Realistic optimists at the helm
The European Union is at a crossroads. Threatened by an existential crisis as it is, the need for reform could not be more pressing. Malta has just taken the reins, fully aware of the tough challenges the Union faces and of the need to move the bloc closer to European citizens and to effectively address their concerns.
As rotating president of the Council of the EU, we are determined to make a valid contribution to the work of the EU in various portfolios while at the same ensure that such work is efficiently communicated to the people. At the end of June, we want to hand over to our Estonian colleagues not only the proverbial baton but also a closer, better and more secure Europe.
Last Thursday I presented the Maltese presidency priorities in the fields of migration and security to the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE). The interest and positive feedback of various members of the European Parliament was encouraging.
It is evident that this presidency is seen as a window of opportunity to reach common, tangible goals in the field of migration. The fact that Malta, given its geographical position in the Mediterranean Sea, has been at the forefront of the migration crisis for so many years, makes us a credible, honest broker in this area.
Achieving progress in discussions on such matters between 28 Member States, all with their own different histories, cultures, realities and political agendas, is quite a tall order. Still, I am optimistic that, if we really want to, we can reach a consensus on a common, effective and equitable way forward. We owe it to our citizens: the very future of the EU depends on the decisions, as Member States, we will take in the coming few months.
We have a very specific priority: to arrive at an agreement on a comprehensive approach to migration. During these six months, my ministry is tasked with carrying forward work on the seven migration and asylum-related proposals that are on the table.
The possibilities of significant steps forward remain limited as long as the question of how to apply solidarity and responsibility remains unanswered. We are aware that we need to continue this discussion in order to find a way forward, taking on board, as much as possible, the concerns expressed by everyone.
We have seen that the flow of asylum seekers poses huge challenges to the EU as a whole; perhaps even more than economic challenges. Thus, we need to learn from the experiences of the past and ensure that we have the necessary tools to forge a system that not only works when things are smooth but can withstand pressure. We will make every effort to find a way forward.
We will keep harping on that we have a duty, as members of a single Union, to assist each other in a spirit of solidarity and in line with what is stated in the Treaty. It is a matter of credibility, and of imparting the right message not only to our own citizens but also to the wider world. Migration is not the problem of a few Member States but concerns the whole of Europe.
Indeed, the migration phenomenon requires solutions on a global level. An effective asylum system, however, is not enough. We also need to address the external dimension of migration and asylum. There is a constant need to enhance cooperation with countries of origin and transit – this is crucial in order to stem the flows and to make sure that those who are not entitled to international protection are returned and readmitted.
A comprehensive approach to migration also entails border management aspects. The EU is making a significant effort in the area of external border management, the importance of which has been heightened with increasing concerns relating to security. Thus, we need to maintain a balance between security and smooth border crossings.
In all this, we must always keep in mind that, when discussing migration, we are not just looking at statistics but dealing with human beings. Europe has just experienced another year of tragedy with thousands of crossings and thousands of lives lost at sea.
Sadly, 2016 was another year characterised by the threat of terrorism. It is up to Member States to remain vigilant and improve security at borders. The newly-issued proposals on the Schengen Information System will see a stronger sharing of information to help law enforcement agencies ensure a safer Europe. We also intend to take forward the discussion on the fight against serious and organised crime.
We are determined to work hard in a pragmatic and focused way, determined to achieve results. We are aware of our limitations but also of our strengths. The truth is simple: as a Union we will only be able to make progress on our heavy agenda through the support of Member States and good cooperation with the other European institutions.
Carmelo Abela is Minister for Home Affairs and National Security.