At a meeting of Europe’s centre-left leaders on Saturday (12 March), François Hollande called for more effective controls on the EU’s external borders in order to protect the freedom of movement within the bloc. EurActiv France reports.
Paris hosted a meeting of 17 national leaders in Paris on 12 March, ahead of the upcoming European summit on the refugee crisis, which will be held in Brussels on Thursday and Friday this week (17 and 18 March).
Alexis Tsipras, whose country is on the front line of the refugee crisis, was also invited to the mini-summit of centre-left leaders, a first for the radical left Greek prime minister.
“Alexis Tsipras joined us,” Hollande confirmed. “I wanted this meeting of the left to be opened to others, and Tsipras was invited and accepted. He considers himself a member of this family of the European left,” he added.
But as a critic of French policy, particularly on social issues, the Greek leader chose to keep a certain distance from this European meeting. According to the official programme, Greece was only an “observer state” at the meeting, not a full “participant”.
Greece’s impossible position
But beyond his political affiliation, Tsipras’ presence at the meeting was largely down to the impossible position in which Greece finds itself since several other member states have closed their borders.
As the main point of entry for refugees into the European Union, Greece is now stuck with tens of thousands of refugees that cannot leave the country.
And the situation is not going to improve any time soon: according to the Greek Minister for Migration, Yiannis Mouzalas, between 50,000 and 70,000 people will be stuck in Greece by the end of March.
“We have to implement the refugee distribution plan,” Hollande said after the meeting. He stressed that France had committed to hosting 30,000 refugees over two years, as part of the EU’s plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers.
“If the external borders are protected, we will avoid having to reestablish the internal borders,” he added. “This is the position we will defend at the next European Council.”
The French president also hinted that the centre-left leaders would “work towards the agreement that is already on the table with Turkey”.
During a summit last Tuesday (8 March), Brussels and Ankara arrived at a highly controversial compromise, whereby the EU could turn back refugees that cross illegally from Turkey to the Greek islands in exchange for certain concessions, including visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens.
“We should not make any concessions on human rights or on the criteria for visa liberalisation,” the French president warned. He added that this agreement could even improve “transparency in EU-Turkey relations”.
Until now, these pre-council meetings have been attended by socialists, democrats and SDP members including Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel. So the invitation of a party often classed as the radical left may come as a surprise.
One year ago, a minister in Manuel Valls' French government had said, "Tsipras is like Mélenchon." But a lot has changed in a year. France wove a special relationship with the Greek leader during his attempts to resolve the Greek crisis last summer.
One episode in particular brought the two parties closer together. The French president managed to re-establish contact with the Greek prime minister in the early hours one weekend, and convince him not to abandon the process. Since then, the relationship has been more peaceful.
Tsipras has also smoothed things over with Gianni Pitella, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament.
- 17 and 18 March: European summit on the migration crisis, Brussels