Archive for February, 2012
On the agenda for today’s Commission meeting was the strategy for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Brazil this summer, known as the Rio + 20 summit. It has been some time since we had a proper discussion on sustainable development in this constellation. Week after week the focus has rather been on the economic crisis, and although we are some Commissioners who are constantly trying to point out that green growth and sustainability is important to actually emerge stronger from the crisis, these issues tend to be sidelined. So it was good to have a proper discussion today.
As of last year, we are now 7 billion people on this earth and this figure will only increase. We must therefore use our natural resources more sustainably and for this reason it is also important that countries at the meeting in Rio can make some progress on this issue. We discussed the goals that the EU should prioritize our key allies and the need for a close dialogue with the industry on these issues.
Early this morning I also met with the Jordanian Foreign Minister. Jordan is a country which in recent years increasingly is seeking a closer cooperation with the EU. The country has not undergone a revolution, but the government is aiming to implement important reforms and changes. Last week there was a high-level meeting between the EU and Jordan, led by Cathie Ashton. One of the issues discussed was the visa requirements and we are investigating the feasibility of opening negotiations with Jordan, just as we do with Tunisia, a so-called mobility partnership, where we expand our cooperation in the fields of asylum, security, trafficking, visa, labour migration, etc. We decided to send a delegation of officials from my DG to Amman within a few weeks to continue discussions on a more technical level.
Today, Thomas Hammarberg, who is the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe, has presented a new report on the situation for Roma people. It is the first report on the human rights situation of Roma in all 47 member states of the Council of Europe and it is unfortunately not a pleasant read. The xenophobia directed toward Roma in Europe is widespread, the Roma people are being discriminated against and are subject to hateful campaigns.
One big problem is that many Roma people are stateless and lack personal documentation, such as birth certificates and passports, which means that Member States can hide from their responsibility to improve the situation for the Roma. UNCHR and the EU have run projects to help Roma access personal documents in order to become citizens, but without the commitment of the countries concerned these projects have been difficult to carry out. The Commission is trying to increase the political pressure on the Member States, through campaigns and projects but also throug the proposal presented last year, asking Member States to present national strategies to enhance the integration of Roma. The strategies should have been submitted to the Commission before the end of 2011 and so far 19 countries have submitted their final strategies. The strategies will be discussed at a Council meeting later this spring.
Xenophobia and integration is also the subject for a discussion that I will take part in later today with former UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke, amongst others. We are participating in a panel discussion organised by the Migration Policy Institute, a very respectable American think-tank that is now opening an office in Brussels. But before this I will go to the European Parliament to meet with the LIBE committee and discuss the new Passenger Name Record agreement with the US, on which the Parliament will vote in April. The agreement determines the rules for how PNR data that the US requires for all international flights landing in the US could be used, i.e. for what purposes and for how long it may be stored. Despite the contoversy generated by the negotiations, the new agreement that we have now negotiated to replace the old one, is much better in terms of clarity, integrity, responsibility and possibilities for corrections. It will surely be an interesting debate.
Today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy violated human rights in 2009 by sending boat migrants back to Libya. The unanimous verdict is important and most welcome, albeit not surprising. It clarifies – and confirms the EU Commission’s position – that countries who push back migrants to where they risk persecution, without assessing their situation, are breaching international law.
Shortly after the events of 2009, my predecessor, EU Commissioner Jacques Barrot, demanded that the Italian government at the time clarified how these push-backs had been carried out. The Commission also wanted to know how Italy intended to make sure that such situations would be avoided in the future. As far as we know, no similar returns of boat migrants have been carried out since then.
Last year, more than fifty thousand migrants crossed the Mediterranean in rickety vessels to the EU. According to UNHCR, over 1500 of them died trying. We must come to the assistance of migrant boats in distress, and we must guarantee access to protection to those in need.
Now, the Commission will study the verdict from the court carefully to see whether further action is needed.
There has been much debate in Sweden in recent weeks over Prime Ministers Reinfeldt’s statement on retirement at an older age. The retirement age debate is, of course, directly linked to pensions, an area in which the EU plays only a supportive role to ensure that Member States have well-functioning pension system. My colleague Laszlo Andor presented an assessment this week of the pension situation in Europe, which is based on a consultation process with Member States. In it, we say that as the average age of EU citizens increases, it is also reasonable that the retirement age should also be rasied. Merely raising the retirement age is not enough to meet the huge demographic challenge ahead of us, we also need to boost our workforce by attracting labour migrants to Europe. Commissioner Andor and I are currently looking into ways to facilitate labour migration to the EU.
