Brussels, 22 March 2018
Dear Members of the Committee,
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are gathered here today for an immensely important and timely discussion: the question of immigrant integration and social cohesion.
I want to thank the Committee of Regions for having put the topic of integration of migrants on the agenda of this plenary session. I know that the Committee has been working a lot on this topic.
If anyone would ask me what I think is the biggest challenge for Europe in the future, this would be it.
Unfortunately it is an issue that is either underestimated or ignored by many politicians – at least at the national level.
Those who work or have worked at the local level know and understand the urgency and the importance.
As a former mayor myself, I know this too and I have directly had to deal with the challenges on the ground.
We have all known this – not just now in the aftermath of the recent migration crisis. We have known this for decades.
And the gaps that were left unaddressed so many years ago are staring us in the face today still: high unemployment, high school drop-out rates, discrimination, but also radicalisation.
And I don't want to be misunderstood on this last point. The majority of those that radicalised in our midst were NOT migrants. Most of them are NOT newly arrived. They are OUR youngsters, born and bred EU citizens. Many of them indeed have an immigrant background or heritage.
But the challenge of radicalisation was not imported from outside. The vulnerability and susceptibility of this youth towards dangerous ideologies and radicalisation was created on European soil.
In other words: this is our shared responsibility – whether for those who have been here a long time, were born here, or for those who have just arrived.
We cannot take the question of integration lightly. Integration is not just about providing a band aid.
It is not about quick fixes, about getting "them" into any job or any course to get any diploma.
This is about equal opportunities, about full participation, about genuine belonging.
Integration is not an urgency. Integration is a necessity. A social necessity, a security necessity even, but above all an economic necessity.
No one knows this better than the local level.
Many of you deal with this enormous challenge and responsibility on a daily basis. Many cities have implemented mechanisms to effectively integrate migrant children in schools or put in place schemes for the integration in the labour market, in cooperation with local employers in particular. Local and regional authorities also play a very positive role in creating spaces for exchanges between migrants and societies, ensuring social inclusion and active participation in the host society.
But you cannot and should not be doing this alone.
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. We know that access to EU Funding can prove challenging for local and regional authorities, in particular small ones. This is why, in the context of the next Multiannual Financial Framework, we want to improve the conditions for accessing funding for integration and reduce the administrative burden for final beneficiaries.
At the same time, we need a radical re-thinking about how we approach the question of integration. No longer as an emergency, or a quick fix.
No, integration should become a centralised, mainstreamed and long-term priority for the entire European Union. Across all our areas: not just migration, but education, employment, social inclusion and regional policy.
In other words, we need both more and smarter investments.
If there is one priority where we cannot be stingy, where we cannot cut investments, this is the one.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You may have seen it: both the irregular arrivals flows as well as the asylum applications have dropped to pre-crisis levels.
We are clearly no longer where we were 3 years ago. Of course we have to remain vigilant.
But we also have a momentum now. Let's use it, at all levels.
We will continue our work top-down. But we count on you to make your voice louder and heard bottom-up.
This is in the interest of all of us, and in the interest of the future of the European Union as a whole.
If solidarity collapses this will mark the beginning of the end of the EU.
Thank you for your attention.