We must open our arms to people in need. There is no reason to be afraid of refugees

– The common European policy of migration and asylum must be based on international law and the value of solidarity. This implies an equal share of migrants to all EU members, not putting the biggest burden on Italy, Spain and Greece – says George Katrougalos, member of Greek parliament representing Syriza, the last foreign minister in Syriza’s government, now foreign minister in Syriza’s shadow government, interviewed by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

You came to the Summer University of the European Left from Greece, bringing with you, among others, an extremely valuable experience on the Syriza government, of which you were a member. What are the lessons of that left-wing government and its fall? What is the situation in Greece right now and where is the left in all this?

It was, in fact, more than just an experiment with a left-wing government. It was also the experience of the social struggles that preceded our election and were, of course, the reason that we have arrived in power. 

Syriza was, at first, a small party like all European parties of the left, supported by around 4% of the voters at the elections. But exactly because we tried to lead the fight against neoliberalism we got the chance to form a government in one moment. Our governing period was a mixed one: during the first half, the first six months we tried to resist the European memoranda, the neoliberal arrangements that had been imposed on us.

At that time, we had the impression that a fear of Grexit, the fear that Greece would be out of Europe would be a tool for us. During the negotiations towards the end of this phase, we had understood, however, that the more hardliners of the right in Europe were not only unafraid of Grexit, but they had Grexit at the core of their strategy! They wanted to show to everybody that if somebody was following policies that deviate from neoliberalism, they would not be part of the European Union, and second, they would be the reason for the destruction of their country.

The plan was to use Greece as a kind of counter-example, to make such parties as the Spanish Podemos, for instance, to think.  

In the end, we had to make a very painful compromise. We did not manage to reverse completely the neoliberal policies. We accepted a new memorandum which was milder than the previous – but still imposing a neoliberal programme. During the first three years of our government, we were absolutely bound by the provision of this memorandum. We tried to balance some of the most bad aspects of these policies with parallel policies of our own. But it was only after the end of the memorandum in 2018 when we managed to take Greece out of this framework of policies, that we had time to develop our own strategy freely and according to our own ideas. And that was really problematic.

Why did we lose the elections then? It is important to mark that Syriza did not really lose people’s votes, at least not most of them. We had 35% support when coming to power. When we lost it, we had 32. So we still kept the majority of our forces. Nevertheless, some of our people did not vote for us and others abstained because they were expecting more than what we could actually deliver.

Giorgos Katrougalos during the 2022 Summer University of European Left. Photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

Given this experience, do you think that it is possible to reform the European Union from within? Or that the radical left will always fail in the confrontation?

The answer to the second part of the question is, in my view, no. However, the lessons we have taken is that it is not possible to reshape Europe when just one country is attempting to do so, and especially when this country is not France or Germany. And Greece, we must face this, is a small country. 

Understanding this, our strategy since then is to try to change the balance of forces in Europe by promoting broader alliances, such as that happened in Spain, for instance. Or what happened in Portugal seven years ago, where the radical left formed an alliance with those Social Democrats who are not neoliberals and who may be counted among forces fighting for equality. Together they try to go ahead. It is not easy, but it is the only way to reverse the bloc of neoliberals that prevails in Europe.

Greece is one of the states where the biggest number of refugees has come over recent years. How serious is this as a social problem to your country?

Now the percentage of refugees is significant, but not as big as it was in 2015. And the new government of the right is following some very ambivalent policies towards them. There are serious accusations, including pushbacks….

Pushbacks in the sea…

Yes. It is true that Turkey is instrumental in the refugee issues. We have seen that clearly in 2020 when they tried to push hundreds of refugees or migrants to the land border we have in Evros. But the answer is not just to defend your border. Of course,

borders should be controlled and everybody does that. However, at the same time it is necessary to respect law, international and humanitarian law, in all forms. That also implies full respect for refugees and their rights. 

What we are trying to do now is integration of the refugees and immigrants. It is not easy, because Greece is now getting out of the crisis, but it is, nevertheless, quite feasible… 

A few years ago the Moria camp in Greece was an infamous example of inhumane treatment of refugees. Has things changed for the better?

