Europe must do more to tackle its migration crisis and should not fear the refugees streaming across its borders, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday, as he unveiled new proposals to handle the surge.
“It is true that Europe cannot house all the misery of the world, but let us be honest and put things into perspective,” he told the European Parliament during an hour-long state of the union speech which he dedicated mostly to the migration crisis.
“There is certainly an important, an unprecedented number of refugees coming to Europe at the moment. However, they still represent just 0.11 per cent of the total EU population,” he said. “This is not a time to take fright, it’s a time of humanity and of human dignity.”
The influx of migrants and asylum seekers has stretched resources and sparked tensions in the 28-country European Union.
“The EU is not in a good state. Europe is missing in this EU and union is missing in this EU,” Juncker warned. “Pushing back boats from piers, setting fire to refugee camps or turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people, that is not Europe.”
The continent faces a legal and historical responsibility to take in those in need of international protection, particularly people fleeing war in countries like Syria, he said.
EU nations are at odds, however, on how best to handle the migration surge, particularly on the question of whether asylum seekers should be spread out across the bloc.
A handful of countries have borne the brunt of migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkans. More than 200,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Greece, around 150,000 in Hungary and 120,000 in Italy, according to Juncker.
The commission wants to lighten the burden by redistributing some of them. It proposed Wednesday that 120,000 asylum seekers be relocated from the three nations to other EU countries. The United Nations has called for Europe to take in 200,000 refugees.
“Where Europe has clearly under-delivered is on common solidarity,” Juncker said.
But some EU governments insist that they alone should decide how many refugees they can handle, and the commission is expected to face an uphill battle with its emergency refugee-relocation proposal and an accompanying measure to set up a permanent redistribution scheme.
Juncker said he has “no illusions” about the tough road ahead, but nevertheless called on EU interior ministers to endorse the commission’s new proposals when they hold crisis talks on Monday.
On the same day, EU governments are also expected to approve a previously proposed emergency redistribution of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, after the European Parliament on Wednesday gave its blessing to the measure.
In this case, the commission had sought the relocation of 40,000 asylum seekers over two years, but member states volunteered to take in only 32,256. That led the EU’s executive to change tack Wednesday by suggesting a more controversial mandatory redistribution scheme.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that the EU’s credibility and international influence are ultimately at stake.
“Don’t think that we can go around the world promoting human rights if we don’t guarantee the highest asylum standards inside the union,” she told EU lawmakers. “Don’t even imagine that we can promote peace … if we don’t accept the other inside our own communities.”
The commission on Wednesday also proposed the creation of a 1.8-billion-euro (2-billion-dollar) trust fund for African countries, and the listing of Balkan nations and Turkey as safe origin countries from which nationals cannot request asylum in the EU.
Some of the commission’s proposals will require the approval of the European Parliament and EU governments to come into effect.
Juncker also announced that the commission will take further action “in the days to come” against member states that are not implementing EU asylum rules, under so-called infringement proceedings that can ultimately lead to hefty fines.
The 60-year-old commission chief held his highly anticipated state of the union speech despite the death of his mother at the weekend and the hospitalization of his father. Parliament President Martin Schulz thanked Juncker for “putting your official duties ahead of your personal feelings today.”
“My father, who is ill, and my mother, who is dead, they always worked, so I’m working too,” Juncker told journalists.