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Opening speech at the high-level conference on managing migration

Brussels, Chamber of the European Parliament
Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Introduction - I am delighted to see so many people here today. The date and venue for this event were not chosen haphazardly. Yesterday was World Refugee Day. Tomorrow will see the start of a European Council meeting which could - at long last - mark a turning point in EU immigration policy.

Right from the first day of my term of office, I have made it clear that my priority is to bring Europe closer to its citizens once again and to make sure that the voice of a Parliament in which 751 representatives of the peoples of Europe sit is heard loud and clear.

Today, here in the Chamber, we have with us representatives of EU and African institutions and governments, of national parliaments and of international agencies, and they have been joined by many others who are on the front line of the migration crisis: mayors, coastguard and customs officers, port managers; representatives of NGOs which are involved in the work of looking after migrants, which provide medical care and assistance for children; representatives of the authorities which deal with asylum applications and repatriation procedures.

I thank you all, on Parliament’s behalf.

Today’s debate will ensure that our voice - your voice - will be heard by the people whose duty it is to respond to the concerns of ordinary people.

The findings of our most recent Eurobarometer survey confirm what anyone looking at the crowded Chamber here today would grasp immediately: immigration, along with terrorism and unemployment, is the main concern of our citizens.

This should come as no surprise. For years, as the situation following the war in Syria and the instability affecting Libya and other African countries have worsened, a humanitarian disaster has unfolded in front of our eyes. Our guest, Prime Minister al-Sarraj, can bear witness to this.

Shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, corpses in the desert, abandoned children - these have become all too familiar images. We find ourselves transported back to the time of slave markets, of trafficking in women; of fathers who have lost all hope and who are prepared to put the lives of their wives and children in jeopardy.

Our citizens watch uneasily as ever growing numbers of asylum seekers clamour to be let into the European Union, as a stream of boats bring more and more desperate people to our shores. They are torn between contradictory feelings: anger and fear at being invaded, and anguish and pity at the sight of an ongoing human tragedy.

In the face of this drama, Europe is often seen as powerless, or even indifferent.

The populists, who have no solutions of their own to offer, are sowing contempt and alarm, fostering the illusion that we can fortify Europe with walls and borders and simply shut the problems out. 

In fact, the very same Eurobarometer survey I referred to before shows that the vast majority of our citizens are convinced that it is European unity which offers the best solution to the problem of how to manage migration.

But we must face the facts. The task of coming up with real answers cannot be put off any longer. The results of recent elections, which have pointed to an upsurge in support for the EU, offer an opportunity to build on renewed public trust which we must not waste.

A budget which matches citizens’ priorities

Managing migration is at the top of our list of problems, and the EU budget must reflect that priority.

If we are to change Europe and make it more effective and more credible, we must endow ourselves with the resources needed to meet the challenges that we can overcome only by acting together. It is time for a paradigm shift: first we must set the political objectives, with a view to addressing the concerns of our citizens, and on that basis allocate the resources required.

Reform of the asylum system

We cannot leave people traffickers to manage migration.

The right of asylum, solidarity and the obligation to save human lives form part of our founding values.  But that does not mean that we should not take firm steps to combat illegal immigration.

The current system of burden sharing has failed.

Over the last five years, more than 3.5 million people have applied for asylum in the European Union; in 2015 and 2016 alone, the figure was 2.5 million. Under the current rules, Italy and Greece, the countries of first entry, are required to deal with most of those applications.

It is deeply unfair that a small number of Member States should be left to shoulder this responsibility, along with that of patrolling vast areas of the Mediterranean and launching rescue operations at sea.

Sixty years after the signing of the Treaties, this is clearly not the Europe which the founding fathers had in mind, nor indeed the one which that giant of recent German and European history, Helmut Kohl, hoped to see emerge.

But it would not be right to heap the blame for this unfair situation on to all the Member States indiscriminately. The Commission has therefore proposed a thoroughgoing reform of the asylum system.

The European Parliament, through its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, is working to improve that proposal, to make the asylum system fairer and more effective. The vote will be taken in plenary before the end of the summer.

The reform seeks, firstly, to introduce an automatic mechanism for reallocating asylum seekers from the countries which are currently being forced to cope with an unmanageable number of applications; and, secondly, to draw up standard criteria for obtaining asylum which would apply throughout the EU.

For those countries whose borders form the EU’s external border, the sole criterion of geographical location as the basis for burden sharing cannot work. A small group of countries cannot be left alone to save not only human lives, but also the very soul and honour of our Union.

Parliament is calling for automatic, fair and rational allocation on the basis of objective criteria: national wealth, population, number of refugees already taken in.

Pending that reform, a decision was taken to introduce a temporary scheme to reallocate 160 000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece.

Faced with a refusal on the part of some Member States to honour their obligations, in a resolution adopted in May by a wide majority the European Parliament called on the Commission to act. In response, a few days ago the Commission opened infringement proceedings against the Member States concerned.

