Thursday, September 6, 2018

Europe should consider cooperating with Russia on Syria's rebuilding.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called on Europe to financially contribute to the reconstruction of Syria to allow millions of refugees to return home.

"We need to strengthen the humanitarian effort in the Syrian conflict," he said ahead of a meeting with his German counterpart Angela Merkel.

"By that, I mean above all humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and help the regions where refugees living abroad can return to." (The Local.De)

However, such development is highly unlikely to happen, since Europe is not only in an ongoing political disagreement and conflict with Russia, but if it gives Putin what he wants, it will be endorsing the Assad regime in Syria. Plus of course it will appear that it bows to Putin's leadership.

Yet our continent needs to slightly rethink its position on Syria and Russia. We must start rebuilding the Middle Eastern country, primarily for humanitarian reasons. Not just Europe, but the whole global community have failed the Syrian people, sacrificing them at the altar of regional politics and the adjacent Western interests. Indifference and xenophobia did the rest.

In addition to the duty that we hold as a continent to stand for humanity's decency and well-being, we should be distancing ourselves from petty local rivalries and US meddling in the region. Sticking to our Euro-Atlantic alliance at all costs, especially since now America is shifting its focus away from the traditional relations between us, is not necessarily in our interests.

Unlike the US which is positioned further away, Syria and the Middle East are located right in Europe's neighbourhood. Any instability in this region affects us directly. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, our continent was forced to accept millions of Syrian refugees and the numbers will still rise, the longer this crisis continues.

Coupled with the aftermath of the economic downturn, the refugee emergency placed an additional strain among EU member states, on how to deal with this problem and how to accommodate such an influx of people.

This challenge created further divisions within Europe, with some states like Germany and Sweden responding very positively, while others like Poland and Hungary breaking the EU lines, by raising fences and refuse the block's migrant quota.

In the countries at the front-line of this crisis, the situation was increasingly becoming dire. While the rest of Europe was refusing to take refugees in, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain were expected to tackle the situation almost by themselves, with primarily financial support coming from Brussels; in a time that they were already struggling in the aftermath of the euro crisis.

But the situation cannot be solved by maintaining overcrowded refugee camps, with EU money; not in the long term. First of all some of them have become inhospitable, like the one on the Greek island of Lesbos at Moria.

Children as young as 10 years of age have been reportedly been attempting suicide, while the situation in this camp has been slowly descending into chaos, with totally unacceptable conditions for those trapped in it.

And while one could be quick to place all blame on the Greek authorities, what has the rest of Europe been doing, apart from financing these camps which should be functioning as the first stop towards Europe, not a permanent one. This is not Greece's problem, but a European one and we should be witnessing European “solidarity” when tackling it.

Additionally, even countries that previously were willing to help are turning increasingly xenophobic, as far-right or nationalist groups are gaining ground. The party of Sweden Democrats have made major gains in the country and if Sweden, a beacon of human rights and liberalism in the EU turns euro-sceptic then this is bad news for Europe overall.

Further to the South, Italy has already elected a populist government and we already see a U-turn on the country's stance on the issue and towards the EU. Together with Hungary, they have vowed to work together to pursue a new hard-line approach to migrants searching for a new life inside the European Union.

Italian Deputy Prime Matteo Salvini, who has ordered ports closed to most migrant arrivals by sea, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government built a border wall, cemented their political ties in talks in Milan recently, clearly becoming the two fiercest critics of the current European immigration policy. (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Considering all the above, Brussels should reconsider. Our priorities should lie with our humanitarian efforts and work on rebuilding the country, stabilizing it together with the whole region. The EU cannot allow this conflict to be perpetuated, just to satisfy America and its allies in the region that want Assad gone.

This war is offering no benefit to us whatsoever. We may agree that the Assad regime is not compatible with our values, but so is that of Saudi Arabia. I haven't seen any sanctions towards it at any time. Assad has proven that he is not Gaddafi and that Syria is not Libya, in the context that he is not standing on its own, like his Libyan counterpart; he has, either we like it or not, the support of Russia. 

We cannot engage in warfare with Syria, Iran and the Russians. Assad's regime is winning this war, his victory is almost entire and only in the region of Idlib the rebels are still holding on. Europe and the West must realize that Syria can only become stable again, with Assad sadly still in power of some sort. Unless we could work with the Russians and lobby them, to convince them to remove him into exile, leaving his country to heal its wounds with a new government.

Some will argue that he should end up in the Hague and perhaps he should. But it is unlikely that his Russian allies will allow this, as things stand. That is why Europe needs to move very cautiously and diplomatic, bending perhaps its staunch position on Putin, Russia and the Syrian war, at least temporarily. This is a civil war that has been raging for 7 years now and clearly there have been many crimes, committed from both sides.

