Κυριακή, 31 Ιανουαρίου 2016

Threat of Schengen expulsion a new EU humiliation for Greeks


29/1/2016

By Kerin Hope in Athens

Six months after Greece narrowly avoided a disorderly exit from the euro, a new threat looms that many in Athens see as equally damaging: being summarily ejected from Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.

Brussels this week gave the faltering administration of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras three months to take control of Greece’s maritime border with Turkey, set up reliable identity checks for refugees and other migrants and provide medium-term shelter for up to 50,000 arrivals.

If the Syriza-led government is unable to meet the deadline, Greeks will lose access to a coveted privilege of EU membership: seamless travel across most European borders with the wave of a national identity card.

It is a worrying prospect for a nation grown accustomed to frequent travelling within Europe, with tens of thousands of young Greeks studying in Europe’s core capitals and increasing numbers migrating to find jobs as the crisis shrinks opportunities for working at home.

Leaving Schengen would be “disastrous”, said Kostis Michalos, who travels frequently to Brussels and other European cities in his role as deputy chairman of the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

“It would mark the beginning of the end of our eurozone identity,” said Mr Michalos.

“It’s the political connotation even more than the possible inconvenience: you’re losing freedom of movement and that’s a big loss.”

With no land border with another Schengen member-state Greeks already feel they live at some distance from their partners. Athenians who grew up before the country joined the passport-free area in 2000, for example, still describe a trip to Paris or Rome as “going to Europe”.

“Leaving Schengen in my view would be the biggest humiliation of the crisis . . . We’d be aware of our second-class status in Europe every time we stood in an airport [immigration] queue,” said Antonis Kamaras, a UK-educated political commentator.

“Having to face questions from immigration officials about how much money you have and how long you wanted to stay — that’s not something I want to go back to,” Mr Kamaras said.

Many Greeks already chafe at living in a so-called “debt colony” in which economic policymaking is tightly supervised by Brussels and the International Monetary Fund as the country struggles to emerge from a grinding seven-year recession.

A feeling of isolation from a “normal” eurozone lifestyle has intensified as the crisis persists, forcing cash-strapped middle class families to forgo educational tours of historic European cities or a quick trip to Spain or Germany to attend a big football match that were once common.

“My parents took me and my sister around the big European capitals in the late 1970s when Greece was negotiating membership of the [then] European Economic Community,” said Alkis Evgenidis, a civil engineer. “I really regret I can’t afford to do it for my own kids.”

Yet younger Athenians seem less concerned with the blow that a Schengen exit would deal to Greek pride and more worried about the practical consequences.

Having grown accustomed to working in western Europe because of the country’s high jobless rate, they worry that they will face rising barriers to employment if Greece is outside Schengen.

“The crisis has made people like me itinerant workers in the Schengen area . . . What happens if things tighten further? Will we be able to get jobs?” said Stefanos Stefanou, a chef.

Businesspeople fear that the threat hanging over Greece’s status in Schengen could reignite the euro crisis.

“We’re concerned that a potential suspension of the Schengen zone for Greece would be interpreted as a negative signal to investors,” said Alexis Pantazis, co-founder of Hellas Direct, an online vehicle insurer.

“The Grexit discussion over the summer caused a lot of fatigue. A possible reintroduction of the debate could lead to a further deterioration in investment sentiment,” Mr Pantazis said.

Ioannis Mouzalas, the plain-speaking minister for migration and a former aid worker with the Doctors of the World organisation, admitted on Friday he is “worried” about meeting the EU deadline.

“We have to get all the hotspots up and running as soon as possible, that’s the key,” Mr Mouzalas told Greece’s Mega television, referring to the EU-mandated centres for identifying and processing new arrivals.

Only one of five agreed “hotspots” is operating. It is on Lesvos, the largest island in the east Aegean where more than half the refugees are usually landed after a perilous journey from Turkey.

Greece has infuriated EU officials by missing successive deadlines for launching the hotspots. Migration ministry officials ascribe the delays to problems of co-ordinating with local mayors on the islands of Samos, Leros, Chios and Kos charged with finding sites for hotspots and working with other government bodies to set them up.

One migration official said: “You have four different ministries giving instructions, while local officials do their best to manage an unprecedented humanitarian crisis with a distressing number of casualties from drownings. It’s not an easy situation.”

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