Germany has responded with outrage to a threat by Greek ministers to unleash a flood of migrants and jihadists upon Europe — and particularly Berlin — should the EU fail to help Greece out of its economic crisis, with politicians and security officials branding the remarks irresponsible and "racist."
Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the right-wing, anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL), the junior coalition partner to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' Syriza, warned of "a wave of millions of economic migrants" who could potentially enter the European Union via Greece if their relationship with the bloc was to falter.
Kammenos' comments specifically targeted Berlin, one of the main sources of resistance to any forgiveness on Greece's international debt, or to dropping the austerity demands attached to its 320 billion euro ($339bn) bailout. He told a meeting of party activists in Athens on Monday that "If they deal a blow to Greece, then they should know the the migrants will get papers to go to Berlin." He also raised the specter of terrorism, saying: "If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with migrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic migrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too."
The Schengen agreement, which means passports are not required to travel through much of the EU, left members states exposed, he suggested. "If they strike us, we will strike them. We will give to migrants from everywhere the documents they need to travel in the Schengen area, so that the human wave could go straight to Berlin."
Last week, Nikos Kotzias, the Greek foreign minister and a leftist nominated by Syriza, made similar comments, telling a meeting of EU counterparts that if a solution to the crisis over the country's bailout was not found and it was forced out of the eurozone "there will be tens of millions of immigrants and thousands of jihadists" entering the rest of the union.
The allusion to an Islamic State presence in refugee movements across Europe has been widely condemned in Germany. "The statements of the Greek defense minister are inexcusable and should never be tolerated in any form on the political stage in Europe." Hakan Tas, a Berlin state senator and spokeperson on refugee issues for the left wing party Die Linke, told VICE News, branding Kammenos' words "racist." Meanwhile a spokesperson for the interior ministry said there was no evidence that Islamic State jihadists were present among migrants arriving in Europe.
Johannes Kahrs, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) — a coalition partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) described the comments as insupportable and counter-productive, suggesting they would only harm Greece's cause. Roderich Kiesewetter of the CDU, a member of the German Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs, was quoted in local media as saying the threat was " absolutely unacceptable." He also raised the prospect of excluding Greece from the Schengen Area as "a last resort."
The war of words comes at a time when Greece's position in the EU is on a knife edge. Finance ministers in Brussels are currently thrashing out the terms of the next Greek bailout, which is due to expire at the end of March. Greece's debt amounts to 175 percent of its annual GDP, and it must pay back at least 6.9 billion euros ($7.2bn) by the end of March to avoid a default.
Tsipras's government has also clashed with Brussels over migration policies, particularly the rule that migrants are the responsibility of the member state in which they arrive. Greece's border with Turkey is a main entry point into the Schengen Area, particularly for arrivals from Asia and the Middle East. A large number of incoming migrants are in fact fleeing the Islamic State, whose rise to power in parts of Syria and Iraq has driven a humanitarian crisis. An estimated 200,000 people have fled the region since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Germany accepts the largest number of Syrian refugees within the EU, pledging in 2014 to take 30,000, more than the rest of the EU combined.
Kammenos' Independent Greeks are the minority grouping within the Greek government, which is dominated by the far-left Syriza, which has promised to reform previously harsh regulations regarding non-EU migrants in Greece and close detention centers for asylum seekers.
Refugee camps and detention centers crowd some Greek port cities, and as recently as December, large numbers of Syrian refugees were on hunger strike in Syntagma Square, directly opposite the Greek parliament, in protest at their treatment at the hands of the previous center-right government. A Syriza member of parliament (MP) joined the hunger strike, in December and the leftists' victory in January has ameliorated the situation for refugees slightly. But they still face regular attacks from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn group which is active on the streets, and which received 6.3 percent of the vote in the January elections. The United Nations has criticized Greece's treatment of migrants, referencing poor conditions in detention centers and incidents of police violence.
The deputy interior minister, Yiannis Panousis, has also raised the prospect of sending 300,000 to 500,000 migrants into the rest of Europe if Greece does not get more EU help to cope with arrivals, Rainer Wendt, the President of German Police Union, responded by calling for Greece to be excluded from the Schengen area, and described Panousis' comments as "the talk of political extremists". He had words of derision for the new Greek administration, calling it a "political amateur theater group" rather than "a serious government."
The Greek warnings have also rattled officials in Brussels, with the European Commission last week asking for assurances "that no measures to open up detention centers are being taken." Last Tuesday, a senior Greek police officer did in fact issue an order to release migrants from detention centers and open up the country's borders, but Panousis quickly quashed the decree and ordered an inquiry, suggesting it was a plot by conservative opponents to destabilize the ruling coalition. However, he added the government might still close the centers, but only "when there is a firm political decision to act."
The level of migration to Germany has also been a contentious political issue in the last year, with thousands joining far-right street protest movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West). Khaled Idris Bahray, an Eritrean asylum seeker, was murdered in Dresden after a 25,000 strong march by the group, leading many to link the murder to the rising strength of the far-right in Germany. Many thousands more, including Merkel herself, were involved in counter-protests and anti-fascist movements against PEGIDA all over Germany, which Kammenos' comments are sure to intensify.
Follow Mike Wood on Twitter: @MillbankBhoy
VICE News' Hannah Strange also contributed to this report.