I just came back from Milan, Italy, where the first informal JAI Council meeting during the Italian Presidency was held. In the Justice and Home Affairs area we have been working intensively the last five years to implement the Stockholm agenda. We have put in place new asylum laws, worked on legal migration and strengthening of Schengen cooperation, increasing our fight against organised crime, corruption, terrorism etc. It is now time to look forward and the Strategic Guidelines for the area of Freedom, Security and Justice the European Council adopted at their June meeting identify the main priorities. This shows the importance that the European union is giving to this field of cooperation. These new strategic guidelines were part of the Agenda at the meeting with ministers in Milan.
There is an overall agreement that the main focus must be on implementing what we have agreed and make sure it works in practice. We need to consolidate and make the best use of our existing tools while being flexible for challenges that will always arise when we talk about asylum, migration or organised crime. Ministers discussed the issue of labour migration, how we can make sure that our union is open to skills and talents that we need in a recovering economy and gloomy demographic figures. We must make the case that migration and mobility is an asset and not a burden, especially in this difficult political climate with emerging racism and populism. Ministers reflected on what the EU can do to attract talent in key sectors affected by skills mismatch and labour shortages, how to improve labour mobility of regular migrants across the EU and how to address negative perceptions in the public opinion about migration. I was pleased to see that the suggestion, advocated by the Commission, to establish a platform to identify skill shortages and needs and promote, benchmarking of successful integration policies got a good reception.
We also discussed how we can become better in bridging the internal and external dimensions of migration working more closely with the countries in our neighbourhood.
Part of the strategic guidelines is the area of security. The Internal Security Strategy (ISS) will be updated to take into account new challenges, such as cyber crime, new forms of organized crimes and adapted to fight smuggling and trafficking. The focus also here, should be, according to the ministers, on actual implementation and operational cooperation. We also discussed how to further enhance respect for fundamental rights in the development and implementation of the internal security policies and how to improve synergies between EU internal security policies and other policy areas.
The European Council’s guidelines on the future on freedom, security and justice will be adopted in June. This will be done during a time when EU-scepticism is loud and we are seeing indications on growing nationalism, intolerance and xenophobia. My message to the Heads of State or Government is a plea to demonstrate political leadership and to give a clear signal that the EU will not compromise its core values.
Today, the Commission presented its view and its proposal of ideas for the future in the area of justice and home affairs. Since I took office as EU Commissioner for Home Affairs in 2009 I have worked according to the ambitious agenda stated in the Stockholm programme. Now, almost five years later, we can be proud of what has been achieved. We have agreed upon a Common European Asylum System with high standards and rule of law for those seeking protection. We have reinforced the governance of the Schengen zone and we have abolished visa requirements for a number of countries in our close neighbourhood (Balkans) but also in other countries such as e.g. Brazil and Taiwan. We have opened more legal ways of accessing Europe. In the area of security, the European cooperation has been strengthened and deepened. We have created EU legislation and strategies against trafficking in human beings, a new European Cybercrime Center (EC3), a global alliance against pedopornography on the internet as well as a network to prevent radicalisation and extremism (RAN). But the work is not over. The proposal presented today is based on the experience and knowledge we have acquired in our work.
The Europe I want is a Europe that is open to the world, that welcomes students, researchers and others and that brings skills and talents that we need to ensure our levels of prosperity. It is a Europe that offers protection for those in need of it. My Europe is the Europe that provides security to its citizens.
We have to continue to uphold our core values and principles on which our cooperation is built upon. Democracy, the rule of law and respect of human rights have to be the foundation on which we develop our policy during the coming years. The notions of solidarity and responsibility sharing have to be translated into concrete measures and actions. The Member States and the EU-institutions need to work together in order to live up to this.
