I would first like to express my thanks to Ludger Bruckwilder, Georgios Kritikos, and Markus Schulte for having invited me this evening.
We are at the eve of new beginnings, following the European elections, which have demonstrated our citizens’ engagement and trust in the European project. The doom thinkers wish to point to the rise of the far right, to the splintering of political groups. But we have to see the big picture. And that is one which shows an overwhelming majority of votes in favour of a shared European future – whether citizens have voted conservative, socialist, green or liberal. Ultimately, all these citizens have given Europe a stronger mandate to continue fighting for common solutions to build a stronger, safer, healthier and more resilient home for all of us.
Our EPP family has a historic role to play. A pivotal role.
Because the European Union remains confronted with huge challenges: climate change, migration, terrorism, Brexit.
But I am hopeful that Europe has both the ability and the political will to provide answers to those.
Looking back at two specific challenges over the past 5 years, I am reassured of that.
In 2015, 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.
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. More than 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. It is a global one. 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.
And this is precisely what the European Union has done over the past 5 years.
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 the Mediterranean Sea, we knew that we had to do something. We started from scratch – I was in fact 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 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, five 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.
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 a drastic decrease of irregular arrivals compared to 2015.
Of course, we have to remain vigilant. The recent peaks in arrivals in Greece recently are an important reminder:
- That we cannot leave our frontline Member States alone, that we need to continue supporting them
- And that we need to continue engaging with our third country partners
We understand 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.
When it comes to Turkey specifically, the European Union fully understands the challenges that Turkey is facing. I can assure you that the European Union stands by Turkey to manage it and will continue to do so.
The facility for refugees in Turkey has helped 1,6 million people receive the Emergency Social Safety Net support to cover basic needs, and has helped 500,000 children attend school.
This facility will continue to support projects for refugees in Turkey in the coming years.
To relieve countries hosting large population of refugees, such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon but also countries in Africa, the European Union has also increased significantly its resettlement efforts.
More than 60 000 persons have already been resettled to Europe in the last four years, and these efforts must continue.
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.
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.
And this is not only a humanitarian concern. It is also a security concern.
At the EU level, we have stepped-up our fight against this criminality, including through our European Migration Smuggling Centre at Europol.
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.
We have a global moral and humanitarian responsibility to uphold towards them.
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.
These elements I trust will remain a priority also for the incoming Commission, and its President Ursula von der Leyen, because unfortunately there the job is not done yet.
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.
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 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. 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.
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. That is precisely the reason why we, 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.
I hope that this legislation will also materialise soon under the new European Parliament and Commission, because we have no time to waste.
We have built important foundations over the past years to better protect our citizens, to build a stronger and more united Europe.
But we are not there yet.
And there are still voices calling for a national, isolationist approach. Some governments prefer looking only inwards, ignoring their historical responsibilities and turning their back to our common EU values, such as the rule of law, solidarity and shared responsibility.
In these changing times, with mangy geopolitical challenges – including the biggest of all: climate change – the values upon which the EU is built, providing us 60 years of peace, stability and progress, must be defended and upheld.
Our EPP party’s ideological and political values should inspire our duty towards this unique historical responsibility: to safeguard our beloved Europe and our Union. To make it stronger, deeper, more humane. To revive the European vision.