibility when people are at risk within territorial waters – their repulsion or their rescue – they had no answer. I hope you have an answer to this question, Mr. Koumoutsakos, as it is crucial.
Our principal responsibility, therefore, at this hour is to rescue these tortured people and reduce a humanitarian tragedy. And this is a task of solidarity regarding people who abandoned their country in order to rebuild from scratch lives destroyed by war and abandonment.
We, as Greeks, know what it means to be a refugee. We, who are younger, know from what we’ve heard from our grandfathers and grandmothers about being a refugee and this is especially true of the islands where they relive this experience.
It is also our duty to do what we can, and to do even more than that, in order not to experience again the death of people, in order to prevent the Aegean becoming a wet cemetery.
And in order to serve this objective, it is necessary to adopt a stance of responsibility at a European level, a stance in accordance with those values Europe is at risk of losing. And it is necessary to avoid feeding phobic reflexes against refugee flows and to avoid alarmism, isolating those extreme and racist voices whether in Greece or throughout Europe.
This is not an issue on which to exercise opposition rhetoric.
It is an issue that surpasses us while we must deal with it, as it raises existential issues for all Western societies and not only Greek society.
Mr. Koumoutsakos, we are very well aware of the challenges and dangers in managing the refugee crisis. But we are also very well aware that we cannot manage it well if we adopt a defensive and phobic attitude. We cannot manage it effectively, as a country and as a society, if we choose to shut ourselves in pretending that nothing is happening, while whatever is happening is someone else’s fault.
We cannot be useful either to Europe and the refugees or to Greek citizens if we also choose, as some to the north of us do, to play simply the role of a guard of Europe.
If we were to choose anything of this sort, we would only create preconditions of an enormous and tremendously costly future explosion for Greece and Europe in its entirety. On the contrary, we must – and this we do – adopt an energetic and interventionist stance, so we can explain the problem to Europe, as many countries imagine that it does not affect them, while at the same time managing the specific problems that present themselves in Greece.
In this context and from this humanitarian and solidarity-affirming perspective, the Greek government secures Greece’s position at a European level, while becoming at the same time, instead of being part of the crisis, as made clear, I think, in statements by European officials, part of the effort for a more effective and humanitarian management and solution of the refugee problem. And I believe this is the correct policy for the country: to have a constructive stance, to contribute with specific proposals and actions, and to play a connecting role between the European Union and Turkey, and not simply observe their ongoing discussion.
This is a policy that can upgrade the position of our country, that can make it useful, that can increase its geopolitical dynamism. This is the role of Greece: not that of a poor relative panhandling additional funds, but an energetic role of an equal partner and protagonist not only in the refugee crisis, but regarding the management of all kinds of crisis, as they happen to be in the eye of the storm, given our geographical position.
I wish to recall at this point that, in contrast to the New Democracy party, we grasped the size of the problem from the start. We posed it at a local, European, and international level and we did not engage in statements that compromise our country internationally.
By contrast, your party, Mr. Koumoutsakos, has not hesitated through official statements in the past, and even by addresses in Parliament, to characterize refugees and refugee flows as “flows of illegal aliens” and to blame our then recently elected government as a government causing the problem, a worldwide problem that has to do with all of Europe. No such flows had been seen since World War II; yet, back then in April you were blaming us that our newly elected government had caused them.
Now, nevertheless, I also wish to acknowledge the fact that you have finally realized the difference between refugee and migration flows and you have stopped insisting on references that do harm, I think, to you and to our country.
After all, Mr. Koumoutsakos, I know that you have served in the European Parliament and this was not how you spoke.
I now come to the specific set of questions you raised, hoping to respond now, before I speak again after you.
The informal Brussels summit involved, as you are aware, the countries that present a corridor for refugee flows and the countries where that flow ends – Austria and Germany – while a critical country was absent, i.e., Turkey. We had the corridor, but not the door through which the flows come in. And we criticized this from the outset.