With regard to the future it is also of utmost importance to consolidate and implement all legislation we have agreed upon. It has to work in reality. The operational cooperation has to increase and the trust within e.g. police and prosecutors must be developed and strengthened every day throughout daily concrete practical cooperation. The EU and its Member States will be confronted with new challenges that we cannot predict today, but looking back at the experience we have gained we now have to look forward. For instance, more people will want to come to Europe to work, visit, study or to seek protection. We need to use the possibilities migration implies in a globalized world to a further extent. We also need to implement our new common European asylum policy in a responsible manner based on solidarity. We need to increase our efforts to avoid future tragedies in the Mediterranean. Therefore we need to deepen our cooperation with countries of origin as well as transit countries. We need to open new ways for migration. We need to continue to develop solutions to challenges as e.g. cybercrime, to continue to build upon our report on corruption that we presented recently and to deepen our work in combatting the uprising extremism in Europe. The challenges are many and important.
Read the proposal here: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/e-library/documents/basic-documents/docs/an_open_and_secure_europe_-_making_it_happen_en.pdf
Spring has now definitely come to Brussels. The cherry-trees have bloomed for some time, and more flowers and leaves come every day. The sun is shining and the terraces of the cafés are filled up. The elections to the European Parliament are getting closer and thereby focus is shifting. Due to the campaigns for the elections and the end of the Commission’s mandate, the work of the Commission is somewhat shifting in character. We still have time to present yet a few legislative proposals to the Parliament before they disappear on their different campaigns, and some important proposals are still to be voted on. But it is also time to look back at what we have achieved under this past term and think about what challenges remain to be addressed.
An experience we have acquired is that the EU does not have enough tools today to address its internal lack of respect for the rule of law and the threat against fundamental values on which the EU is built upon, after a state has become a member of the Union. This could lead to problems of credibility since the EU always stresses human rights, respect for the rule of law etc in e.g. its negotiations for membership with third countries. Then we also need to have credible politics towards ourselves. For example in Hungary, the freedom of media and the judicial systems independence have been threatened. The EU and the Council of Europe have reacted strongly, and thanks to political persuasion and legal tools we have managed to make changes on this path. Meanwhile, it remains clear that we do not have enough tools at our disposal. There are not enough efficient tools that we can use before it goes as far as the EU having to exclude a Member State (Article 7 of the Treaty).
For many years, I have argued that the EU needs a mechanism applicable after a state has joined the Union; and a middle way between an infringement-procedure and the “nuclear alternative” of Article 7. This feels even more pressing considering the uprising of extreme parties. The EU was founded after Europe’s atrocious experiences from WWII. It is our task to ensure that no one is discriminated, or that the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law are threatened. It is therefore welcomed and pleasing that we, at today’s meeting with the Commissioners, decided upon a proposal against serious and systemic cases of crimes against the rule of law to implemented within the Treaties. It is better to prevent than to cure. Through dialogue, we want to deal with issues before they go out of control and before the prevention and sanction mechanisms of Article 7 have to be applied. This new instrument confirms that the rule of law is the core of our European community and that the Commission will play its part to defend it. (Link to more information)
The world has watched the actions of Russia against Ukraine in the past days with growing anger and incredulousness. It is a flagrant breach of international law and a policy of aggression that we have not seen the like of since the Cold War. Contrary to what the Russian leadership seems to believe, these actions reduce the international credibility of Russia towards zero. And by organising an unconstitutional “referendum” with a week’s notice, on whether to break the Crimean region off from the Ukrainian state – at gunpoint, quite literally – does not invoke any great deal of confidence in that the process will be a proper one.
Now, international and European efforts are needed to support economic and political reform in Ukraine. The events of Maidan Square was a popular uprising against corruption and political stagnation, a call for reforms and stronger ties to Europe. With bullets raining down from the rooftops, many had to pay with their lives.
This week, the European Commission adopted an ambitious package of support to Ukraine, totalling over 11 billion euros, with 5 billion from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. These resources will go towards economic stabilisation and supporting well-functioning public authorities. We are also offering to examine how visa procedures towards Ukraine can be simplified, and the possibility of a partnership to help strengthen the judicial system and the rule of law, as well as fighting corruption.
