The Brief: Solidarity on trial in Lesvos

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter

Greece has suffered more than any other EU country during the turbulent last decade. While the Greek government’s mishandling was partly to blame for the eurozone’s turmoil, the country was rather the victim of the member states’ inaction during the refugee crisis.

Hundreds of volunteers, aid workers, the Italian army or the Hellenic coast guards, among others, fought every day to avoid the Mediterranean Sea turning into “the vast graveyard”, as Pope Francis warned.

Today, three Spanish firefighters and two Danes who went to Lesvos to save Syrians from drowning face trial on the Greek island. They are accused of smuggling refugees.

For Haris Petsikos, their lawyer, the accusation is “very vague and imprecise”. And, one could add, surreal.

Manuel Blanco, Quique Rodriguez and Julio Latorre were arrested in January 2016 by the same coast guards that requested their help on numerous occasions in the past, and who continued to call on them even after they were charged with being human traffickers. They were among the first to call because of their professionalism (they were specialist sea rescuers and trained under extreme circumstances).

The Greek authorities were aware of their activities and even assigned them a specific location for their work, as emails shown to the media proved.

But the authorities argued that the boats they saved in the early hours of 14 January had not been at risk.

The untold reason, they believe, is that Athens wanted to send a warning to NGOs that it was going to criminalise helping migrants.

As the influx of migrants increased at that time, the Syriza-led government and later the Italian executive pressured NGOs to stop their search and rescue work as they saw their activities as a pull factor for smugglers.

For NGOs, their work was the difference between life and death for thousands of people.

The UNHCR issued a cautious comment on the case in Lesvos and recalled that Greece has full responsibility to rescue in its waters. But a spokesperson commended the support that volunteers gave in late 2015 and early 2016, when the situation seemed out of control.

“Saving lives should continue to be a priority,” a UNHCR spokesperson told Euractiv today.

It was in that period when the Spanish firefighters left after seeing the image of the three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi on their screen. “I looked at my four-year-old son sitting on the sofa, and I thought about his parents’ despair when nobody helped them”, Blanco told El Pais.

EU law penalises human trafficking. But the European Commission recalled today that the so-called ‘Facilitators directive’ allows member states to exempt people whose “aim of the behaviour is to provide humanitarian assistance”.

The line between bringing someone ashore to save them and facilitating their entry may be blurry for strict law enforcement officials. But when lives of hopeless refugees are at stake, the options are minimal, at least for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ comrades in the European Parliament.

“Criminalising search and rescue is a crime in itself, since those volunteers do nothing more than fill the gap the member states are willingly widening and first and foremost those brave volunteers are serving a humanitarian imperative,” said MEP Cornelia Ernst (die Linke).

“Court cases like this one will only further humiliate the Noble Peace Prize of the EU”, she told this website.

For the Spanish Commission for Refugee Assistance, “today not only three firemen face trial but solidarity as a whole”.

Despite experiencing the worst period of its economic crisis, Tsipras rightly pointed out in the UN’s General Assembly in October 2015 how the Greeks were selflessly helping refugees.

His country is among the few member states that introduced the humanitarian exemption when they transposed the Facilitators directive into national law.

“We do not believe that the future of Europe can be built on ever higher walls, with children dying at our doorsteps,” Tsipras said at the UN.

A Greek judge in Lesvos will say whether that belief still stands.  

The Roundup

On his first anniversary in office, French President Emmanuel Macron gets his very own European celebration: He will be awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, the EU’s version of the Nobel Peace Prize, on May 10 for his vision to rebuild Europe. The recognition comes at a time where reforms by him are meeting widespread protests at home.

EU’s post-Brexit defence starting to take shape – with France at its centre, often in negotiations far from the Brussels spotlight and, in one top-level EU meeting, without the UK defence minister.

When it comes to pooling of debts in Europe and any common fiscal policy without national parliamentary controls, Chancellor Angela Merkel’ party allies cry: Nein!

After month of political deadlock, an election re-run is looming in Italy. Parties – still too far apart to find common ground in yet another round of consultations – got a “last chance” by Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

Turkish President Erdogan is flexing his muscles again and vows to launch new cross-border military operations like those in Syria as he sees a “new era” coming after snap polls on 24 June.

Greece, par contre, is showing some good will: the country sent home a Turkish citizen who ‘accidentally’ crossed the border.

An AFP photographer witnessed, how the Libyan coastguard prevented a rescue ship belonging to two NGOs from approaching a boat in distress carrying migrants.

Dealing with the refugee crisis has proved to be an insurmountable task for Europe – due to the apparent lack of a coherent immigration policy and political indecisiveness. In the French Apls, local residents are getting organised to help migrants with little help from the government.

Putting the social dimension on equal footing with the economy is crucial. MEPs have stepped up action to protect terminally ill workers across Europe, who face unfair treatment at work.

The healthcare systems of EU member states are under huge pressure to meet the growing demand for care and simultaneously support innovation in the sector. How can we create sustainable healthcare systems? Read our Special Report here.

As a reaction to the proposed 5% cut in cut in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding, France seeks an alliance with other agricultural countries.

A recent report claims that environmental labels for particularly for seafood, textiles and palm oil, have lost all credibility, slamming lack of transparency, oversights, and confusion.

Look out for…

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, together with Council President Donald Tusk, meeting with Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, for a working dinner in Brussels.

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