Migration is again making headline news. I am encouraged by this. I feel encouraged because it means there is growing political will to act and agree on a number of important issues that will define our future migration policy.
We have already come a long way from where we were just three years ago.
We have started to stem irregular migration. Arrival numbers are now back, and even below, pre-crisis years. In the Eastern Mediterranean, arrivals have dropped by 97% compared to before the EU-Turkey Statement, and by 77% in the Central Mediterranean compared to the same period last year. Over 600,000 lives have been saved in the past three years thanks to the enormous efforts of Member States supported by significantly strengthened EU operations.
We have made our borders more secure. We have the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. More than 1,300 European border guards are currently supporting the national guards across Europe, and we also have a standing reserve pool of 1,500 guards.
We have started to fix the weaknesses in our European asylum system. Five out of seven legislative proposals tabled by the Commission are close to being concluded. These proposals will put in place common rules - for the reception conditions of asylum seekers, to assess who qualifies for protection, and to avoid secondary movements.
On Dublin and Asylum Procedure Regulation, whilst we are not fully there yet, it has to be acknowledged that good progress has been achieved. Going forward, I believe there are several areas where the EU and its Member States can make significant progress – areas in which we are far more united than we are divided.
Because unilateral measures are just not the answer. Not only would they not work, but they would also damage everything the European Union has built over the past 60 years – and our Schengen area of free movement most of all. European solutions are the answer.
And finding those common European solutions is precisely the objective of the informal meeting convened by President Juncker on Sunday ahead of the Summit next week. When leaders meet next week, they should unite around areas where advancement is possible.
I see five such areas:
1. Leaders should commit to finding agreement on all components of a strengthened Common European Asylum System before the end of the year. I am convinced it is possible. I have seen, lived and breathed the vast amount of work that has been done over the last two years.
We are so nearly there.
We all know the current system is broken. If asylum systems were properly aligned, there would be no incentive for secondary movements.
2. We need to step up returns and really make sure that return decisions are enforced, also with the help of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. The EU has worked very hard to conclude new agreements and arrangements with countries around the world.
So I cannot understand why the effective return rate in the EU dropped by 10 percentage points last year. Arrangements are only as good as the paper they are written on, if they are not used proactively and effectively by Member States.
3. We also need to do more to address root causes of migration. We need to do more with certain North African countries, to help them stem irregular migration at the source. This means using the Trust Fund for Africa.
The EU budget has contributed €2.98 billion to this Fund. But there is still a €1.2 billion funding gap. This is a serious problem, notably in the North Africa window, which funds the border management programme in Libya together with Italy, or the voluntary returns out of Libya run by the IOM. The EU will do some further budgetary gymnastics to pitch in an extra €145 million now. But I would want to see the Member States getting serious about this. They should pledge at least €500 million to fill the funding gap as soon as possible.
4. We have to keep implementing the EU-Turkey Statement. The Statement has shown that when both sides are mutually committed and make efforts, important results can be achieved. Arrivals have been kept low. But to sustain this, both parts need to keep to their commitments.
This means for the EU agreeing quickly on the second instalment of €3 billion for the Facility for Syrian Refugees in Turkey. And it also means activating the Voluntary Humanitarian Admission scheme.
5. Lastly, we need to do more to protect our borders. The Commission recognises this, and that is why we will soon propose new legislation to transform the European Border and Coast Guard into a genuine EU Border Police with a stronger mandate to hire and deploy its own border guards. This would include the 10,000 guards we already announced.
And the European Asylum Support Office will become a genuine EU Asylum Authority. It should be capable of conducting assessments at the EU borders and helping national authorities rapidly identify who needs to be given access to the asylum procedure and who needs to be swiftly returned.
In both cases, we are talking about operational capacity. A much greater operation capacity. I expect support on these proposals. There are now clear and loud harmonised voices calling for stronger and more secure external borders.
I can only welcome this.
But actions also speak louder than words.
Before we can bolster our EU Agencies yet further, Member States should first fill the persistent gaps in staffing and equipment for the existing European Border and Coast Guard. If we all agree that we want stronger external borders, why have these gaps still not been filled?
Protecting our borders also means intervening at sea. When it comes to search and rescue, Italy has long shouldered a responsibility much greater than its neighbours. They are right to call for change. International rules are not clear, blame is passed around, and it is people who suffer.
This is not fair.
This is why the Commission has been talking with the UNHCR and the IOM about how a regional disembarkation scheme could work. The way I see this is as an agreement of countries around the Mediterranean to ensure people get the protection they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve.
But it must also mean that getting on a boat does not mean a free ride to the European Union. This would have to be combined with voluntary return packages, enhanced resettlement efforts and further financial support.
And above all, it will need to respect international rules and the highest of human rights standards. We will explore these possibilities and the willingness of Member States to take part in the next days.
All these elements that I mention are not stand-alone or isolated solutions. They all equally matter. As I have outlined, significant progress has been made in many areas. This shows that when we are united we can move mountains. Let me end on the most important thing I will say to you today:
Our European migration policy is and should continue to be built on European values and principles of solidarity, responsibility, and respect of human rights.
We can develop new means or methods to address the migratory challenges but we should not turn our back on our principles. Now is not the time for playing blame games or crossing lines we can never come back from.
Solidarity is at stake, the future of Europe is at stake. Leaders should find a compromise, guided by the European spirit.