However Assad's actions towards his own civilians that opposed him were made harsher, by the fate of Gaddafi and his regime; if you were Assad, wouldn’t you fight with all you got to avoid such fate? That is not an excuse for his actions; however it was expected of him. Perhaps those who wanted Gaddafi gone should have cared for a better fate for him and Libya itself, after his removal from power.

Europe’s interests for the immediate future should be with peace in the region, so that we won't have to deal with even more refugees for the long term. We cannot afford it economically, socially and obviously, politically. It is also morally the right thing to do, from a humanitarian point of view.

And although we might have our differences with Russia and Vladimir Putin, it will be wise to consider working closely; with his government or independently from it, if we find so hard to accept that we should cooperate in helping Syria’s efforts for reconstruction. Not for its government’s sake, but for its people and the greater good.

Unless we are willing to accept more immigrants or sanction permanent residency to the ones already here, we have no other choice . We won’t be able to send the over 1 million Syrian refugees that have entered Europe back, with an unstable, hostile Syrian regime; either this is Assad's or the rebels'. 

We are part of this conflict either we like it or not, by hosting-as we should- a great number of refugees from the war torn country. However our choices from now on are either to integrate the Syrians in Europe, while perpetuating the war by refusing to accept Assad's victory, or get involved to rebuilt the country and start the repatriation process. 

If we chose the second option, perhaps we could use as bargaining chip the pardoning those who will return. If these people have found refuge in Europe, but their families have joined the rebels' cause, I can't see them willing to return in a country in which Assad will no doubt try to tighten his grip in every aspect. 

Even if the rebels were victorious, they would probably do the same to Assad's supporters that fled into Europe. We could negotiate with the new government of Syria, with or without Assad, plus the Russians for a smoother transition in the process. 

Besides, we have another conflict right at our doorstep, that of Ukraine. It hasn't subsided at all, despite not being currently at the spotlight. There is a chance that by cooperating with our "enemy" on ending one conflict, we could learn working with them to achieve the termination of another.

Sanctions and Russia-bashing have not delivered any solutions, apart from badly affecting the Russian economy. However, Putin is not backing down on Ukraine or Syria and it is obvious that he is going to push all the way he can.

Europe’s response is to stick with America and keep the pressure, in order perhaps to force the Russians abandon Putin and his government’s meddling in those regions.

Yet they ignore that the Russian President enjoys high popularity in Russia, even among the country’s youth. For some, he is the only leader they have known. His long reign in the country has seen nearly a generation of young Russians, growing up under his rule.

According to them, his policies have restored Russia’s pride after the collapse of the USSR, while he saved the country from deepening disintegration and economic collapse. Many are happy about the way things are, plus they feel nostalgic towards their nation’s old “realm,” or sphere of influence.

When I was in Russia last March, some of the youths I have met confessed how they love to travel in former Soviet republics, to familiarize themselves with what used to be once part of their country.

So by applying constantly sanctions against Russia, to topple Putin or force him to comply, we may be doing more harm after all. If we hurt the Russian economy, we destroy this youth’s chances and opportunities, which will inevitably coil around Putin or someone just like him for many years to come.

Our hostility towards their leader might make them increasingly more anti-West and in the future keener in a stronger Russian influence in the region, as a reaction to our sanctions.

Yet both Europeans and the Russians need to realize that geopolitics keeps changing. The Soviet Union is gone and although some Russians would want to see their country back at its peak, many former USSR states have now turned towards Europe.

Instead of fighting over their allegiance, we must realize that they could act like a bridge between the two spheres of influence. However, both sides squabble over them, mainly because of NATO and the USA factor. With every new EU state entering the alliance, Russia finds itself increasingly closer to American missiles from its western front, but also from the east. That doesn’t go down very easily.

Consequently, Putin’s invasion of Georgia and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, were a mistake. However he was clearly trying to give a message to NATO and the West, that Russia is back in game and that if they continue invading or toppling governments in countries close to Russia, geographically or politically, that he had the right to do the same.

Personally I find the attitude of both sides outdated, as I am clearly not interested in belonging in any block, perpetually at war with its neighbours. I stand for dialogue and a “middle way,” even when it comes discussing with countries that we don’t agree with.

We have no problem trading our outsourcing jobs to China, despite them not being a liberal, fully democratic society. If we manage to establish a better relationship with Russia, maybe we could find a way around our differences.

The problem is, that it is Europe and the “West” that wants to cut Russia off from its affairs, reduce its energy reliance on them and lift another “iron curtain,” this time further to the East, engulfing many of the former Soviet states.

Something that Russia of course strongly opposes, as it will see its weakening role in Europe, politically and financially. They seem to be keen in being part of our continent, too bad that the EU does not reciprocate their intentions.

But we need to understand that holding on to grudges and Russo-phobia, only perpetuates bad relations between two neighbors. Either we like it or not, Russia is not going to go away and the further we expand to the East, the more borders we will share with the Russians.

Finally, if we want them out of our affairs for good, we better find a way to become more energy sufficient, plus help the countries that heavily rely still on Russian oil and gas. But why we insist on making enemies of them?

