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Cecilia Malmström

European Commissioner for Home Affairs

Responding to the Arab Spring and rising populism: The challenges of building a European migration and asylum policy

Lecture at Harvard University's Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies

Boston, 30 April 2012

1. Introduction

I am delighted to be here with you and meet such a sophisticated audience to talk about a number of key challenges facing the European Union.

I am really impressed by the great attention paid to Europe at Harvard and am especially happy to be part of the Kokkalis program working so closely with the Centre of European Studies. Socrates Kokkalis's vision of helping new generations foster a peaceful and democratic future as well as develop open and prosperous societies, appeals to me greatly.

Today, I would like to focus on 3 key challenges for the EU:

The first is how to respond to the Arab Spring. Following the historic developments in the Arab world, the EU will need to bring about a serious change in its policies towards its Mediterranean neighbours.

The second challenge is the need for a common European migration policy. The EU is facing a declining labour force and needs to attract the rights skills and talent.

And the third challenge is the need for a common European asylum policy. The EU must ensure equal treatment of asylum seekers no matter where they apply and make sure all Member States shoulder their share of responsibility.

I will look at the possibilities of meeting these challenges in our globalizing world, amidst serious socio-economic circumstances and in a difficult political climate in Europe with increasing populism and rising nationalism.

2. Responding to the Arab Spring

So let's return to 17 December 2010, the day that Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid.

With his flames of protest against the economic conditions and police mistreatment, he inspired so many others in the Arab world to show their courage and take up the struggle for freedom, democracy, economic progress and respect for their rights, denied for so long.

He never could have imagined that within a month President Ben Ali would have fled the country, that after 30 days of peaceful mass protests in Egypt, President Hosni Moubarak would resign and that Colonel Khadaffi would no longer be in power after the NATO intervention in mid-March 2011.

For me, one of the most striking things was how different states reacted to these developments and towards people escaping the violence in Libya.

Tunisia, and to a smaller extent also Egypt, maintained an open door policy, admitting over half a million migrants together with over half a million returning nationals. These countries and their citizens made an enormous effort to host those fleeing the violence and give protection.

The EU response was very different: it did provide for substantial financial and logistical support to North African countries to get people back to their countries of origin, but at the same time the EU stepped up its security and border controls.

Despite the clear humanitarian need, no European State took any serious initiative to provide shelter on its own soil to those in need of international protection. This in spite of the Commission, together with the UNHCR, making a global plea for resettlement for 8000 refugees in acute need of protection. While the U.S. took several thousands, the European Union and Norway, took only 700.

The Arab Spring also caused tensions in the EU. Many migrants – most of them hoping for a better future in Europe - risked their lives when crossing the Mediterranean to the EU in rickety vessels. Around 1,500 people are believed to have drowned. Others arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa and in Malta.

Malta was struggling to deal with the inflow and had to relocate a number of people in need of international protection. I therefore called on the other EU Member States to help the tiny island.

But again, there was hardly any response. Member States remained largely silent. Only 300 refugees were relocated to other Member States.

Instead of solidarity among Member States, France and Italy quarrelled about possible risks for their internal security, with France even reinforcing controls at the internal border with Italy.

So, instead of reaching out and protecting, the EU Member States were inward-looking and security oriented.

In 2011, the EU missed a historic opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the foundations it is built on. It is as if we'd said to them "It is wonderful that you make a revolution and want to embrace democracy but, by all means, stay where you are because we have an economic crisis to deal with here".

I very much hope that the EU will not miss the opportunity that is still before us.

The revolution may have started, but the process of the Arab Spring is still in its early stages.

When I visited Tunisia at the end of March last year, I was very impressed by the commitment and determination of the people to make this process into a success.

I believe the EU has a special responsibility. Respect for human rights and promoting democratic values are basic principles which the EU was founded upon.

And we are changing our policies:

  • we are seriously stepping up our financial assistance (1 billion € extra on top of the 5.7 billion already available)

  • we will assist in building democratic structures, in reforming the law enforcement agencies, the judicial system. We need to invest in education, especially of the youth.

  • we will promote the mobility of people between these countries and the EU, including by issuing multi-entry visas to legal business people. Right now we are negotiating a so-called security and mobility partnership with Tunisia and Morocco which covers all elements of migration, asylum, border control, the fight against trafficking, legal migration and visa facilitation

  • we will seriously increase the number of places we offer in a program called ERASMUS MUNDUS which will allow many more students to come to Europe to study and

  • we will negotiate deep and comprehensive Free Trade Agreements.

