Wednesday, 7 March 2012

"Show openness and respect-despite the crisis!" Interview with Cecilia Malmström, Commissioner for Home Affairs

"If we want support in the health sector, if we want the world’s best brains in IT
 and engineering  - we have to make it easy for them to come and integrate."
First of all, what is your personal interest in your portfolio of Home Affairs?

Well, it is a very difficult portfolio. The privilege is that it is so related to the life of the people - such as those who run away from horrible dictatorships and try to get a better life in Europe, who are victims of terrorism or organized crime. It’s very down to earth and very emotional. But I am happier here than in a more technic portfolio.

Speaking about the people affected - is it important for politicians to go into the field?

Yes, it is very important to directly talk to these people – otherwise, they may become only statistics or an abstract issue you have to deal with. I visited, for example, refugee camps in Libya and Tunisia, also detention centers in Eastern Europe. And I encourage my people to do the same. If you spend all your life only inside the Commission, you cannot do a proper job.

Was there one experience which changed your political ideas or especially impressed you?

No, I do not think it changed my ideas. But I have this picture of a young boy in a refugee camp in Efros, Greece –near the Turkish border. I visited the detention camps there and they were extremely crowded. I talked with one young boy from Afghanistan, around 14, and he asked me for a Euro saying: "I need to call my mama." I recall his picture very often and think: "What we do, we do for him."

Apart from experience in the field – what skills do you expect from your advisors?

I look at both the formal experience on the CV, but also the life experience. I want people with different perspectives in my cabinet. Also, I want them to speak out their mind. Of course, once we have decided, everybody has to be on board. But to only have quiet yes-sayers around me, I think is difficult and dangerous. We have quite an open tone here, we are very informal. But I also expect people to be independent, innovative, to work hard and to take their own initiatives.

So, let’s speak a bit about your current initiatives - what lessons have you learnt from Lampedusa and the risk for Schengen, how would you deal better with a mass influx in future?

When the Arab spring broke out, some politicians to my surprise were saying: "Oh, we have a massive influx of refugees!" - instead of positively recognizing the fight for political freedom behind it.
And actually, we did not have a mass influx of migrants. Italy had raised the issue of applying the temporary protection directive*. This directive was installed after the massive refugee influx from Kosovo. Here, we are talking of hundreds of thousands to come at the same time. And that has actually never happened since. Last year, about 250,000 people asked for asylum in Europe, but divided. In the case of Italy, there were 56,000 migrants arriving in Lampedusa. Most of them were economic migrants, because the tourist industry totally broke apart. This was a severe pressure on the little island, but not a tsunami of refugees coming to the other countries.

So it was a question of quantity why the directive was not applied, not the reaction of the member states or the migrants’ motives ?

The directive can only be applied, if member states agree. And during the discussion with other members this tool was not really on the agenda. We tried to help the Italian government with both staff and technical and money assistance. And the Italians have done a fantastic work on their own. But the directive is there and we are of course ready to evoke it, should it happen.

Furthermore, it did create some tensions on Schengen. And Schengen must be defended, because there are many bona fide travelers - tourists, businessmen, students - who we want to come and to move freely. The problem with Schengen is that some countries can simply not defend their borders. Therefore, upon request of the Council, in September we presented a proposal on how to better maintain Schengen and defend the external borders. But the problem right now is that the mood in the European Union on receiving migrants is no really at its best.

Despite this mood you have recently adopted mobility partnerships with EU neighbours and with North African countries. Why does Europe need immigration in times of high rates of youth unemployment?

Since many years, we have mobility pacts with Georgia, Moldova and Cap Verde, and are now negotiating with Tunisia and Morocco. We try to assist these countries. First, with building up a democracy: run elections, educate their police, control their borders, set up an asylum system. But assistance also means facilitating mobility, that is facilitating visa and increasing the matching. For example, France has on its own made a deal with Tunisia on 200 or 300 nurses a year. And we do need labour migration in Europe, as there is still a lack of skills, especially in the health sector, IT and engineering. And we want the best brains to come to Europe to work and not go to the US or to Canada, as they do today. This is of course the member states’ decision. I will not sit here in Brussels saying "You will take labour migrants!" But if we want these people to come, we should make it easy and get away with the bureaucracy.

This reminds me of the Gastarbeiter programmes of the 60s and 70s - a targeted immigration facility to fill our labour force gaps. How do they envisage immigrants’ long-term stay and promote integration?

Well, this is more of a short-term and circular programme.

Also the Gastarbeiter programmes were intended to be short-term, but many immigrants did not want to go back and stayed ...

Yes, and for these cases we are trying to assist European member states with integration. Integration is done on the local level. But we can assist financially, identify and circulate models that work and spread them, we make people meet and share experiences. Key factors are employment and learning the language. But it always depends on the context, e.g., if it is easy to set up a business or if you are welcome or not…and many people I know are quite well integrated. Many immigrants see no future in their country and want to build a new life. Therefore, they want to contribute and to work – they want to integrate.
However, nowadays, fuelled by the economic crisis, people are scared and having difficulties to be tolerant. This makes it very easy for populist movements to find scapegoats. This is very dangerous and political leaders should not only stand up and try and fix the economy, but also stand up for the values of the European Union, for openness and respect.
Thank you very much.

Elena Fries-Tersch

*The Temporary Protection Directive 2001/55/EC defines minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof.