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that they would like to show Europe that they are back on track and that all the talk about ‘Grexit’ is now definitely outdated.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.
Twice a year my colleague Viviane Reding and I meet our US-counterparts, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Acting Secretary for Homeland Security, Rand Beers (the new Minister has not yet been approved by Congress). Also in the delegation is the Presidency, at the moment the Ministers of Justice and Interior of Lithuania, and the Minister(s) of the next Presidency, which in this case is the Greek Minister of Justice.
It was a beautiful sunny autumn day in Washington and we talked about important areas of EU-US cooperation such as cybercrime, Syria, the fight against trafficking and sexual child abuse online, terrorism and data protection. Our conversations were of course marked by the Snowden allegations, something that indeed has had a negative effect on the climate of cooperation with the US.
The anger and frustration that many of us Europeans are feeling about the alleged surveillance activities by the NSA, are feelings shared with many Americans. We had a long discussion about the reforms currently debated in Congress, something that Obama has expressed his support for. However, it is still not clear what implications these reforms will have for Europeans. An important element in enhancing the confidence building in our relations would be to agree on a comprehensive data protection agreement. Our hope is that this framework, negotiated for several years now, can be presented next summer.
In connection to our meeting I also continued with consultations on the TFTP-agreement. I met with David Cohen, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and later Caroline Atkinson, who is the Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs.
Violence motivated by racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance or homo/transphobia – what we call hate crimes, are not just terrible offences against the individual, but also against our democracy. Violence and hate crimes are crimes against the foundation of our society: the equal value of all human beings. I am in Vilnius today to participate in a conference on hate crimes organised by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). The conference brings together over 300 participants with various backgrounds: politicians from the national and European level, representatives of international organisations, agencies and NGOs. The Lithuanian Presidency has put the issue of hate crimes onto the agenda for the next JHA-Council meeting in December and this conference is a run-up to that discussion.
Data from the FRA shows that a large number of victims of hate crimes either do not report the crime, or if they do, do not receive sufficient support from the authorities. Furthermore, FRA and others report about a high frequency of hate crimes. For example, in 2011 almost one out of five sub-Saharan Africans were physically assaulted, harassed or threatened on account of their ethnic origin. Roma populations in EU-Member States suffer similar levels of abuse. During the last five years, approximately one in four lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans- or intersex people state that they have been attacked or threatened with violence. Also responding to a recent survey, anti-Semitic hate crime was experienced by one in every four Jewish persons, and about every second Jewish person responding feared becoming the victim of one.
The EU was founded after Europe having lived through the atrocities during World War II. All of us have a duty in ensuring that no one is discriminated against, or being subject to violence because of their ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender or sexual orientation. Too few are standing up against intolerance today. We need political leaders who do not flirt with populism and xenophobia. Within my area of responsibility, we have started the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) – a network of experts working against radicalisation, including hate on the internet. Building on the work performed by RAN, the Commission will soon present an EU Programme on Countering Violent Extremism with a Toolbox to help Member States in their efforts to prevent hate crimes at an early stage.
You can read my speech here.
Yesterday, the European Court of Justice came out with a positive and clarifying judgement, concluding that homosexuals can constitute a “particular social group” and thereby qualify for asylum in a EU Member State. The case concerned three persons having applied for asylum in the Netherlands, fleeing from Sierra Leone, Uganda and Senegal respectively. In all these countries, homosexuality is a criminal offence and can be punished with everything from fines to life imprisonment. There are 76 (!) countries today, in which homosexuality is prohibited.
The EU-rules for determining who is a refugee is found in the Qualification Directive. The rules are based on the Geneva Convention, defining refugees as any person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. According to the Convention, refugee status qualifies for granting asylum.
The judgement of the ECJ is an important and welcomed one, since not all countries interpret the Geneva Convention in a way that includes persecution of homosexuals (despite the UNHCR handbook already since a long time suggesting such an interpretation). For countries such as Sweden and Belgium, nothing will change as they already grant protection to persecuted homosexual individuals – but the Court’s decision will provide guidance to the whole Union.
However, the court added that the mere existence of legislation criminalizing homosexual acts is not sufficient to constitute persecution, but there needs to be a serious risk for sanctions, such as imprisonment. The judgement also clarified that it is not acceptable to require homosexual individuals to conceal their sexual orientation to avoid persecution, as it is so fundamental to a person’s identity and thus, the persons concerned cannot be required to renounce it. It is an important clarification as there have actually been cases where authorities have rejected asylum applications on the basis that one can hide their sexual orientation and thereby avoid persecution.
During the Swedish EU Presidency in 2009, the Union adopted a five-year work plan: the Stockholm Programme. This has been the basis of the work performed by my colleague Viviane Reding and me during our terms in office. The Stockholm Programme establishes guidelines for deepened EU cooperation in the areas of law enforcement, asylum issues and migration. In addition, terrorism, cyber security, visa policy and the control of the Union’s external borders are some of the areas which are also included.
The purpose of the programme is to pin-point priorities, structured by work area and adapted to current challenges within and outside the EU. Thereby, the Union gets a common agenda for how policies should be developed and how new legislation should be shaped. For instance, the Common European Asylum System which was decided upon earlier this year, was one of the priorities within the Stockholm Programme. Moreover, it has contributed to the fight against trafficking in human beings and drug smuggling – with the aim of creating a more secure and more open Europe.
However, as time passes, things change. Having five-year programmes started when the areas covered were mainly intergovernmental. The Lisbon Treaty strengthened the European dimension substantially, creating the basis for an area of freedom, security and justice with respect for fundamental rights. Furthermore, there is no reason for having highly detailed policy programmes, since this is not the case for other work areas of the EU. There should also be a focus on ensuring the functioning of all of our previously adopted decisions.
Nonetheless, as the Stockholm Programme expires in 2014, it is time to start thinking about the challenges and priority areas of the the next term. To do this in the best possible manner, the Commission has initiated a so-called reflection process and we want as many people as possible to make their voices heard. This process will run until the 12th of January 2014 and more information on how you submit your proposal is available on the website of DG HOME. I hope that you use this opportunity to speak your mind!
Employers in the EU are increasingly dependent on hiring workers from outside the Union, for example within the sectors of agriculture, gardening and tourism, as fewer and fewer EU-citizens are available for this type of seasonal work. These seasonal workers, who are often more vulnerable and exposed, must see their working conditions improved and be granted a secure legal status to protect them from exploitation. After three years of negotiations, the European Parliament and the Member States are now on the road to agreeing on new rules for seasonal workers. On Tuesday, a compromise was found at the level of officials and as a next step this agreement will be formally adopted by both co-legislators.
A good solution has been found, harmonizing the conditions of entry and residence, as well as the rights of the migrant workers. Non-EU seasonal workers make an important contribution to the European economy and with this new Directive they will be granted a secure legal status during the entirety of their stay. The new rules will facilitate the visa-procedures for workers who were admitted for seasonal employment at least once in the last five years. The non-EU workers will also 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, and that the rent is not excessive or automatically deducted from the wage.
The Directive will be an important element in the Union’s common migration policy. It opens a legal and secure path into the Union for persons wanting to earn money during a limited period of time, instead of risking their lives crossing the border in dangerous ways and being abused on the black market.
Today, I visited Lampedusa together with Italy’s Prime Minister Letta, Interior Minister Alfano and Commission President Barroso. I spoke to Minister Alfano on Thursday morning, right after the terrible tragedy, and he asked me to come to the island.
Lampedusa is a very small island, situated closer to Tunisia than Sicily. 6000 people live on 20 square kilometres. Far too often, those who live here have to watch as drowned refugees are being carried ashore.
It is an unspeakable tragedy that hundreds of people, who were fleeing dictatorship and oppression in Eritrea and Somalia, drowned just off the shores of Europe. To stand in front of 280 coffins, some of them for small children, was horrible. On top of the children’s coffins, there were teddy bears. This is a terrible reminder of how difficult it is to come to Europe in a legal and safe way.
We also had a long discussion about Lampedusa at the Council meeting yesterday. All EU Member States expressed their concern and solidarity. Perhaps this can be the turning point towards another kind of migration policy, with a focus on cooperation and more open paths to Europe? I can’t say for sure.
From the Commission’s side I have proposed several measures. First, we need to re-organise the efforts of Frontex in the Mediterranean, into one comprehensive coast-to-coast operation from Spain to Cyprus. It should be focused on search and rescue, as in discovering vessels in time, so that more lives can be saved. Furthermore, we need to continue our cooperation with countries on the other side of the Mediterranean, and have them step up their efforts in preventing ruthless smuggling networks who earn their money by smuggling people in despair. Countries such as Morocco and Tunisia can also do more to develop their asylum reception standards in accordance with international norms.
We also need more legal ways to come to Europe, for example through the resettlement of refugees from Syria in cooperation with the United Nations. Far too few EU Member States are accepting resettled refugees today. All 28 countries should make an effort! Still, the reason for the shipwreck disaster last week is that it is so difficult to enter the European Union legally. Therefore, we should seriously consider other options to make it safer to come to Europe for those who flee their home countries. Humanitarian visas could be a solution in this regard.
Regarding the urgent needs of Italy, we need to make sure that the reception centre in Lampedusa, as well as reception centres in other parts of Italy, are renovated to ensure dignified reception conditions. Commission President Barroso announced that the Commission can contribute with up to 30 million Euros for efforts in asylum centres, humanitarian relief efforts, integration projects etcetera.
During our short and intense visit, we also managed to meet the Mayor as well as people on the island who worked on rescue operations, as well as volunteer organisations and not least refugees from several countries. We had the opportunity to talk to a young boy from Eritrea who was on the sunken ship. His parents had given everything they had to give him a future outside of Eritrea, in freedom.