Maximilian Popp

Border Lawlessness Greece's Slide Toward Authoritarianism

Maximilian Popp
A Commentary By Maximilian Popp
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis poses as a reformer. But his leadership methods are more reminiscent of an autocracy. It is time for the EU to do something about it.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis

Foto: Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP

Once again this summer, millions of Europeans were able to experience the pleasant side of Greece: the sun, the beaches and the hospitality. Greece is, with good reason, a favorite destination for holidaymakers in Europe.

Which perhaps helps explain why governments in other European capitals seem happy to overlook the more unpleasant aspects of their EU partner. The European Commission and various courts have long been focused on the erosion of democracy in Hungary and Poland. But thus far, nobody in Brussels, Berlin or Paris has seemed particularly concerned that Greece, under the leadership of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has also been increasingly drifting toward autocracy.

Mitsotakis poses as a liberal reformer who has improved his country's financial and economic prospects. But he isn't quite as fond of talking about the countless legal violations that Greek civil servants have committed on his watch.

Greek security forces at the border wall on the Evros River

Greek security forces at the border wall on the Evros River

Foto: Giannis Papanikos / AP

In migration policy, especially, the Greek government has essentially abrogated international and European law. In the last two years, Greek security personnel have intercepted thousands of refugees and violently forced them to return to Turkey. They have also used other migrants as slaves to assist in these illegal pushbacks. In other instances, Greek officials have towed asylum-seekers out to sea and abandoned them on unsafe inflatable rafts.

Almost never is a Greek official forced to answer for crimes committed on the country’s borders. What does frequently happen, by contrast, is that those who document such crimes come under intense pressure.

The NGO Josoor, for example, a group that has spent two-and-a-half years helping pushback victims, recently suspended operations after months of harassment by Greek agencies. Members of other aid groups have been persecuted as migrant smugglers. And DER SPIEGEL reporter Giorgos Christides has been vilified as a Turkish agent in pro-government Greek media outlets.

After DER SPIEGEL published a report last week about Greek officials declining to provide any assistance to a five-year-old Syrian girl who lay dying on an island in the Evros River, which demarcates part of the Turkish-Greek border, the government in Athens eschewed any self-criticism. Instead, they assailed Christides for allegedly using illegal methods to establish contact with the victim's parents. It is precisely this kind of guilt reversal that has become common practice in Athens.

Greece sees itself as the birthplace of democracy. Mitsotakis, however, has increasingly opted for methods most commonly employed by autocrats.

He and his people have transformed deceit into a central pillar of their leadership strategy. DER SPIEGEL and other media outlets have compiled extensive documentation of illegal pushbacks committed by Greece. The European anti-corruption agency has confirmed the veracity  of the reports. And yet the Greek government continues to shamelessly insist that it doesn't conduct pushbacks.

Brussels has tolerated Mitsotakis' anti-democratic course for far too long, sometimes even welcoming it.

In doing so, Athens has degraded the foundation upon which genuine democratic discourse takes place. On the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Greece is now in last place among EU member states. In a Reuters survey, only 7 percent of Greeks say that the media in their country is free.

At the same time, Greece has transformed into a surveillance state under Mitsotakis' leadership. Just recently, the Greek intelligence chief had to resign after it was revealed that a leading opposition politician and a journalist were under surveillance by state agencies. The extent to which Mitsotakis may have been personally involved in the incident has not yet been fully clarified.

It is primarily up to Greek voters themselves to put a stop to their country's slide toward authoritarianism. Elections are scheduled in the country for next year, at the latest, and Greeks will have an opportunity to decide what kind of country they want to live in and what their government's migration policy should look like.

But the EU also has a role to play. Brussels has tolerated Mitsotakis' anti-democratic course for far too long, sometimes even welcoming it. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen referred to Greece as "Europe's shield" during a 2020 visit to the Evros River. And EU member states are secretly overjoyed that Greek border guards turn back asylum-seekers, no matter what methods they employ.

When German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Athens in July, she called on her hosts to shed light on the pushback accusations. She sounded determined, but the call was rather hackneyed. After all, the facts of the matter have long been well established. If the EU takes its own norms seriously, it is now time to initiate infringement procedures against Greece.

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