Title: Speech by Prime Minister Verhofstadt at the European Conference on Migration (16 Oct.)
Category: Speech Category EN

Your Majesty,
Mr Commissioner,
Mr Deputy President of the European Parliament,
Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Migration has always been a key factor influencing the way in which countries and peoples develop. In the past, migration has helped build great civilisations just as it has helped tear them down. The industrial revolution would never have taken place had it not been for the migratory flows that saw country folk move en masse into the towns in search of work. Now that Europe is attracting millions of migrants we tend to forget how millions of Europeans once left our shores for the Americas. However, large migratory flows can also sound the death knell of a civilisation, as we saw in Rome and even in Africa, which is today suffering the consequences of five centuries of forced migration imposed on millions of African slaves.
So this is an essential subject. I would therefore like to thank Minister Antoine Duquesne for having taken the initiative to organise this conference. It is true that immigration policy has only recently come onto the European agenda. The foundations of what will one day become a common European asylum and immigration policy were laid two years ago to the day at the European summit in Tampere, Finland. Two years have passed and we must admit that we have not progressed as much as we would have hoped. There is no common EU asylum and immigration policy yet. Preparations are still under way. This is why the Belgian Presidency has decided to make this a priority issue.

Before the year is out, we want to harmonise the conditions for granting asylum and welcoming refugees. Refugees are entitled to our protection. However, a harmonised asylum policy will only succeed if we can ensure that the load is more evenly distributed and if we can determine as accurately as possible which Member State is responsible for handling any given asylum request. As the EU will soon have 28 Member States, we must deprive bogus asylum seekers and human traffickers of the right to select the one Member State that has the least stringent regulations and controls.

We will also try to pave the way for an approach to immigration that combines innovation with coordination, taking account of every aspect of the problem, from prevention to partnerships with countries of origin, the management of migratory flows and integration. Today's conference should help us to find answers to some of our questions and solutions to these challenges. We must dare to examine the problem of immigration in its wider context so that we can develop an active global policy. There are no ready-made solutions, no easy answers.

When we talk of the immigration issue, more often than not – too often, in fact – we tend to think of asylum seekers. As a result, asylum policy is almost a hostage to the wider problem of immigration. It is commonplace to see the concepts of asylum and immigration being used synonymously, especially by the media. And yet these are two quite distinct phenomena, each with its own mechanisms and causes. We will therefore do well, in the approach that we finally adopt, to make a clear distinction between these two phenomena. If we do not, then the pressure of migratory flows risks compromising the Geneva Convention – and that is something we must preserve at all costs.

So how can we stem the rising tide of migration? Some people feel that quotas or a system of green cards – whereby a fixed number of immigrants are allowed in each year, with or without conditions – could help relieve the pressure and counter the rise in illegal immigration. But is that really true? Such systems are used in places like the United States, and the number of illegal immigrants there remains particularly high.

Others argue in favour of limited access for immigrants on the basis of the needs of the labour market. This, of course, refers to the problem jobs, the jobs which we are unable to fill in our countries. But I have my doubts about this solution. To what extent is this approach dictated simply by a concern to watch over one's own interests? Are we not, in this way, simply organizing a new brain drain from the South to the North? First the wealthy West strips the developing countries of their natural resources, and then it tries to poach their brightest people.

However, it is wrong to view the problem of migratory flows solely in terms of the attractiveness of our own countries. We must also focus on closely examining the causes of this phenomenon, which are rooted in the countries of origin. I believe that there are two main causes of migration, generating two different flows: poverty and war. Many people leave regions where poverty is rife and seek to make a new life in the so-called 'rich nations of the West'. Thus, migratory flows have developed from South to North and from East to West. These flows will not diminish or run dry until, at world level, the gap between rich and poor begins to close, when we can combat poverty more effectively and when the living and working conditions of all these people improve.

However, to this phenomenon we also need to add immigration caused by war, ethnic conflict and human rights violations. Let us not forget that 80% of immigration and migratory flows are not South-to-North but South-to-South. Greater solidarity and more aid are not enough. We also need to take resolute action to nip this violence in the bud before millions of refugees take to the roads. And not just in regions bordering the European Union, like the Balkans, but in regions on other continents, too, such as Central Africa. This is why we need to focus on establishing a real foreign policy for the European Union. It is also why the EU must develop its own conflict prevention and management capability.

It is not a simple task to alter global relations. It is certainly a long-term task. But that should not be a reason for us to remain on the sidelines. There are various options open to us to reverse migratory pressure. The first concerns the enlargement of the European Union itself. As things stand, a large number of immigrants residing in Western Europe hail from former Eastern Bloc countries. However, the imminent enlargement of the EU to the very borders of the old Soviet Union will put this whole problem in a different light. Many people believe that after enlargement we will be inundated by a flood of economic immigrants and cheap labour. But successive enlargements of the European Union have actually disproved this theory time and time again. There were no new waves of migration when the European Community first embraced Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1980s. Quite the contrary, in fact. When these countries joined the EC it was a massive shot in the arm for their own economic development and proved a blessing for employment. Before they joined, Spain, Portugal and Greece were sources of net emigration because they lagged behind economically and had suffered from years of political dictatorship. Now that these countries themselves are centres of economic development, they are actually receiving immigrants. Our experiences with Southern Europe teach us that migratory flows can dry up very quickly, or even be reversed.

However, we should also have the courage to apply the same approach at the international level. When the new round of World Trade Organization negotiations starts in Doha, Qatar, we must find it in ourselves to choose between our own short-term interests and bridging the divide that separates rich countries from poor countries. First and foremost, I am thinking here of developing a policy of fair free trade with the least advanced nations, respecting the principle of 'everything but arms'. Is it not our moral duty to let products from Southern countries onto our markets? Can we afford to continue to protect Northern products, and thus EU products, in the long term? Perhaps we could begin by eliminating export subsidies which allow us to sell our products on Third World markets. The time has come for us to recognise that free trade cannot be in just one direction.

Your Majesty,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have spoken of the differences between the various factors underpinning migratory movements. But there is also another distinction we should draw, the one between spontaneous emigration and organised, exploitative emigration. Nobody leaves their country happily. If their choice is motivated by economic necessity, then that shows a degree of understanding, even if the emigrant then uses illegal means to enter another country. But what understanding do the 'vultures' of emigration have? These are people who, for their own personal gain, exploit or swindle would-be immigrants. They traffic in human beings and supply cheap prostitutes and children to work in illicit sweatshops. Here are we are confronted with a form of organised crime on an international scale, a scourge that we should fight much more actively.

We must urgently develop common EU guidelines on asylum and immigration. And we must take all aspects of this problem into account. I hope that this conference will contribute to this and will represent a first step towards developing a European policy worthy of the name.

Date: 16/10/2001