Looking back at the last year, we realise that something has changed fundamentally for Europe. 2015 was a year of multiple, deep crises: the Greek financial crisis; the refugee crisis and finally, a crisis of confidence concerning our capacity to secure and defend our open societies and the fundamental values upon which the EU is based.
Joint border management as core challenge
To say that borders have a different meaning in a globalised world has become a bit of a calendar motto over the last years. But 2015 showed us very forcefully that boundaries risk completely losing their function as unmovable demarcations of sovereignty under the pressure of global migration flows.
This challenge goes straight to the heart of what our states – and our European Union – are all about. Our citizens rightly demand that their freedom and safety, which goes hand in hand, are protected. Hence, the main and most immediate question is how we can reinforce our external borders more intelligently.
The European Commission proposed concrete action for stronger and sounder EU border-management last year. Not just to tackle external challenges, but also to protect the freedom of movement within the EU, a huge privilege which we must not take for granted. Schengen is not a treaty, but a way of life from which we all benefit. It is mentioned by citizens as the EU’s most highly valued benefit according to Eurobarometer surveys. The aim must be clear therefore: to regain full control of our external borders and to guarantee this also for the future.
Tackling the root causes: Cooperation in our neighbourhood
To manage our external borders better, we also have to be more precise and clearer in defining who is coming in, so that we can really help the most vulnerable refugees. We must define right from the beginning people’s chances to obtain asylum via registration centres (hotspots), and be open to those in need while being firm against those who profit from illegal immigration by exploiting hopes. Obviously we must do this together, in a coherent way. It is clear that no Member State alone can tackle this task, and that dumping the problem from one state to the other, as happened this summer, is making things worse. But even Europe alone cannot tackle this challenge by itself. We need much stronger cooperation with our neighbouring countries and with the countries of origin, where we must tackle the root causes driving migration.
Therefore also the involvement of the Western Balkan countries which were heavily affected by the refugee crisis as transit countries, as well as of Turkey was a key step into the right direction. Our joint migration action plan with Turkey must be implemented in full by the Member States who endorsed the plan at highest level. Also our efforts to support other host countries than Turkey with additional aid, such as Jordan and Lebanon, remain crucial as they are in many ways even more exposed. Ahead of the London conference in February which will deal with support for host countries in our Southern Neighbourhood, the Commission will come forward with targeted support measures. Experience has shown that this policy of establishing productive co operations is more relevant than ever.
Of course, this kind of cooperation is not a one-way street. It must be based on mutual interests, trust and shared responsibilities. And be focused on a genuine reform and stabilization agenda. Close monitoring of progress, personal contacts not only with politicians, but stakeholders and representatives of civil society and, most important, visits to the countries – more than 50 in my first year of mandate! – are essential to steer the cooperation process. In addition, we will have to invest more energy and efforts in the coming year to bring forward the political process in Syria in order to end the people’s suffering and thus stop one of the main root causes which force refugees to flee to Europe.
Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy: creating stability in the EU’s interest.
Closer to home, 2015 also demonstrated that it is in our own interest to offer our most immediate neighbours a credible long-term perspective of joining our Union. The European Perspective serves as an important incentive for reforms and this reinvigorated approach is showing first positive results: Serbia succeeded this year to open the first chapters; Montenegro two additional ones, Albania is progressing well, Bosnia and Herzegovina is slowly but steadily getting back on track, Kosovo is on a good way towards visa-liberalisation and I hope, that based on our great efforts, it will also be possible to overcome definitively the political crisis in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The EU’s investment in these countries pays back: Progress with economic and democratic reforms in countries in our immediate neighbourhood is vital for the security, stability and prosperity of all Europeans.
In the same vein, we also succeeded to get a new dynamic into the cooperation with Turkey. From the very beginning of my mandate it was my aim to reenergize Turkey’s role as an important strategic partner while at the same time pushing harder for urgently needed reforms in the country, especially with regard to rule of law and judiciary. We were very clear in our 2015 country report what we expect from Turkey on these political fundamentals, without which there can’t be any progress in the accession negotiations. The same applies to the action plan which will work only if Turkey delivers the provisions according to clearly defined standards. The two processes are linked, of course, but there is no deal whatever and as we have shown with our Enlargement report we will never compromise on the required criteria.
We have also made good progress with the European Neighbourhood Policy by presenting an ambitious reform which will make the policy more effective in delivering on stabilization, security, and economic reforms, while finding more efficient and smarter ways to pursue our values. Georgia and Ukraine have just recently received positive recommendations for Visa-liberalisation – a crucial deliverable for their people – and today we mark a new level of EU-Ukraine relationship with the entry of force of the Trade Agreement (DCFTA ) as an important part of the Association Agreement. All this proves the EU’s peaceful power of attraction beyond its borders. The reformed ENP will become a more nuanced toolbox for cooperation and sovereign choices at times when others try to impose their will on their neighbours.
The time for national solos is over
If there is one lesson taught by this year’s refugee crisis it is the awareness that only through hands-on cooperation will we be able to shape globalisation proactively and according to our standards and needs. This also applies to the cooperation among EU Member States. The European project will only succeed if EU Member States realise that the time for national solos is over. National grandstanding and “not in my backyard policies” must be a thing of the past. Not for dogmatic or ideological reasons, but simply because they fail to deliver on issues vital to citizens such as liberty, security, mobility.
Despite the bleak international backdrop and our current internal discussions, which will hopefully be solved in a consensual way, I believe in Europe. Not because I am a dreamer, but because I am a realist. I am convinced that the EU will emerge stronger, as always, from the crises which will certainly accompany us into the New Year, because there is no efficient alternative to constructive cooperation. But we will only manage this task if we draw the right conclusions from 2015: that it is more sustainable and intelligent to build channels of cooperation than walls, and that cooperation, be it in Europe or on the global scene, achieves better results than isolated actions. We have also to be aware that peace and stability in Europe depend very much on the success of our stabilization efforts in our neighbourhood. With the reforms implemented last year both the European Neighbourhood Policy as well as the Enlargement process are well equipped to tackle this challenge. In this spirit, I wish us and our partners a peaceful and prosperous New Year, based on unity, solidarity and cooperation.