If Ukraine is allowed in the EU and NATO with its large Russian population, it will mean that we will have to accept all of them as EU citizens. Perhaps that is another factor that polarizes the situation, in both sides. There are currently about 7 million Russians in Ukraine, excluding the annexed Crimea region.

If Ukraine joins the EU and NATO in the near future, the ethnic Russian citizens of both blocks will outnumber those of countries like Ireland or all the Baltic nations combined. By constantly maintaining hostile relations with Russia, how will this population respond?

Unless of course Ukraine's integration into these institutions will be just another Turkey. Maintaining the prospect for decades in order to keep the country under Western influence, but never materializing it.

However if we look at Estonia and how it gradually changed its own stance towards its Russian minority, we could make Russians in Ukraine feel more at home; yet this additionally requires better EU-Russian relations.

To conclude, Putin's recent visit to Austria and Germany, signifies an interest from the Russian side for cooperation with Europe, even if it naturally aims mainly to promote his country's interests in our continent.

We should engage in this dialogue, making sure of course that we show a united front-not a fragmented one- when it comes in promoting ours. If we take pride in our motto "united in diversity," this is one of the times we will have to prove and stick to it.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Is Russia the West's scapegoat or the new superpower?
Ever since Donald Trump got elected in 2016 as the 45th President of the USA, there have been allegations about his connections with Moscow, plus the potential "meddling" of Russia in the US Presidential elections.

The same rumors circulated after the British EU membership referendum's outcome, which resulted in Brexit.

And of course, in every gain and advance of anti-establishment or populist parties throughout Europe, Russia and its President Vladimir Putin were accused of their financing or general interfering.

To make matters worse, Trump agreed to meet with Putin in Helsinki at a summit last week, causing a further outcry from his opponents back in America and throughout Europe. The two leaders are increasingly being seen as enemies of the West, liberalism, free trade, the EU or NATO and the current status quo or balance of power in the world.

Consequently, a summit between these two men sent shock-waves across both side of the Atlantic, especially after the announcement of a second meeting in the US. Many spoke of treason by President Trump, while others expressed anti-Russian sentiments, often portraying President Putin as the arch-enemy of Europe and the West, seeking to destroy it from within.

But let's put things into a perspective one minute. Since when has Europe become so defeatist? If Vladimir Putin has indeed such power to infiltrate and influence America itself from the inside, then we are acknowledging him to be the true "planetarch," the leader of this world.

We are also accepting America's and Europe's decline and submission to Russia, since all of the current problems we are facing can be attributed to its "meddling" and financing. If Russian "trolls" have so much power, that can infiltrate our societies and alter totally our perceptions, election results or influencing our ruling elites, then the West has lost the battle already, right?

But are we sure that our governments haven't already got their own "trolls" or agents to do the same to Russia or other regions of the world, or counterpart Russian propaganda and cyber warfare? As if the West hasn't influenced or meddled itself in the collapse of the USSR or Yugoslavia, the war in Libya, Iraq, now Syria and so on. We are not totally unprepared or unfamiliar with such threats, or style of hostilities.

The reality is that we are caught in an ongoing conflict. One that is about spheres of influence and of course the relevant resources. However the world is changing as it should have already, but many are resisting the new reality and they are trying to find excuses or the cause, in lieu of grasping the opportunity to prepare for a different future.

Instead of looking at the reasons why the voters are turning to people like Trump or any populist politician or party, our leaders are trying to scapegoat Russia and Vladimir Putin for everything. In order of course, to discredit these outsiders in our politics and perhaps turn the devotion of the voters, back towards the establishment parties.

Yet they have to understand that they are giving too much attention and power to the so called "enemies" of ours. If Vladimir Putin is indeed the worse threat that Europe is facing nowadays, then we are certainly giving him all that he wants, together with all the attention and credit, as the man who can defeat the West and destroy our continent.

Putin's Russia might indeed have certain interests in the weakening or altering of the EU and the Western world in its current form, but if it has gained the power to be the sole perpetrator then we should admit defeat and declare it the world's new superpower.

Maybe our ruling elites do not like the shift of power in our countries, which is after-all the result of decades of mistakes, negligence and corruption by their part and so now they seek to turn the tide again in their favor, by scapegoating the Russians; as they have done so many times before during the Cold War.

Perhaps if we want to find a more serious threat, we should start looking within our union and of course, to the other side of the Atlantic. Trump's recent stance towards Europe, shows clearly a shift in America's interests towards our continent and this cannot be blamed on Russia.

Donald Trump might be very bad news for the environment, our liberal societies, immigration, world trade and globalization in its current form. But he grabbed the opportunity to rule, because of  the mistakes that America's former governments have committed. He sticks to his electoral promises and pushes for a new world order, one that serves the interests of those who he represents. And no, these are not necessarily the ordinary Americans.

Now many in the US and Europe might not agree and fear the changes that are about to come, as they will either personally lose out, or they truly wish to maintain the current world status. Thus they are counter attacking with linking Trump to treason, espionage, Putin, or the Russian "trolls" and oligarchs. But Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin won't be always leaders of their nations, yet the damage that this stance will do to our continent will last longer than their service as presidents.

Those who promote this Russo-phobia, are contributing to the enfeebling image of Europe and America, while portraying it as one region of turmoil, crisis, weakness and lesser importance to the world. The beast fights harder when it knows is about to die, so maybe the West's obsessive hysteria with scapegoating and fighting foreign enemies, shows a deep insecurity, decline and weakness.

Instead, Europe should continue reaching out to the rest of the world, seeking bettering relations with other blocks and emerging nations and yes, even Russia. The best answer to those who want to undermine the EU-either from outside or within-would be to continuously work together as a group of nations, leading by example and engaging with all countries, friendly or not so.

Besides, Trump and Putin's plans for Europe could in fact turn out to be to our benefit. If they continue to pressure on, our continent might just be forced to come out of America's shadow even more united out of necessity, becoming itself a political power, not just a trade and financial one. We only have to start believing it ourselves.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Trump is making his intentions clear; the problem is how Europe will respond.

Ever since the US President Donald Trump got elected, Europe has been baffled on how to deal with his statements, tweets or new policies. 

There has been an increasing disbelief of his actions, followed often by a barrage of condemnation or statements by politicians from this side of the Atlantic, especially from EU officials.

The Trump administration started a trade war with Europe alongside China and Canada, two of which are the USA's oldest and closest partners. He repeatedly accused Europe of not paying much into the NATO budget, famously attacking the "free riding" members of the alliance, notably from Eastern Europe.

During his recent visit to Europe and before his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he even referred to Europe as a "foe" of America, on trade terms. Forgetting perhaps that he instigated this trade war, by imposing higher tariffs on European steel imports.

While he was visiting the United Kingdom, the British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that he advised her to sue the EU over Brexit, plus he intervened with internal British politics, by showing support for May's opponent, Boris Johnson. 

Most likely this was a very tactical threat to May in order to convince her to follow his instructions, as he pushed for a hard Brexit. He stated that a "soft" exit of the UK from the EU, could kill any future trade deals with the US. Clearly this is what his administration wants in order to continue their "special relationship" with the UK, but also it makes evident what are Trump's plans towards the EU, Europe and Britain itself.

In other words, if the UK wants out, America will only take it under its wing if it opts for a hard Brexit, thus cutting most ties with Europe. Something that is downright scary and many in the British society and leadership do not want. Perhaps Donald Trump is offering a road-map to Theresa May and her European counterparts, on how to proceed with this disaster and the terms, on which they would offer to Britain the much needed trade deal.

And while many Europeans or even Americans remain stunned in disbelief, accusing him of treason or of damaging the EU-US relations, he is doing exactly what he promised during his election campaign; he changes the game rules in global, American and Euro-Atlantic politics.

Are we still sure that Vladimir Putin is the greatest threat to our continent, or that he is the only one to be blamed for the new reality dawning on Europe?

Our problem now is not Donald Trump, but how will the continent adapt to this challenge. He is making his intentions crystal clear to European leaders and the rest of the world, he is very bold and he is pushing for a brand new world order. 

We could either passively accept what he plans to do, follow his example and become more protectionists like the USA, or stick to our interests and carve a new path for our continent, by creating new alliances, trade deals and a military union for our protection.

In fairness it is not all bad for Europe, if we play our cards right this could be very beneficial for us. We should not necessarily be afraid of a closer Trump-Putin cooperation, unless what they aim for is the division of Europe once again. If only the previous US-USSR leaders have met more often to talk, it could save us decades of cold war, hostilities and arms expenditures. 

The problem is that we don't exactly know what they have agreed during their two hour meeting in Helsinki, about Ukraine and ultimately about NATO, the EU or Europe and their future plans for expansion and deeper integration. But even if our worse fears become reality, we could still resist their plans by showing solidarity and proceeding with our own agenda of further unification. There is strength in unity and that could be Europe's biggest advantage. 

The eastern member states, could find the support they need against the "threat" from Russia in an ever closer union, if only of course both they and their western counterparts are able to agree on it. But it could prove hard to be weaned off American money and investments, for exchange of NATO missiles. The old EU nations have a different type of addiction to US support, yet it appears that it is all about to change.

President Trump showed his cards to us openly, he pushed for more contributions in the NATO budget by European member states, if Europe wants still America's protection. He is giving us a choice. Either we up our game and take more responsibilities, or it is time to grow up and proceed with our plans for a Euro-Army, relying at last on our own resources for our protection and foreign policy adoption. 

Naturally there are too many players that will lose out from his new direction of US policies. Notably the arms industry of the US and many other European nations, or our continent's governments that will be forced at last to either contribute more in the NATO budget, or allow the creation of a European Army.

