Genealogy of a Crisis: Europe, Greece, and the Management of the Refugee Population

By Helen Makkas
2016, Vol. 8 No. 07 | pg. 1/2 |


As Europe’s frontier with the Muslim East, Greece has been cast as backward, and not worthy of full sovereignty since the earliest years of its independence from the Ottoman empire. Greece's contradictory position as guardian of the origins of European civilization, and now of Fortress Europe on the one hand, and as pariah on the other, informs the tension between Greece and the EU that unfolds in the management of the current refugee crisis.The designation and self-perception of Greece as a pariah state combined with the exposure of the hypocrisy of EU rights discourse produces a violent nationalism that lashes out on migrant and refugee populations. The fact that the EU is so much at the service of capital, often embodied by financial institutions like the IMF, makes the undermining of national sovereignty inescapable, thereby fostering the kind of extreme nationalism that the EU is supposed to prevent.

The current refugee crisis has been portrayed as a crisis for Europe's identity, security and economy. Yet, essentialist notions of national and European identity and the conviction that refugee populations threaten the security and wellbeing of Europeans underpin the very forms of exclusionary violence that manifest in EU migration policy. As self-explanatory as it might be, it is often neglected by mainstream European media that the refugee crisis is a crisis for refugees and ultimately a product of the contradictions that underlie the EU's immigration policy—the most transparent being the blame game and power plays of member-states regarding the management of refugees, amidst the rhetoric of European “union.”

This humanitarian crisis is especially acute on the Greek border since Greece has become the main point of entry into Europe in the midst of an uncontrollable debt crisis that has led to the rise of the anti-immigrant party, Golden Dawn. In 2016, Greece surpassed Italy as the number one European recipient of maritime migrants and refugees.1 In only the first month of 2016, 284 refugees drowned on their journey to Greece.2

Time and time again, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), national and international NGOs, the European Commission and other EU institutions, have attributed the humanitarian crisis in Greece to failures in the asylum bureaucracy, the inefficient and fraudulent allocation and absorption of EU funds, and the lack of resources and unprofessional staff at the Coast Guard and the asylum service. I will show how 'corruption' does not suffice to explain Greece's mismanagement of the refugee crisis that has been ascribed to some innate inadequacy of the Greek state. Instead, in a genealogical fashion, I suggest that Greece's historical position and relation to Europe underpins the contradictory policies and tactics that produce the refugee crisis.

The genealogical method has been used by Nietzsche and Foucault as a means of disrupting narratives of continuity with their assumption of immobile identities and absolute truths that precede all historical events. A Nietzschean genealogy, that is to say, a historicized and anti-metaphysical genealogy, attempts to debunk essentialist explanations of the present by exposing that “the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin but the dissension of other things.”3 Genealogy “fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself,” and in doing so, reveals effaced histories that inform present tensions.4

Syrian refugees in Greece


Syrian refugees in Greece. Photo: Freedom House/Getty.

In part I of this paper, I will discuss the ways in which Greece has long been performing the double role of being Europe's guard and pariah, and how today, the contradictions that arise from this relationship play out in the refugee crisis. In part II, I will use Arendt's theory of totalitarianism to show how the resurgence of fascism in Europe is connected to the undermining of national sovereignty by 'outside' forces. The strong presence of fascist groups and political parties in frontline countries like Greece exacerbate the refugee crisis. The designation and self-perception of Greece as a pariah state combined with the exposure of the hypocrisy of EU rights discourse produces a violent nationalism that lashes out on migrant and refugee populations. The fact that the EU is so much at the service of capital, often embodied by financial institutions like the IMF, makes the undermining of national sovereignty inescapable, thereby fostering the kind of extreme nationalism that the EU is supposed to prevent.

Part I. Greece's Position in Europe

Modernity Claims Greece

Geopolitical and economic interest shaped modern national borders. Edward Said maintains that mythical entities like Europe, the West and the Orient are “ideological confections whose contents and borders are shaped by conflicting state interests and nationalisms.”5 The Eastern Question (19th-20th c.), namely the question of how to maintain the balance of competitive European powers should the Ottoman empire collapse, brought about a series of European interventions in the Balkans with the intent to reap economic gains. Britain and Russia were interested in having Greece break off from the Ottoman empire because of Greece's geopolitical importance that would allow access to foreign markets and the route to India via the Mediterranean.6 From the moment of this recognition onward, Greece became an object of strategic importance for the European core.

Before the mid 1800s, there was no clear sense of what it meant to be Greek. Greek speaking Ottoman subjects anchored their identity in Christian orthodoxy rather than national identity.7 Constructing a national identity involves constructing the 'Other' and this process requires a certain manipulation and remaking of history. Parts of history need to fade so as to sustain the myth of an essential nationhood, and this was precisely the case with the construction of modern Greek identity.

