George Papandreu-Club de Madrid Q&A (part II): “I was also a refugee years ago”

WWhat should the EU do to tackle the migratory crisis?

The European Union needs to live up both to its capacity and to its principles. As the EU has been a peace project it now needs to use and develop its capacities to be able to adapt to new challenges, mitigate crises and even lead in humanizing a global society.

Only one – if a complex one – is the issue of refugees and migration in general. As for its principles, the EU has served open, democratic societies, a fight for human rights and social cohesion. We need to assess and approach the refugee issue through this perspective. One that takes into account how we implement these principles both for the refugees reaching our shores and for our own societies whose resilience is being tested. Certainly more robust growth policies in the EU would allow our societies to cope with integration of newcomers much more effectively. It is therefore most important to address the crisis in a comprehensive, realistic and humane way. 

The difficulties of adapting to new challenges in our globalizing society have become a source of insecurity in Europe. Such are the pressures on the middle class, and our social welfare system, the divisions between those that thrive in a global economy and those that are marginalized such as the unemployed or pensioners. The refugee issue has compounded this insecurity. And populist politicians have exploited and fueled these fears. Promoting an extreme nationalism, bigotry and racism. Pushing for isolationist solutions at a time where we need more cooperation. This not only undermines our capacity to find viable solutions to the refugee exodus but it undermines the basic underpinnings or our European Union.

An unified EU policy is urgent. Confusion and contradictory statements or policies help no-one and create mixed reactions by the refugee communities. Certainly xenophobic sloganeering will only create more divisions and hatred. On the positive side the European Commission has a designated Commissioner responsible for Migration. Together with other Commissioners of related portfolios they are working on building a fair and sustainable common asylum policy. 

As the challenge we face is immediate it is urgent to implement a European Asylum System that will minimize bureaucratic procedures, will achieve greater convergence among member states, will provide fair treatment and protection of the asylum seekers, will pursue systematic cooperation with third countries and will promote a coherent plan for integration. The EU – Turkey agreement may have temporarily stemmed the flow of refugees but it cannot be a long term solution nor can it stand up to the test of international standards.

The above are important political-technical steps. However this issue is not so much a technical one as it is a highly political and adaptive issue. Therefore leaders, stakeholders and civil society need to think out of the box, boldly, of a very different narrative around the issue of refugees and migrants.

For example, a common asylum policy need be complemented by the creation of a European citizenship and passport. And I do not mean a greek, german or swedish citizenship, I propose an altogether unique european citizenship that could be obtained by citizens of third countries. With rights such as being able to vote in the city and nation of residency as well as the european elections. With responsibilities of attending a robust program of education and training for integration.

Going back to ancient Athens, a debate took place as to who could be an Athenian or indeed a greek or hellene. Could a migrant, a slave, a ‘barbarian’ become a Hellene? Isocrates, an intellectual of the time, pronounced that “Hellas (Greece) is no longer distinctive because of race but because of intellect. And the title of Hellene a badge of education rather than of common descent”. His was a very modern concept. We are Hellenes because of the values we share.

In a global society we are now challenged to nurture a set of basic common values.In this way Europe should be seen as a microcosm of the world to come, and needs to become a champion of the concept of a global citizen. One that has equal rights and responsibilities whatever his or her descent, wherever he or she may come from.  Imagining democratic participation transcending borders.

As a precursor – an example – to a world that needs to go beyond the confines of nations, identities, xenophobia, fundamentalisms, in order to avoid great catastrophes and tackle new and daunting challenges.


How can we create messages to counter the opinion that refugees pose a threat?

Many studies, including recent studies of the World Bank, the ILO and the OECD have shown that migrants have beneficial impacts on developed economies without undermining the native workers. Integrating refugees should be seen as an opportunity to make our societies more dynamic through diversity. 

Secondly, we should never confuse refugees with terrorism. Refugees are the victims who flee terror and persecution. In fact, like it or not, most terrorist attacks in Europe have been undertaken by Europeans and not refugees. 

We must view the issue from a different angle. We should realize that for instance the Syrians we accept in our societies, at least a significant number of them, will go back to their homeland once the war is over. They are by definition agents of change as they have not accepted the situation they were in.

They can and we should support them to become the architects, engineers and singers of a new and democratic Syria. By bringing them into our societies – at least temporarily – we should arm them with ideas, practices, creativity, that they can use in building a peaceful and tolerant Mid-East. So let us see that we in fact are part of this project, and it is for the benefit of all. 

I was also a refugee years ago. And I always remember how Olof Palme, who invited me to speak at his political rallies, presented me as a refugee from Sweden that was now working for building democracy in Greece! As so many others have done from other parts of the world.


What would you say to those who want to close their borders to immigration?

It is very simple. In our globalized world there is no way to be a protected isolated island. Walls will not solve the problem. If physical walls could alleviate desperation in the world they might have been a solution. But walls will not keep out the poor, the persecuted and the desperate. They can’t keep the desperate from seeking a better life.

Borders are a false solution, actually a fraudulent solution. Even when talking of security Admiral Stavrides in his recent TEDTALK states that his ‘thesis for today is, instead of building walls to create security we need to build bridges’.

I would add that walls are a bad substitute to tackling real problems - actually – breaking down existing walls. The walls between the wealthy and the rest, the 1% and the 99%, the walls between the free and the oppressed, the walls created by an environmental apartheid or those that have access to clean natural resources and those that suffer from unhealthy and inadequate access to basics such as water. So solving these problems would be actually building bridges not new walls.

Finally if we are to lead we need to fight against the walls created by fundamentalists, racists, ultra-nationalists. Walls in our minds. Each country, each society has its memories and historical experiences.Greece received millions of refugees traveling across the Aegean to our islands in the 1920’s after a war with Turkey. This helped positively in understanding and embracing refugees. We are a nation of migrants. 

But no country has been without similar experiences. We all have been or are in our histories migrants or refugees. We all are migrants in a globalizing world.

The refugee crisis therefore begs another question: what do we cherish from our traditions, what do we learn from them, what do we keep and what demons do we abandon. This is a process of adaption that challenges how we shape our identity for today’s circumstances while keeping the best of what we were. Leaders need to bring out the best of us all not the worst.