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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Remarks by First Vice-President Timmermans and Commissioner Avramopoulos to the European Parliament Plenary Session

Brussels, 12 May 2016

On the decision adopted on the Common European Asylum System reform

First Vice-President Timmermans:

Until we are able to build peace and prospects for war-ravaged and persecuted communities in our neighbourhood and beyond, people will continue to look to the EU for refuge.

We need to make sure that people who need protection actually receive it. This is our moral duty as well as our legal responsibility.

And we must find ways to help these people without them having to risk their lives in dangerous journeys. We need to take them out of the hands of smugglers by putting in place safe and legal ways to the EU for those in need of protection.  Cooperation with third countries, protection in the region and resettlement from there to the EU should become the model for the future.  We will come forward in June with proposals for how to work better with third countries as part of our work towards a more sustainable approach to managing migration.

Recent experience also shows that we need a better approach to large-scale arrivals of people at our external borders. Those who do not seek protection should be returned. Those who do claim asylum should have their case processed efficiently and get a decent reception.

But we have seen how our existing European asylum rules are not doing that. We all know the weaknesses.  In the past year a few Member States came under incredible strain. This results directly from the shortcomings of the Dublin system in its current form.

Dublin was simply not designed to deal with situations such as these. It does not deliver effective solutions and it does not ensure solidarity and a sustainable sharing of responsibility.

A month ago we presented options for reforming our Common European Asylum System, and we heard your reactions as well as those of the Member States in the Council.

The simple truth is that if Member States do not find a common approach to sharing the responsibility in handling the refugee crisis, at the end of the day not a single Member State will be able to handle that responsibility on its own. We either face this challenge together, or we give up on facing it at all. With dire consequences for all. And with unacceptable consequences for refugees who flee war and persecution.

If we take leave of our common responsibility, we will take leave of our common values and weaken the very fabric upon which our societies are built. That is why the Commission has presented a proposal that will make it possible for all Member States to take their responsibility.

So we propose to introduce a corrective mechanism in our Dublin System.

It will be triggered automatically, so that whenever a Member State has to face a disproportionate number of asylum applications, responsibility for new applicants – of all nationalities – will be transferred to other Member States.

Once the pressure is relieved, that Member State will again take responsibility for new applicants.

Each Member State's share will be based on clear and simple criteria – population size and GDP. Their resettlement efforts will also be taken into account, in line with our objective to provide safe and legal pathways to Europe.

All Member States will be required to contribute and show solidarity. This may under conditions also take the form of financial solidarity. If – temporarily – a Member State does not relocate asylum applicants, they will need to support those member states who do.

The new system will also be much more efficient and fairer, with shorter processes for assigning responsibility and processing applications.

It will discourage abuses – with clear obligations for applicants and safeguards against “asylum shopping".

At the same time, we will better protect the rights of those who seek refuge, through better safeguards for unaccompanied minors and stronger guarantees that families will be kept together.

I trust this House to examine our proposals with the urgency this issue merits.

Commissioner Avramopoulos:

Dear all,

I will go straight in the core of the issues.

We know the weak points in our current asylum system, and the smugglers know them too.

To address them, we started last year to strengthen the control at our external borders with our proposal on European Border and Coast Guards. I am glad that the discussion progresses well.

But, as you have indicated in your report on the Holistic Approach to Migration, Europe also needs to set up a robust and effective Common European Asylum System.

The reform of Dublin, the reinforcement of Eurodac and the transformation of EASO into a true European Agency for Asylum, are the first major steps in this direction.

These proposals are all based on the same principles: solidarity, responsibility and pragmatism.

We cannot abandon any Member State to face a crisis alone. A country's place on the map should not decide its share of the work.

I am convinced that our proposal to reform the Dublin system strikes the right balance to achieve two objectives.

First, our proposal will allow establishing a sustainable and fair system for determining the Member State responsible for asylum seekers.

It is based on a European reference system, with an automatically triggered corrective solidarity mechanism.

Once the number of asylum applications in a Member State exceeds 150% of the allocated share based on GDP and population, the corrective mechanism will be automatically triggered.

All new admissible applications will then be shared proportionately between the other Member States which are below their share, based on the reference key.

The objective is to avoid that a Member State carries a disproportionate burden.

Second, the new Dublin Regulation will better prevent secondary movements within the European Union.

The current shifts of responsibility between Member States, will no longer be possible.

It is important to see the Dublin Regulation as part of a package together with the reform of EASO and of EURODAC.

Indeed, the existing European Asylum Support Office (EASO) will be transformed into a fully-fledged Asylum Agency.

The tasks of the Agency will be considerably expanded. One of its other essential tasks will be to ensure a greater convergence in the assessment of applications for international protection across the Union.

And, as we have proposed for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, we see the clear need to strengthen its operational role when needed.

Therefore, we suggest a reserve of 500 experts from Member States to be available when needed in urgencies, if a Member State is subject to disproportionate pressure and needs support.

Finally, the reinforced EURODAC Regulation will continue to support the application of the Dublin system.

The new Regulation includes the possibility for Member States to store and search data belonging to third country nationals or stateless persons who are irregularly staying in the Union.

This will facilitate their identification and therefore the enforcement of return decisions in line with data protection standards.

These are only the first proposals for the reform of Common European Asylum system.

We are now working on a second stage of legislative proposals towards achieving more convergence in the asylum procedure and the rights we need to grant to those in need.

In addition, we are working towards increasing the legal avenues to Europe and we will come up soon with a structural resettlement scheme.

As President Juncker said in this plenary in April: We want to build a Common European Asylum System that is the best in the world.

And I have full confidence that this House will help us to build a fairer, more equitable and more sustainable system that Europe needs and will need in the future.

On restoring a fully functioning Schengen system

Honourable Members,

The Schengen Area, as an area of free movement without internal borders is one of the main achievements of the European Union.

This Commission is doing everything in its power to make sure that we preserve it, in accordance with the steps set out in our Back to Schengen Roadmap.

Our objective is to return to a normal functioning of the Schengen area with no internal border controls as soon as possible, and within six months at the latest.

Because the costs of internal border controls are already visible. We see transporters complain about increasing delays and cost.

We see the tourism industry in some Member States suffer. And this is only a fraction of what would happen if border controls were re-established systematically.

But the political cost of non-Schengen would be much more important still: it would be a highly symbolic reversal of a major achievement of European integration.

This is why we need to take coordinated action at European level, making use of the tools that the same Schengen Borders Code provides to us, so as to allow Member states do what is necessary in the current circumstances while preserving Schengen as a whole.

This is what our proposal under Article 29 Schengen Border Code is meant to achieve.

Let me first acknowledge that Greece has made significant progress in the last few months.

However, not all deficiencies identified in the management of external border control have been remedied.

This concerns in particular: sea border surveillance, reception capacities and registration in the mainland of the migrants who had not been registered upon arrival in the islands.

Despite the reduction in the flows due to our cooperation with Turkey, the sustainability of this reduction still has to be confirmed.

Moreover, a number of these unregistered migrants remain in Greece, or in other countries of the Western Balkans.

They may seek to move irregularly to other Member States.

In other words, the reasons that led several States to unilaterally introduce temporary border controls still exist.

The persistent threat of secondary movements puts at risk the overall functioning of the Schengen area.

Therefore a coherent, coordinated and sustainable common approach to temporary internal border control, as foreseen in Article 29 of the Schengen Borders Code, is needed at EU level.

Article 29 is a tool to safeguard the functioning of the whole Schengen area and it is the first time that the Commission makes use of it.

As a result, we proposed that the Council recommends that Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Norway maintain the internal border controls at specific border crossing points for up to six months.

Controls will be regularly reviewed by the Schengen States concerned and adjusted to the level of the security threat addressed.

The States concerned will also report to the Commission every 2 months.

Let me be clear about a few things: Article 29 is not a sanction against a Member State nor a means to expel it from the Schengen area.

We do not propose the introduction of border controls at the Schengen borders of Greece, namely at airports and ports.

In addition, we clearly state that the controls introduced should be proportionate and limited to what is strictly necessary to respond to the serious threat and safeguard public policy and internal security.

They should impede as little as possible the border crossing for the general public.

The Commission will continuously monitor the situation and, after 4 months, will report to this Parliament and the Council on the possible need to adapt the application of its initial recommendation.

The principles of necessity and proportionality are the guiding principles for this and any future decision.

Let me therefore reiterate that our proposal is an exceptional temporary measure to ultimately allow for the safeguarding and return to a normal functioning Schengen area as soon as possible.

It is expected that, by the end of the 6 months period the latest, the implementation of other tools will allow lifting all internal border controls and returning to a normally functioning Schengen.

I refer in particular: to the European Coast and Border Guard, to the further sustained implementation of the EU-Turkey statement, the full application of EU asylum rules as well as a swift agreement by the co-legislators on the recently presented proposals reforming parts of the Common European Asylum System, in particular the Dublin system.

We look forward to the Council adopting the proposed recommendations tomorrow.

On Turkey's progress in fulfilling the requirements of the Visa Liberalisation Roadmap

On 4 May, the Commission has presented its third report on Turkey's progress in fulfilling the requirements of its visa liberalisation roadmap dated from 2013.

In parallel, to comply with the strict timeframe set by the EU Member States' Heads of State and Government, and on the understanding that Turkish authorities will take the necessary measures to fulfil all the outstanding benchmarks, on 4 May the Commission has also presented a proposal to transfer Turkey to the list of visa-free countries.

The Commission's proposal opens the way for the European Parliament and the Member States to decide to lift Turkish citizens' visa requirements, once the benchmarks have been met.

It also gives, -and it is equally important- adequate time for consulting the national parliaments on this issue.

Let me underline that in the last months the Turkish authorities have made really substantial progress in fulfilling the visa liberalisation roadmap, with a further acceleration since the 18 March EU-Turkey Summit:

  • As a result of this, for example, they are now fully cooperating with Greece on readmission;

  • we see a clear reduction of the number of irregular arrivals to Greece from 6,000 a day in October 2015 to around 140 in April with a continuing downward trend.

We also have to commend Turkey for hosting around 2.7 million Syrian refugees and more than 200,000 non-Syrian asylum seekers and refugees, granting to all of them free access to health care and education, now also to legal employment.

Meanwhile they are also improving the asylum procedures;

  • they have ratified all international conventions and protocols on judicial cooperation indicated by the visa liberalisation roadmap;

  • and as requested by the roadmap, they have also adopted several pieces of legislation (for instance on trafficking in human beings, and on judicial cooperation, and on equality and anti-discrimination, and action plans on social inclusion of citizens with Roma background, on corruption, on fight against drug trafficking, on fight against organised crime which they are starting to implement.

But let me be clear as well that there is still progress to be made.

This implies for Turkey to take the following steps:

  • to adopt measures to fight against corruption in line with the recommendations of the Council of Europe;

  • to align its legislation on personal data protection with the EU standards;

  • to conclude an operational cooperation agreement with Europol;

  • to offer effective judicial cooperation in criminal matters to all Member States;

  • and last but not least the need to better align   with the European standards its legislation and practices on terrorism.

In the EU-Turkey Statement of 18 March, Turkish authorities have expressed their determination to fulfil all benchmarks of the visa liberalisation roadmap by June. I am confident they remain committed to implement all aspects of that Statement.

In any case the Commission will continue to monitor closely the fulfilling of these benchmarks and naturally I and my services will ensure you are regularly updated.

We have to remain optimistic that the Turkish authorities will give that final push before the end of June.

I want to be clear: this agreement is beneficial for both sides.

We are not watering down our standards in order to provide visa-free.

But we are doing everything we can to provide support and expertise to the Turkish Authorities to accelerate what are also quite important reforms in their own right.

What is also important in their path towards the European Union.

The implementation of these reforms will not only contribute to the internal welfare of Turkey, but also will help EU and Turkey to develop effective cooperation in the framework of the global strategy that we are building with this key neighbour.

We are confronted with the same challenges. Cooperation is necessary.

I will give you an example: only yesterday Turkey was hit by another terrorist attack.

I take this opportunity to express my thoughts for those injured and my indignation: terrorism must be condemned in every form and everywhere.

And we know how much sensitive the issue of terrorism is for Turkey.

But this proves how beneficial the close cooperation with Europol is for both sides.

For this to be achieved, Turkey needs to further align its data protection standards to the European-ones.

Not just because this is required by the roadmap: But because the reforms required by the roadmap are the basis for an even stronger cooperation on both security and migration with sensitive data exchanges that needs adequate protection.

It is true that Turkey is considering this cooperation as a catalyst to reenergise our relations as well as its European perspective.

Indeed, it is an opportunity for Turkey to come closer to the European standards on all issues.

The fulfilment of the visa liberalisation roadmap is an important step towards his direction.

Now I would like to shortly mention another element of the package adopted on 4 May: the Commission also proposed to revise the existing suspension mechanism of the visa free regime.

I will be very clear: the suspension mechanism is not about Turkey.

It is a horizontal provision which will apply to all visa-free countries, and not only Turkey.

I hope that the co-legislators will look favourably at this proposal although it should not delay the deliberations and the adoption of the visa liberalisation proposals.

On the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol)

Honourable Members,

Let me start by thanking the Rapporteur, Mr Diaz De Mera, who has done a great job to adopt this critical piece of legislation.

After three years of tireless work to reach this compromise, I can congratulate him for the result, and express my thanks for our cooperation.

What makes this Regulation critical is that our fight against terrorism is at the very top of the political agenda.

82% of European citizens tell us in a very recent survey, that they want the EU to intervene more on terrorism than now.

Once this Regulation is applied in Spring 2017, it will give us right framework for this to happen.

First of all, by making Europol an information hub for law enforcement in the Union. Paris and Brussels showed this very clearly.

Information exchange is our Achilles heel.

Members States have to coordinate more closely and effectively. Complex investigations have to be supported by sound analysis.

Europol can have clear added value in this respect.

The other major improvement is the democratic scrutiny by this Parliament.

Our new rules will ensure this accountability on Europol's activities together with national parliaments.

The protection of personal data will also be strengthened.

I consider therefore the outcome of our work on this file to be positive.

Europol's legal basis has been aligned to the Treaty of Lisbon, and the objectives of the Europol reform – to make Europol more accountable, effective and efficient – have been fully achieved.

Nonetheless, I would like to refer you to the two declarations that the Commission made in Council already, which I would like to highlight today as well.

The first concerns the governance of Europol.

We remain convinced of the benefits of establishing an Executive Board as part of the governance structure of Europol and other agencies.

We will keep following the situation on the governance of Europol and within the next two years, we will examine whether further proposals on this point are necessary.

The second concerns the need to ensure coherence between the Europol regulation and the Data Protection reform package.

In light of our recent adoption of the new EU data protection rules, and the upcoming review of the data protection rules for EU institutions and agencies, we need to ensure consistency and avoid duplication.

It should be clear therefore, that functions exercised by Cooperation Board set up in this Regulation, will in the future be exercised by the newly created European Data Protection Board.

Honourable Members,

I welcome today's important step and I look forward to hear your interventions.

Thank you.

On entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purposes of research, studies, training, volunteering, pupil exchange and au paring

Honourable members,

I would like to start by saying that I am very glad that we are finalizing the revision of the students and researchers Directive.

This updated Directive makes the EU more attractive for talent from abroad and therefore makes the EU more competitive on the global stage.

I would like to thank in particular Ms Wikström and the shadow rapporteurs.

Thanks to your excellent work, we have managed to keep an ambitious text.

The conclusion of the negotiations is important for several reasons:

Firstly, we have clearly improved the immigration rules for students and researchers: their rights are now more clearly defined.

Secondly, intra-EU mobility rules have been improved so that knowledge and skills can circulate more freely within the EU.

Thirdly, students can now work minimum 15 instead of 10 hours per week, which means they contribute more to our economy and can also be financially more independent.

With the new instrument, graduates and researchers have the right to look for a job or to set-up a business once they have finished studies or research.

Finally, we now also have binding EU-wide rules for trainees and volunteers within the European Voluntary Service. In parallel, for the first time, we will also have common rules for third-country national au-pairs, though only optionally.

Let me also underline that the agreement sends out important messages in these challenging times:

First of all, we welcome talent from outside of the EU to come to us to study, carry out research, learn or volunteer.

Those who would like to stay longer to work or create a business are invited to do so.

Equally importantly, we show that the EU sticks to its commitment to improve legal migration routes.

Understandably a lot of focus is now on the refugee crisis and people seeking protection.

But migration is not just about asylum, it is also about mobility and empowerment, and facilitating that through legal channels.

This is an important part of our overall migration policy, and we deliver as promised.

Overall, could we have done better?

Yes, there is almost always room for improvement.

The Commission, together with this Parliament, has insisted throughout the negotiations that Member States' discretionary powers with regard to rejecting an application may only be used when strictly necessary and justified.

We made clear in our Joint Statement to the political compromise that such discretionary power by the Member States should only be used on a case-by-case basis.

It should take into account the specific circumstances of the third-country national and the principle of proportionality and on the basis of evidence or serious and objective reasons.

I can reiterate that the Commission will ensure that Member States implement this provision in line with this interpretation when transposing the Directive, and will inform the Parliament and the Council thereof.

Today, Europe attracts 45% of the international students worldwide but the international higher education landscape is changing rapidly.

Such students and researchers are an asset and contribution, and I welcome the agreement on the revised EU rules to facilitate that contribution even more.


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