Greece denounces Turkish ‘blackmail’ on border issues

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Greece cannot control its borders without the cooperation of its Turkish neighbour, Greek Minister for Citizen Protection Michalis Chrisochoidis told the European Parliament on Wednesday (25 April), denouncing France's lack of solidarity on the matter and Turkey's attempts at "blackmail".

Chrisochoidis, a Socialist, blasted French President Nicolas Sarkozy for threatening to shut down Greece from Europe's  Schengen passport-free travel zone because of difficulties in controlling its border with Turkey.

Addressing the Parliament's civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee (LIBE), Michalis Chrisochoidis described in dramatic terms the situation faced by Greece and accused France of a lack of solidarity which he said was motivated by electoral interests.

"Unilateral actions are unacceptable," he said, referring to the joint letter by the French and German interior ministers, calling for a a revamp of Schengen that would allow member states to re-establish border controls.

Greece is not specifically mentioned in the letter but Sarkozy has repeatedly called the Greek-Turkish border "a sieve" while French officials have called for a "wall" to be erected at the border to prevent illegal immigration flows.

"When Denmark announced its decision to reintroduce border controls [with Germany in 2011], everybody spoke of the 'worst day in Europe' and now because of the French elections and the rise of extreme right sentiments, Europe is coming back to these ideas," the minister said.

Sarkozy, who faces a difficult re-election, has vowed to pull his country out of the EU's border-free Schengen area unless the treaty rules are changed so that decisions can be made by nations and not "technocrats and courts".

Turkish 'blackmail'

Reacting to Sarkozy’s comments, Chrisochoidis complained that it was almost impossible for Greece to protect its national borders if Trukey doesn't show willingness to control its own.

"Turkey does not guard its borders," Chrisochoidis said, urging the EU's interior ministers to adopt a re-admission agreement with Turkey. However, he said that "some countries" had a "national interest in blocking this agreement," without naming them.

Turkey and the EU have completed the negotiations of a re-admission agreement, but its enforcement is stalled because Ankara is requesting a visa facilitation agreement in return, a step that few EU ministers are willing to take.

"Turkey has signed visa-free agreements with Algeria, and is now opening its borders to Somalia. It is using the readmission agreement to blackmail for the visa free regime," the Greek minister fumed.

Greece has signed a bilateral readmission agreement with Turkey in 2002, but Chrisochoidis accused Turkey of ignoring it. "We have sent 101,536 readmission applications and Turkey has only received 3,684 immigrants," he said.

'Closed centres' for immigrants

Chrisochoidis said the European Commission had agreed to fund the first of a series of thirty detention centres for illegal immigrants that Greece is planning to set up over the next two years. He said that the Commission was "positive" about buying equipped prefabricated buildings, as well as funding the renovation of 200 containers and covering the centre’s operational costs.

The centre in Amygdaleza, northwest of Athens, will be fully operational "within three or four days, certainly before the elections," Chrysochoidis said, referring to snap polls to be held on 6 May.

The Greek-Turkish border that spans 130 kilometres is safe except for an area of around 20 kilometres near Orestiada and the Turkish city of Edirne, at the place where the river Evros (its Greek name, known as Meriç in Turkish, Maritsa in Bulgarian) crosses the border.

Greek authorities recently expressed the wish to build a fence with EU money at this location. However, the EU Commission rejected the idea, considering that walls and fences were "temporary measures" for which the EU taxpayers' money should not be spent.

It remains unclear if cash-strapped Greece has the means to erect such a barrier. Recently the Commission said that the number of migrants crossing the Greek-Turkish border had decreased from 2,000 to 500 a week.

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