Der Spiegel reports: A rickety gate of galvanized wire is all that separates desperation from hope. The gate is part of the fence erected in the farming village of Idomeni on the border between Greece and Macedonia. At this moment, some 12,000 people are waiting for it to be opened.
It’s the gateway to Europe and the gateway to Germany.
A woman in boots and a blue uniform stands guard in front of the gate. Her name is Foteini Gagaridou and she is an official with the Greek border police — and she looks exhausted. All it would take for her to open the border would be to pull a thin metal pin out of the latch, but she’s not allowed to.
If it were up to her, she says, she would let every single one of these people pass through, just as they were able to do just a few weeks earlier — across the border to Macedonia and on through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to Austria, where they could continue their journey to Germany on what is known as the Balkan Route. It’s the same path chosen by hundreds of thousands of refugees last year, but the Balkan Route is now closed. It ends at Gagaridou’s wire gate.
This is where Fortress Europe begins, secured with razor wire and defended with tear gas. Desperate scenes played out here on Monday, reminiscent of those witnessed in Hungary back in September. A group of young men used a steel beam as a battering ram to break down the gate. Rocks flew through the air as the gate flew off its hinges, prompting the volleying of tear gas cartridges and stun grenades from the Macedonian side. Men could be seen running and children screaming. One woman lay on the ground with her daughter, crying.
This frontier has become Europe’s new southern border, with Greece serving as Europe’s waiting room — and the possible setting for a humanitarian disaster. Around 32,000 migrants are currently stranded in the country, a number that the Greek Interior Ministry says could quickly swell to 70,000. The aid organization Doctors Without Borders is even expecting 200,000 refugees. Greece’s reception camps are already full, and the highly indebted country is stretched well beyond its capacity.
The decision as to whether and how many refugees will be able to cross the border isn’t one for border guard Gagaridou to make. Rather, it will be taken by the Macedonian government. Macedonia, for its part, is pointing fingers at countries further to the north, noting it is they who have tightened their borders, especially Austria, which created a chain reaction of border closures last week. The countries apparently felt they could wait no longer for the broader European solution German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised will result from a special EU summit scheduled for March 7.
Merkel wants to see Turkey stem the flow of refugees and put a stop to the exodus to Europe. European leaders agreed on Feb. 18 that this plan remains the “priority.” But Austria and the Balkan states nevertheless moved ahead and closed their borders.
Idomeni has become a symbol of the current political chaos in Europe and the crumbling of a joint European refugee policy. The town is emblematic of the new Europe of fences. It is here that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open border policies have met their end. Under Austria’s leadership, the Balkan Route has been closed in the precise move Berlin had hoped to avoid.
Merkel has begun warning of the EU’s disintegration “into small states” that will be unable to compete in a globalized world, as well as of the possibility that border controls might soon be reintroduced all across Europe.
Were Europe in agreement, it would be unproblematic to accommodate 2-3 million refugees, given the Continent’s population of a half billion people. From such a perspective, the current spat actually seems somewhat ridiculous. But in the run up to next week’s EU summit, Europe is gripped by strife. Europe’s greatest achievement, the opening of its borders through the Schengen agreement, is at stake, and the increasingly toxic atmosphere between countries has reached alarming dimensions. [Continue reading…]