Some things have been improved, because a lot of European and national money has been poured there. Now Greece has started much more ambitious integration programmes. However, the problem with the actual government of the right is that it comes under pressure from the most extreme right-wingers in their own camp. They see the refugees not as people who come to live with us and who have potential for development of Greece, too, but as of a danger. They are adherents of the “grand replacement” theory”, claiming that the migrants arrive in Europe to “replace” us, the locals.

The right-wing government is now trying to follow the official line, especially that European money has been allocated in the reception and integration projects. At the same time, it is trying to satisfy the hardliners within their own party who are against this kind of policies. That is why some measures and policies are, let’s say, introduced half-heartedly. 

Does the extreme right, anti-migrant position find supporters in Greek society? How do you counter it?

Thankfully, the extreme right views are still not majoritarian  in Greece. We remember the time when we, the Greek, were refugees and migrants too.  We are a relatively open society, although there is fear that the extreme theories I mentioned would become more popular again. As I said, they have a certain audience even within more “moderate”, traditional right-wing parties. 

We counter the far-right discourse by comparing the fate of refugees of today to our Greek historical experience. Thousands of Greeks were sent outside of Greece, becoming refugees.

Those migrations were not “illegal”, that is, they happened within the framework of bilateral agreements with other states, but there are examples of “irregular” migration in our history, too! Many Greek citizens know their own family stories, how their ancestors and relatives went to New York and jumped into the water to make their way to the shore and not arrive at Ellis Island and to be inspected there. We also faced racist prejudices against us, Southern Europeans. I suppose that this feeling is well-known to Central and Eastern Europeans as well. 

To sum up, it is much easier to repel the anti-refugee discourse in Greece than, for instance, in Germany. The Germans do not have a strong memory of being migrants or refugees themselves. However, we need much more than countering the far right narratives.

The major goal  is to have a common European strategy for migration and asylum. Not to embrace the idea of the fortress Europe with borders sealed off, that we should defend at all costs.

This common European policy of migration and asylum must be based on international law and the value of solidarity. This also implies an equal share of migration seekers for all the European countries. All of us must work together,  not just the frontier countries like Spain, Italy and Greece. 

Greece has a difficult history of relations with Turkey, and now Turkey has got a strengthened role in international relations. It has successfully managed to have Finland and Sweden submit to Ankara’s demands to give up protecting Kurdish and Turkish refugees, facing political persecution in their homeland. Turkey is also getting visibly stronger as an arms supplier. Given this context, what is your approach to defense and security questions? What can Greece do to secure a peaceful neighbourhood?

It is true that Turkey has a new, aggressive role in the region. However, this aggressivity is not entirely new.

Turkey’s occupation forces are now located in three countries: in Cyprus since 1974, and Iraq and Syria where the anti-Kurdish operations are being conducted. Right now a new one is being planned and even announced…

It would be the fifth Turkish intervention in Syria aiming at the Kurds. 

Exactly! In addition, Turkey is now involved in a proxy war in Libya as well. 

In fact, Turkey has become a revisionist country. Their elites do not feel that the existing borders and treaties are enough for the new Turkey. We can hear declarations that there is a bigger Turkey outside its borders. This is a pure revisionist agenda, which of course violates international law, just like the use of military force.

This aggressive foreign policy is paired up with human rights violations inside Turkey. We have a number of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights that Turkey is not implementing. We are convinced that this problem must be faced seriously. That is, we must try to impose the rules of international law on Turkey, especially through the European Union. 

The European Union is still the major economic partner of Turkey. So we must make clear to Turkey that they cannot be part of the system of economic exchanges and conduct these forbidden policies at the same time.

Now we hope that the customs union between the European Union and Turkey is going to be upgraded. We must put certain conditions on that related to the behavior of Turkey, both internally and externally. 

Because of this difficult neighbourhood, Greece must arm itself. We, the left, have accepted it as a necessity. Otherwise we would even become victims of Turkish blackmailing. Nevertheless, we believe that only diplomacy can bring us a stable solution. So our proposal is to go for the difference we have with Turkey regarding the delimitation of the maritime economic zones to the Court of Hague. We believe that in any case  of problems between the neighbours, it should be the international law and the international courts that would offer a solution.

In parallel, we try to develop friendship bonds between Turkish and Greek people. Yes, Turkey is an aggressive state and some of its citizens embrace the aggressive policies, having believed the nationalist propaganda, but we must not give up trying to have relations on a human level. We cannot just let the propaganda infect people and make them think they have nothing in common with us Greeks. 

