Migration is an issue which concerns all Europeans - Minister

European Union – Migration policy – Statements to the press by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, on her arrival at the Justice and Home Affairs Council (excerpts)

Luxembourg, 8 October 2019

THE MINISTER – Good morning. As you know, commemorations and tributes are currently taking place at the [Paris] police headquarters; Christophe Castaner and Laurent Nuñez are there. That’s why I’m representing France today at this [Justice and] Home Affairs Council, which will be addressing – among other things, at length, and I might say in detail – the subject of migration. As you know, France, Germany, Italy and Malta worked in Valletta a few weeks ago on a draft agreement so we can provide a humanitarian, mutually supportive, European, credible solution to the issue of landings and migration flows in the Central Mediterranean area. This draft agreement seeks to ensure, precisely, through dialogue between the countries of first arrival – Italy and Malta – and the destination countries – France and Germany –, that we can provide a swift solution for these people in need of care and avoid overlong negotiations, which endanger people’s lives.

We’re going to discuss this agreement. Some countries are telling us they’re interested in joining the collective effort because we won’t settle the issue with only four countries. Other countries are telling us they want clarifications. Still others are telling us they want to understand what commitments they’d have to make. I want to start by saying here that this draft agreement exists to manage an immediate situation to which we’re waiting for a solution today. It doesn’t resolve everything; at some point we’ll need to work with the Commission, as, moreover, the commissioner candidates have pledged as regards Schengen reform and reforming the right of asylum.

And we’ve got two very strong principles, as the Prime Minister and Christophe Castaner reiterated yesterday at the National Assembly with Jean-Yves Le Drian. The first principle is solidarity. There can’t be countries within the European Union which are resigned or indifferent. This issue concerns all of us. All of us are all affected differently because our geographical situation is different. But it concerns all of us. And the second important point is responsibility. We must have more effective external border controls so we know who’s arriving in the European area and we can get organized. So that’s the focus of these discussions today.

Q. – One of the criticisms made about this system – particularly in Germany as well, in the German political class, in the CDU – is that it actually creates a veritable suction effect for [people-smuggling] rings.

THE MINISTER – You know, 13 people died yesterday evening off Lampedusa: women, children, pregnant women. I think that, humanely speaking, we’ve got to come up with a solution so that these people are looked after and can be resettled from the countries they land in. It’s a humanitarian issue. Moreover, the draft Valletta agreement is temporary. We also know – I don’t want to get into describing things in those terms – that we’ve got to be much firmer about our external border controls so we know who’s arriving and, above all, can prevent people-smugglers and traffickers from circumventing our rules because we can’t get organized. And secondly, [it’s about] having principles of solidarity between us. As I said, there can’t be countries within the European Union which are resigned or indifferent. Some countries are more exposed than others; we’re doing our bit in the effort, in getting involved, but we’ve got to work collectively.

Q. – So what will France’s role in the resettlement be?

THE MINISTER – As you know, for the past year France has been the country which has taken in the largest number of asylum seekers who were on those boats, i.e. more than 600 people who have arrived in France in the past year. We don’t have any mechanical, mathematical rules. They’re also people who have case files, who have lives, and these [case files] must be considered, often [by] OFPRA [French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons] and delegates in the ports where these people arrive, [so that] we can consider their situation and welcome, as best we can, refugees who are applying for protection because they’re fleeing places of persecution or war. So that’s the French position. Germany is also doing this work. So we don’t have any mathematical rules; it’s not a mathematical issue, it’s a humanitarian issue, and we think that more generally our efforts now must really focus on reforming the right of asylum in general and overhauling Schengen. The President has said several times that Schengen has two legs, one of them marked “internal freedom of movement” because there’s protection of the external borders. Those two legs aren’t currently balanced; until we’ve restored the balance, we’ll be in a complicated situation.

Q. – How many countries do you hope to rally to this initiative?

THE MINISTER – Today we have around 10. Things have to be confirmed. The aim isn’t to have a specific number of countries, the aim is to create momentum. We can’t let Italy and Malta handle things alone; that’s why France and Germany reached that draft agreement in Valletta, and we’re trying to see, above all, what other forms of solidarity countries can show in the face of these arrivals, not only temporarily but more generally, and those are Ursula van der Leyen’s commitments: to put Dublin, Schengen and the European asylum agency back on the table and for us to have, in that framework, collective action by all the European Union countries

Q. – Will certain people be sent back to Libya? It’s one of the criticisms being made by NGOs which say Libya isn’t a safe country.

THE MINISTER – You may have seen the letter sent by the Office of the [UN] High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, with which we do a huge amount of work, in particular to ensure that readmissions can be carried out even before people find themselves in Libya. Indeed, we have work to do with the countries of transit and origin. These people who take to the sea are often not Libyans but people who come from elsewhere.

We have to build the whole chain. This was also the purpose of the discussions on 22 July in Paris, where we brought together the foreign ministers, the interior ministers who are present today and also the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration. It’s with them that we’re working, so the repatriations aren’t to Libya specifically. As you know, we have to work on the whole chain.

Q. – On the other migration routes – because there are also countries like Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria which are going to present a tripartite initiative asking for more solidarity from Europe –, is this agreement, by focusing on the central Mediterranean, [inaudible]?

THE MINISTER – You see, there are two issues. There’s a temporary, urgent, humanitarian issue. What do we do with the boats carrying people who are awaiting care and reception in decent conditions? That’s what was negotiated and discussed in Valletta. We can clearly see that there’s a more general issue which concerns the eastern Mediterranean, which also concerns migrants arriving via Spain, which concerns the whole of Europe. How we put a system back on its feet which enables us to get organized. It’s not about being tough or soft. It’s about being credible and effective. Why should the only people with principles be the Eurosceptics and populists and those who want to close the borders completely – which, as we can see, isn’t a solution – and why can’t we manage to be responsible, have checks, know who is arriving and show solidarity?

I tell you, resignation and indifference can’t prevail on these matters, so obviously what we’re observing today in the eastern Mediterranean will also be discussed. And that prompts us again to take coordinated action with the European Commission. I’ve listened to hearings with commissioners who make statements on these issues; clearly they’re making strong commitments, because that’s equally important. But I say to you there’s an urgent humanitarian situation in the central Mediterranean which we see being repeated; there are too many deaths, there are too many situations demanding that we take responsible, concrete, European action now. And that’s why the draft agreement is being proposed for six months and not an indefinite period. And there’s everything else we want to put on the table. (…) It’s an issue which Josep Borrell and all us diplomats are working on to ensure we have a coordinated situation not only in Europe but also – I’ve talked to you about this – with the countries of origin and transit.

Q. – Is there a genuine political will? Do you sense it?

THE MINISTER – I sense it; at any rate I feel it. We’re having extremely close dialogue with a number of countries. That’s been a big part of my diplomatic activity over the past six months: going to seek allies, not symbolic allies, not allies for image’s sake but to ensure we can restore trust. European citizens are asking us for protection; they’re not asking us to close the borders, they’re asking us to be organized. It’s a test of effectiveness. If the only people who can ultimately say they’re managing to take a consistent position over time are the populists and those who think Europe can become a fortress, I think we’re losing out collectively, because that’s not a solution. So the political will is extremely strong, because the challenges are significant. And you can clearly see that France – this was the context of yesterday’s debate in the National Assembly – is in a special position, because we have, among other things, secondary movements which are linked to the arrivals of 2015-2016. Thank you./.

Published on 29/10/2019

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