In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to the EU commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos.
Dimitris Avramopoulos was meant to handle one of the biggest humanitarian challenges in the European Union’s history: the refugee crisis. Well-respected in EU circles, Avramopoulos assumed his tenure in the European Commission in a period while the union’s cohesion had been intensively tested by the refugee crisis and terrorist threat, with both issues raising questions about EU border protection.
Efforts to forge a common immigration policy across Europe have been held back by divergent national approaches from member states. The commissioner has often stressed his view that managing migration has to be conceived as a European responsibility. Coming from Greece, Avramopoulos is well aware of the challenges faced by countries at the frontline of immigration routes into Europe. Greece has received criticism from other European countries claiming that the government has proved incapable of protecting its own borders, meaning it failed to safeguard the gateway to the rest of the EU. As a result, the implementation of one of the cornerstone principles of EU integration, the Schengen Treaty, has been temporarily suspended.
Is this blame game a step toward a multi-speed Europe approach that some actors want to see as a major pillar of how the EU will be operating in the coming years, with some members states left behind?
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to the EU commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, about cross-border security, the duty to protect refugees and Europe’s transatlantic relationship with Donald Trump’s America.
Athanasios Dimadis: You recently visited Washington, DC, for the bilateral annual EU-US meeting. Does the US administration under Donald Trump remain fully engaged with the concept of close cooperation with the EU? Did Trump’s recent attack on the EU’s shared policies affect in any way the collaboration between Europe and the US?
Dimitris Avramopoulos: The United States remains one of our strongest allies. We both cherish the value of our historical and fundamental partnership. This partnership is a historical constant and does not change when politicians change places. The EU and US need each other to tackle the geopolitical and international challenges that we all face today: increasing security and fighting terrorism, addressing the migration challenge, improving the global economy, but also trade and energy.
Dimadis: Do the priorities of the current administration remain consistent with the previous administration’s approach on these matters?
Avramopoulos: There is strong willingness on both sides to continue and deepen our cooperation in facing shared global challenges, for the benefit, prosperity and security of our citizens. Our transatlantic relationship is a longstanding and historic one. With the current security and migration challenges that we are facing globally today, there is every reason for the US and the EU to sustain and deepen that partnership, and this was once again confirmed at our last gathering in Washington. We continue to cooperate very closely on counterterrorism, for example, where our information exchange is daily. We have more than 20 US liaison officers in our European security agency, Europol, and the cooperation couldn’t be closer. We also have international treaties to exchange financial data and passenger name records with the US — these agreements are essential to our transatlantic cooperation.
Dimadis: Counterterrorism, the refugee crisis and migration were some of the key agenda items at the meeting in DC. Terrorism remains a threat to the US and the EU. The refugee crisis is still a controversial issue, particularly the question of how much burden each nation should bear. Given all of that, what is the appropriate way to measure the success of the policies you have implemented in these areas?
Avramopoulos: Let me say that in the past two years, we have made a lot of progress at EU level, on both security and migration. Most importantly, it is through collective and joint efforts that we have made progress, and the United States is a key partner in these areas for us.
Regarding security, we have gradually been establishing the essential building blocks toward an effective and genuine security union, ranging from a European Counter-Terrorism Centre with Europol, to introducing systematic checks at our external borders for all who cross, as well as stronger rules to fight illicit firearms acquisition and trafficking. Recently, we have put on the table a new set of proposals in order to better protect our citizens on the ground by stepping up our support to European countries to protect public spaces. Our goal is to stop further attacks by preventing terrorists’ access to funding, weapons and other means, and by ensuring the interoperability of our information systems. I will soon be coming forward with a proposal to strengthen the interoperability of all our data systems, to make sure that all ours dots are connected. We are also working toward the creation of an EU Intelligence Unit.
At the same time, as Daesh [Islamic State] is gradually losing territorial ground, the battlefield against terrorism is increasingly shifting online. Stepping up our work in Europe and globally with the internet industry through [the] EU Internet Forum is essential to detect and remove terrorist propaganda before it even has a chance to go online.
