100,000 reasons why the EU is broken (whether Britain is In or Out)
Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th February, 2016)
Victoria Square, which took its name from the British Queen who handed Greece back its Ionian islands, was once a haven of middle-class tranquillity, filled with shops and cafes in the heart of Athens.
Today it is a squalid repository of human misery. As I stood there on Friday night, it was easy to see why the European Union stands on the edge of devastation, its dreams of unity being dashed by the day.
This iconic place is a short stroll from the city centre, with its famous classical sites symbolising the birthplace of democracy. Yet any tourists heading there might be shocked.
For hundreds of bewildered migrants from Asia and North Africa sprawl across the square. They are huddled on blankets, clustered on benches and bedded down in makeshift camps under trees.
This creeping army fleeing war and poverty in such huge numbers is striking fear across Europe.
For bumbling bureaucrats in Brussels and a generation of bickering politicians seem incapable of responding to the Continent’s biggest crisis since the Second World War. The result is that this weekend it is reaching crunch point.
And this is disturbing as our nation debates its place in Europe – for those scenes confronting me in Athens will sway many voters, fearful some will end up in Britain.
Hundreds more immigrants arrive here daily, their hearts set on reaching Germany – but most cannot leave. Greece’s frustrated neighbours have blocked borders to stop them reaching the rest of Europe, trying to bottle up a Continent’s problem in a bankrupt nation. This response is potentially explosive.
More than 100,000 refugees and migrants have already arrived in Greece in 2016 – three times the levels of last year. They are greeted by a mixture of incompetence, inhumanity and indifference.
Take 50-year-old Algerian Abdel Kader. ‘I bought a ferry ticket and was waved through,’ he told me. ‘Maybe I look like a European.’
Thus a middle-aged man from Algiers exposed the still-shambolic nature of attempts to control traffic by fingerprinting entrants so the rest of Europe knows where they arrived. What was his plan? ‘I am a truck driver. I want to drive trucks in Europe and make more money. I will go anywhere – to Germany, then to France, Belgium, even Britain.’
Europe will always be a draw for those from poorer countries – with many attracted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance. Last week 7,300 refugees and migrants from the islands landed in two days in Piraeus Port; then another 2,000 the next day before officials ordered a temporary halt to the human shipments.
Thousands more are on Greek islands. Meanwhile, 6,000 are stranded in the north of the country, with temporary camps being built after Macedonia closed borders to all except Syrians and Iraqis.
These refugees from conflict comprise about half of those entering Greece – but aid workers told me of rumours even these people may be barred at borders this week. They fear a major humanitarian crisis emerging in the heart of Europe.
This might feel like distant news for Britons – for now the front line of the crisis confronting Europe is found in places such as that filthy square. I met Afghans, Algerians, Iranians and Pakistanis turned back from the borders. Two distraught Pakistani men tried to hang themselves there on Thursday.
Some had just arrived, fresh from the perilous crossing from Turkey. I watched the latest party of 25 baffled Afghans enter the square; pitifully small children clutched their parents’ hands, exhausted infants slept on shoulders.
Who knows where they will end up. Many told me they will keep trying to cross borders to reach Germany; some had already been turned back four times. I suspect swathes will get through, regardless of the defences. Yet it is too easy to criticise Greece for its shambolic response. This is a country with crippling austerity imposed and Europe’s highest level of unemployment as it clings to the euro.
Now the EU is essentially telling Greece to sort the problem, offering cash to salve the pain. But this is unrealistic – as is vague talk of renewed efforts to redistribute people across Europe.
And it’s not just Greece. Merkel is also under pressure after Germany accepted 1.1 million arrivals last year. She faces regional elections next month, with confidence in her declining and a Right-wing populist party rising in polls.
‘Merkel is desperate,’ said one diplomatic source. ‘But the EU must find a way to manage this crisis so we protect the refugees fleeing war instead of letting in people who want to become a little wealthier.’
Yet as Nato steps in, Europe simply seems more divided – and every day this crisis festers, its inability to find solutions makes it harder to argue the case for membership.
Standing in that Athenian square, seeing that mass of hapless humanity seeking new lives, the EU seems crippled. Whether Britain votes to stay or go, it is going to have to change fundamentally if it is to survive.