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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Speech of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans at 'Prague European Summit' Conference

Brussels, 13 November 2015

Thank you very much and my apologies to those who expected me here yesterday, but I had to go to the European Council to report on my visit to Turkey in the days before that. It is always a particular pleasure to be in Prague, which is, I think, one of the central places of our shared European history. Everything that went right and especially everything that went wrong took place in Prague in some way or form. Some of my favourite writers have Prague as the centre of their universe, mostly they wrote in German, but this has also been a multilingual city throughout history, and especially now. I will come to my speech in a moment but I was thinking on the way here about one writer, a German writer, who was a fierce opponent of the Nazi regime and who has written this big book about the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque.

Remarque also wrote a small book about the plight of refugees, German refugees, who fled the Nazi regime and went like ghosts in the whole of Europe, travelling from place to place, seeing where they could stay, choosing which country would be best for them. He describes this very precisely, saying for instance: in Austria police beat you up and you would only get to stay for a couple of days before they kick you out again. Whereas in Prague, you can stay for a few months, if you are friendly with the police they will give you a permit to stay for a few months and you can live a better life; so now I am swimming across the river to go to the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia. If you read these books about the 1930s, so many parallel elements come to mind about the plight of refugees today, some of whom flee the same brutal sort of regime as Remarque did and others did in 1930s Germany. So, anyway, all this comes to mind when I am in Prague and perhaps I can use this first minute of my speech to encourage all of you who do not read to start reading, especially people like Roth, Remarque and Kafka, who have described a road that is far less removed from our world than we sometimes think.

Anyway, when we took office as a Commission a year ago, we said that migration would be a challenge, but we did not know it would be a challenge to the level we are facing now. We also know that this migration crisis comes on the back of other crises we had to face, crises that have subsequently undermined our self-confidence as Europeans. I would start with the beginning of the terrorist attacks at the start of this millennium. After that the reaction by the Western world to these terrorist attacks also undermined our self-confidence in the sense that we later came to the conclusion that what was done in Iraq perhaps wasn’t the West’s finest hour to put it mildly, and it did undermine the confidence of our own people, in our own institutions and our political wisdom. Then we got the banking crisis. We got the economic crisis. Again, the institutions were challenged, the trust in institutions went down. Additionally, in all this time we had the terrorist threat all over Europe we had to cope with other challenges as well, and ongoing changes in our societies. And the migration crisis, the refugee crisis, is in a way the last element in what turns out to be a perfect storm for European cooperation. I want to say it in those clear terms, because I am worried about the state of Europe, but I am also worried about the future of our European project if we are not able to cope collectively with what is a collective challenge.

The temptation on the national level to play to the fears of people is great.

It is I think a well-known psychological phenomenon, that fear as a fuel for political rhetoric but also political activity is both very tempting and very dangerous. It is tempting because fear has the characteristic of going out and looking for information to justify itself. So people are afraid and mostly open to facts or elements that confirm that they are right to be afraid. And for politicians that is very tempting: “people are afraid, they look for the confirmation of their fear, let's cater to that, great fun, I'll be popular!”

And I think you see that in almost all Member States of the European Union the politicians that cater to that fear increase in popularity. But, they can only do this free of charge, because there are other politicians who take their responsibilities seriously and try to find solutions. If everyone gave in to the temptation of fear politics, it would be the end of politics, because policy would be no longer possible and there would be a Hobbesian confrontation in Europe as we have known in our past – and I wish it would not repeat itself.

If there is one lesson we have learnt in European integration over the last 60 years, it is that treaties, laws, are a better alternative to power and imposition. Replacing power struggles with a system based on the rule of law is fundamental to the way we want to continue our European construction. If we take that element out of it, we go back at best to a nineteenth century situation where European nations compete or face economic and military power, and at worst in a confrontational mode based on false ideological differences. One of my concerns, my worries, is that we believe too much that the European construction is indestructible. I am not going to say today that it is going to be destroyed, but it is not indestructible, nothing man-made is indestructible, everything that is being made can also be undone. The European project is no different, any political construction can be undone, but I think European construction merits to be supported, renovated, adapted if necessary, made more flexible if necessary. But it is essential for the future. I believe the biggest success of the European construction was the end of European divide. But it happened so quickly — I mean, in historical terms a quarter of century is the blink of an eye, and in that blink of an eye, what seemed unthinkable became a reality.

