FECL 51 (May/June 1997):

GREECE JOINS SCHENGEN

On 6 June, after several postponements, the Greek Parliament ratified the Schengen Agreements. The Agreements had been signed by the previous 'New Democracy Government back in 1992, and Greece held the status of observer since 1991. In April 1997, two months before the ratification, a law on data protection was passed by the Parliament. The law aims to adapt Greek legislation to the corresponding 1981 Council of Europe Convention on Data Protection and the EU Directive 95/46.

The implementation of the Schengen Agreement in Greece has been scheduled to begin this autumn.

 

The background of the ratification

Greece's accession to Schengen encountered severe reservations from all sides of the political spectrum, a great part of the Orthodox Church, and the more alert segments of Greek society. Nevertheless, the majority of Greek society remained essentially uninformed, and consequently confused and passive with regard to the contents and effects of Schengen. Neither the Government, nor the opposition parties, nor the mass social, labour, or scientific unions ever instigated a sober public debate, corresponding to the gravity of the issues involved.

This lack of essential information and overall inquiry about the Schengen Agreements was considered by many a deliberate act of the country's political establishment. At all accounts it contributed to a thorough disorientation of the country's public opinion: public attention was monopolised by sensational elements of pure theatricality. One example among many others was the day-long manifestations of public hysteria by throngs of members of religious groups outside the House of Parliament: hundreds of protesters, headed by clerics and monks, wielding icons and crucifixes, blocked the main avenues of downtown Athens, leaving no one in doubt as to their resolute opposition to the alleged "satanic" and "anti-Christ" treaty. The hysteria reached its climax when a policeman left his post to join a group of fanatic demonstrators.

Passions surely did not abate when the Minister of Foreign Affairs dismissed summarily all and anybody opposing Schengen as "undisguised fascists", or when the Minister of Justice hurled a number of ironic remarks at the President of the Athens Bar. Out of a total of 300 Members of Parliament, eighty (coming from the two biggest parties - the governing social democrat PASOK and the liberal 'New Democracy' in the opposition) absented themselves during the voting: an unmistakable sign to their respective party leadership as to how they feel towards the official pro-Schengen line of their parties.

On the whole, what was dearly missing amid all this show, was a serious in-depth inquiry. The opportunity for an articulated and fact-oriented dialogue and counteraction from the political and social groups opposed to Schengen was lost.

 

Arguing against Schengen

It is not easy to draw a straight line on the Greek political map, demarcating the supporters of Schengen from the opponents. Apart from the unanimous and absolute rejection of the treaty by the three smaller opposition parties (the 'Communist Party', the 'Coalition of the Left and Progress' and the 'Democratic Social Movement'), a serious rift divided the interior ranks of the two bigger parties. It clearly did not follow any preconceived political lines. However, absence and abstention from voting did not affect the eventual passing of the law and the ratification of the Schengen agreements.

Regarding the arguments put forward during the parliamentary debate, the Schengen supporters generally concentrated on what they see as positive effects of Schengen cooperation with regard to citizens' civil rights and the reinforcement of security along the country's borders, especially regarding clandestine immigration and organised crime. It must be recalled that Greece is the only member state of the EU that lacks a common land border with another EU state. All Greek borders are therefore considered external frontiers of the Union, and for this reason the country is exempted from implementing the controversial Schengen provisions on cross-border police cooperation.

As for the Schengen opponents, they emphasised what they consider the deficient protection of civil liberties in the Schengen framework, as compared to the level of protection provided by the Greek Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).

More precisely, the trend in favour of ratification was expressed mainly by the official positions of both the government and the leading opposition party. The governing party's (PASOK) stance, it must be admitted, suffered from a certain amount of inconsistency with respect to its former positions on the issue. Back in 1993, during another term of PASOK government, the then Minister of Justice pointed out to the political staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which was already then advocating Schengen membership) that the Schengen Implementing Agreement is not only incongruous with clauses of the Greek Constitution, but also hazy in regards to its conformity with the ECHR. In fact, the long-lasting Greek prevarications and the quite extraordinary delay in the ratification procedure is mainly due to the differing assessment of the SIA by the two Ministries involved. However, the new PASOK government under Kostas Simitis quickly put an end to such discussions and opted for quick implementation of Schengen.

Among the ranks of the Schengen opponents one can surprisingly count groups which, in every other issue, would follow diametrically opposed courses. I will try to define somehow the situation prevailing in the anti-Schengen camp.

Enumerating political forces, one encounters the three parliamentary opposition parties:

- the hard-liner 'Communist Party of Greece' (5.4% and 11 seats in the recent 1996 elections), whose absolute rejection of Schengen is in line with its staunch rejection of anything that has to with the EU;

- the broad-spectrum leftist 'Coalition of the Left and Progress' (5.12 % and 10 seats), which, notwithstanding its pro-European orientation, is outspoken in its criticism of the problem of the social and democratic deficit in the EU; and finally,

- the 'Democratic Social Movement'(4.4% and 9 seats), a recently founded party, headed by an ex-PASOK minister and collecting mainly voters dissatisfied with Prime Minister Simitis' increasingly pronounced "centre-left" course. This party also fought furiously against Schengen membership, without being "anti-European" by definition.

A top force in the anti-Schengen block is the Greek Orthodox Church, both in its official persona and in the guise of a collection of "para-ecclesiastical" organisations, that is groups of militant religious people. The Holy Synod of the Christian Orthodox Church of Greece and the Holy Directorate of the Monasteries of Mount Athos emphatically protested in their respective encyclical letters against the dangers of human rights abuse, denouncing especially the perceived undermining of the Christian Orthodox identity of the majority of the Greek people. Religious people's arguments aimed mainly at the stop put by the EU to the registering of citizens' profession of faith (a hitherto normal administrative practice) in the planned new identity cards. Another reason for religious outrage is that the new identity cards is said to contain the "diabolical Number of the Beast" (666), concealed under a bar-coded number. Obviously, all this has nothing to do with Schengen.

Since the ratification of Schengen, protests, whatever their origin, have been dwindling.

Only time and practice will show how well-grounded both the hopes and fears concerning Schengen are. And - who knows? - maybe the practical experiences of the implementation of the agreements will provide a new opportunity to start an open, to-the-point and in-depth discussion on the effects of Schengen on Greek society.

George P. Nikolopoulos, Athens

 

The author is a lawyer and criminologist. Contact: 18, Sepolion Str., GR-10445 Athens; Tel: +30/1 8826295, Fax: +30/1 3637955