'L'Europe ne se fera pas d'un coup, ni dans une construction d'ensemble: elle se fera par des réalisations concrètes, créant d'abord une solidarité de fait.' The Schuman Declaration may be 65 years old – but its words haven't faded, and they are still often quoted, to illustrate both the ideals that Europe represents, and the distrust the European method of integration can still generate.
'De facto solidarity': after all these years it remains a wonderfully elegant, but also a slightly cheeky expression. On the one hand, it sums up the honourable goal of concrete, tangible, genuine solidarity between nations who otherwise, and all too often, fail to see their common interests. On the other hand, there's also a hint of the 'solidarity of the fait accompli': a grudging but unavoidable acceptance of interdependence and mutual responsibility – both because the cost of European nations fighting each other was too great to ever countenance again, but also because following two attempts at collective suicide in less than half a century, which effectively put an end to the status of individual European states as great powers, the only way for Europe to remain relevant was to stand as one.
The experience of interdependence is what still today continues to fuel the virtuous circle of European integration – or not. Solidarity, in that sense, is both a product of and a precondition for European cooperation.
I repeat this here because, when we look at the main challenges Europe faces today, I believe this de facto solidarity is once again the decisive element in each and every one of them: the need to join efforts in tough times, to come together around shared values; as well as a realistic acceptance of common challenges, threats we can only hope to find common responses to.
These challenges – simply put: refugees and migration; instability at our borders; and fear of the unravelling of our Union as most visibly shown by the debates on 'Brexit' or 'Grexit' –, these challenges impact differently across the EU. But each of them poses a threat to Europe's unity as a whole, and can only be met with a truly European approach. So all of them raise basic questions of solidarity, or its somewhat less attractive counterpart interdependence: should we stay together? Do we want to stay together? Under what conditions? Do we have a choice? Are we in TINA 'there is no alternative' territory? And why is it that anti-systemic sentiment has made such an impressive comeback in political parties, in our member states and also at European level?
At a time when, once again, Europe requires – in Schuman's words – 'creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it', we had better ask the more fundamental questions before we draw hasty, conclusions.
That is why I was so eager to have today's exchange of views. And this always insightful institute, in combination with the youth and wisdom of Leiden University, is the perfect place to have it.
Ladies and gentlemen, what undermines solidarity in the face of the current challenges is that, in different ways, these challenges all touch the heart of our social, economic and political self-image, and that they are profoundly 'asymmetric shocks'. The most glaring, most distressing and most testing challenge today is the migration and refugees crisis. Europe has been exposed as unacceptably helpless in the face of the war-fuelled mass exodus underway from the Middle East and Africa. Not a single European nation is unaffected. For Europe, this is a moment of truth. Future generations will judge us on our response today – on our capacity to stand united, to face the challenges head on, balance humanity with realism, solidarity with responsibility.
By now, we all realise that the problem with Europe's migration management, or lack thereof, is an elemental one: Asylum seekers enter the EU in countries at the Southern and Eastern edge, but hoping to reach the North or the West. Southern Italy and Greece have more than their share of social and economic problems, so there are few incentives to make refugees change their mind and their tracks. And while the latter – like Germany and Sweden – are overburdened with applicants, they have little or no power over the most important part of the process, which should take place at the point of entry.
Refugees, on the run from war and persecution, willing to risk everything for even a chance of a decent life, will continue to come. They simply have no other option. And we have no other option but to provide safe haven for them. To do otherwise would be to deny not only our international obligations but to deny ourselves and the basic values that make us Europeans.
But those who do have a choice, who come here for economic reasons, even if only for a few months and even if the chances of success are small, they only make the attempt because the flaws and delays in the asylum system are so apparent.