The instability in our neighborhood has indeed also caused unprecedented refugee flows. If we look back, we have gone from uncontrolled irregular flows to a much more stable situation, which is more under control. Irregular arrivals to Europe have in total dropped by 63% compared to last year. Our collective efforts to protect our external borders through the European Border and Coast Guard, to cooperate with partner countries to tackle the root causes of irregular migration and fight smugglers, as well as our efforts to ensure protection and offer legal channels are bearing fruit. So far, more than 31,000 people have been relocated inside the EU, and more than 25,000 in need of protection have been resettled from outside the EU.
But we need to do more, in particular to address the situation in Libya. That is why I am encouraged that the African Union and the United Nations have stepped on board with us following the EU-African Union Summit to further strengthen efforts on all fronts and evacuate people from Libya, either through voluntary returns or resettlement. Whether strengthening our global aviation security, better protecting public spaces or contributing to resettlement efforts worldwide, the US is a key partner of the EU in all these endeavors.
Dimadis: Is the EU satisfied with the level of US contribution to EU efforts to deal with the large numbers of refugees arriving every day? Should the US be expected to receive a higher portion of Syrian refugees, like Canada, for example?
Avramopoulos: The United States has a longstanding tradition of welcoming and integrating migrants and refugees, being a beacon of diversity today. Both European member states and the US are signatories of 1952 Geneva Convention and are thus duty-bound to grant protection to people in need. Resettlement should be the preferred way for people who need protection, so they don’t have to revert to dangerous and irregular routes. Refugee resettlement is a global responsibility and requires the EU, the United States, Canada and the global community to keep playing a strong and leading role.
Dimadis: There is disagreement among member states as to which countries should receive more refugees. So far Greece and Germany have accepted the most. Are there countries that resist sharing the burden? How do you, as commissioner, deal with this situation?
Avramopoulos: More than the economic crisis, it was the refugee crisis that put at stake the fundamental values and solidarity upon which the EU was built. And yet if one thing became clear over the past few years, it is that we can only do this together. Erecting walls or fencing will not stop desperate people fleeing war or persecution. I know that domestic contexts are very much influencing the position of certain national leaders. But solidarity in the EU cannot be à la carte. The European Union has been built upon solidarity and responsibility. These fundamental values are not solely moral. They are legally binding principles for all member states which have co-signed and accepted the EU founding texts, in which these obligations are explicitly stipulated.
Similarly, the decisions to relocate and distribute asylum seekers in need of urgent protection across the EU are legally binding. The European Court of Justice has recently confirmed that our relocation schemes are valid. This should be an opportunity for all member states to work together and participate. Always preferring dialogue, I have encouraged member states that have been resisting to review their position. If nothing changes, the commission has the legal power and means to react.
Dimadis: I spoke recently with the former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who told me that the US underestimated the consequences of the civil war and didn’t anticipate such a massive flow of refugees into Europe. Did Europe underestimate the situation as well?
Avramopoulos: It is true that when the first large migrant flows arrived in 2015, the EU was relatively unprepared. However, in the past two years, we have achieved a lot and we have gone from a scattered approach to a comprehensive and European approach that covers all the aspects of this complex phenomenon. We do our utmost to protect asylum seekers. This is why we proposed a reform of the Common European Asylum System in order to achieve a fair and harmonized process across the EU. Let me also highlight that only in 2016, the EU granted protection to 720,000 people, which is three times more than [the] USA, Canada and Australia combined. I also recently invited member states to resettle at least another 50,000 people in need of protection in the coming two years. We must provide safe and legal pathways to Europe and prevent those people from risking their lives by crossing irregularly through criminal networks.
We are also actively cooperating with partner countries to address the root causes of irregular migration. To this end, we provided over €3.1 billion through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to projects promoting migrants integration and economic development. Following the EU-African Union Summit, the African Union and the United Nations will join our efforts to further improve the situation on the ground in Libya, to step up voluntary returns for those who can go back home and intensify resettlements for those in need of protection. We are gradually exiting crisis mode and we are developing a long-term, comprehensive policy to manage migration in a spirit of partnership and shared responsibility, inside and outside the EU.
