Stef Blok: Returns to Turkey need to be increased

Stef Blok: Returns to Turkey need to be increased

Reaching an agreement on a European Union-wide migration pact will not come “as quickly as I would hope,” Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok says. In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini ahead of his visit to Greece yesterday, Blok expressed his support for the measures announced recently by the conservative government to contain the migration/ refugee crisis, pointing out, however, that “it may be that more will be needed.”

Turning to the EU, the Dutch foreign minister described it as “an omnivore that should show its teeth more often,” while insisting that transatlantic defense cooperation “remains indispensable.”

Are the Greek government’s new measures – legislative and operational – to deal with the migration/refugee crisis in the right direction?

I appreciate the efforts of the new Greek government. Their priorities are very much in line with our view of a structural solution: improving reception conditions, speeding up asylum procedures, increasing returns and strengthening border security. The measures of the Greek government aim at doing just that. The new asylum law that will enter into force in January 2020 is a step in the right direction. However, it comes down to the implementation. It is still too early to assess whether the measures will be enough to bring the situation under control, especially with the increased arrivals over the summer. It may be that more will be needed. What is definitely needed is to increase the number of returns to Turkey. My government is of course willing to continue support in this regard, for example by sharing knowledge and expertise.

Despite these new measures, daily arrivals continue to number in the hundreds – a clearly unsustainable situation. What can the EU – and the Netherlands in particular – do to help? Can more pressure be put on Turkey to police its coasts more effectively? Should countries of final destination take up more of the bureaucratic burden in processing cases of family reunification?

The current situation on the islands is worrisome – the increased arrivals and the very limited returns. That is not only a Greek problem, but also a European one. That is why the EU and my government have been supporting Greece and will continue to do so with funds (2.3 billion euros) and European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Frontex experts. However, I truly believe that the only structural solution and the only way to break the business model of the smugglers is for Greek authorities to speed up asylum procedures and increase returns. As I said, the new asylum law is a step in the right direction. And we will continue to provide support by sharing knowledge and expertise. The EU has open communication with Turkey, and uses a series of measures to assist Turkey in managing the migrations flows.

What are the Netherlands’ key priorities in the coming negotiations for a new, comprehensive, EU-wide migration pact?

The Netherlands aims at an effective asylum system based on European solidarity within the framework of a fully functioning Schengen [system] without restrictions. It is not an easy discussion within the European framework, where countries have substantially different views. Thus the process needs to be managed carefully, and I am afraid it won’t find a solution as quickly as I would hope. In the meantime it is important that all member-states adhere to the present rules, and implement the existing agreements, in order not to complicate an already difficult situation further.

How difficult do you expect negotiations to be over the EU’s new seven-year budget?

My country strives for a modern, future-proof and financially sustainable multiannual financial framework (MFF). But the financial burden must remain fair. Together with the other net-payers, we are ready to pay more than we get back, but there are limits. Excessive budgetary burdens must be avoided. For instance, the example of the Commission’s proposal for the next MFF. The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden finance around half of the net payments to the EU budget in 2020, and the contributions would rise to three-quarters of net payments by the end of the MFF period in 2027. We are talking about taxpayers’ money and therefore we have the obligation to handle that money sensibly. And with Brexit in mind, a smaller EU simply means a smaller EU budget. We therefore want to conduct the negotiations on the basis of 1 percent of the EU-27 gross national income. This allows for an appropriate level of financing for both modernized traditional policies as well as new priorities, such as migration, security, innovation, research and climate. I also advocate stronger and effective conditionalities, for instance in relation to rule of law deficiencies.

How do you respond to critics who say that the Netherlands, through its leadership of the so-called New Hanseatic League, is preventing the eurozone from fortifying itself against the next financial crisis?

Let me first emphasize that the Hanseatic group is not a formal “club” which member-states can join, but more an ad hoc coalition of like-minded countries. Its members come from both inside and outside the eurozone and have shared positions on issues like budgetary policy and eurozone regulations. I think that such cooperation actually helps to strengthen the Union and prepare it for future challenges. Besides that it’s well known that the Netherlands and some other countries in the Hanseatic group are in favor of implementing clear rules that already exist within the eurozone in order to prevent scenarios we saw during the last financial crisis.

What was your reaction to French President Emmanuel Macron’s “brain death” comment on NATO? Can – and should – Europe create its own defense capabilities, independent of the US? Is it right to seek rapprochement with Moscow when the Russians have not made any move to redeem themselves after Crimea and other violations?

I think Macron’s interview was mostly intended as a wake-up call, so I don’t take his words literally, but I do understand the point he is making. It is time for Europe to get its geopolitical act together. The EU has sometimes been compared to a geopolitical herbivore in a world of carnivores. As far as I am concerned, Europe is an omnivore that should show its teeth more often. The EU is a huge economic bloc that still attaches importance to universal values. That provides us with a lot of soft power, which we should convert into hard political power more often.

The good news is that Europe is investing more and more in that geopolitical power. Just look at the growing defense budgets. Look at European defense cooperation and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects, at the proposed European Defense Fund. But an entirely new and autonomous European security architecture is not the answer. The transatlantic cooperation remains indispensable.

Regrading your question on Russia: I have said it before – even in tough times, we have to keep talking. The EU and Russia have long-lasting, diverse relations. And we have shared interests, like commerce, culture and even security. But we also firmly believe that we should uphold the current sanctions as long as there is no progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

How do you respond to departing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker characterizing the blocking of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania as a “historic error”? Might your position shift by the Zagreb meeting in spring? Are you broadly in agreement with France’s recent proposal for the overhaul of the accession mechanism?

I have been clear about this from the beginning. The support from the Netherlands for the EU perspective of Western Balkan states is unwavering. But at the same time I believe that countries should be truly ready when they join the EU. This is the reason why we insist on an enlargement approach based on merit and actual progress in the implementation of reforms. And this is also exactly my message when I visit these countries. The EU, for example, is founded on the rule of law. Therefore a solid rule of law system will protect the rights of citizens and is at the foundation of any democratic system. A functioning rule of law system is also key for economic progress; it provides certainty and will, for example, increase the incentives to invest. This is why I will continue to stress the importance of progress in this field. I think the current French proposals are interesting and they need to be discussed among member-states. Hopefully we can start that discussion as soon as possible. But I want to underline that the quality of that discussion is more important than speed. In the meantime I urge the Western Balkan states to keep on reforming.

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