Last year, some 4% of the entire population of Kosovo sought asylum in the EU, that is 80,000 people, and 99% of the requests were rejected. This year again there have been another 50,000 applicants. That is why the Commission has proposed to designate Kosovo and other European countries who are candidates to the EU as safe third countries of origin. Asylum applications from Kosovans will be processed correctly and each individual case examined, but in a more stream-lined and faster way. Those without the right to stay will be returned to their countries swiftly. This will free up the system to ensure it can focus on the people who need our support the most.
This is one crisis we cannot simply 'muddle through'. We need to get it right. And we have wasted too much time already. The longer it takes, the stronger the incentive, in the most affected European nations, to take leave of some of our values, to put short-term expediency before solidarity – with those in need and with other European nations.
That does not mean we should resort to simplistic proposals. There are no easy options in this issue, even if populist voices on both sides of the debate claim there are: the Schengen area has 7,700 kilometres of external land borders and almost 43,000 kilometres of sea borders – trying to keep everyone out, as some suggest, is obviously futile. The numbers are impressive: between January and July we've had about half a million applications, while in 2012 we had 330,000 for the whole year. There are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, and more than half of the entire population of Syria have fled their homes.
The current stress on the system is immense. The volumes are such that they would have crushed any system, even if our system had been fully functional from the start. Opening our borders entirely, as some suggest, is impossible. Our society is built on certain premises of organised solidarity that would be undermined if we simply would say that everybody can come in. But Europe can't survive either if we take leave of our values and our legal obligations vis-à-vis people who have the right to safe refuge when they flee from war and persecution.
As Europeans we need to have confidence – in ourselves, in our beliefs, in our proven ability to welcome those who need protection and to bring them into our societies. Have we forgotten that Freddy Mercury was a refugee? Mo Forah was a refugee. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a refugee. Albert Einstein was a refugee. Steve Jobs was a refugee. Refugees often become a huge asset for their new home country. We need to design systems for managing this that are fair. Fair to the people who really need urgent help by quickly identifying those in genuine need. And fair to our citizens who so rightly worry about abuse of the system.
The Commission will continue to assist Member States most under pressure in every possible way. We have put forward detailed plans for emergency solidarity measures for the most affected countries; including a fair relocation programme and a permanent relocation scheme. We are establishing hotspot teams on the ground. These teams should ensure refugees and migrants are fingerprinted upon arrival in the EU and that a first analysis is made of whether the person arriving is indeed a potential refugee or rather a migrant trying to use the asylum procedure to enter the EU. Then decisions can be quickly made about whether someone has the right to remain in the asylum procedure or if they should be returned to their place of origin or a safe country they have crossed. It is quite clear that we are not talking about a small office with a counter and a few officials; these will be complex operations, with team work involving EU agencies, national experts from different countries, and local border and immigration staff.
But what about those who do not have a genuine need for refuge? A common approach to making return of those who have no right to be here more effective would certainly help. Member States need to do so because we need to do much better on returns, in full respect of human rights. Indeed many with the best return rates are largely doing so through voluntary return, with financial aid and support.
Everything I have learned since dealing with these issues in the European Commission has strengthened my resolve to work towards a truly European asylum system, with common rules and common procedures..
Member States also want better external border protection. I agree. And I believe we could do so much better if a more integrated form of cooperation between member states and European institutions could be set up. Our external borders deserve better protection, a more common approach and, arguably in the future also common policing by integrated border control and law enforcement agencies. But that alone will not be enough. Sustainable solutions are only possible in a comprehensive approach, in which solidarity and responsibility are in perfect balance. Sustainable solutions can only be reached with better protection of vulnerable people in the regions of origin and transit– and by linking up development aid, regional protection and resettlement into the EU for those who are in need of protection, to give them legal channels that keep them out of the hands of traffickers.
In particular I want us to explore the possibilities of enhancing resettlement schemes. The track record of UNHCR schemes is very good indeed, but the numbers involved remain very modest. Just imagine we could do substantially more and on a global scale. We would put out of business most of the criminal gangs who make fortunes by exploiting the misery of desperate people, with not even the slightest regard for the safety or well-being of the people they have robbed of their possessions. We would be able to identify, close to the source of the displacement, people who, beyond the shadow of a doubt, have the right to asylum. These people would also still be in possession of the property or funds they would otherwise have had to give to smugglers. Which would give them a better start in their new lives and would limit the financial burden on the countries they would be heading to. I honestly believe that resettlement will have to be an important element of any sustainable solution for this global crisis.
