Ladies and gentlemen,
Four and half years have elapsed since I was appointed and confirmed by the European Parliament as Commissioner responsible for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship. To be frank with you, when I started, I could never have expected that migration and security would be the issues at the top, not only in Europe, but of the global political agenda for years to come. Some of my colleagues said that I was the unlucky one, however after all these years, I believe that I was the lucky one because we did a lot, even if more has to be done.
We all know that the Atlantic Council enjoys a great reputation not only in the USA but also across the world. Your contribution is very important not only for this great nation but also for the European Union. You referred before to the Euro-Atlantic relations which is also part of my portfolio as far as the continuous EU-US dialogue on security is concerned. Both the EU and the US are pushed by the occurrences to do more together. I cannot imagine a world without the EU and the US sticking together. So aside from what some politicians say from time to time, history has defined our relations and will keep defining them for the future.
I have been in the US many times before, first as mayor of Athens and I established a very good and friendly relationship with the Mayor of Washington at that time Mr Williams. We have brought the two cities close to each other. On the larger scale we have worked together, in promoting what I had called at that time: “Cities’ diplomacy”. In the meantime, I have been here repeatedly as Minister and most recently and importantly as the first Commissioner who was entrusted with this very important portfolio.
These issues, migration and security, would decide elections, define governments, divide entire societies, and even – in our case – call into question the very fundaments of the European Union: 60-year project of peace, stability and progress.
Historical circumstance had it, that the arrival of the first migrant boats on the shores of Greece and Italy, almost coincided with the first jihadi terrorist attacks on European soil. Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, the Bataclan in November 2015, Brussels in March 2016 – not to mention the others that followed in Berlin, Barcelona, London and other European cities.
A perfect storm – coming just after a deep and protracted financial crisis that already created mistrust in institutions and politicians, and created the conditions for populism to flourish. For me it is a big threat for our democracies and our duty is to address this issue in a very responsible way.
It was clear that both on migration and on internal security, business as usual was no longer a viable option. Europe had to become more operational in its support to Member States on both fronts.
The Member States themselves had to understand first that the world around us is changing. That globalisation and the geopolitical instabilities around the globe have moved humanity into an era of human mobility. Close to 70 million people forcibly displaced and an estimated 260 million migrants around the globe are testament to this.
The internet, demography and climate change are only reinforcing this mobility and the urgency for desperate people to seek better lives away from their homelands. The conflicts in our neighbourhood, from West Africa all the way to the Ukraine, are creating an arch of great instability, which inevitably spills over at our front door. This is not a European problem, or an American problem. It is a global one – but one that affects us, on both sides of the Atlantic and even beyond. A problem that cannot be dealt with in silos – national or regional.
We can only address these challenges more effectively if we work together, staying true to our values, showing solidarity and shared responsibilities towards the desperate people arriving at our shores.
While the European and American contexts and geographies are very different, the challenges we are facing today when it comes to border and migration management are similar.
Let us also not forget that we were building our migration policy – almost from scratch – for 28 nations. When I was appointed Commissioner and we were confronted with these challenges, I had many difficulties to convince 28 Member States around the table that it is a common challenge and that we all have to work together. In Europe, we had no idea of how to handle these phenomena at that time. There were some countries in Europe which had experience in receiving but also sending migrants abroad - hundreds of thousand are here in the US - but they had never experienced something like this. During and after the two world wars there were people displaced in Europe, but this phenomenon was unique.
When the crisis peaked in Europe in the summer of 2015, Europe was taken by surprise and was not ready. Confronted with an inflow of irregular arrivals through our “Eastern and Southern border” - the Mediterranean Sea, we knew that we had to do something. We started from scratch, even myself I was the very first Commissioner responsible for migration.
There was no consolidated European border agency, no hotspots or an operational presence on the ground from the EU. The European asylum system that was no longer fit for purpose. Our Information systems didn’t talk to each other and our approach in engaging with non-EU countries on this issue was fragmented.
We were forced to take both immediate as well as long-term measures, and to work on all these fronts at the same time. Now, four years later, anyone trying to cross our external borders irregularly is identified, fingerprinted and thoroughly screened.
We have an up-and-running European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and reinforced migration, border and security information systems, which are now becoming interoperable.