We made clear in the summit that during recent months Greeks bears the burden, but at the same has the honor, because of its stance, to save the humanitarian face of Europe. The dramatic dimensions of the problem, however, prove that it is a problem that exceeds the capabilities of a single country to manage it on its own.
We also stressed that it is necessary to deal with the problem on the principles of solidarity, cooperation, and division of responsibility.
As I had stated at the European Council Summit, the European Union has moved too slowly, like a turtle, on this issue. It is making efforts at this time, however, to move in the right direction, so as to reach an understanding with Turkey, while also organizing and coordinating the relocation and resettlement process, so that refugee flows move in an organized fashion not only from the country of first entry, that is, Greece, but also from Turkey itself, which is an objective.
We must press Europe to deal with the issue more decisively and with better coordination between countries.
The first point you raised involves the existence in the draft statement of a discussion of the proposal that the permission of a neighboring country be secured for refugees to move there. As a result of our criticism and pressure, this reference was deleted. This is not just phrasing. It is an attitude that we must jointly criticize in Europe.
Europe is being pressured at this hour by governments that adopt for domestic reasons, as a result of pressure they feel from domestic public opinion, a phobic attitude, an attitude that involves passing the blame to a neighboring country, and this pressure was translated into a kind of decision that would that would involve not only controlling, but also beginning to put a stop, to flows.
I wish to state and ask you in Parliament that we agree that such a logic cannot be accepted.
I wish to stress that it is not only unacceptable to include phrasing in joint communiqués, which implies that countries may refuse passage of refugees through their borders, but our country will request in follow-up summits that there be explicit and official condemnation of the choice of walls, the choice of fences and closed borders to refugees by member states of the European Union.
I come to point 3 of the Conclusions. Through our intervention, this point changed in relation to the draft statement and the new phrasing secures a minimum, that is, the requirement of a good level of communication and understanding between countries in the region regarding the numbers involved in refugee flows, something Greece is already doing.
Greece extends information on refugee flow and, at the same time, it is recognized officially for the first time that these flows exist and will continue to exist. Identification of refugees and communication at an international level are certainly required. But these flows will continue as long as these people have a vision, a dream of a better life.
Let me note here – so that we are not misunderstood – that the steady position of our country is not to encourage refugee flows by land or sea – especially dangerous as they are – from Turkey to the rest of Europe. Our position is to support an organized relocation, directly from Turkey to Europe, and resettlement process for those who have already crossed.
The reference, therefore, to discouraging secondary flows is not something to consider. Secondary flows must be discouraged to the extent we do not wish these people put to trouble at the risk of losing their live at sea or suffer by walking on foot through terrible weather to cross borders. We wish their relocation to take place in an organized and legal fashion. This process of soon start from here as well.
A second point involves my statement following the summit meeting that we prevented the creation of an entire city of fifty thousand refugees. I did not refer, as you did, to a Spiegel report. I do not know from where you claim to have insider information on what is discussed in closed-door sessions. I would urge that you ask the Greek Commissioner, Mr. Avramopoulos, who was present.
There was this request, Mr. Koumoutsakos. It had not been presented officially, if you wish, but, as you are aware, the most dangerous requests are not presented officially and the devil is often hidden in the details.
So there was this request from our partners and its logic was that resettlement would be assisted by creating a center – which I would call a “super-camp” of refugees – to carry out the relocation process.
Independently of anyone’s intentions, which I do not wish to judge, the adoption of such a proposal would have contrary results, as it would create a ghetto. It would strengthen racist reflexes without helping the refugees and without providing better services in terms of hospitality and first needs before resettlement.
Allow me to stress that the responsibility we undertook to increase numbers in hosting centers is entirely obvious and positive and we wish and must wish to see it being implemented as soon as possible. These questions should not be confused. A super-camp or ghetto is one thing; increasing hospitality, first assistance, and identification capabilities with EU support is another.