Yesterday, EU Heads of State and Government met in the European Council. They gave their backing to the support package, and voiced their commitment to signing the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine before 25 May. Furthermore, the European Council decided to suspend the negotiations on visa liberalisation with Russia. This is fair and just. Other sanctions will be carried out – among them, travel bans and freezing of assets – if Russia does not enter into negotiations with the Ukrainian government.
Ukraine is a vastly important and proud European country. After the previous president Viktor Yanukovych left office, the new government is facing a host of challenges – weathering out corruption, safeguarding the integrity of public authorities and getting the economy back on its feet. The EU has a key role to play in contributing to making that happen. The Ukrainian people deserve a democratic and European future in freedom.
Many persons come to Europe, not fleeing war and persecution. Poverty exists close to the borders of Europe and many people seek employment and a future in other countries – for example in the EU. Today there are very few possibilities to legally enter the Union, leaving people to take risks through smuggler networks and dangerous vessels. We know that all too many people die on their way to Europe.
Therefore, I am very happy that the European Parliament today voted yes to the Commission’s proposal on seasonal workers. The new rules will harmonise the conditions of entry and residence, as well as the rights of the migrant workers. I presented the proposal already in 2010, but the negotiations have taken a long time. All that remains now is a confirmation of the Council. Member States will then be required to implement the Directive within their national legislation within two and a half years.
Seasonal workers that come to the EU are often exploited, as they are in a vulnerable situation, often without a work permit. According to the new Directive, the non-EU workers will benefit from equal treatment with EU nationals in e.g. working conditions, minimum wage, leave and holidays, as well as health and safety requirements at the workplace. Moreover, there are requirements that the seasonal worker shall benefit from accommodation, ensuring an adequate standard of living. The new rules will also facilitate the procedure for employers who need workers during the busy seasons. The Directive proposes the first EU scheme on circular migration: these workers keep their residence outside the EU and some of them come every year for the same season.
This is a very important step in opening up legal ways for migrants and ensuring that they will not get exploited.
The new rules were adopted with overwhelming support, 498 votes to 56.
Once a year, the EU presidency and I meet with the Russian ministers of interior and justice for talks and deliberations on issues of mutual interest. These issues include cooperation against organized crime, especially trafficking in drugs and human beings, and terrorism. We also talk about migration, rule of law, corruption and visa issues. In recent years I have also made sure that human rights have been put on the agenda. This year’s meeting was held together with the Greek ministers, as well as the Italian Minister of Justice, since Italy is the incoming presidency after Greece.
We met in a cold and snowy Moscow, with the background setting of the current tense relations between the EU and Russia. We had an open exchange of views, but did not really make any progress in our cooperation. For a long time, we have been negotiating essential areas for moving towards a visa free regime with the EU and we should soon be able to agree on further measures to facilitate travelling to the EU for Russian citizens. To entirely abolish the visa requirement is a mutual aim, but a lot of work is yet to be done on the Russian side before this can become a reality. The remaining issues concern, for example, anti-corruption policy, document security, asylum issues and fighting discrimination and xenophobia.
The discussion on human rights took the most time. We are deeply concerned about the situation in Russia with regards to human rights. There are several examples of this situation, such as the new law requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents”, the law banning homosexual “propaganda”, problems with the rule of law and arbitrary judicial processes, and court rulings against the opposition. I also brought up the Magnitsky case and repeated the demand for an independent investigation on the circumstances of his death.
Yesterday, I had dinner with a large number of representatives of various NGOs, who expressed their concerns about the new legislation and the risk of a significant weakening of the civil society in the country.
Today started with a media breakfast together with Björn van Roozendaal from ILGA-Europe in Brussels and Igor Kochetkov, president of the Russian LGBT network. We talked about Russia’s human rights situation in general and the situation for LGBT people in particular. They are worried about the new legislation in itself, but also about the general stigmatization of LGBT persons that it leads to. There is an alarming increase of violence and harassment against gay people, something that is being legitimized by the regime as they brand homosexuality as something abnormal and dangerous to children.