In either scenario they will have to spend more money on defence and that does not go down too well. Hence all the current barrage of anti-Trump articles and hysteria.

We have got to understand that we are entering a new era of politics and status-quo in the globe. Our alliance with the US is being altered and although this may feel scary, it shouldn't necessarily be a disaster. America is looking its own interests first. Perhaps it is tired of being the policeman of this world and it is time to look after its own people.

Donald Trump is looking for better relations with Russia and so should we. His administration is focusing in new directions for investments and new partners, notably in Asia and Africa and this is also something that we should be doing. The recent trade agreements the EU has signed with China and Japan, or Canada some time ago, is a very encouraging sign that Europe is finally moving towards the right direction.

It may hurt that Europe is no longer the centre of American foreign policy's attention, but if we ever want to have a voice and play a bigger role in this world, we need to finally accept that we got to stand up, safeguard, promote and complete what we have already established; a common market, an integrated economy, an open society, a single currency and no borders.

Russia would be a fool to want to destroy such a rich and diverse market at its doorstep, which is also its bigger trade partner and importer of oil and gas. The US on the other hand would not risk destroying the Western alliance of countries that for decades has led, nurtured, defended and promoted. 

It is just time that we got our act together and start fending for ourselves. And Donald Trump, although in a tactless, arrogant and incomprehensible manner, he is pushing us towards that goal. The world is going to be a multi-polar one in the future-hopefully a more equal one- with many new players and blocks arising from the developing countries and regions.

Europe can only be relevant if it decides to unite and seek to promote its interests by itself. The new American administration under Trump, if it succeeds in its goal, could give our continent the motivation it was lacking all these years to complete its unification. 

Donald Trump maybe all that his opponents declare, an arrogant, ignorant politician, unfit for the role of the President of the United States. Or it could be a very bold man with a different vision, which he has trouble expressing it, communicating it or promoting it in a more acceptable and politically correct manner. 

However, he might become exactly what Europe needs in order to change and move on to the next phase in its history and political reality; that of a united Europe. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Reinstating border controls for security? Be careful what you wish for.

Many of us residing in the Western part of Europe, take a lot of things that our country's EU membership is offering us for granted.

Our generation does not remember border controls, visas, check-points and long queues at the borders.

We are used to jump on a car, plane, train, bus or caravan and drive through our continent effortlessly and hassle-free. We can literally visit one country and if we get bored, we can rent a car or get on a bus and go on a daily city break for a shopping spree across the border, to another town of a neighbouring country.

We forget that it wasn't always like this and that not everyone in Europe can enjoy such privilege. While I was traveling from Ireland to my native Greece this summer, I thought to make a stop over to Bulgaria and experience all that it has to offer.

After four days traveling through the country, me and my partner decided to leave the city of Plovdiv and head to my hometown of Thessaloniki in Greece.

I have totally forgotten that Bulgaria is still not a Schengen member state, but I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. We could only get to Greece through the check point of Promachonas, a small town in the Greek-Bulgarian borders.

Under the scorching heat, one could see long queues of cars, buses and trucks, all waiting to pass through the border controls. Drivers of cars had to show their passports at the check-points, while truck drivers had to pull aside, show their ID, vehicle registration and licence, while in addition they had to allow a search in their cargo, just in case they were hiding any illegal immigrants.

The same procedure applied for passenger and tourist buses. We had to drive aside and pull over, present our passports or ID to the Greek officers, while the non-EU passengers had to hand over their documents for inspection and to be stamped. Meanwhile the luggage compartment had to be opened, to be checked for any illegal migrants. 

All this took around 20-30 minutes, something that I was unaware that it still exists. As I am a frequent traveller within the Schengen Area, I am used to be reminded when I change countries by the sound of my mobile phone, welcoming me to the new country. Having to wait in a long queue to enter a country felt so alien.

One would think how these countries can experience the full benefits of EU membership, if they cannot enjoy free movement. In other parts of Europe, roads and railways have been fixed and modernized, because there is no need to check everyone that crosses through. Goods take shorter time to be delivered, while people can go shopping frequently and effortlessly across the border, boosting trade between the countries.

In the Balkans this is yet unimaginable. The roads and railways still need to be upgraded, but with so many restrictions this development lags behind. As result, the whole region loses out in tourism, trade and infrastructure modernization, hindering economic development, something that this region desperate needs.

And not just Bulgaria or Romania but Greece too, which has long been held back by keeping the Balkans outside the EU and countries such Bulgaria and Romania outside of the Schengen. Their application has been ongoing, and their accession postponed- or rather blocked, by the fear of other EU member states such as Finland, the Netherlands and Germany about the impact it could have on immigration.

Although Bulgaria and Romania have been working hard to meet the criteria, the refugee crisis and the rise of xenophobia in Europe has stopped them from joining the free movement area. As an excuse, the EU council members that opposed their accession claimed that there are corruption concerns and the ability of the Bulgarian or Romanian authorities to deal with the problem.

While partially their concerns are justified, they forget that the more a region remains poor, the easier it is for corruption to settle and prevail. The only way to tackle this issue is direct investments, rise of the living standards, education, economic stability and prosperity that will lead to the gradual abandonment of old ways and practices.

But for all the above to be achieved by these two countries, they need the support of the EU and to be treated as equal members, allowing them to access their full potential by becoming admitted to all of the block's agreements. We cannot let the internal social or political struggles and insecurities of other member states on immigration, to hold back the member states that need our support the most.

On our way back from Greece to Ireland, we flew through an EU member in another type of transitional crisis. We had to get two flights that were not interconnected from Thessaloniki to Dublin, via Manchester in the United Kingdom.

We carried two cabin and one dispatched bag that we had checked in at Thessaloniki airport. As we got few bottles of wine from Greece and since our flights were not interconnected, we decided to get out of the arrivals in Manchester, collect our bag then place the bottles in it, before dispatching it again with our flight to Dublin, pass again through security and get the plane home.

We have done this so many times before in our travels, since I am a Greek/EU citizen and my partner is Brazilian with a permanent visa for all EU member states, as he works and resides legally in Ireland and is married to an EU national. 

We have never been stopped, not even in Istanbul airport when we had to stay overnight in a hotel, nor during our trip from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a non-EU member. We have visited the United Kingdom two years ago and there was no problem with his passport or his visa, he has the right to travel in the country, with no restrictions. 

However, upon our arrival at Manchester airport, my partner went through the non-EU passport holder check-points, while I continued through the EU national ones. I collected our bag, but my partner was very late, and I started getting worried as we had a limited amount of time to catch our next flight.

The airport's security staff had decided or got the orders, not to allow any non-EU passengers coming from Greece traveling through the UK outside the arrivals. The excuse they gave him was that he had only about an hour until his next flight and so they escorted him until the gate.  

They forced him through a further two security checks in which they removed three of the bottles in his cabin bag he had bought from Greece, with a total loss of 25 euro. One would wonder why he had to go through security checks again, since he didn't leave the airport and he was checked at Thessaloniki airport. Especially since it was the security staff's decision to deny him entry.

All this time I was on the other side, trying to call him and reassure him that I would find him at the gates. I also tried to reach the passport control desks, in case I could explain the situation to the officers and allow me to get his bags.  

The security staff was so rude and obnoxious towards me, I was shocked. The first lady repeatedly asked me to leave, while I was trying to explain to her that I am looking for my partner that was held back and that I wanted to clarify what happened to him.

She just said, "no Sir you have to go". I stepped a few steps back and tried to call my partner to tell him that I had to go and I would see him on the other side, when a second even more obnoxious, security staff asked me once again to move on and get out the area. "Sir, I thought you were told to leave". Even though I was clearly not making any fuss, I was just on the phone trying to talk to my partner and explain to him that I cannot reach him at this point, he will have to do as he was told.

I left and went to check the bag in, went through security again in which I was myself scanned twice, before meeting my partner. He described how terrible the whole situation was and how horrible they treated people with no EU passports.

Before him there was a group of people from the USA, who were also refused entry in the UK, after only losing their flight back to their country. They were trying to reach the airline's desk, but the security staff were repeatedly telling them that they have to turn back. "Go back where", the passengers were asking, "our flight has departed!" The answer they got was "that is something that you and your airline will have to solve", before being escorted away like my partner.

Can anyone imagine the frustration of these individuals? Being on one flight, losing their next one to the USA and not be able to get out from the arrivals to find a representative of their airline and solve the problem. How could they solve it while remaining in the arrivals area, while most airlines have their customer care desks at the departure sector?

I have lodged a complaint with Manchester Airport, in which they advised me that the staff responsible were not airport employees, rather from the UK Border Agency, a government body. In other words, the country's recent policy was to deter any non-EU nationals from entering the UK briefly, unless their destination was their country.

It is all due to the country's recent stricter border controls policy, in order to manage immigration, especially from countries like Greece, which has been on the forefront of Europe's refugee crisis. One can understand that all this unnecessary hysteria, shows a lack of competence to deal with the issue, a national insecurity about immigrants or refugees and not only in the UK but the whole of the Western world.

A country like Britain that was so progressive in the past, has now turned so xenophobic that cannot allow a young man which has legally the right to visit the UK as a tourist visa free, to enter the country for some time while traveling from one EU member state to another.

What terrifies me the most is what will happen after Brexit is completed and the country leaves the EU for good. Will this be a actuality for all travellers, either EU or non-EU that are unfortunate enough to pass through Britain in transit? 

This is the reality of stricter border controls, that many of you desired and voted for. Either in the UK, or in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Poland, France, the Netherlands and so on. This is the face of more "security," of customs checks, border controls, end of visa free travel and stricter immigration rules.