These hospitality positions do not involve permanent residence.
They are temporary positions, on five islands, involving the inappropriately named hot spots of a maximum stay of three days, as well as on the mainland, where twenty thousand positions were being envisioned from the outset. So we will distribute these numbers between Attica and northern Greece. Refugees stay there while awaiting during the formal process of resettlement. This involves two months at most.
It is positive to increase numbers of positions in hospitality centers, as this is the only way to hasten the resettlement program of sixty six thousand refugees in Europe, as agreed in previous European summits. Moreover, this is the only way to manage these flows in coming difficult winter conditions.
So we agreed, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues, with the EU proposal that involves immediate funding support as a precondition, as set out in article 5 of the communiqué. And this involves what was already being set out by the Minister of Migration Policy in coordination with the UN High Commission: seven to eight thousand positions on five islands and twenty thousand positions in the mainland. And instead of a super-camp, we suggested for implementation by the end of the year of a program of rent subsidies to Greek families so they can also temporarily host about twenty thousand refugees.
It is clear that these refugees with rent-subsidy arrangements will also be available for resettlement. As stressed by the UN High Commission, however, this measure allows them to be hosted under much better conditions while host families receive something in return through these subsidies.
I should bring my answer to an end, Mr. Koumoutsakos, so you can speak. I imagine that in my follow-up response I will be able to refer to a crucial issue involving our relation with Turkey, the issue of joint patrols, as well as to your question on whether any financial benefits for the country are involved in dealing with these flows.
Mr. Koumoutsakos, your second statement proves that you neither have any suggestions nor you are well aware of the issues you are asking about.
I will not answer using witticisms, but I will try to answer on the substance not to you but to the Parliament and to the Greek people. Because at this moment, we are addressing a key issue of national responsibility, which we cannot joke about.
Well, listen. Concerning the refugee influx, the refugee crisis, we face a problem that overcomes the european abilities, not just those of a small country being in financial crisis. It is crucial how we will adreess this issue and if there will be substantial understanding at a political national level.
I wish to answer more specifically. You accuse us of not gaining something out of this procedure, or of not bargaining as Turkey does, claiming billions of euros. Why does Turkey do that? As a candidate for EU accession, Turkey does what it should do that is, it respects human rights and ensures its borders with EU until the completion of its accession.
So you suggest we bargain and tell our European partners: “Look, if you don’t give us something more, just as Turkey asks, we will let these people drowning, we will let them without food or help and we will also threaten you that we will help them secretly cross your borders through the night at our own expenses. Will we do this to the European Union?”
Since you didn’t suggest something like that, let’s agree on the substance which is. Mr. Koumoutsakos, that it is not about illegal migrants. I am verry sorry, because I didn’ t expect you to adopt this kind of rhetoric or verbal acrobatics. Because if we continue in this sense of verbal abuse, and say that whoever enters illegally, is an illegal person, we could also adopt the view that those who do not have the same colour as us are second class citizens.
What I say is that we must be careful. We should be careful because do you Know how easy it is for a society which has been suffering accute economic pressure leading to social compression, to adopt a view that the foreigner is to blame for the unemployment in our country
This kind of voices do not only come from the extreme right seats of the Parliament, but unfortunately they also come from your own party and maybe other parties as well. The country is said to have so many unemployed people as the the migrants that are here. So it is not the social and the financial policy to blame but the people who come here.
Do you know what kind of jobs do these people get? The jobs that, fortunately or unfortunately, not a single Greek citizen would deign to get.
Consequently, we say that in face of a global problem, we have to claim a european and worldwide solution, without succumbing to the temptation of populism and political canvassing. Because this kind of populism leads to racist and hate perceptions and then we wonder why Golen Dawn has won 7% of election vote.
So let’s come to the crucial issues.
Regarding Turkey, the visa issue you mentioned, should mainly concern Germany. Because at present, Germany has three million German citizens of turkish origin. The visa free access though, will lead to more than three million of people,visiting their relatives freely and maybe half of them to staying permanently and never returning back.