So there is a much stronger engagement with the region now, but we will need to sustain this over time and constantly check whether our policies are an adequate response to these historical challenges.

We also will need to find ways to step up our efforts to support the courageous people who are defying dictatorships in other countries, with Syria as probably the most urgent case.

3. A need for a common migration policy

On the second challenge – the need for a common migration policy – I will limit myself to the issue of the highly skilled.

These are dramatic times in the EU as well: the economic crisis will be dominating for quite some time and more needs to be done to bring Europe back on the road to economic growth.

A precondition for growth is a sufficiently large workforce with relevant skills at all levels of the labour market. Attracting the right skills and talent also helps create jobs. With every engineer employed, an additional two or three jobs are created.

Here, the EU and the US are faced with comparable challenges: we both need to find sufficient skills and talent to keep our economy strong and competitive in an ever globalizing labour market.

As history tells us, only those countries that remain open towards admitting the best talent can keep up with international competition. Those who shut their borders will gradually fall behind.

I will not hide that I sometimes envy the American way of attracting the best and the brightest – not only here at Harvard - including highly skilled migrants. For these people you remain a magnet; your research budgets are higher, education possibilities better and career possibilities much more attractive.

Looking at the US's migration policies in economic terms, the figures are impressive. In recent years immigrant business owners generated over 10% (in 2000: an estimated $67 billion of the $577 billion) of US business income. In California, they accounted for one-quarter of all business income, and, in New York, Florida, and New Jersey, about one-fifth. One in four of your doctors is an immigrant, as are two in five medical scientists and one in three computer software engineers.

And the newly arrived can climb the ladder quickly, with former Harvard student and Korean born Jim Yong Kim now being appointed to become the next Chief of the World bank serving as a recent example.

Although the US experience cannot simply be transposed into Europe, Europe could certainly do with a serious inflow of highly skilled migrants, in part because Europe is facing a structural problem of demographic ageing with a declining labour force.

In the next 15 years, the working-age population will shrink by 12%! and the relation between the populations of working age to people over 65 will change from 4 to 1 today, to 2 to 1 in 2040. And not only that. We are also seeing many people, including well trained and highly skilled leaving the EU.

Although unemployment is high in parts of Europe, many countries face labour and skills shortages in specific sectors. Many high-skilled jobs are not filled today. Germany is currently lacking over 70 000 engineers!

This is hindering German companies, but also has serious consequences for the European economy. Recent AIRBUS orders were put in danger simply because of a lack of sufficiently qualified personnel.

Europe-wide we expect a lack of between 380 000 and 700 000 IT workers by 2015. The health-sector could see a shortfall of up to two million professionals by 2020!

Of course we need to concentrate our efforts first of all on getting unemployment down.

Unemployment is unacceptably high especially among immigrant populations and this clearly needs to be a priority. It is totally unacceptable that unemployment rates are at least 4 times as high among migrant youth. All our efforts for better integration will be useless if we can not bring down these figures quickly!

But if Europe really wants to have a knowledge based economy, if it wants to play a leading role in innovation and research, if it wants to be competitive in the global economy, it needs to do much more to attract the smartest and the brightest.

I therefore sincerely hope the EU Blue Card will help improve the attractiveness of the EU as a destination for highly qualified migrants.

We also need to attract more students and researchers to Europe. That is why I am looking at how we could amend the existing EU Directives on students and researchers.

4. Need for a European Asylum policy

Establishing a common European Asylum policy is the third challenge.

In 2011 the 27 EU Member States received 277 000 asylum claims.

Is this a lot?

If you judge it on the basis of the political turmoil it generated, you would think so.

There are those who give off the impression that Europe is a safe haven to large and ever-increasingly numbers of refugees. Different Member States are working to tighten their national asylum policies, making it harder for people to get the protection they need.

Still, as pointed out by the UN High-Commissioner for refugees, the number for Europe is still way below the 460 000 refugees of Dadaab, one single refugee camp in northeast Kenya.

There is a strong need for a common European asylum policy. As it stands, 90% of asylum seekers are taken in by only 10 Member States. That means that 17 countries could do much more. If all Member States would help each other, we could share our responsibilities and, at the same time, help more people in need of international protection.

