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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Keynote Speech by Commissioner Avramopoulos at the 2016 Harvard European Conference: Europe at the Crossroads of the Migration and Security Crises

Cambridge, MA, 20 February 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour to be with you here today, to speak at this historic institution of learning and excellence.

The Harvard-Fletcher European Conference is testament to the bonds between our two continents. These bonds go deep in our culture and history, and extend far ahead into our future.

The transatlantic relationship has never been stronger. Ambassador O'Sullivan outlined some of the global issues of the day that bind us together. As the Ambassador of the European Union in the US, he is indeed the best placed person to appreciate the depth of our relationship.

As European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, I would like to focus my speech on a challenge of truly global dimensions. That is of course the migration and refugee crisis that we are dealing with today.

Today, Europe is facing the biggest refugee challenge since the end of the Second World War.

2015 has been the year of many records. More than one million people arrived at the Greek and Italian shores. More than 1.2 million people applied for asylum in the EU. 3,771 lives were lost at sea.

These are tragic and unnecessary deaths, and they can be avoided.

Given the explosive instability in the region these people are coming from, we know the migratory flows are set to continue.

As we head into spring, we know that the numbers will spike again. We know that this is a situation which evolves rapidly.

And we know that the sooner we deal with the challenges on the basis of the twin principles of responsibility and solidarity, the better results we will have.

We have been telling EU countries: As long as everyone is waiting for the others to move first – and as long as some continue to act as if the problem will disappear if they just ignore it – then things will only get worse.

A consistent and coordinated European and global approach, put into practice urgently, is the only way ahead.

At the beginning of 2015 the focus was very much on the Central Mediterranean and the need for actions to save lives.

Then, from August onwards, the focus shifted to the Eastern Mediterranean, and in particular the situation affecting Turkey, Greece, and the Western Balkans.

The escalation of the migratory flows resulted in the reintroduction of internal border controls in several Member States. The situation ended up testing the very foundations of the European Union. The principle of free movement –one of the EU’s major achievements — is under huge pressure.

It is true that the refugee flows took us somewhat by surprise. When our policies were designed, things were different in the area of migration. The flows were of a different nature and scale.

Since this European Commission took office in late 2014, we have been constantly trying, adapting and anticipating.

We took action and proposed concrete responses. In May, we presented the comprehensive European Agenda on Migration to address structural problems.

We put in place an emergency relocation scheme of 160,000 applicants from Italy and Greece to relieve pressure on these two countries. This is a redistribution system for asylum seekers based on solidarity between all EU countries.

Right now, processing and registration centres at the arrival points of the refugees in Italy and Greece are being established to ensure that every refugee who approaches European borders is immediately registered, fingerprinted and identified. This was how we gave EU frontline countries substantial and coordinated support.

The relocation system is based on the properly functioning hotspots.

We didn’t stop here. We presented two concrete Action Plans against smugglers and another one on the Return of irregular migrants to their home countries. Both are essential components of our response.

But our humanitarian efforts and the better management of our borders are two sides of the same coin.

In December, we proposed the creation of a European Border and Coast Guard, which would have enough resources to step in and prevent crises from developing at our borders.

We want it to take immediate operational measures when problems arise at our external borders. And we want it to support Member States to return irregular migrants to their home countries.

Along with the measures to reinforce our borders, we had to also face a mounting threat from terrorism. 2015 was a year of several bloody attacks on European soil – all at the same time as the mounting migration crisis.

Our response again was comprehensive. We put our European Agenda on Security on the table in April 2015 and set out all the measures needed to make a difference for our citizens' security.

Progress was made on several fronts.

We agreed on EU rules to exchange passenger name records between law enforcement authorities.

We proposed the criminalisation of terrorist offences across the Union.

We introduced tighter rules to control firearms.

We took a whole range of actions with civil society to fight radicalisation.

We launched a partnership with the internet industry to fight terrorist content online.

And we will continue on this path to ensure the safety of our citizens.

2016 will be the year that we focus on terrorist financing, with a range of measures to deprive terrorists of their financial resources.

Our efforts will continue and intensify. Especially because on the migration front, what has been agreed is not yet delivering the expected results. Far more is needed, at the European and the international level.

We have repeatedly called for all EU countries to play their part and show more solidarity, more responsibility. And to act on it.

If we do not deliver, we risk fueling anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe. Xenophobia is showing its ugly face again. Populism is rising.

We are seeing shadows from our recent past, which we never thought we would see again.

Our work therefore must continue. I will outline 5 key areas where we will focus our energy:

First, on our external border control system and our asylum policy. Without a functioning Common European Asylum System, free movement within the Union will continue to be at risk. The two go hand in hand.

Second, the responsibility over asylum applicants and new arrivals, the so-called "Dublin system", needs to change. The events of last year showed that the current system does not work.

This is because it makes the first EU Member State where irregular migrants enter responsible – and Greece and Italy suffer from a geographical bias. This makes the burden on these frontline States unsustainable. New rules are needed to ensure more solidarity between Member States.

A new mechanism to share asylum seekers between EU Member States will only work if we make progress on bringing national asylum systems to converge: we still have important differences between EU countries when it comes to asylum. This leads people to shop for asylum between EU countries – things therefore need to change here as well.

Third, while we do want to strengthen external borders and security, we do not want to create "Fortress Europe". We do want to reduce irregular entry of migrants, but we also want to ensure legal and safe pathways towards the EU. This is the best way to ensure that people do not undertake perilous journeys to reach our shores. Humanitarian admission and resettlement schemes must be beefed up and helped with a more permanent framework to resettle people in need. And this is not only a European task, but a global one – where countries like the United States and Canada have a crucial role to play too.

Fourth, keeping in mind demographics and our ageing population, we want to make the EU more attractive for foreign talent. We want to make it easier and more attractive for highly skilled migrants to come work and settle in the EU. But we also want to make our continent more attractive for students, researchers and seasonal workers.

The fifth priority area is integration – one which is often forgotten, but which is increasingly important. And I'm sure you'll share this idea with me, as I am speaking here in the country known as the melting pot of cultures, where everyone is American, but many also have other identities and origins.

With over a million people arrived in Europe, we will need to make concerted efforts not just now but also in the long-term to ensure that all these individuals becoming fully participating and contributing parts of our society. And we also need to learn from the past, and not lose out of sight all those migrants who are already in Europe.

These reflections take into account the geopolitical tensions, the conflict, the wars, the demographic change, climate change and increasing inequality – all forcing more people than ever before to leave their homes and seek a better life elsewhere.

These are global issues, and we need to face them together, in partnership.

That is exactly what we are beginning to do now with NATO helping on the border between Turkey and Greece. In the strongest possible expression of solidarity from the Transatlantic Alliance, NATO will step in to provide support in dealing with the refugee and migrant crisis.

This will be a mission essentially serving to fulfil the EU’s policy on the flows of migrants. It is a mission to help Greece and Turkey to address the challenges they are facing.

Both the EU and NATO will operate within the same policy framework and underpinned by international and European laws.

We need more such global partnerships.

Today, the ongoing conflict in Syria is the main reason for refugees seeking protection in Europe. But this should be seen in the context of the huge pressures on Syria’s neighbouring countries. We are working with all the countries in this region, doing everything we can to assist them.

I call on our US partners to do the same, and share more of the burden.

Take the example of Turkey. We set up a special Refugee Facility to help Turkey deal with the 2.5 million refugees on its territory. We devoted massive financial resources, directly for refugee health and education.

We allocated €4 billion for humanitarian assistance to countries like Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

We pledged more than €3 billion at the Syrian Donors Conference, sending a strong signal of commitment.

We set up a €3 billion Trust Fund for Africa to address migration in all its dimensions, including poverty, bad governance, and conflict.

But while financial contributions are important, it is not the only answer. Solidarity and responsibility for global problems should guide our actions.

The conflict in Syria is not the only reason for people looking for protection in other countries. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria are all countries from which people leave and seek protection or a better life in the EU or in other countries.

There are three key issues we must address globally:

First, responsibility: how to promote better sharing of this challenge globally? We need to rethink how people in need can access protection.

Second, protection: how to protect vulnerable migrants falling outside the 'refugee' definition?

And third, governance: what kind of systems and institutions do we need to ensure protection for those in need? But also: how can we contribute to safer and more thriving living environments so people don't have to leave in the first place?

Ladies and gentlemen,

2016 will be a hugely important year for Europe as far as migration is concerned.

It will be a decisive year and a year in which our leadership, our solidarity and our courage will be tested more than ever.

It will be about protecting the growing numbers of people fleeing from war and conflict, while ensuring internal security. It will be about Europe, our Union and the values it was built upon.

But 2016 will also be the year in which questions are asked of the international community, and its readiness to face up to its responsibilities. 2016 could therefore be a global turning point — for better or for worse.

Thank you.


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