Only if we tackle all dimensions jointly and head-on can we hope for issues related to refugees and migration to become more manageable. Over the last months, we have seen a growing consensus across the EU that we need common solutions. That was a positive development. But the longer it takes to translate this consensus into concrete action and tangible results, the more European countries will resort to an “every man for himself” approach. Which by the way, to our shame, has been the cornerstone of asylum policies for a very long time.
Let me make a more general point. What ails Europe, what ails our nations today is a poisonous cocktail of a lack of mutual trust and a lack of self-confidence. We are slow to react to challenges, we are slow to implement even the most obvious common answers, because we do not believe in ourselves, in our ability to adapt, to respond to challenges, to make tomorrow better than today. We are slow to find common answers not because there are no answers, but because we do not trust the word “common”. What was branded “moral hazard” in the financial crisis has all too often become part and parcel of every European approach: can I rely on my neighbour to hold up his part of the deal? Can I risk my success on his willingness to do what is necessary for the common good? If the answer to those questions would be unequivocally ‘yes’, hotspots would be up and running, a distribution key in case of emergencies agreed and functioning, asylum aligned, borders better patrolled.
Ladies and gentlemen, if, together, over 500 million Europeans – the best-governed and most prosperous part of the globe – cannot deal with a share of refugees that in comparison with our population is very small, what would that say about our role in the world, about the values underlying the European project?
I am absolutely convinced that we will get through this, that we will come out of this episode stronger and better able to meet the unavoidable migration challenges of the future. Because – like Churchill used to say about the Americans – you can always count on Europe to do the right thing... after we've tried everything else.
Solidarity, ladies and gentlemen, properly understood, is clearly also the prism through which we must consider our relations with the countries immediately at our borders, to our South and to our East. Our interdependence with our neighbourhood has never stood in sharper focus as it does today, against a backdrop of widespread instability. This raises questions that are not just far reaching but existential. Are we ready to do what is necessary to help bring an end to hell on earth in Syria by putting the UN in charge of finding a political solution backed by concrete action to provide security, combat terrorism and offer a perspective of reconciliation and reconstruction? Are we ready to offer far more substantial support to the neighbouring countries of Syria who have shown remarkable compassion and resolve in offering a safe haven to millions of refugees? If we are not, well, we will have to face a refugee situation that dwarves what we are called upon to handle today.
The perspective on international crises obviously differs from Member State to Member State. Here also the old saying applies that “where you sit is where you stand”. Crises impact various regions of Europe differently. Take Ukraine: dependence on Russian gas, for instance, is uneven across Member States – with some hardly affected, while others are entirely reliant on Russian gas. The costs of sanctions and retaliation – in terms of lost markets for goods, services and investments – lie equally irregularly across the EU. And most of all: fear and frustration with Russia's unaccountable behaviour is also spread unevenly across Europe.
As a result of all this, in some countries there is a tendency to revert 'back to normal' – if we can't win this game, they argue, we shouldn't play it too hard. Yet we should not underestimate the sensitivity and anxiety in large parts of Eastern Europe, where memories of domination are painful and persistent, and the realisation that calm but concerted action – both within the EU and with the US – is the only possible way forward.
By the way, I am struck, these days, by the distorted way Member States in the East are perceived in the West and vice-versa. There is still a lack of knowledge of each other's sensitivities, cultures, histories.
