How to influence Vice-President Timmermans

On 4 July Social Platform joined a small group of civil society representatives working on human rights and asylum and migration to meet European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans. Our agenda was to address the EU-Turkey deal, the asylum package and EU’s integration action plan (read my blog from our previous meeting in February on migration integration).

We expressed our concerns and fears that the EU’s actions lead to a race-to-the-bottom and that the EU-Turkey deal might become a blueprint, although we do not believe it should be a long-term solution. The European Commission aims for more safe and legal routes for migrants and refugees to enter the EU, yet we do not see what concrete initiatives are being taken. In the meantime we notice that other initiatives are being rushed and taken at high speed to please Member States, with little analysis and evidence backing up the decisions.

“Before I try to persuade Member States to accept their responsibilities I need to convince them that we can control our borders and stop Greece from waving through migrants”, said Vice-President Timmermans. Bringing Member States before the European Court of Justice will take a long time, without solving the situation right now. The Vice-President shared our worries although he found most of our input too technical and critical. The Vice-President explained that we need to provide alternative political solutions, which takes into account the xenophobic position of several Member States in order for him to be able to act.

Vice-President Timmermans reassured us that he meticulously works to ensure ‘non-refoulement’, i.e. that refugees and asylum seekers are not returned to a country where they risk persecution. The EU-Turkey deal might not be being implemented well enough but it has still saved a number of people from drowning and broken the business model of smugglers between Turkey and Greece, said the Vice-President. On our critique of the punishment of migrants who choose to move to another EU country than the one they arrived in (i.e. ‘secondary movement), the Vice-President answered that it is justified so as to prevent Member States from engaging in a race-to-the-bottom in an effort to persuade migrants to leave.

“It is difficult to convince Member States to implement legal avenues [to the EU], this is why we see such slow improvement”, said the Vice-President. On our concerns about the EU family reunification law not being implemented by Member States, the Vice-President expressed his worry that ‘anchor’ children are being smuggled to reunite them with their families in the Nordic countries. We expressed that the well-being of children is also vital when the migrate with their families, as this is not a guarantee of their safety.

The Vice-President concurred that integration should take place from day one, but unfortunately not all Member States share this view. He also agreed with us that we need to enable not only highly-skilled but also low- and medium-skilled workers to access legal ways to come to the EU for work. Our concern, based on the Commission’s communication, is that Member States will favour short-term permits of stay, although research shows that conflict situations last on average 17 years.The Vice-President’s cabinet replied that they have to balance integration without creating pull factors by allowing people to stay longer than needed.

I made the point that the communication on legal avenues politically contradicts the integration action plan that the EU set out. Initiatives such as short-term permits and sanctions if migrants move to another EU country do not help integration, nor do they address family reunification as a legal avenue and a key driver of integration. Secondly, while we welcome the opportunity to meet with the Vice-President we would like to see a meaningful dialogue between him and wider civil society.

I left the meeting rather perplexed. Vice-President Timmermans expressed his frustration and limited power to convince Member States to act in solidarity, as a union. We ask him for his leadership while he asks us for alternative solutions. Maybe it is a reminder that we need to challenge not only our political leaders, but ourselves too; we need to demonstrate civil society leadership and unite around a long-term vision with concrete steps to get there.