Migration, Defense Issues Unite Political Forces Ahead of Greek Elections

Like Turkey, Greece faces key national elections this month, and topping the foreign policy agenda are Athens’ tense relations with its NATO ally and neighbor. Conservative and liberal parties in Greece have long differed in their approach to dealing with Turkey, along related issues of defense and illegal migration. Now, they are emerging more united than previously.

In a three-hour long, national debate Wednesday, Greece’s six leading political party leaders crossed swords largely on the economy, the lingering energy crisis and measures to alleviate household budgets from rising prices and the cost of living here.

But when foreign policy and migration took center stage, even the strongest of political opponents seemed united.

In surprise remarks, Alexis Tsipras, the leftist leader of the Syriza party said he was prepared to keep a massive steel fence shielding the country from Turkey and illegal migrants pouring in, rather than tearing it down and engaging in what he has long advocated: an open-arms policy toward refugees.

Keeping Greece’s borders safe is a given, Tsipras said. And he said Greece is open to following through with suggestions to fortify those defenses against Turkey and illegal migration.

Greece’s conservative government under Kyriakos Mitsotakis has already vowed to extend a sprawling 35-kilometer fence to cover the entire stretch of a river that divides Greece and Turkey in the north.

The Evros river snakes about 140 kilometers across the frontiers of the two countries, serving as one of the key crossing paths for thousands of illegal entries each year.

Tsipras, a former prime minister whose Syriza party is trailing second behind the conservatives, supported the ambitious fence plan but he warned that it was not a perfect solution.

“Let’s not kid the Greek voters,” he told a panel of journalists at the nationally televised debate. “Let’s not fool them like Donald Trump did with designs of building a fence along the border with Mexico. No migration problem can be solved with a fence alone. The European Union must weigh in, and migration policies must change.”

On the easternmost frontier of the European Union, Greece is still reeling from a migration crisis that saw more than a million refugees flood Europe at the height of Syria’s bloody civil war in 2015 and 2016.

Tsipras controls over a quarter of the national vote and his declaring support for plans for the fence illustrates Greece’s toughening stance against illegal immigration.

It also shows Greece’s continued concern for what leaders here, across the political divide, have billed as unprecedented Turkish provocation and aggression under the helm of incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey came to the brink of war just a few years ago in a fierce contest over energy rights in the oil-rich Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.

But since the start of year, relations have thawed as Greece quickly rushed to the aid of Turkey in the wake of devastating earthquakes that left tens of thousands dead.

Mitsotakis said he was prepared to talk and seek a resolution to longstanding differences with whoever wins the Turkish election on Sunday.

He said he is ready to extend an olive branch and hand of friendship to any winner so as to resume these important talks.

But Mitsotakis said he holds no false illusion about the outcome and will continue to retain Greece’s policy of strong military deterrence.

In recent years, Greece has ramped up its defenses with a number of military deals with the U.S. — a move that has antagonized Turkey and its bid to lift a U.S. embargo on the purchase of F-16 warplanes.

The Greek defense spree has been so intense in recent years that NATO this week revealed that Greece’s spending in terms of the percentage of its GDP was the highest within the alliance, surpassing even that of the United States.

On Wednesday and at the debate, Tsipras, a longtime critic of the United States, said he also would not cancel those defense deals if elected in Greece’s May 21 polls.

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