At the press breakfast, ILGA-Europe’s latest report was also presented. More on Russia here.
It is a new year and it is time for a new Presidency of the Council of the European Union. And as we do every 6 months, the entire College of Commissioners travels to the new Presidency-country for deliberations and to participate in the formal opening ceremony. This week, Athens was our destination.
Greece is currently holding their fifth presidency, so they have developed some experience by now. They explained that they will keep it fairly modest (they have for example chosen not to distribute presidency ties, to the great despair of all collectors) but that they would like to show Europe that they are back on track and that all the talk about ‘Grexit’ is now definitely outdated. Although the crisis is not yet over, unemployment is still extremely high and many Greeks are still experiencing great difficulties – the numbers are indeed pointing towards the right direction. Hopefully soon ordinary Greeks will see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The Presidency will be somewhat brief, as the European Parliament election is coming up in May. The actual possibility to make decisions is therefore limited to the first three months of this year.
Yet, this does not stop the Greeks from having high ambitions and their priorities are:
1. Growth, fighting unemployment
2. Better coordination and governance in the Euro Zone. Banking Union in place.
4. The ’blue growth’ – the sea as a resource for growth, transport, culture, energy, environment etc. The Greeks want to adopt a cross-sectoral maritime strategy in June.
During the day I also had bilateral meetings with “my ministers” to see how we best can cooperate and what is on the agenda. After all the cooperation with Greece in the past, we know each other well and it will most likely be fine. The opening ceremony at the Concert Hall consisted of a speech by Prime Minister Samaras, Foreign Minister Venizelos, José Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy. This was followed by dance and a concert, where the audience enthusiastically sang along to Mikos Teodorakis.
We were the next morning given the opportunity to have an early guided tour at the Akropolis Museum and it was absolutely fantastic. I never cease to be amazed by the incredibly rich cultural heritage of Greece!
The abolishment of internal border controls within the EU is a very good thing for us citizens, as we can now move freely between the countries. It has also meant a lot for the economy, and for trade. However, it has also meant that we have had to work with new and more efficient methods to counter those we do not want to cross borders – the criminals. During the last years we have developed closer police cooperation through Europol, improved EU-legislation and introduced more preventive measures. In January last year the EC3 (European Cybercrime Centre – a new part of Europol), was inaugurated. It focuses on online-crime performed by organized criminal groups and in particular attacks against e-banking services and other financial activities, online sexual exploitation of children as well as crimes affecting important infrastructures and information systems in the EU. Cybercrime is a rapidly growing problem and the EC3 is an important tool in combating this cross-border crime. The Centre has been highly successful during 2013 and has for example contributed in catching criminal gangs stealing payment-card information as well as the arrest of thousands of online pedophiles.
An EC3-report from October, covering trends in the distribution of materials depicting child sexual abuse gave us frightening insights into how perpetrators behave and find new ways to escape the police. Our Global Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Online has now been up and running for about a year. During this year, the Alliance has grown to include 52 countries. In our global cooperation we have established that there in all countries must be specific police units working against the distribution of material on child sexual abuse. It shall also be easier to set up joint investigations.
With regards to border controls, to increase security and facilitate the free movement within the Schengen area, the second generation of the Schengen Information System (SIS II) became operational during 2013. With SIS II, the national border control, customs and police authorities can exchange information on persons who may have been involved in serious crimes more easily. In the system, information is registered on missing persons, especially children and e.g. bills, cars, vans, firearms and identity documents that may have been stolen, abducted or reported missing.
