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Brussels, European Economic And Social Committee,3 April 2019

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to open our annual European Migration Forum for another year, together with the President of the European Economic and Social Committee, Luca Jahier.

This year we are focusing on the role of civil society organisations and local and regional authorities in managing migration. In all our actions on migration, civil society organisations can and do play an important role.

I know many of you wish to focus on legal pathways specifically today. This is one of the 4 pillars of our European Agenda on Migration – but this pillar is unfortunately often misunderstood or underestimated.

Those who are concerned by irregular migration must understand that only strengthening external borders or increasing returns is not enough.

You see, a smart and well-controlled EU policy on legal migration is essential to show that there are alternatives to irregular migration.

In the past years, we have shown that it is possible for the EU to support safe resettlement pathways for migrants in need of protection, and efficient and controlled legal pathways for migrants coming to work or study.

Since 2015, two successful EU resettlement programmes have helped almost 44 000 of the most vulnerable to find shelter in the EU.

On top of that, Member States have pledged to resettle another 50,000 people in need of protection by the end of this year, and we are progressing well.

For the future, we need our EU Resettlement Framework Regulation to see the light, so we can continue providing protection through a coordinated EU approach. Over the years, the EU has developed a set of common rules on legal migration.

They establish clear and transparent conditions as well as rights for migrants coming to the EU to work, study, carry out research, or join their family members.

The majority of migrants continue to enter the EU legally – in a controlled, measurable and legitimate way. This shows how important it is to have clear and efficient rules on legal migration across the EU.

I mentioned that legal pathways are important to help reduce irregular migration. But we also need to face the reality of our ageing society – this is the case all over Europe.

While we will continue to invest in and support all our Member States in fully activating, training and upskilling the existing EU work force and especially our youth, we know that the EU economy will need the work and skills of migrants in the future, especially the highly skilled.

This of course lies in the hands of Member States and the specific needs of their economies, who decide which and how many migrants can come for work.

I know you will also discuss pilot projects on labour migration for small numbers of migrants to come to Europe legally for work or training purposes.

The Commission provides support to Member States who have shown interest, as well as to non-public actors to develop temporary labour migration opportunities for selected migrants coming from certain African countries.

Ladies and gentlemen,

the discussion of this year’s Forum comes at a particularly crucial moment. 

One where we all and at all levels – have a very important responsibility: to promote an informed and sensible debate on migration. 

And the role of the civil society and local authorities, your role, is essential. Despite the challenging context in recent years, we know that many local authorities implemented successful mechanisms for example to integrate migrant children in schools or to help eligible migrants enter the labour market.

While discussions and debates on migration and integration sometimes get heated at the higher political level, local actors simply go about doing their job.

This Forum is an opportunity to reflect on innovative ways to include local actors, both civil society and local and regional authorities, in and beyond pure integration measures, where their added value is already widely recognised.

We have just completed a comprehensive evaluation of the existing EU legal migration rules. This evaluation gave us a mixed picture.

On the one hand, it proved that we still very much need these rules at EU level. It highlighted the positive effects that the EU rules have had on the management of legal migration, for instance ensuring equal treatment with EU nationals, and the protection of family life.

On the other hand, the results showed that often not everyone is well-informed about these rules, or these existing rules are not implemented properly.

We saw that migrants often do not even know about the existence of the Blue Card or the Long Term Residence Permit for example. They don’t know how they could apply for it or when they could qualify for it.

Member States’ relevant authorities need to be better informed themselves and have a duty to inform applicants and migrants who qualify.

You all here in the room and civil society organisations more generally can also help communicate about the existence of these schemes and their benefits.

Ultimately, if we want to be prepared, we need to reflect on how we can do that with what we already have in terms of legal migration rules, but also which concrete improvements we can and should make.

Your discussions today and tomorrow will allow us to reflect on new and innovative ways of further improving and developing our legal migration policy.

It is important that we talk to each other and work together. Only in this way can we obtain a more effective and fair migration policy overall.

This is also exactly what this Forum is about: talking to each other, exchanging good practices, and bringing those ideas back home.

You contribute to building bridges between local communities, local and national governments, and migrants. Your discussions and ideas today and tomorrow can serve to improve our migration management and contribute substantially to better policy-making in the years to come.

This Forum serves also as an occasion to reflect in these discussions our common European values and reiterate the need to embrace these values.

Especially in these difficult times, the issue of migration will continue to be at the core of the debate as we head toward the European elections.

We need to ensure that our values are kept alive each and every day, and continue on our European path united, together.

At the same time, and precisely in the current circumstances, we all need to continue explaining the need for a comprehensive approach on migration.

Legal pathways are indeed an essential part of that if we want to get this right. But this goes hand in hand with all the other parts of migration management: the protection of those in need, the return and reintegration of those who cannot stay, and better management of our external borders.

These are the messages that I invite you to take with you and spread in your communities back home.

I wish you very fruitful discussions today and tomorrow, and we look forward to hearing your suggestions and ideas for the future.

Thank you for your attention.