Good afternoon and thank you for being here. Today we are presenting our contribution to tomorrow's European Council meeting.
As you know the Heads of State or Government agreed on 7 March at their meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister to take work forward based on a series of principles – in particular the idea that all new irregular migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey would be returned to Turkey, together with the resettlement of Syrians from Turkey to the EU.
There are three aspects to this – political, legal and practical.
Politically, there is of course a decision to be made on whether to go ahead. Of course this is in the hands of the European Council, and its very capable President Tusk who is working on this and I think he's returned from Cyprus today. So the political side is in the hands of the leaders.
I think nobody who wants to remain true to the principles of decency, humanity and solidarity can be satisfied with a situation where human beings, to reach Europe, take a gamble on their lives, putting them in the hands of people smugglers who cynically exploit human misery.
We now have an opportunity to break once and for all the smugglers' business model and to put an end to the human suffering linked to these criminal activities.
At the same time it should be clear that this would be a temporary and extraordinary measure.
In any case what is now the alternative? The closing of internal borders and the worsening of the already difficult situation we are seeing in Greece. The last thing we want is for Idomeni to become the norm.
This cannot be the norm in Europe. This is not an acceptable way forward for the EU's asylum and migration policy. We need to do everything we can to avoid this.
In our communication today we are showing that the 6 principles laid down at the 7 March meeting, can be implemented.
The bottom line concerning returns is this: returns can only take place in accordance with the international and EU legal framework. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding on this in the last week.
This means, first of all, the case of each person requesting international protection needs to be assessed individually, in line with requirements from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and according to the parameters laid down in the Asylum Procedures Directive. This can be done while also making full use of the possibilities offered by the Directive for faster procedures. But let me be crystal clear about this, therecan be no "blanket returns" and there can be no "refoulement".
The rules allow considering an asylum application inadmissible if a person enjoys sufficient protection in a "first country of asylum", or if someone has come to the EU from a "safe third country" guaranteeing effective access to protection. When this is the case, a number of safeguards need to be respected: following registration and identification, there must be a personal interview to check the criteria; and the person must always have the right to appeal.
Member States also need to be satisfied that the safe third country will respect a set of standards concerning fundamental rights, non-discrimination and respect for international law.
Applying these provisions seems to require changes to both Greek and Turkish domestic legislation. We are not saying that this will be easy. None of this is easy. We are of course ready to help.
Finally, from a practical point of view - let's be honest: there will be even more difficulties. But again, it can be done.
The EU will need to support Greece - in adapting the hotspots, increasing the reception capacity in the Greek islands, as well as meeting transportation needs.
What is also clear is that things need to move fast – we know from experience that any delayed policies or steps are creating pull and push factors on the ground.
I want to stress that, as Europeans, we cannot and will not turn our back on those who need protection. People seek refuge from war and persecution. It is our moral obligation to help them. It is our legal obligation to help them. And we will, in full compliance with our international legal obligations.
Irregular flows of migrants travelling in dangerous conditions across the Aegean must stop, and be replaced by an orderly and legal resettlement process.
The scheme based on the "one for one" principle can be implemented: for each Syrian readmitted by Turkey from the Greek islands, the EU should resettle another Syrian from Turkey.
We can do this under the existing resettlement scheme, for which there are 18 000 places still available. And if further needs arise, some of the commitments from the existing relocation decisions could be used, in particular the 54,000 places which have so far not been allocated. This of course would require an amendment of the Council Decision.
Once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU have come to an end or have been at least substantially reduced, admissions under the Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme with Turkey should be activated. And let me underline that once that is the case, we expect more Member States to participate. We must continue to live up to our shared responsibility to give refuge to those who have the right to international protection. When we succeed in breaking the pattern of irregular arrivals, 'one for one' will not become 'none for none'.
And we must keep helping refugees in Turkey. We have already started to allocate funds from our 3 billion facility. This money will directly help Syrians in Turkey, improving their daily lives through better access to healthcare and education. We need to continue to work with our Turkish partners and with Member States to allow for its swift and efficient roll-out.
A few words on other aspects of our relations with Turkey: visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens rests on the fulfilment of clear conditions.
For the Commission there can be no shortcuts; the only way to get there faster is to make faster progress in fulfilling the benchmarks. Meeting the deadline of the end of June will therefore require further efforts from Turkey, namely that all remaining requirements are fulfilled by end of April.
On the accession negotiations with Turkey, we are working on preparatory documents to open five new chapters, without prejudice to the positions Member States may then take and in full respect of the negotiating framework. So we are not giving Turkey a free ride: we are advancing the preparatory work, subject to consensus in the Council allowing for a step forward.
Let me also recall that the process towards accession is what may allow us to help Turkey on the path to reform and to meeting the EU acquis. In particular, it is a process for effectively addressing fundamental rights issues; including freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary and the respect for human rights.
Finally, we will also continue to work to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria to allow refugees to live in safer areas.
Our cooperation with Turkey is essential, but is also one of the pieces of the puzzle. There is no silver bullet here. This on its own will not solve the problem. We need to move forward on all aspects of our Migration Agenda together.
We are also issuing today a first report on the implementation of relocation and resettlement.
The number of people stranded in Greece grows by thousands each week, not by hundreds. Our help must be commensurate.
We are currently acting to prevent the difficult humanitarian situation in Greece from worsening, using all available instruments. But the pace of relocation should also dramatically accelerate. This requires action from all sides, in particular more political will from the Member States of relocation to fulfil their obligations in a full and in a timely way. The recent experience with Portugal shows it can be done.
Member States also need to deliver on resettlement: as I said, it is crucial to show there are credible, functioning legal pathways to get to Europe for those in need of protection.
What we most urgently need now is a decisive resolve to keep working on all fronts – this applies to everything I've just mentioned, but also to the protection of our external borders, to delivering on hotspots, returns and readmissions, and implementing our roadmap to safeguard Schengen.
We also need to continue our work on the future legislative framework. Today in the college we had an orientation debate on the future of EU asylum and migration laws.
We need to decide how we reform Dublin to have a system that works better and ensures a fair sharing of responsibility; and we'll need to think about how to ensure a more consistent treatment of asylum claims. We will come back to the issue in the coming weeks and present reform options in order to start the discussion with the Council and Parliament.
Let me end by saying that moving forward on the agreement reached by the European Council of 7 March is the right thing to do because staying with the present situation is simply unacceptable from a human point of view. People are still drowning in the Aegean, people are suffering in Idomeni. We need to break that logic, we need to put an end to the business of smugglers. This is in our view a way to put an end to the business of smugglers, which will enable us to move ahead to show that solidarity is not just a word, but something that Europeans are collectively capable of.