I make a promise: I will come back next year to assess with you the progress made on this crisis through the actions of the EU.
- First Vice-President Frans Timmermans -
First Vice-President Timmermans in Siracusa
A very emotional and well-attended Dialogue with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans took place in the magical atmosphere of the Greek Theatre in Siracusa, Sicily, on 1 September 2016. Between 900 and 1 000 people came to exchange views with the First Vice-President on the topic of the refugee crisis and migration. The debate was moderated by Beppe Severgnini and brought together citizens and stakeholders from all over Sicily and Calabria. The full spectrum of civil society organisations involved in the refugee crisis, from emergency and assistance services to those involved in long-term integration, and from local authorities to religious communities, took part in the Dialogue.
The exchange started with a shocking statement: the number of unaccompanied minors that have so far arrived on the Sicilian shores is equal to twice the capacity of the Siracusa stadium. On this disturbing fact, the First Vice-President began his remarks by acknowledging that Italy had been abandoned by the rest of Europe as regards this tragic crisis, but that Europe is now present and all Member States must take their share. He continued by declaring that migrants should first be helped where they were born, in their home countries, and recognised that the Migration Compact proposed by Prime Minister Renzi goes in the right direction: although it may cost money in the beginning, it will pay off in the medium- to long-term.
From a different angle, FVP Timmermans equally advocated that frontiers must somehow be controlled. Unless some form of control and protection are carried out at the EU's frontiers, we will end up splitting our societies, giving in to populism and leaving it, in the end, tor the far-right to form Governments.
Several citizens described their personal experiences and activities in welcoming refugees and easing their suffering, while some also pointed out that the welcoming of these people must not become a business and that the Commission should look after this. FVP Timmermans invited a number of operators on stage and asked them to help him joint publicise the best practices and experiences presented during the Dialogue.
When asked why a differentiation is made between refugees and economic migrants, the FVP confirmed that this difference exists under international law and that it makes sense: without this differentiation, the populists would have all the leeway to claim that only illegal economic migrants exist, not refugees, which would remove the possibility of action being taken in solidarity with the refugees. He also explained what the Commission is doing to devise a legal system for economic migrants to access to the EU, while pointing out that national parliaments seem quite reluctant on this front.
The issue of the EU's relations with Turkey after the attempt to overthrow Erdogan's government was raised by many citizens, in conjunction with the issue of migrant flows. FVP Timmermans underlined that Turkey is an indispensable partner of the EU as regards migration policy, and that the EU will do its utmost to ensure that Turkey remains within democratic boundaries.
Several other aspects of the refugee crisis were raised during the Dialogue, such as the question of future "climate migrants" (due to climate change), the question of repatriation, the functioning of hot spots and the possibility for refugees to integrate through work from the outset of their stay. The attitude of certain eastern Member States of the EU towards the crisis was also raised by some stakeholders during the Dialogue.
FVP Timmermans concluded his remarks with a vibrant call against the climate of fear: "many politicians have understood that fear brings votes, and they play on this", he argued.
In an unprecedented but highly appreciated move, FVP Timmermans promised, at the end of the Dialogue, to come back on a yearly basis so as to enable citizens to assess with him how progress is being made on the refugee crisis, and the extent to which EU action is really making a long-term difference.