Belgium -Brussels – As 2016 draws to a close in the shadow of the Berlin attack, Europe’s cohesion and resilience are put into question once again. Migration and terrorism continue to be the two most important issues for European citizens today. At the same time, the vast majority of European citizens ask for European and common solutions for their concerns. In fact, 81% of European citizens want to maintain free movement so they can live, work, study and do business anywhere in the EU.
While Schengen is one of the greatest achievements of European integration, it is also at the heart of both the migration challenges and terrorist threat that we face today.
After the Berlin suspect was found and neutralised in Italy just before Christmas, there were many voices questioning the viability of Schengen’s open borders today.
But closing borders will not stop terrorism. Instead, we have to better coordinate, better exchange information, better use all our systems and our rules. There is no use in creating additional rules or systems if we don’t connect all the dots. Terrorism knows no borders – instead we have to work across them. This is what the EU’s Security Union is about – and at the essence of it is more trust.
We want to make sure that people don’t radicalise in the first place, by learning from all the thousands of practitioners on the ground across Europe through the Radicalisation Awareness Network. As Daesh is losing ground territorially, the fight against radicalisation and terrorist propaganda increasingly shifts to the online world. Intensified collaboration with internet companies through the Internet Forum is now more important than ever.
We want to make sure that potential terrorists don’t get the training, financial tools or help to travel so as not to commit terrorist acts. This is what we will achieve now that the EU’s Terrorism Directive has been agreed.
We want to make sure that those who may wish us harm cannot easily get hold of dangerous firearms – by making the acquisition and trafficking of illegal firearms impossible in the first place. This is what our revised Firearms Directive will do, and why we are also intensifying our cooperation with the Western Balkans.
We also want to make sure that potential terrorist suspects don’t cross our borders unnoticed. In the last few months, we have tremendously beefed up the security of our external border management.
The creation of the European Border and Coast Guard was a milestone in how from now onwards we legally and operationally perceive and manage the external border of one Member State as the external border of all Member States. Systematic checks will now also be carried out for all those who cross our external borders, regardless of nationality. In addition, we have proposed an EU Entry-Exit System to better monitor third-country national overstayers, and a European Travel Information and Authorisation System to check for potential security but also migration threats under visa-free third-country nationals coming to the EU.
Recently, the European Commission has also proposed to strengthen the Schengen Information System to better fight terrorism, but also cross-border crime and irregular migration by introducing the obligation to create an alert in cases related to terrorist offences as well as for “unknown wanted persons” and return decisions. In the future, no critical information should ever be lost on potential terrorist suspects or irregular migrants crossing our Schengen borders. On top of that, we also want to better support Member States in combatting travel document fraud both in terrorism but also in irregular migration circumstances.
In all of this, Europol and the European Counter Terrorism Centre will play a crucial role in collecting and exchanging information, as well as operationally supporting Member States in counter-terrorism investigations.
European citizens today want more safety and more security. They don’t want isolation; they don’t want less freedom. In fact, the majority of European citizens today see the EU as a place of stability in a troubled world. This means that while we must continue our work to make the EU, but also the world, a safer place, these efforts must never come at the expense of our openness – neither our physical openness through our Schengen borders, nor our mental openness based on our fundamental values of freedom and tolerance.
In times of increasing mobility and globalisation, the only way forward is together. There is no single frontline in the global war on terror. All our actions are interconnected. From working towards peace and stability in the neighbourhood and better managing regional migration flows to fighting terrorism.
These challenges are not just European, but global. This is why cooperation with partner countries such as Turkey, the Western Balkans, Northern Africa but also the United States is quintessential now and in the future.
As xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise, 2017 will be a year where the European project will continue to be tested. The past year, with an ongoing refugee crisis and several terrorist attacks on European soil, has proven how resilient Europe can be. Compared to the absence of a comprehensive security and migration policy before, in less than a year, the European Union has taken leaps forward.
When the memory of the aftermath of the Second World War starts to fade, we must never forget the initial raison d’être of the European Union: peace and stability – precisely what the majority of Europeans still believe in today.