First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans said what everyone suspected on Friday (4 September): that the refugee crisis overwhelming the EU will last a long time, and that “every single European” will feel its consequences.
Timmermans was speaking at a presser on the island of Kos, where asylum seekers arrive from the Turkish coast, 5 kilometres away. That is where the drama unfolded when 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his 5-year-old brother, and his mother drowned on 2 September. Aylan’s picture, face down, on the beach in Bodrum, shattered consciences across Europe.
Timmermans and Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos are in Greece to discuss support measures to the country, as well as to agree on establishing a so-called “hotspot” reception centre for migrants in Piraeus.
“Let’s be very straightforward and honest with you. The refugee crisis is here to stay with us, for a long time. […] We will all have to face the consequences of the refugee crisis – every single European, 500 million of us,” Timmermans said.
The Commission official made it clear that the EU was making a clear distinction between asylum seekers, especially from Syria, who flee their countries to save their lives, and economic immigrants who simply seek better opportunities in Europe.
“A Europe without borders cannot survive in the present conditions,” Timmermans said. “Our society is built on certain premises of organised solidarity that would be completely undermined if we would say everybody can come in.”
He added that further measures need to be taken to ensure the swift return of migrants who are not eligible for asylum.
But he added that Europe also needed to meet its moral and legal obligations to give safe refuge to people fleeing war and persecution.
“If we forget this, we forget who we are, and we leave Europe to the xenophobes, the extremists, who will destroy it,” he said.
“We are facing a moment of truth in European history […] We can succeed jointly and united, or we can fail each in our own way, in our own country, on our own islands.”
Timmermans acknowledged that the EU had the moral responsibility to receive migrants, as it has been unable, together with the other world’s major players, to find a solution to the Syrian civil war.
Asked if the EU was calling on other world powers to share the refugee burden, such as Canada, the country that is reported to have denied asylum to the family of young Aylan, Timmermans replied: “We are not in the position as Europeans to tell others what they need to do. At this stage, we need to act together.”
“The world is a bad place, and not far away. Europe is a safe haven. Europe is a beacon to people all over the world who fear persecution. Let’s be proud of the fact that they want to come to Europe, that our continent is so attractive,” the Commission First Vice-President added.
Avramopoulos said that in the coming days, Greece would receive the first €33 million installment of some €474 million in EU funding being given to the country to help tackle the influx until 2020.