Commission mulls ‘Juncker Plan’ for the EU’s southern neighbours

Frans Timmermans [European Commission]

EXCLUSIVE / The European Commission is considering a ‘Juncker Plan’ to support the Southern Mediterranean region, in order to cut the high number of refugees arriving in Europe, the First Vice-President Frans Timmermans told EURACTIV.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Timmermans explained that “it is absolutely clear that the EU has a huge responsibility to export stability to its wider region”. This includes not only Syria and Iraq, but the wider Middle East, and Africa.

And this “comes with a price,” he stressed.

The College of Commissioners is currently discussing setting up “something that is comparable to the ‘Juncker Plan’ in the region, which uses public guarantees to attract private investment in key sectors, Timmermans revealed.

“I think it would be a good idea,” the Vice-President explained, given that the Juncker investment plan has been “a successful concept” in the EU, with more than €50 billion already mobilised over the last year. “It could be useful [in the] near abroad,” he said.

Around 1.5 million people have arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2015. The massive influx of refugees has put at risk the Schengen area, and emboldened populist forces in the EU to fight multiculturalism and immigration.

Timmermans claimed that 60% of the people coming to Europe through Turkey and Greece are migrants, not refugees, looking for better economic opportunities. European money could help to attract investment and create jobs in their home countries.

>>Read: EU-Turkey €3 billion migrant deal blocked by Italy

“We need to understand that this is a very important and wise investment to make. I believe that those people thinking, also within the Commission, to set up a ‘Juncker Plan’ but just not within the EU, but near abroad, is a smart approach.”

He did not clarify when the European Commission intends to present such a proposal, but Timmermans made it clear that he would not be in charge, despite the fact that he has been in the lead in dealing with the refugee crisis.

“We need to help the Maghreb to develop, we need Egypt to find a stable future, we need to put an end to the war in Syria. All these things need to be done so people don’t feel compelled to leave where they are.”

The need to add a powerful economic response to the strategy to address the refugee crisis has gained traction in recent days. Speaking at a panel discussion in Davos on Thursday (21 January), German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble called for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the region bordering Europe’s south.

“I do not want to use that term, but we will need something similar,” he said, preparing his colleagues at member state finance ministries to contribute. “We will have to invest billions in countries from where the refugees come from,” Schäuble predicted.

>>Read: EU ‘long way from satisfied’ with Turkish migrant cooperation

Echoing French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who warned that Europe could unravel “in a short time” if member states are not up to the challenges ahead, especially the refugee crisis and the security threat, Timmermans made a “call to arms” to fix the problems the European project is facing.

“Now I understand that, for the first time in my living memory, the EU project could unravel if we don’t fix a number of problems we need to fix,” he said.

The top priority, Timmermans stressed, is the refugee crisis. “If we can show to the European public that collectively we can deal with this, then the trust in the EU will increase,” he said. 

“But if we are not able, if the issue of moral hazard between member states leads to a lack of performance in the refugee crisis, then of course the EU will get less and less support from the citizens.”

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