Europe is facing its most severe refugee crisis since the Second World War, and this is an existential crisis. It endangers the lives of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Europe, fleeing from a war or a barbaric regime, in the hope of a better future for themselves and their children.

To be European is to be humanist.

 

Europe is facing its most severe refugee crisis since the Second World War, and this is an existential crisis.

Europe is facing its most severe refugee crisis since the Second World War, and this is an existential crisis. It endangers the lives of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Europe, fleeing from a war or a barbaric regime, in the hope of a better future for themselves and their children.

This crisis is also a test for us as Europeans.

This crisis is also a test for us as Europeans. It is a test for our collective memory, for we are living on a continent which has experienced human barbarism and which has faced the holocaust. We have all too often seen exoduses across borders or barbed wire. This is a test for European solidarity, for the response capacity of national governments and of the EU institutions, for the confidence in our national identities, for our conception of the European ideal. This is a test for our response to a task of unprecedented scale; this is a test for our emotions facing unbearable images; this is a test for our values against populist rhetoric. For all these reasons, we cannot allow ourselves to fail.

This is not a fleeting crisis; it is one that is likely to continue for some time. It has to be included into our consciences and our policies. Simply because it is the result of a combination of factors on which we have little or no control. The first factor is the extreme political instability in Syria, Iraq and Libya — there is also a dictatorship in Eritrea. The obscurantist nightmare and the madness which carries Daesh (IS) has not created thousands, but millions of refugees. The second factor is the geographical proximity, entirely coincidental, of a secure and prosperous continent, to these areas of conflict. Taken together, these factors explain why more than 340 000 migrants have crossed the borders of Europe since January.

The solution has to be European or there will be no solution.

The solution has to be European or there will be no solution. I say it without ideological pre-conception. There are challenges that cannot be resolved at national level, by their very nature. Climate change is one of them. The refugee crisis is another. Governments should therefore tackle their natural inclination to just get rid of refugees they do not want to see in their neighbourhood; to barricade in order to "lock out" asylum seekers- “not in my backyard” is heard in several Member States- or simply divert refugees towards neighbouring Member States. These are two examples of how countries have tried to avoid their responsibilities in recent months, which resolve nothing and re-ignite animosity.

President Jean-Claude Juncker has just presented the European Commission’s reply in his "State of the Union speech" before the European Parliament.

President Jean-Claude Juncker has just presented the European Commission’s reply in his "State of the Union speech" before the European Parliament. It is an ambitious and comprehensive response to the challenges, warmly welcomed by the European Parliament.

This response has three cornerstones, which I want to briefly mention here:

  • First, the effectiveness of the return policy, necessary for greater solidarity. Today, less than 40 % of the return decisions are effectively implemented. The European Commission has therefore defined a comprehensive plan, comprising more than thirty actions to make functional that return policy. A simple example: we propose that the inadmissibility decisions issued by Member States to an individual must be entered in one of the European databases (SIS). This will avoid that after having been declined by, say, Belgium, a migrant could return to the Schengen area through the window, for instance through the Netherlands.

This plan is not a toothless tiger. The Commission is prepared to bring out its heavy artillery.

This plan is not a toothless tiger. The Commission is prepared to bring out its heavy artillery: it will launch infringement procedures against Member States who are negligent on effectiveness of returns. It is a severe choice — the procedure can lead to very high costs and penalties — but necessary to ensure that everyone faces up to their responsibilities.

  • Secondly, action and assistance to countries of origin and transit. The key words here are efficiency and conditionality. Efficiency, in particular the effective implementation of readmission agreements which we have with 17 non-EU countries. These sometimes fail for simple, administrative reasons in the countries of origin. Efficiency is also about extending such readmission agreements, by deploying EU diplomacy.

Conditionality refers to a simple principle: “more for more”. The EU has much to offer: preferential access to its market, funds through its development policy, accelerated procedures for obtaining visas... all our instruments will be used as incentives, and let me say it openly as leverage vis-à-vis third countries for better cooperation on migration, in particular as regards the readmission of their nationals.

  • Thirdly, European solidarity, which has focused media attention. The measures are known. 120 000 asylum seekers have arrived in Italy, Hungary and Greece — the current three main entry points — will be distributed in other Member States, where their applications will be examined. Very few nationalities are concerned by this relocation mechanism: Iraqis, Syrians and Eritreans. For each asylum seeker relocated, the host Member State will receive 6 000 €. 120 000: some say this is too many. It is in fact 0.07 % of the European population. A drop of water on the scale of a continent... if the distribution is fair.

Let's keep an historical perspective. In 1979, France hosted almost 130 000 Vietnamese refugees, the well-known “boat people”. The 24 000 refugees that France will be hosting on two years fall under its scope, since the country already hosts around 14 000 refugees every year. And 120 000 are within reach of the continent. On Monday, President François Hollande supported these figures, and numerous mayors have volunteered to host migrants, together with highly mobilised civil society groups. Germany has set an example, by giving the continent a lesson of solidarity: this must be our inspiration. The principles should guide us, not the flow and reflux of events, let alone the polls.

Receiving refugees and solid economic performance are not incompatible, in fact it can even be reinforcing.

Receiving refugees and solid economic performance are not incompatible, in fact it can even be reinforcing. However, this is not a point that public opinion finds easy to accept when unemployment is high and when questions arise about national identity. I am well aware. But our responsibility is also to counter misconceptions. Economic studies do not link unemployment with immigration. Rather, they establish that host countries receive economic benefits in terms of GDP and that migrants help to lower the national debt burden, as they contribute towards repaying debts that they were not involved in accumulating. Angela Merkel has well understood it.

In this crisis — why hide it? — Europe's identity and humanity is at stake.

In this crisis — why hide it? — Europe's identity and humanity is at stake. Its answer cannot be widespread laxity. It cannot be xenophobia, religious discrimination, retrenchment within our borders. An inhumane answer does not correspond to what we are: Europe is a place of freedom, a community of values, and a democratic ideal. To be European is to be humanitarian. We have all been deeply shocked by the image of a small 3-year old boy drowned off the coast of Turkey. I don’t want to talk about human tragedy, as this term doesn’t do justice to what it describes. We have to make a historical choice, which yes, may mean that Europe tomorrow will be somewhat more varied. Is that really so bad? We have the capacity, the means, and now the will to give a destiny to refugees whose only ‘crime’ is to flee barbarism. If this is what being European means, it suits me!

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