Dimadis: The US and EU member states have been expressing concerns about the ability of the Greek authorities to protect the country’s external borders from refugees making their way into Europe. Is the problem with the Greek government or is it that it has not received the required assistance from its EU partners?
Avramopoulos: As I explained before, we are not where we were two years ago. Particularly when it comes to external border management, we have made incredible progress. In less than six months the European Border and Coast Guard was created; now, a year later, it is already fully operational. The external border of one member state is now legally and operationally the external border of all member states. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency is actively supporting member states, and in particular Greece, in managing external borders with more than 1,400 border guard officers across the EU (and more than 700 only in Greece) deployed on the ground as we speak.
In addition, thanks to creation of the hotspots, everyone who arrives in Greece is identified, screened and fingerprinted, with the help of precisely the European Border and Coast Guard, but also Europol and the European Asylum Support Office. On top of this, everyone crossing the Schengen external borders, whether EU or third-country national, is systematically checked, and the new Entry-Exit System will also improve border management and increase security. In other words, our external borders are better managed and protected than ever before. This is not a Greek, Bulgarian or Italian responsibility. This is a joint, European one.
Dimadis: There are voices inside Europe expressing their concerns about whether or not restrictions should be applied to the Schengen Treaty, especially for countries like Greece with highly vulnerable external borders. Greek citizens who want to travel to Germany are already subject to extra screening when they land in German airports. Is this a step toward an à la carte Schengen approach?
Avramopoulos: Schengen is one of the greatest achievements of European integration, and the absence of internal border controls is its very essence. It is a fundamental freedom and right that we must defend and safeguard. There cannot be an à la carte Schengen approach. This is precisely why we have always been working toward a coordinated and European approach, in full respect of the Schengen rules. Internal border controls can only be temporary and exceptional. Recently, we proposed to update the Schengen Borders Code to adapt the rules for the reintroduction of temporary internal border controls to the current needs, to be able to respond to evolving and persistent serious threats to public policy or internal security.
Certain member states currently have internal border controls. They have expressed their support to the goal to return to an area without internal border controls, and that the controls are targeted and limited. Regarding Germany and Greece in particular: At my initiative, a constructive trilateral exchange took place recently at expert level. We welcome the clarification from the German side, specifying that any controls will from now on take place at the gate in the Schengen area of the airport, rather than transferring passengers to the non-Schengen area of the airport. Controls are limited to a check of the identity and of the validity of the travel document.
We also welcome the clarification from the Greek side on the reinforcement of the existing exit checks at Greek airports. We will continue to work closely with both Germany and Greece. The overall cooperation between the two has been very good thus far and we will continue to facilitate and encourage this going forward.
Dimadis: Following the terrorist attacks across Europe over the past couple of years, there has arisen a broader discussion about the future of the EU. There is also the question of whether the EU should continue to support an open borders policy. Is this a cause for concern for the future of the EU?
Avramopoulos: Europe is at a historical crossroads today, where its fundamental values of unity and cohesion are at stake. Today, one of the biggest threats to the unity and future of Europe [is] the rise of populism, nationalism and xenophobia. Some governments, guided by fear, turn inward. However, we cannot increase security or address the challenges we face through isolation. The biggest challenges today are transnational, across borders. It is precisely by building bridges and alliances that we can confront them together that we can increase security and build prosperity and peace globally.
Dimadis: What is your view about the broader dialogue that is currently taking place in Europe regarding the idea of a “multi-speed” Europe?
Avramopoulos: I don’t believe in the multi-speed European Union because I don’t believe in leaving anyone behind. I believe in further building a stronger and united union. Now is a time to build bridges, to unite, to work together — not to divide or work against each other. Europe is more than just the euro or the single market. Above all, we are a union of values, freedoms and principles. In challenges times like these, we must build on these fundaments. More than 60 years after the Rome Treaty was signed, in the aftermath of the Second World War, we must never forget and take for granted what we have achieved: more than six decades of peace, stability and prosperity. The only way is forward and together.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.