I hope you are pleased with such outcome because if the Europe you want is one of stricter immigration controls, then this is how it looks like. Hopefully it will not be extended to all EU nationals later on.

We need to appreciate what we have and enjoy in our continent and perhaps ponder; is our fear of immigrants actually so important, that we are willing to lose one of our biggest benefits as EU citizens? That of the freedom of movement. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Greece - The Ancient Pioneer of Multiculturalism.
The rise of nationalism and xenophobia in Europe has been a reality for the past years. The economic crisis, coupled with an ongoing migrant and refugee plight, encouraged many Europeans to show their discontent towards their leaders’ policies, by voting for far-right/leftist political parties.

Countries like Austria, Italy, Holland, Germany, France and Finland have witnessed sharp gains of nationalist parties, while others like Spain faced regional nationalist organizations and autonomy movements.

The Visegrad group of Central Europe, had been united opposing the equal redistribution of the refugees and the EU's quota of migrants while in Greece, the Golden Dawn party is now the fourth most popular one, while it was only a minor party before the crisis began. Brexit is perhaps the most dramatic response to the increasing fear of immigrants. One of the oldest members of the EU has decided to leave, in fear of having to accept more immigration, both from within and outside Europe.

The overall picture does not look good, when the continent is trying to promote itself as a union or a commonwealth of nations who are working together for the betterment of all its members.

And most disturbing of all is that the rise of nationalism does not only threaten the very union and cohesion of the European Union, but it shows its ugly and brutal reality to the immigrant communities and other minorities in the EU.

Most of these nationalist, anti-EU groups' rhetoric, combined with an utter failure of the continent's governments to counteract it (if anything they promote it to divert the public’s anger towards foreigners), has transformed many European capitals into segregated communities, where tensions often rise.

We need to take a moment and think. Europe has faced numerous migration movements in the past, both from or towards its territory. The Greeks, which nowadays are conveniently reminded by the right-wing elements in their country about their impressive ancient history and the achievements of their nation, were the first to have to deal with a multiracial, multi-ethnic civilized society.

They surely forget the part of the Greek history, when their ancestors themselves have embraced cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. In fact, the first European race of people to promote multiculturalism were the Greeks.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great to the East and the establishment of the Greek Kingdoms from the Balkans to India, the mentality of the ancient Greeks started to dramatically change.

Young Greeks migrated and colonized these new lands, promoting the Greek language and culture throughout the Hellenistic states and being influenced by many different cultures, ethnicities and religions. It was then that a new kind of social philosophy started to emerge among the Greeks, called Stoicism.

Its roots can be traced back to the very Greek capital-Athens, which now is a battleground for nationalism versus more liberal ideas, just like any other European capital. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that was established in Athens by Zeno of Citium.

A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism. Stoicism postulates that all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love and readily help one another. A Greek Stoic called Epictetus commented on man's relationship with the world: "Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, whereof the city political is only a copy."

This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said: "I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world." The Stoics believed that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Instead, they advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings.

Even Alexander the Great himself, still a revered figure in Greek history, was trying to create an empire by mixing Greek and Asian elements of culture and of course the people. He married an Asian woman, Roxana and he encouraged all his officers to follow his example.

This is something that the Greek nationalists usually leave out, or conveniently forget when they preach hatred against foreigners, referencing the greatness of the Greek nation. In fact, not only do they not do any justice to it, but they are vilifying the very “greatness” that they preach.

Similarly, other nationalist parties across Europe only refer to a more one-sided story, leaving out inconvenient parts of their history. Recently archaeologists discovered Viking clothing with Islamic inscriptions, something that implies a certain level of cultural and perhaps even ethnic mingling between Nordic people and the Mediterranean.

If we take into consideration the colonial era of our continent, when Europeans traded, conquered colonized, enslaved and intermarried with the inhabitants from all other continents, then how can we now complain about globalization?

We started it, we are the ones largely responsible about the formation of the modern world. Our power struggles and cultural, religious and economic expansionism created most modern nations and not just in Europe.

Many countries in North and South America, Australasia, Africa and Asia, have been established after colonialism collapsed and they were the result of European influence. Our ideological struggles, caused two world wars, dividing the globe into two types of economic models, that all the way until the early '90s had significant influence around the planet.

Why are we surprised now that people around the world, still see Europe as a beacon of prosperity and opportunity? We cannot absorb all their numbers, but we could certainly start feeling a bit more comfortable with what we have created and promoted anywhere else; cosmopolitanism.

If Europe claims the heritage of Ancient Greece, it also needs to start admiring and studying its later days. When the Greeks before they succumbed to the Romans, begun themselves to philosophize their role and position among the human kind, giving rise to new ideologies and even religions like Christianity.

In addition, we need to start preparing for a multi-polar and more equal world. The more other regions remain poor, the more they will see migrating into Europe or the US as their only option for prosperity and the migrant flow will never stop.