You realise, that we have to handle the problems wisely and in our country’s interest at present. Others are more reserved and hesitant to move on couregeously towards a policy of understanding and support to Turkey in its accession prospect.
Let me tell you something. I have the feeling that no party – at least those who have governed this country that is New Democracy and PASOK- has been opposed to the european prospect of Turkey. On condition that, Turkey will meet the preconditions, those rules of the EU accession process.
So, concerning the european prospect of Turkey, we shouldn’t be the poor an frightened relatives, but we should be the ones who ask for the beginning of the process, as long as Turkey meets its commitments regarding the democratisation, the human rights and the Internatonal Law so that the forty- year illegal occupation of the northern part of Cyprous comes to an end.
This is an attitude of national responsibility towards this issue. The greek government intends to take initiatives. We do not intend to let Mrs. Merkel negotiate with Turkey on behalf of Europe. We are the european neighbours of Turkey and we should be the ones who will take iniatives in the process of the necessary dialogue with Turkey.
I will refer to the issue of joined patrols. Why do you raise again this issue since it has been resolved from all aspects. We highligted the issue through both my own statements and those of the Foreign Ministry and you see that all Europeans, despite their initial verbal faults, return to the reason of ” coordinated patrols”. They are not talking about joint patrols any more.
And let me tell you something. Our main argument doesn’t concern only the turkish irrational claims and demands in the Aegean Sea but also the fact that the joint patrols with Frontex in the greek, that is the european waters, are absolutely ineffective. They are not at all necessary, exactly because they all Know that the only thing that can be done, either by the greek coast guard or Frontex, or even joint patrols with turkish vessels – which we would never allow- would be the rescue operation. Because this is what the International Law defines.
However, on Turkey’s coastline, from where these boats sail in, the traffickers rust buckets cross to the other side, damaging the boats and let people drowning,
the real patrol can be done there, in the shore, in a hundred, two hundred, five hundred meters.
You asked what we got. I am telling you, all the issues you raised, the hot spots in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, in these areas with huge refugee flows, but also the issue of EU-Turkey readmission agreement – not Greece-Turkey-which obviously will include Greece, but also the question of effective patrolling the Turkish coasts and fight not refugees but smugglers, those people who trade human souls, these three issues are in the top agenda negotiation between European Commission and Turkey. This is a negotiation in which we want to hold a key role, as I said before.
I would like to insist on this: You keep telling us, “what you ‘ve got” . You must understand Mr. Koumoutsakos. I will be perfectly clear on this matter. How much do you cost a human soul? How much would anyone cost a five year old child who drowns in the Aegean seas, how much money we must take for his salvation? What is the price of a plate of food, a human hug, a blanket to warm these children?
You must know, I am not addressing this speech to you. I am addressing this speech to the european partners, to all those who wiggle the finger to Greece! Greece is in crisis. Greek people may be poor but rich in values and humanism!
We do not claim, therefore, one single euro. We do not claim a cent to do our duty, our human duty toward those people who die in our yard.
Anyone of us had people dying in his yard, he would claim a plate of food to keep them alive.
So, we don’t share this way of thinking, evaluating the cost of being human. And I am appealing not to you but to all those who want to preach Greece. Greece teaches how to be human. This very moment, Greece teaches European partners about Europe’s true face. This is the true face, the one of Lesvos and not the one of Hungary, where people extend a foot to trip refugee who carries a child in order to photograph them.
And I truly want, to point this national responsibility attitude, to be united against to all those who try to mock Greece in every way, Greece struggling to defend its values in a very difficult moment for the people.
I say we will proudly overcome this critical period, as we deserve it as Greeks! For these are the greek values and not those of intolerance, xenophobia and racism shown by the extreme wings of the Parliament and sometimes, unfortunately, are adopted from your party’s members.