MEPs’ migration debate turns into ‘stress test’ of European values

Der niederländische Außenminister Bert Koenders [European Parliament]

We are on a stress test of our European values, Bert Koenders, Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister admitted in the European Parliament yesterday (2 February), following a 5-hour debate on the ongoing migration crisis, in which more than 150 statements were made.

Koenders, representing the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the EU, Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Neighbourhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn spoke to MEPs, and answered their questions, during the marathon session.

Lawmakers expressed views ranging from welcoming refugees to closing the EU’s borders, kicking Greece out of the EU’s borderless Schengen area, and punishing Central European EU members for being reluctant to share the refugee burden by depriving them of EU funding. UKIP MEPs said the developments illustrated that it was a good occasion for the UK to leave the EU.

The positions expressed by several lawmakers from the leading EPP and S&D groups were often closer to national views, rather than those of their European political families.

Both Koenders and Avramopoulos admitted in their opening statements that the migrant crisis continues to grow, unabated.

Avramopoulos mentioned the confidential Schengen report presented by the European Commission to the member states the same day. For the purpose of prolonging the duration of border controls introduced by some member states, the Commission would have to take two more steps by triggering Articles 19a and 26 of the Schengen borders code, with a qualified majority vote.

Koenders said there was broad support for inviting the executive to make such proposal. The countries which imposed temporary border controls are Germany, Austria, Norway, Denmark, France and Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, he said. Migration pressure has not decreased, and time is running out.

Avramopoulos made it clear that the discussion was not about kicking Greece out of Schengen. “The Commission is preparing for all options (…) but this is not about the end of Schengen or about cutting out a member state,” he said.

Avramopoulos admitted that the EU was facing an unprecedented crisis of values.

The leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, Gianni Pittella, made a passionate appeal for Europeans to stay true to their values, and welcome the refugees. He argued that they were not coming “to destroy our lives”, but that they were fleeing war. Similar statements were made by representatives of the Greens/EFA group.

‘The virus of fear’

Pittella also said that the fears that there was “a virus infecting Europe, the virus of fear”, which was preventing the EU from making the right decisions, and was threatening to destroy it.

>>Read: Pittella: Member states are to blame for the refugee deadlock

The statement of the leader of the centre-right EPP group, Manfred Weber, was somewhat in contrast. The German MEP, who is a politician from Angela Merkel’s CDU party, said that migrants should accept the host country’s culture, or otherwise they should leave. He also emphasised that borders need to be controlled, and that migrants with no refugee background should not be accepted.

Sixty million people in the world are displaced. We cannot welcome all of them, Weber said.

Several EPP members made statements highly critical of the Central European countries which rejected a permanent relocation mechanism. MEP Carlos Coelho (Portugal) said those countries were putting Schengen at risk more than Greece. MEPs Renate Sommer (Germany), Jose Manuel Fernandes (Portugal) and Gonzalez Pons (Spain) said they should not receive EU funds.

“We are on a stress test of our European values,” Koenders commented. He added: “But values are not simple to put into practice, because it leads to confrontations in our societies, because if fear, and of reactions to fear. We have to balance the different identities that we have in our societies in a way that is in agreement with our democratic values.”

Koenders also said that the Dutch presidency believes that the Schengen area without internal borders is sustainable only if external borders are controlled. He insisted that the principle of non-refoulement (not pushing back refugees at borders) was a cornerstone to international refugee law. He also insisted that effective return policy must be implemented with the utmost urgency by all member states, in a manner consistent with the acquis.

Koenders said the Dutch presidency will do everything necessary to move forward with the revision of the Dublin asylum regulation, on the basis of a proposal by the European Commission to be presented shortly.

He added that the protection of migrants from hate crimes was very much a concern for the presidency. Special attention is needed for the recording and reporting of hate crimes, he argued. Regarding the recent sexual assaults, an issue discussed by several MEPs, Koenders said that a small group of migrants were responsible for them.

The Dutch minister expressed concerns over reports by Europol that at least 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children have disappeared after arriving in Europe. The media indicated that many of them might have fallen in the hands of organised crime syndicates.

>>Read: A third of migrants sailing to Greece are children: UNICEF

This issue needs to be investigated, but it has not yet been discussed in the Council, Koenders said.

Many MEPs criticised the €3 billion package to Turkey. ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt said that this money should better be given directly to refugee camps inside Turkey, rather than to the Turkish government.

Koenders spoke of the need to finalise the €3 billion package, with member states contributing with 2/3 of the sum. It doesn’t mean money is sent directly to the Turkish government, he said in response to Verhofstadt.

‘Panic doesn’t help’

“There is no white smoke yet, but I think pessimistic panic doesn’t help,” Koenders said.

Avramopoulos also used the word “panic”. “It’s a wrong strategy to change strategy just because of panic,” he said.

The Dutch minister informed MEPs that since December, two new hotspots had been opened in Italy – in Pozzalo, in Sicily, and in Trapani. In Greece, two hotspots, in Chios and Leros would be opened soon.

He also said that Italy has reported it has a 100% succcess rate for registration and fingerprinting, and Greecereported that migrants can only leave the hotspots by ferry if they show their registration papers. Greece should receive additional Eurodac machines for scanning fingerprints in the coming days, the minister said.

Koenders admitted that hotspots were going too slow, but he insisted that the network of hotspots in Italy and Greece was the cornerstone of EU efforts to identify the migrants in real need of protection, and facilitate return operations for economic migrants.

He also pleaded that more flexibility in the EU budget is needed to deal with the migrant crisis, and said the Dutch presidency would try to move that forward. 

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