To deal with it, we will have to leave protectionism behind and start walking at the footsteps of our ancestors, becoming pioneers of trade, globalists and citizens of the world. We were the ones to instigate a world with open borders and free movement, although in the past it was under our dominion.

This time we could go a step further, turning Europe into a continent at the forefront of human cultural, economic, ideological and political evolution, one that will work with others for the betterment of this world, rather remaining insecure behind closed borders.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Importance of Integrating Europe's Migrants.
Europe’s population is becoming increasingly diverse, while its capitals true melting pots of cultures and people.
And while we are discussing how to integrate the continent’s economies and population, we seem to forget that nowadays Europe is not a homogenous region. Apart from the indigenous ethnic minorities, many people from all over the world now call Europe “home”.
If we are planning to create a diverse multicultural society, we have to discuss how to integrate these people too; they may have arrived in our continent more recently, yet they know no other home country. We can only make a progress in their integration, when we discuss openly the issues they are facing and try to find solutions. One of the main ethnic groups that still face discrimination in Europe, are individuals of African origin.
Zephrynus “Zeph” Ikeh, the founder and CEO of Africa-Irish Development Initiative Ltd (AIDI) and Project Coordinator of Black History Month Ireland (BHMI), describes how young African immigrants are coping in Ireland.
He has been living in Ireland since 2008 and he is very involved in community work. He has a different opinion on the way people view the integration process. “We cannot speak about integration when people are not included,” he says. According to him, the essence of inclusion is for people to be involved and participate in all aspects of society’s life. “I do not see that happening in the mainstream Irish society, even within the immigrant community” he describes.
Integration for Zeph means equal opportunities in education and employment, social and economic inclusion. For African migrants, the support is definitely not always there. While those who have acquired a European nationality see themselves as EU citizens, they often do not have the same opportunities to feel like one.
A big problem is the lack of information, for EU citizens in general but especially for African migrants. There may be a lot of opportunities, but the access to the information needed to avail them is an issue for everybody.
If there were more immigrants working in government bodies, they could provide all information needed to the immigrant community” Zeph explains.
He also believes that to integrate people from different cultures there must be a creation of various platforms to encourage the integration process; in schools, in community participation projects, cultural events, intercultural festivals etc.
Zeph thinks that the EU must promote cultural diversity and that has to be extended to the immigrant communities. The club’s members are sovereign states but through the EU, Europe could collectively do more to support the integration process. For example, the media do not help much with the situation. “Often the images they use to portray immigrants or especially Africans are very stereotypical” explains Zeph. He also mentions the lack of positive role models of African or other migrant origins in European media.
In Italy a couple of years ago, there was an unacceptable incident when people racially abused the Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge. There was just not enough condemnation by Europe, or action taken to set up an example.
Many Africans perceived that as a very tolerant stance from European governments, regarding it as racism towards politicians of African origin on our continent. If these people got away with it, then others possibly will do it, too. “Does Europe think it is a club only for white people?” asks Zeph.
You got to understand that an immigrant is someone who has come to a place to settle, not leave after some years. A migrant is someone who has come to a place for a short time” he continues.
His opinion is that European countries treat both groups the same way and that has to be changed. Our governments must establish legislation to assist and promote the immigrants’ integration into our societies.
Bringing only Ireland as an example, Zeph thinks that the political spectrum is one very sided. “There is a stereotypical view of what is Irish or European,” he adds. But that is not only an Irish phenomenon, most EU countries struggle in integrating fully their immigrant communities. So potentially the key is a pan-European effort to eliminate discrimination.
Also, he suggests that certain steps must be taken to assist further integration. For example, there must be some effort and funding to establish media created by immigrant journalists or broadcasters, with a different opinion and content that would interest those of an ethnic background. 
There should be additional opportunities for young African immigrants to get engaged in local, national or European politics. As ignorance is the main problem that generates racism, therefore Zeph believes that through education at all its levels we could fight prejudice.
“Young Africans can contribute a lot to the Irish or European society,” Zeph describes. “There is a lot of potential talent in areas such as sport and music, but also entrepreneurship, yet they do not get access to grants so that they can develop their talents,” he continues.
Zeph brings as an example the African-American contribution to America’s arts, music and sports. He believes that Africans can offer a different perspective and act as a bridge between Africa and Ireland or Europe.
They can definitely help change the world and create a better relationship between Europe and Africa, if only they are encouraged” Zeph concludes.
Our world is becoming increasingly multi-polar, as many new global powers are emerging in other continents, while Europe is a region with limited resources. How it treats its immigrants could potentially influence the future, help forge stronger alliances with the countries of origins of its immigrants.
In other words, Europe must decide what it wants. It is in our interests not to have second-class citizens, that feel alienated and hostile towards the societies they were born. Given the opportunity, they could become an asset, not a burden to our continent.
Europe cannot trap individuals in limbo, using them for cheap labor while hindering their progress. Immigration issues should not be ignored. European nations are becoming more xenophobic recently, but further exclusion is not the answer.