We are also in the process of laying down harmonised rules on asylum in order to spare migrants an endless odyssey from country to country in search of more favourable reception conditions. 

We need a joint EU list of countries which are regarded as ‘safe’ and to which asylum seekers can be returned. This will serve to reduce the disparities between States as regards procedures for considering asylum applications and reception arrangements, including access to the labour market whilst applications are being considered.

This is why we want to replace the current framework directives with regulations which lay down the same rules for everyone.

Border management

But that is not enough. In the years ahead, we could face migration on a massive scale, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa.

That migration has many causes: desertification linked to climate change, famine, population growth, poverty, terrorism and instability. A serious response calls for a European strategy which goes to the root of the problems.  We cannot confine ourselves to managing emergencies.

We must act on a range of fronts.

We must step up external border controls, which will mean providing the European Border and Coast Guard Agency with the resources it needs to do its job. At the same time, we must foster development in Africa.

We have built the largest area of political, civic and economic freedom in the world. Now we have to defend it. If the Schengen system is to survive, we need to strengthen the monitoring of our external borders.

In addition to more vessels and helicopters, this means greater investment in security technologies, including those linked to the Galileo and Copernicus satellite systems. Training and exchanges of good practices between States are also fundamental.

The solutions being put forward by the so-called sovereignists – who see withdrawing behind national borders as the answer to our problems – are not only damaging, but also counterproductive.

The result of setting up thousands of checkpoints on the borders between Belgium, France, Holland, Germany and Italy would be queues, red tape and costs. It would certainly not be greater security. We cannot put a stop to illegal immigration, crime and terrorism by restricting freedom of movement. True security depends on our ability to work together, to trust one another; to share data and technologies; to coordinate the work of intelligence agencies in the Member States and in third countries.

Closing borders would be a retrograde step and would do away with incentives to work together.

We must also explore the scope for regional cooperation with a view to spreading the burden of dealing with arriving migrants among a larger number of ports. We must ease the unbearable pressure on Lampedusa, Lesbos and other ports which, simply by virtue of their geographical location, have borne the brunt of the crisis. Here as well we need to show solidarity.

We need a Federica Mogherini for home affairs, someone to move the Council’s work on these matters forward.

A new partnership with Africa

Over the next few years, millions of Africans could leave their homelands because they feel they have no future there. It is in our vital interest to build a new partnership with Africa which focuses not only on the challenges, but also on the major opportunities for growth on that continent.

Today more than ever, Africa’s and Europe’s interests are bound up with one another. We are friends, we share languages and cultures. We must work as equals, and we must look at Africa through African eyes.   We cannot leave Africa to the Chinese.

At our May and June part-sessions in Strasbourg, we invited the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, to discuss this partnership with us. Last month, Parliament organised a Tunisian week. Today, in addition to Mr al-Sarraj, we have with us the Speaker of the Parliament of the Economic Community of West African States.

We must base our action on robust economic, cultural and academic diplomacy. Increased investment in infrastructure, technology transfers, efficient use of resources and the sharing of industrial know-how are essential. We must work together to foster training and lawful mobility, the Erasmus Mundi programme and exchange schemes for African students, researchers and workers.

This would provide the basis for framing more effective repatriation agreements and – together with the United Nations agencies – establishing reception centres south of the Sahara. The safety of migrants could be ensured, medical care, water and food provided, and the rules on the right of asylum or repatriation applied. Migrants could be made aware of the huge risks involved in embarking on the journey to Europe. In this way we could spare thousands of people slavery or death.

This is one more reason why Europe needs a proper budget. The European Parliament will shortly approve a development fund for Africa whose EUR 4 billion in capital will be used to mobilise a further EUR 40 billion in investment.

But we must be much more ambitious. In the next EU budget, that figure should rise to EUR 20 billion, creating the scope to mobilise up to EUR 150 billion for infrastructure investments and a further EUR 100 billion for investment in manufacturing.

This EUR 250 billion, combined with even greater involvement on the part of the EIB, could change Africa’s future, by giving the continent fresh hope and new jobs, and generate growth in the EU as well.

I hope that these proposals win broad support, not least as we look ahead to the next EU-African Union summit to be held in Abidjan in late November.


On 25 March, in Rome, the leaders of the EU institutions and the Heads of State or Government of 27 countries signed a Solemn Declaration to revitalise political Europe. One of the priorities Europe’s leaders said should be addressed without delay was immigration.

Seated around the table at the European Council tomorrow will be the same people who signed the declaration in Rome.  It will be their responsibility to confirm that the political will on display then is as strong as ever.

In my speech to the opening session of the Summit I will put your message across: the time has come to make decisions, to come up with the answers which our citizens expect from a Union which is strong enough to protect them and assert its own values.


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