Use refugees as leverage? Greece and the instrumentalization of the European migration crisis


How does forced migration feature in the foreign policy approaches of EU Member States and how does it affect their negotiation strategies? Based on a new study, Gerasimos Tsourapas and Sotirios Zartaloudis assess Greece’s foreign policy response during the 2015-16 migration crisis. They detail how the Greek government first adopted a threat-oriented ‘blackmail’ strategy, before shifting to an ‘uncompromising’ cooperation strategy once the number of asylum seekers in its territory was reduced. .

The Syrian refugee crisis has been one of the most serious consequences of the Syrian civil war, which has been going on since 2011. Currently, the conflict has resulted in more than 6 million internally displaced people as well as more than 5 , 6 million forced migrants seeking refuge abroad. While the EU became involved in this issue during the European migration crisis of 2015-2016, EU member states have pursued a range of diverse strategies that have not yet been sufficiently discussed.

In this blog post, we summarize the results of a research project aimed at deepening existing understandings of the interplay between forced migration and the negotiating strategies of EU Member States in the context of the European migration crisis. from 2015-16. We focus on Greece, an EU member state particularly affected by forced migration, arguing that it has explicitly adopted a problem-linking strategy that relied, in the first place, on blackmail and, secondly, on scraping over two periods.

Initially, between January 2015 and March 2016, the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government was able to pursue a coercive foreign policy strategy of blackmail based on threats. This was due to the country’s strategic geopolitical position vis-à-vis the EU: Greece served as the initial point of the ‘Balkan corridor’, while transfers of asylum seekers to Greece under the regulation Dublin had been suspended, further strengthening the country’s position as a “transit” state rather than a “host” state.

However, from March 2016, Greece moved to a non-coercive negotiation approach via backscratching, which sought to obtain economic benefits based on cooperation made necessary by the diminishing geopolitical importance of the country vis-à-vis. vis the EU: implementation of the 2016 EU-Turkey declaration resulted in a dramatic decrease in refugee flows, while the closure of the Balkan Corridor and the resumption of Dublin remittances effectively turned Greece into a State of reception of migrants.

Using refugees in intra-EU negotiations

Recent research has identified the ongoing processes of states using migrants and refugees in their migration diplomacy strategies. However, this line of work generally examines interstate negotiation between richer donor states in the North and poorer recipient states in the South, via mutually beneficial “markets”, “contracts” or “agreements”. More recently, research on South-South migration has deepened these processes. Yet the question remains: are the northern states and, in particular, the EU member states also in a position to seek such gains and, if so, how?

The context of intra-EU negotiation strategies of European states has highlighted the importance of problem-linking strategies, namely the connection of various problems to gain additional leverage in interstate negotiations characterized by complex interdependence. We bring this body of research into conversation with work on migratory interdependence and asymmetric power relations, and we introduce two key terms in international relations – blackmail and backscratching, broadly corresponding to coercive / zero-sum and cooperative strategies. / positive-sum, respectively. Our research project examined how Greece’s refugee policy strategies have enhanced understanding of the use of refugees by EU Member States as leverage instruments.

Greece-EU bailout talks: from blackmail to backscratch

In January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the country violated the human rights of asylum seekers and that EU member states should temporarily suspend all returns of asylum seekers to Greece in accordance with the Dublin regulation. This implied that Greece had theoretically received carte blanche to move asylum seekers through its territory. But no Greek government had yet attempted to use this as a negotiating strategy.

This changed after the rise to power of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition in January 2015, which embarked on a paradigmatic shift in Greek refugee policy towards a less restrictive and punitive stance on irregular migration following an approach “Compassion” for irregular migration which contrasted sharply. with the “inhumane” strategies adopted by Brussels and the EU Member States.

Specifically, Greece would release all detained irregular migrants, close detention centers and provide 30-day short-term automatic permits to all irregular arrivals as well as end the deterrence policy at its land and sea borders. Unsurprisingly, between January and July 2015, Frontex documented an astonishing 663% increase in irregular border crossings to the Western Balkans compared to the previous year.

The SYRIZA-ANEL government’s attempt to link the issues through blackmail has focused on the ongoing negotiations to revise the country’s second economic adjustment program. Ahead of an informal meeting of foreign ministers on March 6-7, 2015, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said the Greek state would collapse if it was not sufficiently backed by a favorable bailout. Two days later, Panayiotis Kammenos, the junior government coalition partner and Greek Minister of Defense, argued that “We cannot prevent ISIS from entering, if the EU continues to intimidate us. ‘

However, the initial blackmail strategy of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government failed, with Greece agreeing to a third economic adjustment program in July 2015. Nonetheless, the September 2015 government (another SYRIZA-ANEL coalition) failed. not changed its policy vis-à-vis irregular migration. As new arrivals continued to arrive through the country’s eastern border with Turkey and transit through its northern borders with North Macedonia and Albania, the SYRIZA-ANEL government continued its bellicose rhetoric in the hope of ” obtain external economic benefits. Until December 2015, Prime Minister Tsipras would continue to target the EU and individual EU member states for their approach to the crisis via belligerent rhetoric, even claiming that “if Europeans want us to carry the bodies of refugees, then they should say so openly. ‘

Yet three developments undermined Greece’s strategy of blackmail via irregular migrants from Turkey to Western Europe via the Balkan Corridor. First, the EU has reached an agreement with Turkey, according to which the latter will keep refugees in its territory and agree to accept anyone intercepted attempting to cross the Turkish-Greek border without authorization. Second, Austria has concluded an agreement with several countries in the Western Balkans aimed at securing border controls and blocking the flow of irregular migrants. Third, in April 2016, the European Commission reintegrated Greece into Dublin II and asylum transfers from other EU states to Greece would gradually resume.

In the absence of the necessary conditions for a stronger leverage effect, Greece has effectively complied with demands to control outsourcing through the retention of migrants in the European periphery. Greece has reintroduced migrant / refugee detention camps, the detention of all irregular arrivals at its borders and strict restrictions on their movement within Greek territory. Significant economic aid started arriving in Greece from March 2016, while aggressive rhetoric from the government of 2015 and early 2016 also faded for the remainder of the coalition government’s tenure.


Our findings contribute to a series of existing academic and policy debates on the interplay between forced migration, interstate negotiations and the foreign policies of EU member states. First, we identified how problem-linking strategies figure in the strategic calculations of European refugee receiving states and explored the specific mechanisms at play, thus providing an analytical framework that informs a range of stakeholders on state responses to forced migration.

We have also demonstrated how Greece has attempted to use the European migrant crisis to project its national interests and national agenda at EU level, thus identifying the conditions that allow coercive or cooperative negotiation strategies. Finally, we offer a more nuanced picture of the importance of forced displacement for the foreign policy of EU member states by demonstrating how intra-EU policy is affected by refugee crises in the wider neighborhood.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying article in the Journal of Common Market Studies

Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: Nicolas Economou /

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