Equally, Member States differ very much in the way they assess asylum requests. In fact, the situation is extremely arbitrary. The recognition rates differ seriously: for Sudanese asylum seekers the rate is 2% is Spain, whereas it is 68% in Italy.

Such disparities are not acceptable in an EU where we have signed the same international conventions and unite around the same values.

The EU needs common high standards and stronger co-operation to ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system – wherever they apply.

Negotiations on a common system are underway, but are moving slowly. These must be intensified, especially considering the repeated political commitment from the EU Heads of State and Government to have a common system by 2012. These negotiations are now underway. They are not easy but we have not given up on the prospect of having them finalised before the end of the year. When this is in place, we will have harmonised procedures, reception conditions and qualification rules in all 27 member countries.

5. Realism and populism

So, Europe needs to improve its relations with its neighbouring countries, it needs to establish a common immigration policy and it needs a common asylum policy.

But what are the prospects of getting there?

When President Obama took office in 2008, he was determined to pass a comprehensive reform of US immigration policies and was hopeful that this view was shared both by Republicans and Democrats;

Unfortunately, migration issues often play an important role in election times and it doesn't look like Republicans and Democrats will see eye-to-eye on this soon. Despite its importance for the US and the urgency, it may be difficult to make substantial progress before the next Presidential elections.

Getting migration reforms through will be difficult in the US; it may be even more difficult in the EU where 27 different countries have their say. Migration and related matters like integration dominate a part of the political agenda in many European countries as well.

We are in the middle of French presidential elections, we will have elections in Greece (6 May), in Austria and the Netherlands in September, in the Czech Republic in October and Romania in November. And the next German federal elections will be in October 2013.

In Europe, it is always election time it seems!

Moreover, the overall political climate in Europe has turned sour, some would even say toxic. We are seeing increasing nationalistic tendencies in several Member States.

We have not seen as many populist and xenophobic parties in European national parliaments since before the Second World War. They come up with simple solutions to complex problems, based on a false dichotomy of 'us' and 'them'. Too many governments are taken hostage by their clamorous rhetoric these days.

In times where the EU should be open to the world and have an active, demand-driven labor immigration policy, in times where we should live up to our international protection obligations, Europe seems on its way to increased protectionism and nationalism, shutting itself off from the world.

6. Policy response

The difficulty of presenting the message should not stop us from sending it.

As stated, our track record is not something to be very proud of. We will need to do better. We are all aware that the challenges facing the world are enormous; migration, but also the environment, our economic and financial constructions, poverty: in addressing these issues the 21st century can be the best or the worst century ever.

It will largely depend on whether we will be able to develop the right ideas in time and whether these ideas will be well received and acted upon by the decision makers.

For our relations with our Arab neighbours, I am hopeful. I do believe and hope that many European leaders will seize the second opportunity to help our neighbours and their citizens in their struggle towards democracy, economic development and the respect for human rights;

I am confident that we all realise that allowing these countries to fall back into authoritarian regimes would be a historic disaster. That said, the transitionary road in many countries will be difficult and long.

On migration and asylum policy, things may be more complicated.

Although we have now the Lisbon Treaty that provides that in most cases decision making will be by qualified majority, we will still need a favorable political environment and public support to take the necessary decisions.

Here I am seriously concerned.

We will need true European and national political leadership to inform our citizens about reality and about the policies needed.

Politicians in Europe need to show courage to do this, even if this could affect their ratings in the short run. It also means they have to stop accusing 'the EU' of being the cause of all evil, that they stop blaming migrants, that they stand up and refuse to let populist rhetoric dictate the agenda, that they clearly distance themselves from any xenophobic and discriminatory tendencies.

But I am also hopeful. The challenges are great, but so is the commitment of the new generation to find solutions. I am convinced the new generation of young and determined people will find the answers to the many challenges this world is faced with and help construct a truly strong Europe.

I meet so many people like you here today who do realise that – looking back at history – a united Europe is the only way towards prosperity, the only way to safeguard countries from repeating the historical cruelties and the human suffering that have dominated this part of our world way too often.

I am convinced that there are many who stand ready to construct a new agenda for Europe. An agenda built on human values, on a constructive and open partnership with our neighbors and with the confidence that we can build a stronger Europe in which all countries take their share of responsibility.

For me, I will continue to dedicate my time and energy to looking for those who want to work together on this positive agenda, who are committed to give a true meaning to the words human solidarity.

I am ready to take any questions. Thank you for your attention.

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