17 October 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Firstly, I would like to thank you for inviting me to give a welcome address to Eurocities Social Affairs Forum as well as the Meeting of the Integrating Cities Initiative, on a phenomenon that nowadays is reshaping Europe, confronting it with its responsibilities — the refugee/migrants phenomenon.

This specific event is a great initiative indeed, as it stands out for two reasons:

Firstly, for the way its subject is formulated: “Welcoming refugees: a city challenge”. For, the chosen words are far from being neutral; the choice of the verb “welcome” instead of another verb, perhaps more technocratic, sends out straight away a message. A message that is being spread from Helsinki to Athens.
Refugees and migrants are not intruders into local societies; they are welcome and can be part of these societies.
This point of view is the total opposite of xenophobic and racist behaviour.
It is a clear answer to closed borders and fences.

The second reason why this meeting is important is that it forms part of a collective effort of the LRAs in Europe to respond to the multiple challenges that have been raised in the last few years by the pressing question of refugees/migrants.
Indeed, these challenges have revealed shortcomings, negligence and delays at European, national and local level.
Yet, they have also revealed the great potential of local societies to deliver solutions for thousands of people in need, in terms of housing, food, health issues, even with scarce resources and limited means. This has been achieved through cooperation between Local Authorities, citizens and NGOs.
These challenges have, therefore, highlighted the vital importance of the local dimension in tackling this phenomenon.

For, Ladies and Gentlemen, today,
We have gained sufficient experience so as to outline our next steps.
Three steps towards an objective: to make local and regional authorities key factors for building a European common approach, with fair sharing of responsibilities.

First step: LRAs should, at both European and national level, be entitled to co-decide on acts and policies they are invited to apply – whether it is about the reception of refugees/migrants or the possibility of their access into the labour market.

Second Step: Regional authorities must be granted direct access to European funds and financial tools, such as The Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMID).
This, inter alia, was one of the topics of the meeting I had last April with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, on the local dimension of the refugee/migrant crisis.
The possibility for LRAs to have their own access to economic resources contributes to saving time and resources, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of the overall LRAs action.

Third step: Coordination of our action, by establishing synergies between the two levels of self-government, namely, the local and the regional authorities.
The actual functioning of Eurocities is real proof of how beneficial the exchange of good practices and the coupling between EU cities and institutions are. For, addressing the challenges posed by not only the reception but also the integration of refugees and migrants is a continuous process which cannot be accomplished by one level of self-government only. Holistic solutions to the complex challenges of the refugee/migrants crisis cannot be provided neither by the EU nor by the governments or by the LRAs on their own.
The situation requires cooperation and common understanding at all three levels, within a common European immigration and asylum policy.

The initiative taken by the Mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, last April with a view to creating Solidarity Cities: a network of European cities uniting to manage the refugee crisis is of critical importance. Because, synergies of such a kind, eventually including Regions, are the key to convert what some people call “crisis” into an opportunity.

As John Stuart Mille used to point out: “It’s hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been… one of the primary sources of progress.”

With these thoughts in mind, I wish you a fruitful work.