What is your assessment of the current migration crisis, and how well is the EU coping?
We have come a long way since 2015. Our comprehensive and collective approach to addressing all aspects of the migratory and refugee crisis has produced tangible results, both inside and outside the EU. The European Parliament has played an instrumental role in this progress, together with the Commission calling on the member states for more solidarity.
Thanks to our actions, the total number of arrivals to the EU has decreased by 62 per cent compared to last year.
With our hotspot approach, experts from EASO, the European Border and Coast Guard and Europol are now working together to support Italy and Greece in identifying and screening all arrivals, directing migrants towards the right procedure, and protecting minors and other vulnerable persons.
To date, more than 30,000 people in need of protection have been relocated from Italy and Greece, representing 90 percent of the relocation requests submitted by those two countries.
Overall, we have also strengthened our cooperation with third countries. Thanks to the EU-Turkey statement, we have drastically reduced irregular arrivals in the eastern Mediterranean. Our active cooperation with partner countries in Africa has reduced the number of people dying in the central Mediterranean.
We are now stepping up our collective efforts to assist migrants in third countries to address the root causes, prevent them from being stranded in countries like Libya in inhumane conditions and facilitate their voluntary return to their countries of origin or their resettlement to Europe if they need international protection.
Now is not the moment to sit back and relax. We need to build on the progress achieved, and move structurally from uncontrolled migration to regular and well-managed migration.
Why do you think it has taken so long to enter into these negotiations, when it’s been clear since the refugee crisis started in 2015 that the Dublin system no longer works?
The migration crisis exposed the weakness of the current Dublin system. The principle that the member state responsible for dealing with an asylum application should be the first country into which an asylum seeker enters the European Union proved unworkable, with large numbers of migrants crossing the borders of Greece and Italy each day.
It became clear that the burden of processing applications needs to be shared more equally among all the member states.
The EU was founded on solidarity and sharing of responsibility, we could not let one or two member states stand alone in a crisis merely as a consequence of their geographical location.
The EU needs an efficient, fair and humane asylum policy which can function effectively both in times of both normal and high migratory pressure. We put forward proposals for a review of the common European asylum system in May and July 2016.
It is no secret that migration policy is a politically sensitive issue, which features prominently in the lead-up to and aftermath of elections. I welcome healthy democratic debate based on the facts and applaud the progress made so far on some elements on the European asylum system.
It is in the interests of all member states to have a political agreement in place on how to address the asylum challenges in a way that is fair to everyone - member states as well as asylum seekers.
I am pleased Parliament has adopted its negotiating mandate, and count on it to defend the fairness and efficiency of a better Dublin. It is crucial now that the Council also steps up its efforts to reach a position soon.
The EU heads of state and government will discuss the Dublin reform again this month, and will seek to reach consensus during the first half of 2018.
Several member states are facing a political backlash when it comes to welcoming refugees, with some governments unwilling to help find solutions - what do you believe is the way forward to counter this problem?
The EU assumes its global responsibility to provide asylum. In 2016 alone the EU resettled or granted asylum for an important share of the world’s refugees, three times as many as Australia, Canada and the US combined.
With more than 65 million displaced around the world, we cannot stop showing solidarity towards these people and the countries hosting them.
The EU is proud to stand by its values and provide protection to those that need it, in line with our commitments under the Geneva conventions. I have called on all member states and associated states to offer at least a further 50,000 resettlement places over the next two years, supported with €500m from the EU. We have already received more than 38,000 pledges from 18 member states. I now count on all member states to make ambitious pledges and reach our target.
It is true that certain EU governments are still reluctant to comply with their legal commitments to take in people in need of protection. However, we must defend the values on which the EU is built.
Smugglers are taking advantage of the political instability and lack of resources in Libya. What do you believe needs to be done to stop the smugglers from sending people from the country?
I am deeply shocked by the terrible situation in Libya, where vulnerable people are being traded and sold like commodities. This has been an immense source of worry for us in recent years and this is why we have been acting on all fronts to tackle the situation.
In fact, it is precisely thanks to the collective efforts of the EU and its international partners that we are seeing some gradual improvements on the ground - even though we still have a long way to go. Without our actions, the situation would be worse still.
Ruthless criminal networks cannot be allowed to continue to organise the journeys of large numbers of migrants desperate to reach the EU. They make substantial gains while putting the migrants’ lives at risk. Scores of migrants drown at sea, suffocate in containers or perish in deserts.
In order to turn smuggling from a low-risk, high-profit crime to a high-risk, low-profit activity, it is essential to disrupt the business model of these criminal groups and bring the perpetrators to justice.
A lot is already being done by the EU, particularly by supporting the border authorities of Libya and Niger, the two key African transit countries, in carrying out their work against migrant smuggling, by financing initiatives in the countries of origin contributing to address the root causes of irregular migration and by informing migrants of the risk involved in embarking across dangerous journeys.
We already have clear results through our cooperation and support to Niger: over 100 suspected traffickers and smugglers have already been arrested in the first half of 2017.
In addition, the EU is also supporting the work of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) in Libya, Niger and other transit countries, as well as that of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
This is aimed at supporting the assisted voluntary return and reintegration of the migrants stranded in those countries, as well as the resettlement of those in need of international protection.
For example, to date over 15,000 migrants, including over 10,000 from Libya, have already benefitted from assisted voluntary return, thanks to our support and in cooperation with IOM. At the same time, a first group of 25 of the most vulnerable persons needing protection were recently evacuated from Libya to Niger, awaiting further resettlement.
All these efforts help addressing the humanitarian situation of these persons, and prevent the smugglers and the traffickers from continuing their exploitation.
Finally, smuggling networks can be weakened if fewer people seek their services. Therefore, it is important to open more safe and legal pathways into the EU, while at the same time investing in improving socio-economic opportunities in countries of origin, and work with the countries around Libya to improve how they manage their external borders.
As the EU strengthens its external border controls, how will you ensure Europe does not turn into a ‘fortress’?
The external border of one member state is the external border of all member states. Joint action is required to address common concerns.
Our external border management is the cornerstone of our Schengen area and the EU is implementing several initiatives in this domain. We now have systematic checks on all travellers, including EU citizens, crossing our external border.
The new entry-exit system will modernise and strengthen the Schengen area’s external border management and help member states deal with increasing traveller flows. It will also promote mobility between the Schengen zone and third countries in a secure environment while safeguarding fundamental rights. It will also aid the fight against terrorism and serious crimes.
I have proposed a European travel information and authorisation system for visa-free travellers, which will identify and address any irregular migration or security risks while safeguarding the mobility of more than 95 per cent of the visa-free travellers to the Schengen area.
On top of this, a reformed Schengen information system will close information gaps and improve information exchange on terrorism, cross-border crime and irregular migration. In the future, no critical information on potential terrorist suspects or irregular migrants crossing our external borders should ever be lost.
However, I want to be clear; the EU is not - and never will be - a fortress. Only last year we offered protection to more than 700,000 people in need. This is a fundamental principle that we will continue to abide by.
At the same time, we also know that Europe is an ageing continent and that we will need skills from abroad, in addition to employment efforts towards our existing work force. It’s time for the EU to be smarter and proactive when it comes to legal migration, particularly in our cooperation with third countries and according to our economic needs.
In addition, the EU’s common visa policy is an essential instrument for mobility but also a key tool in preventing security risks or risks of irregular migration. This is why we have initiated a reflection on how to modernise our visa policy.