Yesterday the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted for a more responsible budget, which also included an amendment saying that the Parliament, which currently commutes between Brussels and Strasbourg, should only have one seat. The question of where the European Parliament shall convene is stated in the EU treaty. To change this, all Member States must agree. But the fact that the Parliament has clearly stated that commuting is a major cost for EU citizens (not to mention the environmental impact), and therefore should be abandoned, is very good.
The fight against organised crime and terrorism is now being stepped up even more with today’s adoption by the international task force against money laundering and financing of terrorism, FATF, on new global standards. The new standards entail recommendations which all members of the FATF should implement in order to combat money laundering and financing of terrorism, for example better collaboration between countries and tighter regulation of electronic transactions. The FATF has also proposed tougher recommendations on addressing corruption and tax crimes.
Better cooperation at a global level is crucial and most welcome in the fight against organised crime and terrorism. The Commission is now preparing proposals to incorporate the new standards in existing EU legislation, which include the Third Anti-Money Laundering Directive and a Framework Decision from 2001 on criminal offences for money laundering.
Corruption destroys a country from within, undermining trust in democratic institutions, weakening the accountability of political leadership and playing into the hands of organised crime groups. According to a new Eurobarometer survey presented today, almost three-quarters of respondents said that they see corruption as a major problem, that it exists at all levels of government. Eight percent of respondents say they have been asked or expected to pay a bribe in the past year. You’ll find the survey here.
Although the nature and scope of corruption varies among EU countries, no country is spared. It means huge costs for society – not least the cost of underminig the credibility of politics and democracy. Anti-corruption efforts must be intensified mainly by Member States, but also at EU level. Last June, the Commission adopted a corruption package, calling for a stronger focus on corruption in all relevant EU policies. In 2013 we will also publish a report on anti-corruption measures in all 27 EU Member States on what works and what doesn’t, as well as offering suggestions for improvements.
New legislation to tackle corruption i.e. reform of public procurement rules, more advanced statistics on crimes and enhanced anti-fraud policies is also to be expected from the Commission. The proposal on increased harmonization on confiscation of criminals assets, which I will present in a few weeks, is also part of the overall anti-corruption efforts at EU level.
Valentine’s Day is a day to praise love in all forms. It was very pleasing to see that Washington will be the seventh state in the U.S. to acknowledge same-sex marriages. Now we are also waiting to see what will happen after the court decision in California last week that says the ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional.
Within the EU, there are still several Member States that don’t acknowledge same-sex marriages: Poland, Italy, Malta, Latvia and Lithuania, for example. Here, you can find more information about countries that do not acknowledge same-sex marriages. On ILGA’s webpage you can also find more information about the situation on equal rights in different countries.
Reading about the situation in different countries can be discouraging, but things are actually moving forward. It is important, not just today, the 14th of February but every day, to continue the struggle for equal rights for all and the right to love. It is not as if there is too much love in the world.
Yesterday was a long and exciting day in Stockholm. A little bit late from the flight, I arrived to a seminar about organised crime, cooperation across borders and the Commission’s proposal on confiscation of criminal assets which will be presented soon. Global organised crime is a gigantic illegal enterprise encompassing vast amounts of money. In a UN report, the global drug trade alone is estimated to generate 321,6 billion dollars. Aside from fighting crime through law enforcement and preventative measures, we must also become better at going after the money, and retrieving criminals’ illegally aquired assets to taxpayers and victims. At the seminar, I discussed these matters with writer and journalist Lasse Wierup and Hans Ihrman from the Swedish Prosecution Authority. We could have spoken for hours, and in the audience were representatives from the police, prosecutors and many other knowledgeable people that I would have liked to continue the discussion with.
During the day I also had time to sit down for interviews with Sveriges Radio and a TV4 News, and speak to Minister for Justice Beatrice Ask about Schengen and cybercrime issues.
Today, I participated in a seminar in Brussels organised by the Swedish representation to the EU and the US mission, focusing on integration and anti-discrimination. William Kennard, the US ambassador to the EU, Swedish Minister for Integration Erik Ullenhag and myself had a very interesting discussion lead by Pat Cox, former speaker of the European Parliament. The US mission has published a short summary and photos on Facebook.