I see many young people in this room for whom the Cold War means history. For me it is personal experience: I was trained as a soldier to fight the Warsaw pact. I remember as I was a student in France in the mid-1980s, at a conference comparable to this, a French general said that he was very worried that one day, Germany would be reunified and this Germany would be essentially neutral. But the Germans in the room stood up as one man, saying that the general was fantasizing, dreaming, there will be no Germany reunification, it is not possible, the world is as it is. It was in 1985. In history, what seems unthinkable before it happens, is later portrayed by the same people as unavoidable once it did happen.

And so, that is why, with my personal experience in mind, I want to stay a strong advocate for the European project, because what is unthinkable – if we are not careful – might become reality. We need to defend this project. And the first line of defence of this project today is the issue of refugees.

I was talking about the greatest success of the project which was the European reunification, the enlargement, but it happened so quickly and it was so far reaching that our people on both sides of what was previously a dividing line sometimes did not get enough time to digest this, to understand what the consequences are. And so today in the refugee crisis there are frictions and sometimes misunderstandings between East and West about how to provide solidarity in this crisis.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that we had different histories in the twentieth century: and the differences in history define also the difference in attitudes towards what is foreign, what is different, what is new. There should be more understanding – it is not a justification! To say, we accept that Europe has a different history and therefore we cannot take refugees: that’s not a justification. But it is not a justification either in the West to disregard the difference in history. If we understand each other better, if we do not lose the capacity to understand and respect historic differences in our countries, if we know that we can come to terms with that, we can find solutions that everybody can support.

I know for a fact and I’m absolutely convinced about this, that if we go down the road of every man and woman for himself or herself in the refugee crisis, this will not just affect the way we deal with migration and refugees, it will have a profound influence on all the other areas of European cooperation. So fixing this is a prerequisite for fixing other problems we have in Europe.

And can we fix this? Of course we can fix this. Not in the sense that we can put an end to migration flows. Migration is part of the world today, is part of Europe today, and will be part of Europe today, tomorrow and the day after that. But what we can do is get this issue under control – that is entirely possible. What we need to do then is to clarify a few things; to act where we have neglected to act in the last couple of years.

First and foremost we need to make sure that Europe’s external borders are better protected. That is of essential importance. And to do that we need to create more European activity there. We cannot just leave that to those Member States who happen to be on that border which now is used for people to come into Europe.

That is why the European Commission is in favour of a European coast guard. And I was encouraged at the European Council yesterday by the fact that Robert Fico announced that Slovakia would contribute substantially more in terms of financing and experts to a Frontex operation. This is what we need. We need to strengthen that.

If we neglect the protection of our external borders, Member States will want to create more protection on the internal borders and that will lead to a cascading effect that will, without any doubt, have serious consequences for Schengen and also for the internal market in the long run.

So protection of the external border is one task. Secondly, we need to work closer together with those countries that are countries of transit before people arrive in the European Union. That is why I went to Turkey now twice to see if we can strengthen the agreements we have with Turkey to tackle this challenging issue jointly. It is absolutely clear that the European Union cannot solve or manage this issue without Turkey and it is equally clear that Turkey cannot manage this issue without the European Union too. We are in this together. What we need to do is to make sure for instance that the way we treat visas in the EU and Turkey is better aligned. We need to make sure that we tackle the situation where people who can legally enter Turkey then illegally cross into the European Union. We need to coordinate our visa policy and we are working closer with the Turks on that to make it happen.

We also need to make sure that we take away some of the push factors that are pushing people into the European Union because they are worried about where they are now in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries. We need to make sure that we provide more support for people to be able to live decent lives in dignity in the camps where they are in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. We need to make sure that we help those countries to afford these people the opportunity to work, to take up jobs, and one of the major elements we need to look at is to provide education for children – that is of the greatest importance. One of the most powerful push factors, if you talk to refugees – and incidentally, nobody talks enough to those refugees directly - but if you talk to them, one of the most powerful push factors is parents saying: I can’t afford for my children to stay out of school for another two years so that’s why they have come to Europe because parents want kids to go to school. So why don't we as Europeans make sure they have schools where they are now, that's what we need to be doing, that´s what we need to be working on with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

So these are a few things we can do concretely.