So the basis of our policy towards Turkey is, first of all, respect of international law and using the European Union as a channel to impose it. And second, development of the bonds between the two people.

The elections in Greece are coming closer and closer. What is your electoral strategy? How to win back these voters who, as you said, did not vote Syriza as they expected more from you?

We are trying to develop an alliance with other progressive forces and we hope these people will be back on our side. It seemed that we were going to have snap elections in September, but the prime minister, who has probably seen the latest polls, has decided not to go now. But in any case, we are going to have elections before June 2023. We have asked for snap elections because we believe that the prolongation of the current government does not bring any good to Greek people. 

We have been hit by the ongoing energy crisis more severely than other countries, because our government did not take measures in time! General inflation in Europe is now about 8%. In Greece, it is 12% and our salaries are very low.

The purchasing power of Greeks is the second lowest in the European Union, with only Bulgaria behind us. This is part of policies of this neoliberal government, of the right that works for the few and the powerful, not the many and the most vulnerable.

If Bulgaria is the only country in Europe which actually falls behind Greece in terms of purchasing power, perhaps this should open up a field for cross-border left-wing co-operation? 

It is one of our priorities. Unfortunately, the forces of the left are very weak in Bulgaria and in the whole area. A lot of young people are going out of the country. There are perspectives that the Balkans are going to lose about one third of their population as a combination of demographic crisis and migration. 

Nevertheless, we are trying to develop relations with the parties of the left, also with the social democratic parties. But the problem is the political system in the Balkans is very weak, very open to corruption and with a strong legitimacy problem. So even if we decided that broad alliances would be our strategy, it is not easy to apply this into practice in our neighbourhood context. We do not give up, though. We are present in the European Left party, and Alexis Tsipras is also an observer to the summit of the Social Democrats, trying to become this kind of bridge between two branches of our own political family.

And how do you see perspectives for regional cooperation if you come to power again?

One of the policies we were promoting was to have trilateral or bilateral meetings with all the countries of the area, trying to develop common economic projects. Something we had started, and the new government did not continue, was an effort to bring together the countries of Central Europe and the countries of the Balkans. We proposed a format that united four Balkan states and four Visegrad countries.

Although we had important differences, ideological, especially regarding migration with Poland, we have other points in common: an effort to have a common agricultural policy as well as an effort to balance the force of the biggest states in Europe, like Germany and France.

In diplomacy, we must take into account the long- term interests of the countries that would not change no matter who is in power at the moment. That’s why, although, as I said before, we have had a lot of political differences with the Visegrad countries, we believe that we still should work with them on the long-term issues. Here we have a lot of common interests.

In the end I would ask you for a message to Polish people concerning migration. Polish citizens are now welcoming Ukrainian refugees, also in their own homes. However, a lot of my compatriots are actually afraid of accepting people from Afghanistan or Syria that come through the Belarusian border. It is of course caused by right-wing propaganda that tells us that the newcomers would destroy Polish traditions and society. You come from a country that is actually trying to integrate the migrants, being considerably smaller than Poland. What could we learn from you?

First of all, remember the time that you have been a migrant. It is not patronizing, as I am saying the same to Greek people too. But even in Greece there was a time when we had a lot of Polish workers, hard-working people that came in during the nineties. Then, of course, the situation became much better in Poland and they went back. We must open our arms to everybody that is in a difficult situation and we should not be afraid of people that are fleeing disasters or even poverty.

The experience shows that when we are open to the newcomers, we do not make them marginalized, they integrate quickly within our societies. It is basically focusing on people’s religion and skin colour that makes them feel different and marginalized. It is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that they cannot be part of our own society. 

We have a very good example of integration of people of different religions. We have about 1 million Albanians in Greece, a country of about 11 million citizens, so about 10% of our population. They came after the fall of socialist system in Albania, some of them returned to their homeland, others did not. Their children are now going to schools in Greece. And it is not easy to distinguish the second generation Albanian Greeks from, let’s say, “Greek Greeks”. This is how integration and open-arms policy might work. 

Cover photo: Greek Red Cross workers helping an Afghan refugee near Mytilene, 2013. Source.

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