Last but not least, we have a united, sustainable and strategic European engagement with key countries in Africa and the Middle East. You see, some may think that building fortresses at our borders is the silver bullet that will somehow magically “stop” migration. But migration is a complex phenomenon – and that’s nothing new. Understanding WHY and HOW people move is essential to better controlling and managing it.
In 2015-2016 most of the arrivals in Europe were coming from Syria, through Turkey, and in need of protection and we know why: war, persecutions and dictatorships. Afterwards, the flows were mixed and mainly coming from the African continent, mostly for economic reasons.
This is why we established a stronger cooperation with key non-EU countries such as Turkey, Niger and Morocco – which were tailor-made to each context was necessary. All of this has resulted in the overall lowest level of irregular arrivals in five years in 2018 – more than 90% below the peak year of 2015.
I want to briefly zoom in on our cooperation with Africa. The essence of our approach has been frank and trust-building partnerships. I want to be clear on that: The very first signal I sent to these countries is that the colonial era is over. So a trustful relationship has been established.
Understanding that on both sides of the Mediterranean, we are facing similar challenges, that we need each other to more effectively reduce irregular flows, to fight criminal smuggling networks together, to build legal and safe pathways for migrants and to assist vulnerable people.
In countries such as Libya and Niger, with EU financial and operational support, as well as the engagement of international organisations, tens of thousands of migrants have been helped on the ground: both in their immediate needs, but also to return, if possible, or to be resettled if in need of protection.
We have all seen the atrocious images of the detention centres in Libya. It’s a disgrace for the whole world. No one wants this. Not the EU, not the international community, and certainly not the migrants who end up there. Those images are a stain on our collective humanity. Globally. With the latest events in Libya, the situation could get even worse.
That is why we are doing everything we can to assist or evacuate people stuck there. But most importantly: to avoid they ever end up there in the first place. While people may have different motivations to migrate, they will resort to smugglers and irregular journeys if there are no alternatives.
Criminal organised networks of smugglers are profiting from vulnerable people, endangering their lives, and contributing to irregular migration flows. This is happening in the Mediterranean, just as it is happening in other parts of the world.
And this is not only a humanitarian concern. It is also a security concern. The smugglers come back to the Sahel afterwards, using the criminal profits they make, to traffic weapons back to the terrorist warlords of the Sahara. These warlords live off the smugglers. And their conflicts create more migrants.
At the EU level, we have stepped-up our fight against this criminality, including through our European Migration Smuggling Centre at Europol, where several US liaison officers are also present, and even through our military, in Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean.
I would like to tell that one of my very first priorities was to beef up Europol. Today it is a very important information hub and from an operational point of view it brought together all Member States in fighting in a more effective way all these criminal networks with a great record, only in a period of five years.
However, I cannot stress enough how essential the cooperation with certain African partners has been to truly fight, prosecute and nip these criminal operations in the bud. These partnerships have helped to curb the activities of smugglers and traffickers there, and we want to replicate this method in other partner countries.
However, the criminal networks and irregular movements should not make us forget one important fact: that, as long as there are instabilities in our immediate neighbourhood, there will be people who genuinely need protection. And this is one of the duties of the international community to bring back stability in this region.
We have a global moral and humanitarian responsibility to uphold towards them. The essence of the Geneva Convention continues to be enshrined in our European asylum rules, and in our actions and values. We do not push people back into the sea.
This is why we have proposed to reform our asylum system to be able to better offer protection to those who really need it for as long as they need it, whilst limiting abuses, secondary movements and asylum shopping. This of course also means returning to their home countries those migrants who crossed our borders illegally and are not in need or protection. We have made it clear.
And if we want to stop vulnerable people from resorting to criminal smugglers and dangerous routes, we need to offer them alternatives. This is why we need and will continue offering the possibility of resettlement, urging our global partners to do the same.
In times when the general discourse about migration continues to be increasingly polarising and divisive, it is critical to reassure our citizens whilst taking a strong stance. We can only have a fair and robust migration and asylum policy, if we can ensure security – and make our citizens feel safe and secure. This, of course starts with our borders.
I mentioned the European Border and Coast Guard Agency earlier, as well as our information systems. Today, no one posing a criminal or terrorist threat should be able to enter the EU undetected or with false identities, as has happened in the past. We have systematic checks on everyone – including EU citizens.
An EU framework to exchange Passenger Name Records is operational. We are building an Entry-Exit System, we reinforced our security databases and soon also the EU equivalent of the ESTA – the European Travel Information and Authorisation System–will start applying.
Very soon, all these systems will become interoperable too. So, if a red flag appears for one person arriving at a border crossing, not only will we be able to prevent that person from entering there, but we will be able to prevent that person from entering anywhere in the EU, because all systems will see that red flag.
Beefing up the border went hand in hand with a whole range of actions to step up security. Internal security in the EU in 2014 was in a different era. National silos, a lack of trust between Member States, little information being shared. The European system is not a federal system. In the beginning, all Member States wanted to take information but they were not very willing to share it. And we changed this mentality. For me it was a success story.
Security seen as a purely national competence. Foreign Terrorist Fighters could go to Syria and Iraq – and some of them even return to Europe to commit atrocities. The first attacks were for all of us a wake up call: they made governments in Europe realise that the same project that built peace on the continent for the last 60 years, was also the only way to guarantee every nation state’s internal security.
Only together could we be less vulnerable. A Security Union in Europe, with collective action to build up our defences and our resilience. To close down the space in which terrorists operate and deny them of the means to act. With strong restrictive measures against firearms, explosives and terrorist financing. With operational support and funding to protect public places, to defend against chemical and biological threats, and to strengthen aviation security.
With reinforced operational agencies, such as Europol, that have the expertise and resources now to become the nerve centres of our security framework, and can support Member States’ work, on a daily basis, on the ground.
With the recognition that international and European cooperation is essential to tackle the issue of foreign fighters, with strong borders and a seamless exchange of information – including from the battlefield, being key.
Through this work, improvements have been notable. A general decrease in attacks. Many attacks foiled by our security agencies. In the last few years we saw a change in the nature of the attacks across the globe– from organised and directed, to the lone wolf, radicalised overnight on the internet.
And here is where we need to focus our energy and achieve better results. The horror of Christchurch, New Zealand, is a powerful reminder for all of us. Just last Thursday I was at the G7 Ministerial in Paris. Facebook and other major internet players were brought in to explain.
How could the livestreaming of such an atrocity be allowed to survive for hours on social media and spread across platforms? How can we stop this?
That is precisely the reason why we, in Europe, already last September, decided to act and proposed strong legislation to curb the misuse of social media to spread terror. Takedowns of terrorist content within one hour. Proactive measures to stop the re-appearance of terrorist content on-line.
Sanctions for those that systematically fail to protect citizens. We saw this coming. We acted to stop it. Now others – including Australia and New Zealand – are doing the same. Mark Zuckerberg last week asked for regulation to help them address the problem. Failing to act is failing our citizens.
For us this is particularly important when next month, European citizens will go to the polls to vote on the next European Parliament. These are not business-as-usual elections. It is an existential moment for the future of Europe, for our values, for our principles, for our democracies.
The European project is at stake. If populists gain ground in the upcoming European elections, thisbwill send a very strong signal of where Europe will beheading towards. Call it a referendum on the future of the European Union.
Populists are exploiting fears about identity, spreading easy slogans and scapegoating Europe about their failures. In every survey, citizens tell us that migration and security are their top concerns.
Unfortunately, we hardly ever learn from history. We need to always remember the atrocities of the past. But also our accomplishments. The European Union is the greatest peace project in history, at least for the ones who read history. This is something to be cherished and protected.
Disinformation and fake news, skilfully directed and spread, confuse and frighten our citizens. This we must and we will fight with all our means. The European Union is all about protecting, involving and empowering its citizens.
Based on values, forged after centuries of war, that made us who we are. This is not something we are entitled to ever forget and underestimate.
The United States is a nation that has lived in the past the same experiences as the European Union and we have learned from the United States. I do not hide that in the very beginning of my term as Commissioner I was in contact with my colleagues here in the United States and I asked them to help us to better understand the situation and how we can address it, because, as I said in the beginning, Europe had no idea about all these phenomena.
On each side of the Atlantic, the citizens of our continents have fought for freedom, democracy and tolerance – and our transatlantic relationship was built on these same values.
And even today, both the United States and the European Union, are confronted again with similar challenges. Our cooperation is more important than ever, and we learn from each other. We learn from each other in addressing both migratory challenges and common security threats. The European Union and the United States should continue working on the same path, making our partnership stronger, deeper, and most importantly, trustful.
Thank you very much for your attention.