EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has given his ‘State of the Union’ speech in Strasbourg. This is Juncker’s first such speech to the European Parliament since it elected him in 2014, and the refugee crisis dominated the agenda.
Referring to EU Member States that would prefer to take in only Christian refugees, Juncker said: “There is no religion, no belief, no philosophy when it comes to saving refugees. These are human beings.”
He added that Europeans have often been refugees themselves, including during and immediately after World War II, and reminded Eastern European Member States that it was not long ago that their own citizens were fleeing oppression to claim the right of asylum in the West.
Juncker also argued that frontline EU Member States such as Italy, Greece, and Hungary cannot be left to deal with the challenge alone. He announced proposals for a system of mandatory quotas to distribute some 160’000 refugees throughout the European Union, as well a permanent relocation mechanism for future crises. He underlined that there will be no distinction based on religious criteria.
Arguing that “relocation alone will not solve the issue,” Juncker also announced a “common EU list of safe countries” that migrants can be sent back to if they don’t qualify for asylum. He also said there should be a common EU asylum policy, and that he would push to fundamentally overhaul the so-called Dublin System, adding that legislation needs to be amended to allow asylum seekers to work in the EU while their application is being processed.
Juncker insisted that the Schengen system of free movement in Europe was here to stay, and resisted calls for it to be dismantled. Instead, he would like to see the EU’s common external border strengthened, and wants to significantly increase the budget of the EU’s border agency, Frontex. The Commission will apparently table a proposal for a dedicated European coastguard before the end of the year.
In addition, the Commission is preparing a package of legislation for early 2016 that would open “legal channels for migration” into Europe. Juncker hopes that this will help cut down on the number of refugees and migrants making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing each year.
Finally, Juncker argued that European foreign policy must be “more assertive” in dealing with crisis hotspots in neighbouring countries, including Syria and North Africa. The Commission is proposing 1.8 billion euros to address instability and conflict in North Africa, and Juncker will push for development aid to be increased. Juncker also announced that the EU is planning to begin intercepting and destroying smugglers’ vessels and prosecuting criminal networks of smugglers.
Will Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposals help end the refugee crisis? What did you think of Juncker’s first ‘State of the Union’ speech? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions.