Avramopolous: Refugee crisis a ‘crash test’ for Europe

Dimitris Avramopoulos [European Commission]

All countries that belong to the European family must abide by EU policy, says Dimitris Avramopolous. Hungary should be more cooperative in registering refugees. EURACTIV’s partner Tagesspiegel reports.

Dimitris Avramopolous is the EU Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs.

He was interviewed by Der Tagesspiegel’s Albrecht Meier.

The European Commission is aiming to relocate 160,000 refugees from Hungary, Greece and Italy. Will the member states engage with this plan?

Under the present circumstances the EU states have to agree to this. In May, the Commission proposed the distribution of 40,000 refugees. Now we are awaiting 120,000 more. This plan is ambitious. When we first proposed the plan back in May, certain member states had their reservations about it. That is no longer the case. I believe that they all came to realise that we have to respond to this humanitarian crisis together. It’s a sort of crash test for Europe.

There are 54,000 refugees in Hungary, a figure which would be decreased by the proposed quotas, yet the country does not seem keen on them.

In the short term, we aim to reduce the pressure on the countries most affected by the increasing number of refugees, Hungary, Greece and Italy in particular. Clearly, the new system would not just be for the benefit of the rest of the Union, it is of particular interest to Hungary. Hungary should seize this opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

The Commission has offered to assist Hungary in setting up a reception centre for refugees. Is Hungary cooperating with this initiative?

I have spoken to the Hungarian interior minister about this issue. Next week I’ll be in Hungary and hopefully Budapest will accept the proposal that we have made. So far, there has been no request on their part. But we are ready to support Hungary in this challenge, and to adhere to the wishes of the Hungarian authorities.

>>Read: Juncker defies EU countries with distribution plan for 160,000 refugees

But refugees must still be registered in Hungary? There’s talk that registration could be carried out in a transit zone on the Serbia-Hungarian border instead.

Registration must take place in Hungary, within the borders of the Union. So that includes the registration, fingerprinting and individual evaluation. It all has to be done in an EU member state. Serbia is not a member state. However, the Commission is already working together with Belgrade to improve the local asylum system, as well as their efforts against people smugglers and traffickers.

In Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries, there are fundamental objections to the proposed quotas. In these countries, binding quotas might be seen as the European Union interfering.

All countries that belong to the European family must abide with EU policy. Obviously, we cannot force anybody to accept major revisions. But on the flip side, all member states must surely accept that this crisis cannot be tackled individually and is beyond the capacity of individual countries. But, unfortunately, this wave of populism sweeping the EU means there is a lot of finger pointing, rather than showing solidarity.

Werner Faymann (the Austrian chancellor) has demanded that member states not participating in the quotas have their funding cut. What do you think of this?

Personally, I prefer the carrot, rather than the stick. In other words, there is no valid reason to cut aid. We want to help the member states, not punish them. By maintaining a dialogue of trust with the member states, we hope that they will be convinced and we will find a solution to this crisis. On Monday (14 September), a special meeting of the EU interior ministers will be held on the subject. This will be of great importance.

>>Read: Pressure builds on Eastern Europe to accept refugee quotas

What do you expect from this meeting? Will there be a majority decision where certain member states decide not to accept the quotas?

We have to wait and see. I’ll meet with everyone on Monday, the sceptics included, and set out the arguments for this plan. The proposal, on the one hand, is ambitious, but it is entirely realistic. I have heard significant calls from all the authorities of the EU states for a pan-European solution to this crisis. Now’s the acid test. It is now up to the member states to act in a determined manner, and not to cave in to their fears.

Regarding the list of safe countries that the Commission is working on, it doesn’t just include the Western Balkans. Turkey is also there. Critics would argue that Turkey should not be included, as it might not be considered safe, due to the threat of civil war hanging over the country.

Turkey is legally considered to be a safe country currently. It was awarded EU candidate status based on this, due to its fulfilment of the Copenhagen criteria, including, a functioning democracy, due process of law and protection of minorities. From a legal standpoint, countries with EU candidate status are considered to be safe. However, the process of compiling the list of safe countries does include the proviso that states can be removed from it if they do not comply with certain conditions. Finally, the EU accession progress of candidate countries is evaluated every year by the Commission. To put it clearly, just because a country is considered to be ‘safe’, does not mean its citizens are precluded from applying for asylum. The new regulation is just intended to speed up the process.

How long will the refugee crisis last?

So long as our neighbourhood is on fire, it will continue. As the situation in Libya and Syria is likely to deteriorate, we should expect these high number of refugees to be the norm for both the short and medium term.

Refugees are being welcomed by Germans at their train stations, bus stations and football stadiums. Has this changed Germany’s image back in Greece?

As a Greek citizen, I can tell you that Germany’s decision to welcome the politically persecuted is a powerful move of solidarity. I have nothing but good things to say about their actions. Germany is showing the other countries the way. At the same time, they have confirmed their membership of the European family. It was a decision made purely in the European spirit.

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