Last year, the attempt of Greece’s newly elected radical-left government to resist austerity policies imposed by the European Union institutions and the International Monetary Fund put the country at the center of world attention. This battle was definitively lost when Alexis Tsipras capitulated in July to the demands of the creditors, signing up to a third memorandum only days after a referendum in which Greeks had rejected a softer EU proposed austerity package.
Since that moment, the plight of Greek society has only deepened. But it is now a silent suffering, deprived of the expectation of change and hope that had fueled the mobilizations of recent years.
But 2016 again made Greece headline news, this time for a different reason. The laboratory of neoliberal shock therapy is also Europe’s entrance gate for the millions of people leaving countries devastated by war and poverty.
The refugee crisis has illuminated how “Fortress Europe” acts as the complementary side of a neoliberal, deeply antidemocratic, and authoritarian “European integration.” It has killed the hopes of a left which believed it was possible to break from neoliberalism within the framework of the EU, as “European values” became an alibi for the display of imperialist violence and hypocrisy.
The Mediterranean’s role as the graveyard of Fortress Europe — and southern Europe’s role as its guards — is not new. The “externalization” of the EU border started in the early 1990s and acts as the indispensable supplement to the “free movement of capital, goods, and people” inside the EU — with the movement of “people” always posing the most problems.
Concretely, externalization means the militarization of the border, with the support of increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance; and the transformation of the external and the internal periphery of the EU into a vast “buffer zone” which acts as a lethal barrier, a filter, and a prison for all those lives excluded from the full humanity of the white, European, Western citizenry.
According to the available figures, between 15,000 and 17,000 people died in the Mediterranean between the late 1980s and 2012, before the recent exodus from the Greater Middle Eastern area. More than 10,000 have died since, 2015 being the peak year with 3,800 deaths.
This dark side of the “European project” has been so far the least visible and debated one, except for those networks of courageous activists and researchers who have been working on the situation of migrants. The “refugee crisis” — a term which assumes that migrants and refugees pose an inherent threat to order — has at least the merit of politicizing the European project and putting it at the center of public debate. This has been the case in Greece, which found itself, once again, at the frontline of a battle of much wider proportions.
Seen from Greece, the “refugee crisis” reveals in the most brutal way the nature of the European Union as an entity for the surveillance, the policing, and the hierarchical categorization of the population. At the same time, it uncovers another dimension of an allegedly “left government” which, following its shameful surrender to the blackmail of the EU and the IMF, has aligned itself at all levels with the dominant logic of “crisis management.”
This is one of the main lessons to be drawn from Syriza’s disastrous failure. The idea that it is possible to remain faithful to “left values” on the terrain of human rights while making “painful but unavoidable concessions” on economic policy is an illusion.
The 2015 battle against the troika and the austerity memoranda was lost but the war is far from over. Social resistance exists, emerging on occasions like the February 4 general strike. One of the most positive signs of the recent period has been the capacity of Greek society to react positively, in its majority, when faced with the massive arrival of refugees and migrants. What prevailed were feelings of empathy and humanity, the kind of solidarity that only the oppressed and the humiliated are capable of when they display their own ability to resist.
The refugee crisis has become a terrain for this ongoing political confrontation, one in which social organizations and the militant left have shown their own capacity to intervene and keep in touch with broader sectors of Greek society.
To analyze the multiple dimensions of this phase we have interviewed two of the most well-known figures of the antiracist and pro-migrant movement in Greece.
Mania Barsefski has been a member of the Network for Social and Political Rights, a historical organization of the Left focused on migrant rights, human rights, and antiracism, since its creation in 1994. She is now working for the Network for Social Support of Migrants and Refugees, which was founded in 1995 and is affiliated to the Network for Social and Political Rights. She was a member of Syriza’s central committee and a member of its rights commission. She left Syriza in the summer of 2015 and has joined Popular Unity, taking over its rights commission.
Thanassis Kourkoulas is the coordinator of the Deport Racism! organization and a member of the Workers Internationalist Left (DEA), a former founding component of Syriza and of its Left Platform, now part of Popular Unity. He is also a member of Popular Unity’s rights commission.
They are interviewed by Stathis Kouvelakis, who formerly served on Syriza’s central committee and teaches political theory at King’s College in London, and Angelos Kontogiannis-Mandros who is a graduate student studying Greek social movements at King’s College London.