Europe's refugee commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, is seen by some as a hardliner. However, he argues that in the midst of the refugee crisis, he is trying to balance protecting refugees with securing Europe's borders.
A former Greek foreign and defense minister, Mr. Avramopoulos served in the diplomatic corps before becoming a member of parliament for the conservative New Democracy party and he has also served as mayor of Athens. In 2014, Mr. Avramopoulos was appointed European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship in Brussels.
On Wednesday, Mr. Avramopoulos is presenting an interim report on the way the refugee crisis has been handled so far.
For him, one thing is clear: "We are not where we should be."
He talked with Handelsblatt about the divisions within Europe over how to handle the refugee crisis as countries disagree over how many asylum seekers to accept, preserving the Schengen system, the unchecked movement of people and goods within the region, and better securing Europe's borders.
Handelsblatt: Commissioner, given the difficult situation right now, was it a mistake for Germany to open its borders to refugees last summer without coordinating with the other countries in the European Union first?
Dimitris Avramopoulos: No, it wasn't a mistake to accept refugees, it's in keeping with our fundamental European values of humanity and human dignity. Germany took more responsibility than others in the refugee crisis and shouldered a particularly large burden. I have great respect for the German chancellor's position on this issue.
In mid January European Council president, Donald Tusk, warned that the Schengen Area could collapse in two months if the E.U. couldn’t manage to solve the security problems on its external borders. What can be done?
We need to control and protect our external borders more effectively if we hope to preserve Schengen and freedom of movement within the area. That's why the European Commission proposed the development of a European Border and Coast Guard, which could always intervene or provide support when there are problems on the borders. The Commission, along with Frontex, Europol and EASO, are already helping Greece financially and providing experts and technology on site. About 750 Frontex employees work on the Greek islands and on ships in the Aegean Sea alone. The Schengen evaluation mechanism was created so we can detect and correct deficits in all of our member states. We must protect and strengthen Schengen and we should do this by applying the Schengen rules. What is not up for debate is suspending Schengen or expelling Greece from the Schengen area.
The main problems are clear. The hotspots, or centers for processing refugees, aren't working. Some eastern European countries aren't willing to accept quotas of refugees. Should countries be sanctioned, should aid be cut?
Today, we present a report that provides an overview of where we stand in the refugee crisis. It's clear that we aren't where we should be. But it's also undeniable that we have made great progress in only six months and, in light of the enormous challenges, have already made some initial progress. The Commission has put all key building blocks in place, now the member states need to implement the measures adopted. The European Union doesn't work on the basis of punishments but through joint decisions that are in everyone's interest. The Commission's job is also to ensure everyone adheres to these decisions. Since September 2015 alone, we've made 58 decisions governing infringement proceedings for potential or actual violations of European asylum law. Today we will send letters to all member states calling on them to speed up the redistribution of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy.
Are you planning a permanent redistribution system whereby countries would have to accept a given number of refugees?
We presented our proposal for a permanent system to distribute asylum seekers among all the member states in the European Union last year. Of course, the Commission is sticking to its proposal. But it's also clear that the member states must first ensure that the emergency measures that have been approved are actually working, before they agree to a permanent redistribution system. So far, only 208 individuals from Greece and 257 from Italy have been distributed to other member states. That's far too few. We need to make some progress here now.
What about reforming the Dublin System, will we have to abandon the principle that asylum seekers should apply for asylum in whichever European country they first reach?
That is indeed a conceivable option, but not the only one. We will discuss the issue thoroughly with the member states before outlining a proposal to reform the Dublin system. We will present our plans in February and then the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers will have to accept the proposals. This needs to happen quickly. The measures to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers are already a structural exception to the current Dublin rules.
Should refugees be given time limits and be obligated to go back to their home country if the war is over?
Countries can already today suspend refugee status if the reason that they needed protection no longer applies. We shouldn't forget that most Syrian refugees would go home if they had the choice. We would be wise to remember how big a threat there must be to a person's life to make them flee their own country.
Should more efforts be made to pursue human traffickers?
(Operation) Sophia, the multinational crisis management operation, was set up in record time and conducts operations in international waters. This includes searching, seizing and redirecting boats suspected of involvement in human trafficking. As soon as a government of national unity has been formed in Libya and gives its consent to an operation, Sophia can also become active in Libyan territorial waters.
You yourself are Greek. Are other countries in Europe putting too much pressure on Greece?
Because of its geographic location, Greece has been under enormous pressure for months and is already doing a great deal – with the support of the European Commission and our European agencies, Frontex and EASO. More than 90,000 people were saved from drowning in the Aegean in 2015 alone. The Commission fully supports Greece. All new arrivals must be registered and screened, and their fingerprints have to be entered into the EURODAC database. This registration process takes place in hot spots. Those who enter the country as asylum seekers can either register for redistribution or apply for asylum in Greece. If they have no right to asylum, they must be sent back to their home countries. It is Greece's responsibility to do this in an orderly manner. We aren't leaving Greece on its own here, but we also expect more to be done. Let me make stress once again that no countries will be expelled from Schengen. We never considered anything like that and there's no legal basis for such a move. This applies to Greece and all the other member states.
Is it true that Greece doesn't want help from Frontex and that a recent report on the country's progress threatened a three-month ultimatum?
We neither threatened nor did we set an ultimatum. On the contrary, we provided a road map to help Greece correct the problems on Europe's external borders when serious deficits were discovered in protecting the borders in Greece. The Commission can only make recommendations on how Greece can improve the situation. After three months, if there are still deficiencies, we can propose introducing border controls in one or more member states. We must prepare for the possibility that such controls remain necessary so that we better control the persistently high influx of refugees. Apart from that, I am pleased that Greece has now requested assistance from Frontex and has received it. It is now the member states' responsibility to provide a sufficient number of border guards. Today's report will also address the progress that has already been made here.
How do you evaluate ideas to connect the return of refugees into their home countries with EUs developing aid?
We must increase the number of returns of migrants to their native countries who require no international protection. This also includes negotiations over readmission agreements with the countries of origin. However, I believe that it would be wrong to reduce support in the context of development aid. I support incentives, but without ruling out sanctions. And we shouldn't forget that one of the goals of development aid is to reduce the causes of migration, such as war, instability and extreme poverty, in the long term. It can also help in reintegrating migrants who are sent back after being in Europe illegally.
Should foreign and security policy be better integrated to deal with crises faster, or what can be done?
The Commission works for all 28 member states. This is our duty and obligation as an institution of the European Union. Our proposal to develop a European Border and Coast Guard begins at the external borders, because they need to be controlled more effectively. It's important that the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers reach a decision quickly, so that the European Border and Coast Guard can become operational as soon as possible.
Are you satisfied with the way the agreement in Turkey is being implemented?
Implementing the joint action plan with Turkey is part of today's report. The number of irregular border crossings is lower than it was in the fall but that's partly due to bad weather. To uphold the credibility of the European Union, it's important that we keep our end of the bargain, and I'm pleased that the member states agreed last week to a payment of €3 billion ($3.4 billion) for refugees in Turkey. Our humanitarian obligation doesn't end when Turkey stems the flow of refugees to Europe. This is why we recommended an agreement with Turkey on the voluntary acceptance of Syrian refugees by E.U. member states. This agreement can be implemented as soon as the number of people entering Turkey is reduced to a sustainable level. Solidarity is simply not a one-way street.
Europe is aging and will need qualified people but how far will new Commission guidance on migration help?
We need migration if we want to continue to develop. Immigration brings new ideas and promotes growth and we have to make it easier for immigrants to integrate into our societies. That's why the Commission presented a comprehensive migration strategy last year. Simplifying legal immigration and promoting integration are key parts of this strategy. We'll unveil our plans for both areas in March.
Many Europeans are running out of patience and some countries seem to be moving backwards, towards more nationalist policies.
We shouldn't allow ourselves to return to the past. As a young man, I dreamed of being able to travel through a Europe without borders and barriers. Some people are beginning to question this but we should remember where nationalism can ultimately lead. That's why we have to take a firm stance against populism and xenophobia.
Could the next summit meeting later in February be a turning point for the E.U.?
I expect negotiations with the United Kingdom will dominate the agenda though heads of government will also discuss Europe's course of action in the refugee crisis and President Juncker will remind them what is at stake and what needs to be done. I expect the March summit will return to an in-depth discussion of the refugee crisis, because it's our highest priority. What we need now is to implement the measures we have already adopted – not new declarations of intent but concrete progress.
Thomas Ludwig is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in Brussels. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org