“We can build walls, we can build fences. But imagine for a second it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay, there is no wall you would not climb, no sea you would not sail, no border you would not cross if it is war or the barbarism of the so-called Islamic State that you are fleeing”.
This was European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s first State of the Union address made to the European Parliament, most of which was devoted to convincing the EU to have a united approach to manage the migration crisis.
In mourning for his mother who died on Sunday, he reminded Europeans that it is them now, but it was us a short time ago — the O’Neills and Murphys of Ireland, the McDonalds of Scotland, the freedom fighters of Spain, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs, the Jews, Sinti, Roma and the 60m European refugees after the Second World War.
Half a million migrants — about 0.11% of the EU’s population — have arrived so far this year, illegally crossing seas and land borders because there are few other ways for them to claim asylum.
Mr Juncker wants countries to agree to compulsorily take a total of 160,000 mainly Syrians and Eritreans from Greece, Italy and Hungary that are unable to cope with the numbers arriving. The EU has taken a small number of mainly Syrians in proportion to its half billion population so far, compared to the 4m in Turkey, the Lebanon, where a quarter of its population are migrants, and Jordan.
More EU funds must be given to help these countries look after their refugees and he announced a €1.8bn emergency fund, to which member states will be expected to add, to help the African countries from where most economic migrants come.
Up to now Kosovars, Albanians and other Balkan citizens made up a sizeable proportion of asylum seekers but these, mostly EU candidates, will now be recognised as safe countries although applicants will still be considered.
Safe channels for legal migration must also be established, and boosting the current blue card system since the EU has an ageing populating and needs skilled migrants, he said.
Mr Juncker said asylum applicants should be allowed to work, a issue strongly supported by Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune who said that apart from doing the right thing, it also made common sense for a growing country.
Part of managing the influx will be to turn Frontex into a permanent EU border force to tackle human trafficking and smuggling, and Mr Juncker insists that the borderless internal-EU Schengen area must remain.
But not all agree with his vision. Hungary, that erected a razor wire fence with Serbia, said that border protection must come first, and quotas second.
Far right leader Marine LePen, an MEP, said the plan poses enormous threats to the people of Europe and described Germany’s plan to take 800,000 this year as “a scandal”.
Amnesty International said the proposals were small steps towards protecting refugees but would not solve anything in the long or short term.
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