Dear President Lambertz,
Dear Members of the Committe
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very glad to be here with you today to discuss one of the most important questions for the future and prosperity of the European Union: how we create more inclusive societies.
If anyone would ask me what I think is one of the priorities for Europe in the decades to come, the successful inclusion of migrants in our societies would be it.
Unfortunately, this issue is often neglected, underestimated or even misunderstood.
So let me be very clear. This is not about some “feel-good” or “soft” measures. This is equally not about offering more support to so-called “foreigners” instead of or at the expense of “our own people”. Making integration work is about the very essence of our societies and economies.
Do we want one segment of our society not to participate or not to contribute?
Do we want one part of our society not to speak the language, or not to be able to interact?
Do we want one part of our society to feel excluded alienated, or rejected?
And do we want to run the risk that one part of our society might turn against our society?
Anyone with common sense and anyone invested in the common good of our shared future will reply NO to every single of those questions.
Put very simply: making integration work is crucial for the cohesion of our communities and for our European economy.
Fortunately, those who work or have worked at the local level know and understand the urgency and the importance of investing in this priority.
As local and regional authorities, you play an immensely important role in this process. You create spaces for exchanges between migrants and local communities, ensuring social inclusion and active participation in the host society.
You support the matching between migrants and the local labour market.
You promote integration through inclusive education and housing policies.
You also work with the relevant services on the ground to spot when there are unrests or unease. I know that no one in this room is naïve.
Integration does not always come easy. It takes time, and lots of efforts and investments – from all sides.
The implementation of the EU migration policy may fall primarily within the remit of national governments, but you play a key role in making this work on the ground.
In spite of the challenges, there are hundreds of examples of local communities where successful integration is a reality and where diversity is an asset and not a source of concern.
We need to make these examples more visible and to give cities and regions more space to present their successes and voice their needs.
I am confident that the “Cities and Regions for Integration” initiative that you are launching today can offer this space.
I strongly believe that this is also the way to build a more informed narrative and discussion around migration and integration.
This initiative complements and reinforces the work we have been doing at EU level in the last years on building a solid, two-way dialogue with cities and local authorities on integration.
Integration is not about words, it is about actions.
This is why we are actively supporting local and regional authorities in their integration efforts through funding across all our policy areas at EU level.
Between 2015 and 2017, the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund has co-financed 4.800 measures to help the integration of third country nationals all across the EU.
I want to be clear: this is funding and support that goes to migrants who need this legitimately, who are here legally.
This is not funding that is “taken away” from EU citizens.
If we want to help our societies and economies thrive, we need to support everyone who is part of that society.
This is about making diversity work for all.
We know that access to EU funding can prove challenging for local and regional authorities, in particular small ones.
This is why we made funding for integration more accessible for local authorities for 2021-2027 – and why we increased it across the board.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I believe that, now that the irregular arrivals flows as well as the asylum applications have dropped to pre-crisis levels, we have a momentum. To focus our efforts on the inclusion of the people that are already here.
We don’t need to explain to you why this matters. But we do need your help to explain to your national governments.
Make yourself heard on this issue!
You are the ones who have every right and authority to speak on this, and to demand support and long-term solutions.
Because unless we change the mind-set and the narrative, Europe risks making the same mistakes as in the past decades.
And those mistakes were not only felt in the migrant community – they were felt in our society as a whole.
Your voice will also be important in the upcoming European elections.
Migration and integration will be heavily debated during the electoral campaign, and risk to create even more divisions.
We all have the responsibility to continue working towards a more inclusive and cohesive Europe to the benefit of all our citizens.
Your voice is important.