Friday

24th Mar 2017

'It's our duty to turn the migration challenge into an opportunity'

  • "We cannot avoid the fact that around 1 million people is already on the EU territory and that most of them are here to stay," EU regional policy commissioner Corina Cretu said in an interview with EUobserver. (Photo: European Commission)

The refugee crisis that took Europe by surprise last year has posed many challenges for the EU's asylum system, border management and decision-making.

But it is cities that have borne the brunt of the arrival of more than 1 million people in a single year.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • "I admire mayors of small cities," Corina Cretu said, mentioning the example of a 6,000-inhabitant town in Slovenia that had dealt with more than 10,000 migrants a day at the height of the crisis. (Photo: European Commission)

Roughly 70 percent of the European population and 75 percent of the continent's jobs are concentrated in cities. Many of the problems governments have to address – from affordable housing and air quality to energy efficiency and poverty – are also concentrated in cities.

To this list of challenges has been added the short-term welcoming and long-term integration of a massive number of refugees. They have all been included in an Urban Agenda that the European Commission and member states presented recently.

Refugee crisis is testing ideas

"Member states and cities came to realise that with all these challenges nobody can go alone. With this pact we can start working with a consolidated agenda for years to come," EU regional policy commissioner Corina Cretu said in an interview with EUobserver.

The idea for an Urban Agenda was launched by the commission in 2014 to increase cooperation between the EU, member states and regional and local authorities. Almost two years later, the refugee crisis is testing the idea.

"It's our duty to do everything we can to turn the migration challenge into an opportunity," Corina Cretu said.

While the EU was addressing short term needs like accommodation, mobile hospitals, sanitation or water supply, she said "we all know that most effective solutions will be long term".

"We cannot avoid the fact that around 1 million people is already on the EU territory and that most of them are here to stay," she said.

EU regional and social funds have been used for many years to run development projects and community initiatives. But these programmes were designed before the migration crisis, the commissioner noted.

More flexibility required

Addressing new challenges will require more flexibility in the way the EU, member states and regional and local authorities are used to manage EU-funded projects.

Money from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) was used to finance hotspots and mobile hospitals in Italy and Greece. Social funds were used to train refugees, mainly with language lessons.

For this year, with the risk that more migrants come to Italy after the closure of the Balkan route, plans have been made to establish a working group between the commission's directorate general for migration and home affairs and the Italian interior minister to see how funds can be used to help cities.

"It is important for member states and regions to know how to exploit all possibilities of EU funds," Cretu said. "We have to find the balance between the necessity of stable investment and adapting ourselves to the challenges."

In April, the commissioner, along with her migration colleague Dimitris Avramopoulos hosted a meeting with representatives from EU cities on coping with the crisis. At the meeting, she stressed that cities directly managed €15 billion as part of the EU’s 2014-2020 cohesion funds.

"It's a sign of trust but at the same time a great responsibility," she told EUobserver. European cities are encouraged to exchange their experiences and offer to help the most affected cities. "We ask member states to come up with ideas" for projects and initiatives, Cretu said.

Amsterdam took the lead

As part of the Urban Agenda, Amsterdam accepted the lead on migration. It is one of the urban areas, with Berlin and Stockholm, where projects have been run for years and could be used as model.

In Sweden, the country which has received the most refugees as a proportion of its population, the capital Stockholm has developed what the commissioner called a "nice project" with ERDF and social funds.

Refugees have been given housing as well as language courses and job training. Children have been able to go to school for the first time, Cretu noted.

In Berlin, another project was launched several years ago with EU funds, where German mothers help Turkish mothers when they have to deal with administration.

Corina Cretu noted that the atmosphere in the EU since the start of the crisis had not been good, with difficult discussions about how to share the burden across the EU.


But "no matter how hard discussions are between EU leaders, at the end of the day it is up to local administration to find very quick solutions," she noted.


She said that Barcelona had offered to take more than 100 refugee from German cities, but the Spanish national government did not approve.

 She also noted that large cities were not the only ones confronted with the need to find solutions.

"I admire mayors of small cities," she said, mentioning the example of a 6,000-inhabitant town in Slovenia that had dealt with more than 10,000 migrants a day at the height of the crisis.

Linked with the migration issue, other areas covered by the Urban Agenda are social housing and the fight against poverty.

"It is important to avoid ghettos and segregation. Social inclusion is not only for migrants, but it is now the most important issue," Cretu said. "We want to tackle areas where there is a structural concentration of poverty."



France and Belgium are the pilot countries in this domain. One of the areas where the agenda is being tried out is the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, which has become infamous in recent months for being the home town of some of the terrorists from the Paris and Brussels attacks.

The commission will also present in June its Integration Agenda, which will complete what is in the Urban Agenda.

A version of this story also appears in EUobserver's new print magazine, entitled Business in Europe, due out this week. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine.

EU cities want say on refugee policy

Overwhelmed by refugees and let down by national governments, European cities had to step in. Now they want more funding and a seat at the table on migration policy.

What is European Business?

EUobserver, in its new Business in Europe Magazine, looks at business in the EU context

Cities demand access to EU migration funds

Cities are struggling to deal with the influx of refugees and asylum seekers, but EU funds go to national governments, and mayors complain they are getting no help.

Europe's rare youthful villages

Some villages in the EU are bucking the trend by attracting young people. But unless there is outside funding and local action, Europe's countryside will be full of ghosts.

What is European Business?

EUobserver, in its new Business in Europe Magazine, looks at business in the EU context

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  2. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  3. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  4. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  5. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  6. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  7. Malta EU 2017Council Adopts New Rules to Improve Safety of Medical Devices
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy
  9. Party of European SocialistsWe Must Renew Europe for All Europeans
  10. MEP Tomáš ZdechovskýThe European Commission Has Failed in Its Fight Against Food Waste
  11. ILGA-EuropeEP Recognises Discrimination Faced by Trans & Intersex People
  12. Nordic Council of Ministers25 Nordic Bioeconomy Cases for Sustainable Change

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AllianceSupporting Artur Mas: Democracy and Freedom Cannot Be Convicted
  2. UNICEFSyria Conflict 6 Years On: Children's Suffering at Its Worst
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsDomestic Violence in Tajikistan: Time to Right the Wrongs
  4. European Trust SummitCorporate Strategy and Public Affairs in a Low-Trust World - Conference 31 May
  5. Malta EU 2017Agreement Reached to Involve Consumers in Financial Services Policymaking
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cities Gather Against Violent Extremism & Introduce Nordic Safe Cities
  7. World VisionFears and Dreams of Syria's Children and Their Peers Around the World
  8. Malta EU 2017Maltese Presidency and EP Agree on Visa Liberalisation for Ukraine
  9. Mission of China to the EUEU Window Chinese Government Academic Scholarship 2017/18 - Apply Now
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Lead the Way on Women's Economic Empowerment
  11. Center for Data InnovationBuilding Smart Cities for Tomorrow's Data Economy – 28 March - Brussels