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President of the Parliament, Commissioner, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for participating in this year’s Fundamental Rights Conference, and welcome. A particular thanks go to the Italian Presidency of the Council of the EU for co-hosting this event. It’s been a great pleasure to collaborate with your team and put the programme together.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are meeting today for the seventh Fundamental Rights Conference and we meet undoubtedly at a particular time. 25 years ago last night, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. I think we all remember that. Europe responded to the events in 1989 by drawing on its very founding principles and ensuring that such principles became the foundation of a new and much stronger Europe. 25 years later, Europe is larger and much stronger than it was back then. And that’s entirely because Europe responded positively to the unplanned events of history.

The issue of migration needs a similar reponse from Europe today. At this moment in time, there is possibly no other area of human rights more important or topical in the EU than that of migration. Here in Italy you don’t need reminding that you have had eight times more irregular arrivals this year than last year. Italy is in the front line – together with Greece, Malta and others – as the turmoil of the Middle East, and North and Central Africa has created new groups of refugees.

In my opening address, I would like to put three issues to you related to migration.

  • Firstly, the immediate pressures on Europe.
  • Secondly, the need for migration linked to the demographic developments in Europe.
  • And thirdly, racism and exclusion, which cannot be detached from a disucussion on migration.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Desperate people do desperate deeds. Many try to reach the EU by crossing the Mediterranean. But not only the Mediterranean: just a few days ago, I saw an article saying that at least 24 people died when their boat capsized in the Black Sea on their way “to the European Union from the Middle East.”

With these tragedies taking place all too frequently, there is a constant search for adequate responses. Adequate to the humanitarian needs of the people who are so desperate to reach Europe that they are prepared to risk their lives in doing so; but also adequate to the capacities of the countries receiving them.

We all agree that all aspects of migration policy have to be fundamental rights-compliant. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is part of the treaty base of the Union and creates a strong framework for whatever steps are taken in the field of migration and refugee protection. Fundamental rights must be the basis, because migration is not primarily about numbers and procedures – it is first and foremost about individual human beings. Human beings who are seeking protection against human rights violations in their own countries, or who are simply seeking a better life.

What does a fundamental rights-based European migration policy imply? What does it mean in reality when it has to be translated into everyday operational realities at the borders of Europe, in integration policy and on the labour market? This is what we are here to discuss. Because we need to find better answers than the ones we have found so far.

Most importantly, we need to escape from the negative language of the current migration debate. When writing about people fleeing from persecution, headlines often focus on the drama of arrival, with people arriving not as individuals but in ‘waves’ or ‘floods’. This is despite the knowledge about the wars, conflicts and massive human rights violations taking place in countries such as Syria, Somalia or Eritrea. When reception facilities become overstretched and when it becomes difficult for the authorities to keep up with the processing of individual cases, compassion and understanding rapidly evaporate. The realities and perception of the crisis contribute significantly to the negative attitudes.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me go back in history briefly.

When 200 years ago Europeans arrived at Ellis Island, did they arrive at the shores of New York State or the United States of America? We all know the answer – they arrived in the United States. The article I just mentioned about the ship that capsized in the Black Sea said that the refugees were on their way to the European Union. But of course, the headline was misleading. These unfortunate people were not on their way to a safe haven called the European Union, because that common safe haven does not yet exist. They were on their way to one of the Member States; it could be Greece, Bulgaria or maybe Romania.

We cannot have an issue that is so important to EU citizens not adequately settled at the EU level. We cannot ask a small number of Member States – and sometimes small border regions – to take the burden on behalf of Europe.

I have been involved in refugee protection work for more than 30 years, and I note that Europe has always been much better in assisting in refugee crises in far-away places – there we’re very generous, very smart – than dealing with the challenges faced at home. We’re not very good at dealing with that in a concerted manner. I therefore see no other way to improve the current situation than working towards an EU-wide structure for refugee protection.

To make this work, we need to remember the European principles that served us so well 25 years ago – cohesion and solidarity. Faced with a massive and unexpected change in circumstances in 1989, the EU responded effectively using exactly those principles. If all 28 Member States collaborated fully, the pressures currently felt by a few countries – whether they are the point of entry or destination – would be eased.

So, what are the elements of this solution?

Common reception centres could be established across the EU. Truly common asylum determination procedures and return programmes for those who do not qualify for protection are needed. Generous refugee resettlement schemes from third countries should be elaborated. Finally, a system of reallocation within the EU should be established. I know from the discussions that Member States could spend years discussing mathematical formulae to determine the exact number of refugees allocated to each state and according to which criteria. We have to accept that no model is perfect but that a common structure, even if it is a compromise, may help us more than the current national approaches.

One lesson learned from previous refugee crises in other regions of the world is that international or regional solidarity is an integral part of ensuring refugee protection. A European Refugee Protection System would therefore help to save lives. It would also contribute to defusing the drama and strengthen popular support. It would help to convey a message to European citizens that we stand together to address the challenges we face. In the end, these challenges should be manageable in an affluent area like the EU with a population of 500 million.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When we talk about people arriving at Europe’s borders, we are not only speaking of asylum and protection. It is also about people seeking new opportunities in Europe. People coming to Europe contribute to the development of this region by playing an active part in our society and on our labour market. Indeed, many people arrive with a work permit in their passport and ready to contribute – from the US, India, China, African countries, and many other places.

Others arrive without a visa in their passports. Still others are overstayers. So the picture of European migration is multifaceted.

If you talk about refugee protection and migration to Europe today, you will frequently be countered by arguments about the economic crisis. Although it is absolutely true that we have unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment in many EU countries, it is equally true that we are facing a dramatically declining population and a sharp increase in Europeans over the age of 65. In addition, we see more and more people leaving Europe. Some industries and sectors that are vital to the economy and to social cohesion are already in need of more workers – not only skilled labour, but also what the US terms ‘necessary workers’.

If we look at the profiles of many of those arriving in Europe today, including refugees from Syria, it would be possible to find space for them in the European labour market. However, here we face another important aspect of a fundamental rights based migration policy, namely discrimination and racism. The Fundamental Rights Agency’s survey on the discrimination of ethnic minorities in the EU revealed a very high level of discrimination throughout Europe.

This is not only a barrier for refugee integration, but also a barrier for Europe to attract skilled labour now and in the future. If Europe wants to succeed in an increasingly fierce competition for labour over the coming years, we need to ensure that our societies are welcoming enough to be attractive to foreigners. And that means that we have to take the issue of combating racism, hate crime and other fundamental rights violations very seriously. We have to create more inclusive societies. It is very positive to see a country like Germany addressing these challenges, and I look much forward to learning more about their work on creating a welcoming culture for migrants. But we need this in more countries.

The barriers to the regular labour market force a number of third country nationals onto the black labour market, where they are vulnerable to extreme exploitation or let’s call it what it is: slavery. The clothing industry which outsourced its production years ago to Asian countries is now repatriating elements of its production to Europe, but some of them are still exploiting third country nationals with low pay and slave-like conditions. This is just one of many examples. The Fundamental Rights Agency will release a report early next year on extreme labour exploitation.

Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion,

Migration policies must benefit both migrants and receiving societies and protect the refugees who are seeking safety.

  • This is a moral and legal obligation for the EU in order to respect the values on which the Union is based, to safeguard those in need, and combat their abuse by smugglers and other criminal groups
  • It is a necessicity to enable EU economies to flourish by allowing gaps in labour markets to be filled that will increase as the European population shrinks, and by making room for the ideas and innovation that migrants bring with them
  • And finally, it requires that we work together to develop a new European narrative on migration that matches the needs of people with the strength of Europe.

Thank you for your attention.