That security police in countries all over the world are monitoring individuals when searching for terrorists is nothing new, but the allegations of NSA’s activities was a disappointing discovery and fundamentally shook the relations with the US. Meanwhile, the NSA-scandal led to an important debate on integrity and discussions that hopefully can bring improved and clearer limits on surveillance and information exchange. The fight against terrorism and extremism is tremendously important, but we must not compromise human rights and fundamental freedoms. In light of Snowden’s allegations, we are now hoping to get in place new data protection rules and a comprehensive data protection agreement with the US. I also follow the debate in the US on NSA’s powers with great interest, and I sincerely hope that it will lead to greater controls and restrictions. In Europe we saw frightening examples during 2013, on how extreme movements are growing stronger and intolerance is increasing. Not since WWII have there been so many xenophobic parties in Europe’s parliaments as there are today. To prevent and halt the spread of extremism and racism is not only necessary, it is our moral obligation. During 2013 the RAN-network has continued its work and their report will be presented within a few weeks.
An increasing number of trafficking victims are found in the EU and we have developed various ambitious measures and strategies to help the victims and stop this horrible crime. It was therefore a great disappointment when we in April found that only six (!) Member States had implemented the Directive on human trafficking, despite it having passed its two-year deadline. Part of 2013 was therefore devoted to chasing the remaining 22 governments. Now, 20 Member States have completely introduced the EU-legislation in their national legislation and three countries have implemented parts. The work continues. To support all good forces we last year launched the “EU Civil Society Platform Against Trafficking”, which brings together over one hundred European NGOs. The EU-platform will serve as a forum for NGOs at European, national and local levels. During the year we have also seen important debates and actions in several Member States to address the problem of trafficking and to reduce the demand for the services of prostitutes.
We also need to ensure that organized criminals cannot launder their money through the banking system and we need to improve our skills on how to seize the assets of criminals. There must not be any loopholes that organized criminals or terrorists can slip through. In February last year my colleague Barnier and I introduced a proposal on the countering of money laundering. The legal economy needs to be protected, especially in these times of crisis. Early in December, the ambassadors of the EU Member States (COREPER), together with the European Parliament, agreed on new legislation on how to confiscate profits from criminal activities (Directive on the freezing and confiscation of proceeds of crime in the European Union). Formal adoption of these new rules will take place in the beginning of this year. It fills important gaps in our legislation, currently exploited by organized criminal groups.
One of the cornerstones of the EU – the free movement – has been questioned during the year. This is a right that we in the Commission will always defend. All EU citizens have the right to move and reside in any Member State of their choice. Apart from the freedom for the individual, the free movement of workers has a positive effect on the European economy and the labour market. As an example, thousands of unemployed Spanish engineers are now employed in Germany.
At the same time as the free movement generates benefits to the EU and its economy, when people are moving this is also posing challenges to cities in Europe. The economic and financial crisis has sparked a debate in certain Member States on the impact of free movement on national social systems and local services. One response to this concern was that we published a report showing that mobile EU-Citizens on average are more likely to be in employment than nationals of the host country. The report also proposes five measures for local authorities in improving and clarifying the rules.
Connected to the free movement is also the Schengen Agreement. During this year we have agreed to strengthen the Schengen cooperation. In the new system, the Commission will be given a central and coordinating role. No Member State will be able to close their borders on their own authority. The Commission will also keep a watchful eye on the EU’s internal borders, to make sure that no Member State abuses border controlling possibilities, such as unjustified passport controls. We know that this is occurring all too often.
We know that mobility and migration is important for economic growth and development. Therefore, we are working with visa liberalization and visa facilitation. This is an important part in the EU’s cooperation with its neighbours. This week I was in Turkey to sign an agreement on the start of negotiations on visa liberalization with them. It is an important development of our relationship. In November, the Commission also proposed that the citizens of the Republic of Moldova should be granted visa freedom. Negotiations on the same topic are ongoing with Ukraine and Georgia. It is central for the daily exchange between countries, that ordinary citizens easily can travel and visit friends and family, that businessmen can do business, that tourists do not have to wait for weeks to be granted a visa.
Despite high unemployment in Europe, we paradoxically have troubles finding qualified labour within several areas. The demographic challenge is also great in several countries – quite simply, too few babies are born in Europe today. More efforts are of course needed here: more women should access the labour market, we also need to step up our efforts on education and on integrating the immigrants already residing in Europe. Labour migration is not the solution to all problems, but it is an important factor. We must therefore do more to make Europe more attractive and accessible for people outside the EU.
In March I presented a proposal to reduce the bureaucratic obstacles and give better conditions for students and researchers from third countries, to make the EU more appealing for them. For this proposal, the final decision in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers has not yet been made. However, a good solution has been found in the discussion around entry, residence and rights for migrant seasonal workers. The new rules will facilitate the visa-procedures and the seasonal workers will also benefit from the same rules as EU nationals on e.g. working hours, minimum wage, leave and holidays, as well as health and safety requirements. The issue of labour migration will indeed be a central one in the coming years.
The EU is facing an important election in May. We must continue to defend the free movement, stand up against intolerance and recall that migration is both an asset and a success factor.
Christmas is fast approaching and also hopefully the time to relax with loved ones. It is also high season for reflection and annual reviews. One year passes by quickly, but is still a long time when you think about how many things that are happening around us and how much work we get done. Everything cannot fit in one text, and this is therefore the first part of a longer review.
I am very proud that we during this year have managed to introduce the Common European Asylum System. It has been my highest priority for my term in office. After the decisions in the European Parliament and the Council in June 2013, the EU will at the latest by autumn 2015 have a common asylum system. This means that all Member States are obliged to and will have the capacity to ensure the fair and humane treatment of asylum seekers, wherever they may arrive. The EU will have modern, open, legally certain system with predictable rules on who should be defined as a refugee, how they are treated and common norms on legal rights. In all parts of the area of asylum, these new rules serve to raise the standards. The Common European Asylum System makes it possible for Europe to ensure better protection for persons fleeing war and prosecution. Hopefully this will also lead to more countries taking greater responsibility for people who flee. Today, it is only a few who receive asylum seekers.
The European Court of Justice has also clarified during the year that:
1) Homosexual asylum applicants can constitute a particular social group and thereby qualify for asylum in an EU Member State.
2) Unaccompanied minors should only be transferred according to the Dublin Regulation (that is, being sent to the country where their asylum application was first submitted) in the purpose of reunification with a family member or relative. The main rule is from now on is that the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application by an unaccompanied minor, is the State in which the minor is present after having lodged an application there
We have also ensured that the European Union Asylum Support Office (EASO) is assisting countries with difficulties in supplying supporting staff, as well as with analyses, opinions and economic support. The team of EASO has a key-role to play in the correct implementation of the common asylum policy.
Strong focus has also been on Greece during the year. I visit the country several times per year to support, pressure and assist in their work on asylum and migration. During my visit to Athens last week I also noted that the country, with our assistance, is making progress in building up a legally certain asylum system. At the same time, great challenges remain.
This year’s most emotional moment was in October on the island of Lampedusa, as I stood in front of the 280 coffins containing the bodies of the people that drowned while crossing the Mediterranean. It was tough, but it motivates me to continue fighting for a better policy to prevent similar accidents to happen in the future. It turned out that in total 350 persons drowned outside the coast of Lampedusa that time, but unfortunately these tragedies occur regularly. An estimation is that at least 2000 people drown every year, when trying to get to Europe for a better and more secure future. As long as there is dictatorship, oppression and poverty in the world, people will try to come to Europe. This is a challenge that will not go away. This is also why we are working to formulate a sustainable migration policy for the future. The Commission has, together with the Member States, created a strategy, which includes search and rescue at sea, enhanced cooperation with third countries, fight against migrant smuggling networks, more legal ways into the EU and emergency support for the countries facing greater pressures. The Commission is working daily with the UNHCR to try to get the Member States to take resettled refugees. All too few Member States are doing this today, but we are seeing a small change towards more openness in this area. Is this perhaps a break in the trend? To receive Syrian resettlement refugees is one way of helping the most vulnerable, and ensure their safe passage to Europe.
We have during the year seen an increase in support for xenophobic parties in Europe. This is a development that is of great concern to me.