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Juncker urges EU members to resist 'populist' rejection of migrants

06 August 2015, 12:31 CET
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Juncker urges EU members to resist 'populist' rejection of migrants

Jean-Claude Juncker - Photo EU Council

(BRUSSELS) - EU governments have a duty to help the flood of migrants arriving in Europe and not cave in to "populist" demands to turn them back, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday.

In an interview with AFP, Juncker said he was disappointed that EU ministers had failed late last month to agree on how to distribute a total of 40,000 mostly Syrian and Eritrean migrants from overstretched Italy and Greece.

They agreed to start relocating a little over 32,000 of the arrivals among the EU's 28 members in October, falling around 8,000 short of the target agreed by EU leaders at a summit in June.

"Ministers, unlike citizens, have an obligation to act. We made proposals that went far, while still being modest given the scale of the problem," Juncker said, referring to the proposals from the Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation EU.

"We proposed a mandatory system to redistribute asylum seekers and people who need international protection, but the member states did not follow us and we are forced to seek an agreement on a voluntary basis," he said.

At a July 20 meeting in Brussels, EU justice and home affairs ministers agreed to relocate more than 32,250 Syrians, Eritreans, Iraqis and Somalis who had landed in Greece and Italy which have borne the brunt of the influx.

The ministers also agreed however to take in some 22,500 Syrian refugees currently living in camps outside the EU -- exceeding their target for 20,000.

Juncker said the EU would resume efforts in the autumn to reach the 40,000 target.

"If we don't get there on a voluntary basis, we will have to reconsider the Commission's proposals," the former prime minister of Luxembourg said.

"But I want to believe that they will react ambitiously," he said.

- Governments must lead, not follow -

Juncker said governments had to be firm and take the lead, when asked how the EU can help share the migrant burden without provoking a backlash that only helps populist and xenophobic movements.

"There are moments in politics when you must not follow the populists, otherwise you become populist yourself," Juncker said.

"You must say the opposite of what (the populists) say.

You must not become blinded by populist thought which is present in every country," he warned.

Nationalist and anti-EU parties have seized on the migrant issue as a symbol of all that is wrong with the 28-member bloc, which they see as interfering in member states' internal affairs on issues best left to national governments.

The commission was prompted to act when a massive shipwreck left nearly 800 migrants dead in April.

More than 2,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Some 188,000 people have been rescued so far this year trying to make the crossing.

Juncker was concerned with the problem of migrants trying to reach Britain from France through the Channel Tunnel, which has caused tension between the two countries and highlighted a difficult problem for both countries.

"This situation plunges me into the most complete distress," Juncker said, adding the Commission was ready to offer financial help to France and Britain to ease the problems.

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