EU's top priority to 'get migrant numbers down'
The Dutch EU presidency and the European Commission have said their top priority in the next six months is to reduce the number of asylum seekers.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch leader, whose country is to chair EU proceedings until July, said in Amsterdam on Thursday (7 January): “To stem the flow of migrants, to bring down these numbers consideraby, is of crucial importance. We cannot continue with the present numbers.”
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The commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the Dutch EU commissioner, Frans Timmermans, echoed his remarks.
Juncker noted that one of Rutte’s big jobs will be to push through the creation of a new European border force and coast guard.
The commission’s controversial plan envisages posting EU border officers to the bloc’s external boundaries even if the host states don’t want them.
Juncker said the border force is needed to help save the Schengen passport-free travel zone.
He voiced “understanding” with Sweden, the latest Schengen state to reimpose border checks in order to curtail migrant access.
But he added: “I can’t accept that now we’re abandoning the Schengen system and all that it means.”
“We can’t go on with this process, where, day after day, another member state is reintroducing border controls.”
Timmermans, the author of an EU-Turkey deal designed to stem the flow of people, mainly Syrians, from refugee camps in Turkey, noted that “over the last couple of weeks the figures have remained relatively high, so there’s still a lot of work to do.”
He said the “only benchmark” of whether the deal works is “the figures going down … substantially down.”
“We’re a long way from being satisified.”
He added the EU must also get better at spotting “at an early stage who has the right to international protection, and those who don’t have the right to remain in Europe should be returned to their country of origin.”
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimates that 1 million people came to Europe to seek protection last year, most of them from Syria or Afghanistan.
The crisis has seen Austria, Denmark, Germany, Slovenia, and Sweden reimpose border checks. France also reintroduced checks after the November Paris attacks.
'We need to deliver'
The crisis has also prompted talk of creating a "mini-Schengen" of mostly northern EU states and of a "coalition of the willing" of countries willing to share the refugee burden.
Rutte said on Thursday he is less interested in speculation on the future of the EU than in practical outcomes, however.
He said discussion on "a Europe of many speeds or one speed or whatever" is less important than getting to grips with border security and refugee burden sharing.
"We need to deliver," he said.