As you approach Greece from the air, smog covers the land like a curtain – a thick grey line separating the deep blue Mediterranean sky from the Pindos mountains that run the length of the country north to south. There isn’t a major fire along the aircraft route, but with more than five hundred active wildfires across the country, the smoke is everywhere. Greece is facing its worst heatwave in four decades. With every passing year, the country sees more extremely hot days in the summer months. Wildfires are a feature of its ecosystem at the best of times. Now the threat is existential.
Last Thursday, President Erdoğan announced that he was going to open Turkey’s borders to refugees fleeing to Europe, apparently in order to put pressure on Nato to back him against the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. The Greek media were quick to whip up fear of invading ‘hordes’ of refugees. A four-year-old Syrian boy drowned in the early hours of this morning after a boat capsized off Lesvos. Those who make it to shore are often met by a mob that won’t let them land. Others are freezing on the Greek-Turkish border along the river Evros. Those who get across are pushed back by the army and border guards, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Greece has announced that it won’t process any new asylum claims for a month.
On a Wednesday morning at the end of November, an angry crowd gathered outside a hotel in Sparta. A group of 180 refugees was expected to arrive at any moment. They had been evacuated from the Greek islands, where conditions have reached a new nadir. On Lesvos, for instance, more than 16,000 people are crammed into facilities designed for around 3000. The mayor of Sparta said he hadn’t been informed in advance. ‘I hope this situation ends with the people that have just arrived,’ he told the TV cameras. (A total of 750 were being distributed across the Lakonia municipality, which has a population of 35,000.) ‘Our municipality is already under strain. The day before yesterday five hundred people from Pakistan arrived to work in Geraki. This is not possible. Are we the dumping ground of Greece? We have no growth, no nothing. They shut down the universities, the hospital, they’ve taken away everything.’
Metternich is supposed to have once said that ‘Asia begins at the Landstrasse’ (or ‘the Balkans begin at the Rennweg’). The idea that the Balkan peninsula and its patchwork of nations are somehow not part of Europe lives on. Last month, Emmanuel Macron vetoed the opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Angela Merkel said the EU should ‘keep its promises’ and begin the negotiations. Jean-Claude Juncker described the French president’s irresponsible decision as a ‘historic mistake’. For once, the phrase may be an understatement.
Turning Point UK was launched a few months ago in order to defend (or so it claimed) Conservative students who find themselves isolated or intimidated by the left’s alleged takeover of universities across the country. The group is led by George Farmer, a 29-year-old ex-Bullingdon man, and counts in its ranks the Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes, who has been fined for breaking electoral law. They are holding a fundraising dinner tonight, where the guests of honour will be Nigel Farage and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA. (The American organisation maintains a ‘watchlist’ of academics who ‘advance a radical agenda in lecture halls’. Several of the people on the list have received death threats.)
Wildfires break out every summer across Greece. The mountains surrounding Athens have burned on more than one occasion this year. It was just columns of smoke in the distance. It wasn’t news, until it was. When I woke up on Tuesday morning there were 50 dead. Then 60. It would be 74 by the end of the day. Now it’s closer to 80 and likely to go higher.
Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) have been locked in dispute over the name Macedonia. A million people gathered in the streets of Thessaloniki on 14 February 1992 to protest against the former Yugoslav republic’s use of the name. ‘Macedonia is Greek,’ they chanted. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn was quick to capitalise on the issue. Earlier this month, the two countries at last signed a preliminary deal that would see Greece recognise its neighbour as Northern Macedonia, and thereby open the path towards its joining Nato and the EU. There have been almost daily protests in Greece against the deal, especially in the north, providing fertile ground for a new wave of nationalist and far-right sentiment.
The City Plaza hotel in downtown Athens, ‘the best hotel in Europe’, was empty for years after the company operating it went bankrupt in 2010. A group of activists and refugees occupied it a few months ago. Nasim Lomani, an Afghan national who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is a longtime activist for the rights of migrants and refugees. He opened the door to me when I paid a recent visit to the hotel.
On Monday night, a group of refugees in the Moria camp on Lesvos started a fire that blazed throughout the night and destroyed most of the camp. A storm hit the island the next morning and finished the job, mixing cinders and gravel into dark sludge. The 4000 people staying in the camp were displaced and most of them, including 100 unaccompanied minors, had to sleep rough that night.
Early in the morning of 25 March, I was woken by jet planes flying low over downtown Athens and helicopters cruising the sky in formation, making the windows shake. It was Independence Day, the anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The army was parading in front of the parliament in Syntagma Square, watched by officials from the state, the armed forces and the church. I’d recently got back from an army camp.