This afternoon I have also celebrated my cabinet’s two-year anniversary with semlor that I brought with me from Stockholm this morning. It’s important to spread the light of the semla in Brussels.
Long discussion in the morning meeting with the Commissioners today about Greece. It is absolutely necessary that the Greek government and all political parties pull themselves together and accept the demands of the IMF and the EU, but of course we all feel a great concern for the social situation and the harsh conditions that the Greek people are going through.
This afternoon I attended a hearing in the European Parliament on Schengen. The Danish Minister, Morten Bödskov, the European Parliament Rapporteurs on Schengen, were there among many others. It was very interesting. The question of how we can strengthen the Schengen cooperation is extremely important. This involves both improving the evaluation, so that we in time can detect and correct problems, but also how we can set up a mechanism to prevent Member States from unilaterally and arbitrarily impose border controls. There are clear differences of opinion, especially in the Council, and now we need to find a constructive compromise. Read my speech here.
Tomorrow I’m going to Stockholm to attend a seminar on organised crime and the money involved. Participants in the seminar include, the author Lasse Wierup and prosecutor Hans Ihrman. I will also have a number of other meetings, including with Minister of Justice, Beatrice Ask.
February 10th, 2010, was my first day as EU Commissioner. Two full years into my mandate, I can easily say that this has been two tough years. The economic crisis, with high levels of unemployment, has overshadowed all other policy areas. The Arab Spring has brought new hopes of democratic neighbours but also raised new challenges for them and for us. They have clearly indicated the desire to cooperate with us on issues like migration, asylum, police, security and visa facilitation. This is also in our interest and therefore we are now preparing mobility partnerships with countries in the North African region, starting with Tunisia.
The events in southern Mediterranean have put pressure on the Schengen system, and in September last year I presented a proposal on how Schengen can be strengthened, safeguarding this fantastic achievement, but making sure that we improve our evaluation systems and minimize the risk of abuses. Negotiations are ongoing.
Since February 2010 we have advanced quite a lot in the work on the asylum package, although many difficulties remain. The deadline set by the European council, is 2012. We urgently need a system that is common in Europe, allowing asylum seekers to get the same treatment wherever they launch their application. Today, ten countries receive 90% of the asylum applications in the EU. With all countries having an administration and infrastructure in place, it will allow for a more even responsibility and solidarity between EU members.
We have adopted the long term residence directive, as well as the qualification direction and are very close to an agreement on the European Resettlement Program. The Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Malta is up and running, mainly assisting Greece where all member states, the commission and many others are involved to help the country to set up a reception system as well as build up a functioning border control. All member states participated in the Frontex/led RABIT-operation at the Greek/Turkish border.
In the field of legal migration we have agreement on the single permit and are well advanced in the directives on seasonal workers and Intra Corporate Transferees. This will protect legal migrants but also reduce bureaucracy in the member states. With my college Lazlo Andor we are planning further initiatives on labour skills needed for the future, including the need for further labour migration. In times where growth is desperately needed, we must make sure that we can get the best skills.
We have lifted the visa obligation for Albania and Bosnia and also started the dialogue with Kosovo, enabling easier people to people contact. Visa facilitation negotiations are ongoing with Russia, Moldova, Ukraine and soon hopefully with Turkey and Georgia.
In the security area I am most proud of the anti-trafficking directive that gives us better tools to fight this horrible modern slavery. With the employment of our anti-trafficking coordinator at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Home Affairs, I think we are better equipped than ever. Also, the directive on combating sexual violence and abuse of children is very dear to my heart and will help us to better protect the most vulnerable; our children.
In September last year I inaugurated RAN, the network that will help us prevent and identify violent radicalisation and extremism. The network is connecting local actors from all over Europe – academics, social workers, teachers, victims, and others to exchange information and best practices to prevent young people from falling into violent extremism. We have concluded negotiations on Passenger Name Records (PNR) with Australia and the U.S. and also put forward a proposal on a European PNR.
Corruption is a disease that eats confidence and trust and also erodes the legal economy. Last year I launched an anticorruption package, aiming for a report next year with tailor-made recommendations to all member states. To protect the licit economy is important, as well as restoring trust.
So a lot has been done since February 2010, but many things still remain. I am looking forward to all the possibilities and challenges of the rest of my mandate.