As Greece prepares to head to the polls for the third time this year, The WorldPost spoke with former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou about how the influx of refugees and the continuing austerity policies dictated by the country’s creditors will impact those elections. Papandreou was prime minister from 2009 to 2011.
In some sense, does the election make any difference? Greek economic policies have already been set by the newly negotiated bailout. Any party or coalition under Tsipras or the New Democracy already has its program set out then?
According to recent opinion polls, many voters are still undecided because they have the feeling that the next government will have very limited room for maneuver. This is also due to the fact that no party seems to be able to secure a comfortable majority. However, the biggest challenge for those participating in the new government will be to implement reforms included in the agreed program in the best way for Greek people’s interests. If you read the program carefully, you will see that there is a framework that can be implemented in different ways. I sincerely believe that Greek citizens will not tolerate a way of governance that will destroy all the sacrifices they have made since 2010 for exiting this crisis.
Or might the situation be worse -- austerity combined with the refugee crisis might give a stronger voice to xenophobic and demagogic parties like the Golden Dawn?
It all depends on how incentives for growth and handling of the refugee crisis will be managed by European institutions and decision makers. Both problems concern not only Greece but a number of EU member states. I am a member of the Global Leadership Council of a major international humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps. I work with that agency because in the past decade diplomatic efforts in the global institutional framework seem to have broken down. But people are suffering from this breakdown. Agencies like Mercy Corps and others are now the front line for dealing with failures of diplomacy. I follow this issue closely and have visited refugee camps many times in the broader region. The humanitarian work is essential.
But we should not be asking nongovernmental agencies to bear the burden of diplomatic failure. We need to find a framework to revitalize the global international governance mechanism.
The humanitarian consequences of the Syrian war are a ticking bomb. Unfortunately, if there is no coordinated comprehensive European policy, the worsening of the situation can strengthen xenophobic and populist rhetoric. We had similar results with austerity only policies. Mainstream parties being weakened and political discourse being captured by conspiracy theories, scapegoating and blame games.
What must other European states do to help Greece out of the burden of being the first port of entry for refugees?
An important step is to realize that the refugee problem is a common issue throughout the EU. Points of entry cannot cope when the numbers are big -- and closing the borders does not help. Dublin II was rightly criticized for putting a huge burden on the countries that are points of entry for refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Recent developments have shown that, as for the moment, there is a failure by the international community to find diplomatic solutions for major conflicts, and the waves of refugees are increasing. Only by sharing the burden can we avoid a catastrophe. Fresh thinking is needed in defining very quickly an efficient common European asylum system that will take into account the specific problems of both the refugees and the host countries.
In the next few weeks, many of the world's leaders will be joining together in New York for the beginning of the UN General Assembly. There could be no issue more challenging -- or more revealing -- than the Syrian crisis. For more than four years it has been obvious that this is the defining crisis of our time. If this crisis is not resolved, it will result in a humanitarian crisis greater than any since the end of WWII. This is exactly where we are. The increase in numbers of refugees seeking to enter the EU is finally bringing this crisis into forefront.
We must respond. We certainly need far more humanitarian assistance. UN humanitarian programs are dramatically underfunded. We must face up to the challenge and increase the willingness of donor countries -- all donor countries -- to increase funding. But we also need to recognize that humanitarian assistance is not the solution. We have to tackle the Syrian crisis head on. And, in this regard, I think we have a rare chance to work with Iran -- and others. Given the recent success by the Obama administration -- and great credit to U.S. Secretary Kerry and Iran -- there is a reasonable treaty between the U.S. and Iran on the nuclear issue. I hope we might all celebrate this accomplishment and use the momentum to address Syria -- and to finally end the fighting.
Humanitarian assistance is critically needed to save lives and stop the misery of real suffering human beings. But only a political solution in Syria will solve the problem. Without a political solution -- a global political solution -- in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe will continue without end.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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