What we also need to do is, once people arrive, immediately fingerprint them and register them, so that you can immediately distinguish those who have right of asylum from those who don’t have the right of asylum. Because it takes too long and people start exchanging stories, buying false passports, doing all sorts of things that make it more and more difficult to distinguish those who have the right of asylum from those who don’t.

I've been accused of being very tough on this as far as people who don't have the right of asylum are concerned. But that is because if we are not tough on those who don’t have the right of asylum and if we are not more efficient in returning them where they came from, the right of asylum will crumble for those who need it. That has to be a principle.

The European public will not support an asylum policy that is unable to distinguish between those who have the right of asylum and those who don’t. So we need to do a better job on that. We need to have better agreements with third countries, and take back those who do have not the right of asylum.

We need to be also clearer, because many of these refugees are told by the smugglers not to cooperate, not to fingerprint, not to register… they say “Germany, Germany, Germany” and nothing else. I think we should also be clear with refugees, if you don’t fingerprint immediately, if you don’t register, we assume you're not a refugee and you will be sent back.

We need to be tougher at this stage. There is no alternative. I strongly believe in that. Then I also believe that an expression of solidarity across the European Union is necessary. The relocation mechanism is necessary in material terms, but it is equally necessary in political terms.

With it Member states say to each other, in case step one, two or three occur and Member states are disproportionally burdened by this issue, solidarity will kick back, and we will make sure we can solve this together. I think this is an essential element.

Because at the end of day, those who believe they can solve their problem by building fences close to the borders, can only do that because others are willing to solve the problems. Because if everyone goes that way, it is the end of the Schengen system. And who will pay the price for that?

If we see the end of the Schengen system, other systems will come down as well. Our systems of solidarity will be tested. And let me end on that more philosophical point.

On solidarity, there is no solidarity that does not have a core of self-interest in it. Be it because you believe in God, and the reward of heaven, or be it because you believe that if you show solidarity now with others then they will show solidarity with you when you need it, both are for self-interest. This principle is challenged in our Member States, and has been challenged for a long time. The problem in my view resides in many Member States, in the middle classes who for the first time in a long, long time are no longer sure that their children will be better off than they are today.

This is a paradigm change in many European societies. If you believe that your children might be worse off, if you believe that the development of politics, of society, is a development that leads to loss for you, you will try to protect everything you have. And the call for your solidarity will be interpreted by you as a further element of loss rather than an element of gain.

If we don't get European society to move away from that position, the call for solidarity will be very hollow and will not be answered.

As politicians we must understand that if we ask for solidarity, it will only be given when people understand that it is in their self-interest to show that solidarity. If we don't understand that concept, we will sound nice when we ask for solidarity, but we will not get it.

So the first responsibility in this crisis is to show to everyone around the European Union that first of all the refugee crisis can only be managed at a global and European level.

Secondly, that if we are not able to manage it, it's not only Germany or Austria or Sweden or the Netherlands that will lose, it is all of us, because the ripple effect of not being able to manage it will affect all sorts of policy areas. And you have seen in the European Parliament already voices saying that if Central and East European countries do not show solidarity, let's re-consider structural funds policies.

Now it's logical in human terms, in political terms, but it's like saying that if I don't get what that guy needs to give me, I will shoot myself in the foot and see how he will suffer because I shoot myself in the foot.

I mean it is almost ridiculous, but it is a logical consequence of de-committing, because that's what it feels like. De-committing from European solidarity will lead us down a road that we don't want to go.

I believe in European cooperation, not because there is no alternative. There is an alternative to everything. I believe in European cooperation because I have seen all the other forms that have been tried to help European peoples get along better during history. And with the exception of this one, all the other forms led to war. So let's stick to this one. It works well. Let's modernise it. Let's make sure that our children and grandchildren can still profit from the same positive effects of European integration that we have seen over the last twenty five years.

Thank you very much.


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