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Timmermans: refugee crisis has only just begun


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Timmermans: refugee crisis has only just begun

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At the UN headquarters in New York global leaders have been discussing the urgent issues including the Syrian refugee crisis, human rights and new development goals. Representing the European Union was the man who is in charge of all this, Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. Euronews Washington Correspondent Stefan Grobe sat down with him to find out what Europe’s message was.

Who is Frans Timmermans?

  • Frans Timmermans is the First Vice President of the European Commission since last November
  • He served as Dutch Foreign Minister from 2012 to 2014
  • From 1998 to 2007 and again from 2010 to 2012, he was a member in the Dutch House of Representatives for the Labour Party
  • Prior to his legislative experience, he held several diplomatic and civil service positions on the national and European level
  • Timmermans is 54 years old, has four children and speaks six European languages

Stefan Grobe
“I’m going to start with a very personal thing. Your first name is Franciscus – Francis – like the Pope so you are a Catholic from a Protestant country and, as we are here in America, I want to ask you how important is faith and religion in your personal life and also in your political life?”
 
Frans Timmermans
“Well, it is important in my personal life. I’m a Roman Catholic that is correct. I come from a province in the Netherlands where I am told until the end of the 1960s, 80 percent of the people were Roman Catholics. It doesn’t play the same role in my life as it did with my parents and grandparents. But still, for me personally it is an important element. I find inspiration in Christianity and the life of Christ and his teachings but it is an inspiration – it is not something I think about every day frankly.“ 

Stefan Grobe
“We just had a very spectacular visit of the Pope here in this country and he was raising some of the issues that you are embracing as well. Issues like immigration, the fight against poverty – also he criticized unfettered capitalism. I wonder where you come down on this. Do you consider the Pope as an ally?”

 
Frans Timmermans
“Absolutely, especially on issues of moral importance, which are linked with the way our economy is structured. I think he has got a very important point on sustainable development, on the depletion of natural resources, the need to take care of our natural environment, and the need to take care of each other. Both within communities and within society, but also the need to take care of people who flee other societies because of war and persecution. So I think his teachings are a great importance to the society at large.”
 

Development goals

Stefan Grobe
“One of the reasons why you are here – and you are in charge of it in the European Commission – is the new global development goals, 17 for the next 15 years. And to sum it up, it is all about the planet, it is all about peace, it is all about prosperity. What can Europe contribute to this process and what was your European message to the world?”
 
Frans Timmermans
Well, the game changer here is that with the millennium development goals it was about telling the other part of the world that is not developed and how to get developed. The game changer now is that the sustainable development goals affect all of us. And we need to do our homework back home because we need to change our economic structure to be sustainable. We need to stop depleting natural resources because they are finite – they will end at some stage. And we need to create a socially sustainable economy as well because especially if you look across Europe the middle classes are losing faith in the economic structure, are losing faith in a future for them and their children. If we don’t get that right then we are in deep, deep trouble. And I think that is the reason why the sustainable development goals are as much about ourselves as they are about other countries.

Stefan Grobe
“Some critics argue that some of the goals are hard to measure – like discrimination against women; others are too general – like jobs. What is your response to that?”
 
Frans Timmermans
“I think if you don’t want them you can always find a reason to say they are no good. But with women, it is very simple. It starts with equal pay for the same job – still not a fact. Equal pay – that is measurable in figures – that is quite clear. We can’t get it right. Still not.  It starts with helping families cope with the fact that caring for children is a job men and women have to share. So you need to create the facilities to make sure that men can take time off from their work as well, when they become fathers, you make sure that there are enough places that you can bring your children to, that they are well taken care of, that you can pursue a career. We still have got to get this right and we are a long way from a perfect situation. It is also cultural change – to see the necessity to empower women. Because if we don’t, we lose out – we need the economic potential of women. Look at the demographic development. If we don’t get everybody on board we will lose out, we will shrink economically. So these things perhaps seem general but they are very, very precise once you develop policies.”

Stefan Grobe
“Despite all the efforts at a stronger global cooperation between the developed world and the developing world, between Europe and its developing neighbors, there are still huge gaps.“ 

Frans Timmermans
“Absolutely!”

Refugee crisis

Stefan Grobe
“And if we look around,  we see one area that has not benefited at all and that is the Middle East.  And I’m referring of course to the refugee crisis in Syria. You have been at the forefront of bringing everybody on board, finding solutions, and you were quite passionate about it. Yet it took a long time. Now talk to me about your level of frustration that you have experienced.”
 
Frans Timmermans
Well, sometimes you are frustrated because things that seem so logical are not seen as logical by all your colleagues. But it depends on your perspective. Europe is moving fast in this area – much faster than we move in other areas. Just imagine that it is not even a month ago that President Juncker delivered a speech at the European Parliament and we had a momentous, historic decision by the European Council last week where the European Council decided to accept the Commission’s proposals on a number of areas. And of course this is not always something that is shared by every Member State, but by and large countries are quickly moving in a different direction. We are really overhauling some of the principles of our asylum policy, and I think we are doing this rather quickly, obviously under pressure. But experience shows that Europe only moves forward under huge pressure. That has been the same for decades.“ 
 
Stefan Grobe
“How can one explain that Europe was taken by surprise so much? The Syrian civil war has been going on for quite some time. And it was somehow in the making. Yet, all of a sudden we have hundreds of thousands of people popping up in Europe… 
 
Frans Timmermans
“I think it was more whistling in the dark for a long time hoping that the situation would blow over, hoping that others would take care of it. The downside of the Dublin agreement is that you can leave countries to solve the problem on their own. And that is what has been done for a long time which led to huge frustrations in countries like Italy and Greece. Italy has been saying for years: ‘hey listen this is becoming untenable. Looks what is happening in Lampedusa. We need other solutions.’ And people were saying ‘yeah, yeah, you take care of it yourselves.’ And then they started not to uphold their part of the deal which meant they were letting people go through to the rest of Europe too easily. They were not fingerprinting them. They were not registering them. They were not putting them in facilities. They were just letting them through which led to the huge rise of refugees going to countries like Sweden and Germany. So at the end of day we came to the conclusion: ok now everyone is suffering – the countries where they arrive and the countries where they end up. So we need to find a way to solve the problem for both. And the way to do that is to have a distribution key in case of emergencies so that all EU Member States bear part of the burden and secondly that we improve the registration, the fingerprinting, the distinction making between refugees and migrants from the onset; from the moment they arrive in a European country. So that is why we have introduced the idea of assisting Member States in doing that. These are two elements that are essentially linked because if you don’t do the one, countries will feel left alone, if you don’t do the other, other countries will feel left alone.”
 
Stefan Grobe
“We have seen all of a sudden this rise of this number of refugees; do you think this was a spontaneous movement?
 
Frans Timmermans
“It was bound to happen sooner or later. All the experts, UNHCR, all the other institutions, numerous NGOs have been saying for at least a year and a half: ‘listen people this at some stage will boil over and people will come to Europe’. I spoke to families of refugees on the island of Kos in Greece, and they were telling me: ‘Hey, I was living in the refugee camp in Lebanon; I was doing ok but after two years I ran out of my money, my savings have been spent, I want to feed my children, I can’t feed them there, that is why I want to take them to Germany to feed them there.’ Would you do anything else? I would do exactly the same as a father if I needed to do that, you know. So we need to make sure, in the long run, people have a perspective where they are so that they don’t move to other places. That is why we launched this idea of the trust fund for Syria so that we can put at least, I hope, a billion into that. We have put 500 million into that now. I hope this would be, by member states, increased to a billion. Then you can help at least 3 million refugees have a sustainable future where they are now.
 
Stefan Grobe
“So are we seeing just the beginning of the crisis?”

Frans Timmermans
“Oh yes!”

Stefan Grobe
“If yes, is Europe prepared for bigger numbers?”
 
Frans Timmermans
“Well, if Member States now implement what they agreed, both in the Council on the distribution key, and in the European Council on the wider problem; if they start implementing this faster, then we can get a grip on the situation. And that is what the European public wants. And we need to do that swiftly because the problem will not go away soon.
 
Stefan Grobe
“The US Department of Homeland Security has estimated that there are roughly 4000 Islamic militants who have infiltrated Europe, disguised as refugees. Is that more or less an accurate assessment? And do you fear a higher terror threat level in Europe?”
 
Frans Timmermans
“I don’t know this number; I don’t know this assessment, so I am not in position to comment on it. But it stands to reason that if people move to Europe, there might be also criminals in that movement, there might also be terrorists in there. I know that security services are working very closely together to monitor that situation. We have also increased the cooperation by FRONTEX and EUROPOL with local authorities in Greece and elsewhere, to make sure that we get a better picture; interview people as soon as they arrive, so that you know how the smugglers operate, and fingerprint people immediately so that you can identify them, as soon as they arrive in Europe. If we do that I think we can keep the threat under control, but that, you know, but that, people feeling from a war zone, not only angels flee form a war zone, that’s a historic experience we’ve had through the ages. With every war there are also criminals coming this way.”
 

Rise of extremism

Stefan Grobe
“You have recently warned against a surge of right wing extremism rising in Europe, if the refugee crises were not dealt with properly, how concerned do we have to be?
 
Frans Timmermans
“Well, I am worried about this because the advantage of the extreme right is that they bring very simple solutions to very complicated problems, and every sane person knows that these solutions will never work. So, the responsibility of all the other parties, all other political movements, the responsible citizens, is to show that, a complex situation warrants complex solutions, but complex solutions can work if you apply them correctly, if you apply them in the European context, if you all do what you need to do. 

Stefan Grobe
“I have another quote. You said in recent speech: ‘Europe’s goal has to be to make sure that the laws are never divorced from its sense of humanity’. How does that go with statements we have heard from some Eastern European governments that basically said flatly – no Muslims?”
 
Frans Timmermans
“If people flee because they are persecuted you are not going to ask them what their religion is or what the color of their skin is. People who flee have a place in Europe. At the same time, I think sometimes a caricature is made of the situation in Central and Eastern Europe. These are not xenophobic racists societies, they are not .They are societies with a different history then ours. They are not used yet to diversity in their society. But, sooner or later, every society, and this is not linked to the EU, this is not linked to the refugee crisis, this is linked to globalization. Every society is becoming, in some way or form, a diverse society, and we better get used to that and we prepare our population for that.

Stefan Grobe
“German Chancellor Angela Merkel said a few days ago that the crisis cannot be solved without support of United States, Russia and Middle East. Are you happy with the level of support you are getting?”

Frans Timmermans
“Well, I think that, you know, the International community is now getting together, to slowly, step by step, to look for ways out of the Syrian crisis. As you know this has been a proxy conflict on many levels with Saudi influence, Iranian influence, Russian influence, and somehow to many parties have had an interest in not looking for a way out, and this has blocked the decision making in the UN security Council. Security Council is the place where you will see solutions coming about, and you need the world community to come together on this. I think that step by step now you see some openings on the Russian side, and I believe that, you know, sooner or later, a way has to be found out of this horrible situation involving all parties engaged in this conflict, national, in Syria, but especially in the wider region, especially globally. So, it will take a Security Council, it will take regional players, it will take the parties in the region to come together to look for a way out.”
 
Stefan Grobe
“One final question, where do you see yourself in five years and where do you see Europe in five years?”
 
Frans Timmermans
“ Well, I was a diplomat before I became a politician and as diplomat you are always planning ahead: ‘I’ll go to that posting and that posting and that posting’, and as a politician, if you want to sleep at night, if you want to have a life outside of politics, you need to stop thinking about your political future and just live in the present. So I have absolutely no idea where I will be in five years. I hope in five years’ time, people will say: ‘hey he did half a decent job, good for him.’ That’s what I hope, but what I will be doing by then I don’t know. And where Europe will be in five years’ time, I think Europe will be in a better place, will have overcome its lack of self-confidence which is plaguing us today, and I think we will have overcome by then the lack of confidence in each other. There is a level of distrust between the Member States that is totally unacceptable, and we need to overcome that, if we are willing to challenge, to take on the challenges that the world is throwing at us today.”

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