In addition to Greece's geographically strategic position, its ancient epistemic tradition was understood as being essentially European. In his book Black Athena, Martin Bernal suggests that there are two competing models of Ancient Greek history: the Ancient model, which claims Ancient Greece to be Levantine, on the periphery of Egyptian and Semitic culture, and the Aryan model which views Greece as essentially European or Aryan.8 The latter model developed during the 18th century and subsequently dominated Western historiography.

The architects of the Aryan model, the 18th century neoclassicists, who eclipsed the Ancient model, believed themselves to be 'scientific', despite the fact that the 'scientific' historians of the 19th and 20th centuries had been unable to provide proof for their historical laws.9 It was precisely this scientistic righteousness combined with the increasing racism that permeated modern academia that contributed tothe fabrication of Ancient Greece.”10 Thereafter, Ancient Greece became “Europe's pure childhood,” cleansed of any notions of African and Semitic impact on the culture.11

As Peter Park shows at length, this cultural and epistemic colonization was further perpetuated by philosophers like Kant and Hegel who developed the idea of 'Europe' by drawing a continuous line from Ancient Greece to modern Europe.12 This subsequent remolding of history entailed tuning out centuries of Greece as part of the Ottoman empire.

Greece was thus claimed by Europe geopolitically and epistemically so as to mobilize against the Ottoman empire. The campaign for the Greek nationalist movement, “the Philhellenes,” was instigated by European and Greek intelligentsia as well as Christian priests.13 The declaration of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman empire in 1821 was an explicit case of orientalist-colonial domination since the idea of Greece was defined in relation and opposition to the Muslim Turk: “The metaphoric interplay Civilization/Barbarism passes concretely into the signifying structure of the Greek/Ottoman conflict.”14 Islam thus became the original culprit and defining factor of the myth of the Greek nation.

Greece Fails to Claim Modernity

Greece's emancipation from Ottoman rule did not amount to political and economic sovereignty. European powers first installed a Bavarian prince to rule Greece under their supervision and proceeded to exert direct authority on Greece's political affairs for years to come. Greece's struggle to become modern and able to compete in the emerging markets manifested in a vicious cycle of over-borrowing and defaulting.15 In fact, Greek sovereignty to this day is subject to EU intervention embodied by the Troika austerity measures.16

Stathis Gourgouris contends that the Greek state has been “under surveillance,” because the Philhellenist project presupposed a modern Greece that is both a guardian of the 'origins' of European civilization and a state that is subjugated to the interests of European powers. In other words, “philhellenism treats the origin of modern Greeks both as symbolic capital and as a contemporary political investment.”17

In light of this, it is no surprise that Greece has been excluded from the very 'legacy' it has supposedly produced.18 Greece has been consistently subjected to Europe's orientalizing conjectures, as it is seen “as backward, bastardized, and corrupted by the influences of the East.” These allegations contribute to Greece's marginal status in relation to the European core.19 It is precisely Greece's partial exclusion from European modernity that makes these conjectures an orientalist practice, in so far as its own history is written outside of itself.20

The Ottoman period is conceived as the 'dark ages' for Greece and the cause of Greece's cultural and economic backwardness; the other's “interference” with Greece's political progress.21 The assumption that Greece is a “victim of belated identity,”22 is related to the fact that Greece's modern history only begins post-Ottoman empire. This assumption derives from the teleological narrative of progress that is a central dogma of modern European epistemology. The figure of the 'Turk' “rhetorically nudges Greece toward the periphery of Europe, as if Greece's history as part of the Islamic East undermines the country's claim to full membership in the European community.”23 The notion of 'progress' here, should be contested on the grounds that it is both totalizing and colonialist as it is constructed in reference to a primitive/backward other.

The alleged explanation for the decline of the Ottoman empire is clientelism, while in reality, the decline of the Ottoman empire had to do with European colonialism, as the precondition for the formation of a global capitalist economy which ultimately integrated the Ottoman and Persian empires into the world system as periphery.24 Nonetheless, the narrative says that the curse of Ottoman clientelism is passed onto Modern Greek society, “where it is then registered as a deep structural defect.”25 Invariably, nepotism and corruption dominate explanations as to why Greece is unable to become “a resolutely modern society.”26

Gourgouris rightly claims that these“obscurantist assumptions”27 are grounded in racist, Eurocentric notions of historical progress that regard capitalist development as the only road to the 'end of history' as Francis Fukuyama put it.28 Moreover, Wallerstein prompts us to recognize that while nepotism and corruption are attributed to the curse of underdevelopment associated with non-western societies, they are in fact an outcome of the capitalist mode of production.29

As mentioned in the introduction, corruption is a popular yet smokescreen explanation of Greece's failures in the management of the refugee crisis. Modern Greece was incorporated into the world system through the construction of a European genesis story that claimed Greece as its own. And yet, Greece was cut off from the legacy it produced. This condition of being both included and excluded from the European community informs the contradictions that arise in joint EU-Greek immigration policy.

The Desire for Rupture and Inclusion

From its inception as a western and modern nation till this day, Greece has been fulfilling the role of guarding Europe from Europe's ideological and political enemies. “By constructing and adopting the same 'others' or outgroups as the rest [of Europe], Greece ensures its membership into the EU club.”30 Joining the EU consolidated Greece's role as guard, restricting the entry of immigrants into the EU labor market.

Today, the notion that Greece is the guard of Fortress Europe against Islam is a contested aspect of Greek identity.31 For one, acknowledging that Greece was once part of an Islamic world would epistemically further detach Greece from the European core as well as complicate Greek nationalism precisely because the nationalist movement was based on the rejection of Ottomanism. National identity is always relational and oppositional to a fabricated, racial other that must be kept outside or at a distance. Hence, Muslim refugees appear as a threat because incorporating them would destabilize the Greek nation-state mythology.

While Greece continues to want to maintain the privileges that come with being part of the EU and on the side of the world's bourgeoisie, there has been a growing desire for rupture with Europe. This halfhearted/performative desire that became more pronounced after the Troika memorandum and more impassioned during the 2015 referendum, also involved the abandonment of any prior sense of political responsibility to Europe 'as protector,' with regards to the refugee crisis.

Leaving or being kicked out of the EU is not the matter under discussion here; my point is that the felt victimization and resentment entrenched in Greek society, have informed various political agendas regarding border patrol and asylum. This two-faced desire is what Gourgouris describes as the tendency of modern Hellenism to isolate itself, as it is neither part of the West nor part of the East.32 The condition of 'not fitting in' anywhere leads to ethnocentrism, which in turn can bring about the rise of neo-nationalist hatred directed against refugee populations.

Greece fails Europe, but Europe also fails Greece

Greece has failed to fulfill the EU's conflicting policy goals of ensuring that Europe's borders are both secure and humanitarian.33 Time and time again, the EU has accused Greece of failing to control its border with Turkey and simultaneously penalized Greece for not abiding by the EU human-rights directives and infringing the non-refoulement principle.34 In 2008, Greece was threatened with getting kicked out of Schengen because it didn't abide by human-rights directives, and in 2015, Greece was threatened once again because it had not sealed its sea borders with Turkey.35

Despite the fact that during the years 2012-14 Greece pursued a harsh deterrence campaign by erecting a fence on the land border with Turkey and installing detention camps on the eastern Aegean islands wherein people were held in horrific conditions, the inflow of refugees did not abate, subsequently causing other politicians in EU member-states problems. In the recent Paris attacks (2015), Greece was blamed for letting an ISIS terrorist come into Europe through the island of Leros and has since been chastised for not properly utilizing border surveillance equipment, despite the fact that the suspect's passport was later found to be fake.36

EU suggestions that agencies such as FRONTEX, or the European coastguard, take over the Greek-Turkish sea border openly undermine Greek sovereignty.37 This in turn, ignites widespread reaction amongst nationalist Greeks and contributes to a conviction that the refugee crisis is not a Greek problem but a European one. This attitude has often turned into material acts of retaliation. For example, unofficial reports have stated that because of overcrowded camps, and simply the fact that there were too many refugees for Greece to process under Dublin II,38 many Greek authorities on the border would let people go without fingerprinting them.

“Without the infrastructure or economies to support [refugees] , hundreds of thousands of [refugees] found ways around the system, aiming to reach other EU states without being fingerprinted. And very often [Greece has] turned a blind eye to this, in order to take the pressure off the rest of their mountain of problems.”39

The shortcomings of the Greek Asylum procedure must also be understood in the broader context of the EU, and Greece's position on the margins of Europe. Heath Cabot confirms “when it comes to managing migration and asylum, Greece's moral and political marginality in Europe is inextricable from its position on Europe's land and sea borders.”40 Greece has been repeatedly finger-pointed for not abiding by the EU human-rights directives. European core states that were criticizing the Greek asylum system on humanitarian grounds were in turn criticized for their hypocrisy, since Europe had evaded responsibility for refugees by outsourcing the asylum process to Greece via the Dublin Regulation.

While groundbreaking complaints and reports, including the MSS case,41 have resulted in significant improvements regarding the asylum procedure, “such moral configurations” in the context of international human-rights law undermine and threaten national sovereignties.42 Undermining national sovereignty of course is not bad in itself; it does however bring about dangerous backlashes.

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