The caricature of a xenophobic East is just as malicious and wrong as that of a culturally auto-destructive West. If societies in the East are today less diverse than those in the West, it is a result of history. Until 26 years ago a Polish or Czech citizen would not get permission to travel abroad and people from abroad would not be permitted to travel to Poland or Czechoslovakia. In the media and in the educational system the outside, capitalist world would be portrayed as hostile and dangerous, a direct threat. This has of course changed completely today, but the echoes of the past linger on, like they do in any society. And unfortunately are sometimes exploited for reasons of political expediency in a time when fear is an important factor in our citizens' perception of daily realities and international relations. Nothing is easier, for any politician, to cater to fear, since fear is always looking for confirmation. People who are afraid will seek proof for their fear, politicians looking for easy success will gladly oblige by providing timber for the pyre.
The noble art of politics is to set a path towards sustainable solutions, to not succumb to short-term expedience, to lead and not to follow sentiment. All European societies, all European nations will be diverse, it is a global development. The way we lead societies into the future, into the openness and diversity that unavoidably belongs to that future, will make the difference between success and failure.
There are no winners in this game – that's what is so depressing about it – and no quick solutions. Our only option is to balance the carrot and the stick, to take sanctions seriously and deliver concrete support to Ukraine, to keep encouraging it on the path of reform, to continue to press Russia on its illegitimate policies while remaining open to talks when it has legitimate concerns.
Above all, we need to show the strategic patience to persevere.
In a multiple democracy such as the EU, this is easier said than done, but that doesn't make it any less important.
And I believe the Netherlands – with its diplomatic tradition of openness and responsibility – can continue to play a crucial role in finding and keeping that balance.
We need to prove, through political leadership and concrete actions, that Europe is capable of change, and indeed in fact is changing. The British are not alone in wanting an EU that is fit for purpose, an EU capable of adapting to fast changing times, an EU that focuses on the big issues and doesn't meddle, an EU that is a stepping stone to the rest of the world. Many Member States want this and we at the Commission want this as well.
If we engage in this change wholeheartedly and consistently, I believe it can help demonstrate that European cooperation delivers results to European citizens. Results that cannot be or have not been delivered by states acting on their own. The EU is not our nations’ rival; the EU is the instrument to increase our nations’ capacity to shape society in the image wanted by our citizens. The EU and its institutions are instruments for effective public action where public action is needed and can no longer be provided efficiently by states acting on their own.
For once, let's challenge those who constantly ask the EU to prove its worth. Let's turn the table and ask them to prove that going it alone would be so much better. And prove it not with hollow rhetoric, but with analyses, with facts and figures. And here universities and institutions can help.
Are you quite sure that taking the momentous risk of severing ties that have served so well for so long will make you stronger? In a world that is increasingly interdependent, in a world where the course is set by global players of continental proportions, even if sometimes their political form is that of a nation state? In a world that faces huge global challenges as a result of climate change, depletion of natural resources, huge migratory flows, dangerous geopolitical confrontations. Going it alone under these circumstances to my mind is like whistling in the dark.
Again, I believe the Netherlands has a more than proportionate role to play in these and other efforts: with strong transatlantic and open-market credentials, a proud democratic and parliamentary tradition, as well as a forcefully European approach to modernising our politics, we feel and understand sensitivities on both sides of the debate.
Ladies and gentlemen,
To conclude, what Europeans need today is confidence: confidence that we can lead on issues like solidarity, lead the way on major global challenges like climate and sustainability, confidence that we are a privileged, resourceful and wonderful part of the world and that together we are strong. Confidence that what has served us best through the ages, will serve us again in the future: this unrivalled ability to adapt to new circumstances. In the past this process of adaptation, before yielding results, more often than not led to strive, war, bloodshed. What Schuman’s Europe offers us is an alternative path, through negotiations, laws, treaties, explicit and implicit solidarity, or, for the Realpolitiker in the audience, interdependence.
If we study our history, cherish our culture, listen to our music, watch our films, read our books; if we are conscious of who we are as a society, a community, a culture; if we know ourselves because we are willing to know and acknowledge the other, we will restore Europe's sense of confidence and of solidarity.
Thank you very much.