Pope tells Europe to do more to help migrants

Pope Francis urged an "haggard" Europe to do more for migrants and fight rising nationalism in a speech to the EU parliament on Tuesday, telling MEPs the Mediterranean must not turn into a "vast cemetery".

Pope tells Europe to do more to help migrants
Pope Francis has told Europe to do more for migrants. Photo: AFP

In a speech to the European Parliament, the Argentinian pontiff called on the EU to help migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa, saying it must not allow the Mediterranean to become a "vast cemetery."

The pope delivered a particularly strong issue on migrants, of whom more than 3,200 are estimated to have died this year trying to flee conflict in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

"We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!" he said.

"The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance," he said.

It was the first papal visit to the French city since John-Paul II in 1988, but where his predecessor came at the end of the Cold War, Francis faces a more secular and eurosceptic continent riven by divisions and fears about the economy.

"Europe seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness," the 77-year-old pope told European lawmakers.

"We encounter a general impression of weariness and ageing, of a Europe which is now a 'grandmother', no longer fertile and vibrant."

He added: "The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership."

Bells rang out from Catholic churches across Strasbourg to mark his visit, including the historic city-centre Cathedral, where hundreds of the faithful watched his speech on giant screens set up in front of the building.

But the crowd-loving Francis unusually left his popemobile behind and dedicated his time to addressing the European Parliament and the Council of Europe in a four-hour trip, the shortest abroad by any pope.

On his arrival at the huge glass and steel parliament building, Francis and European Parliament President Martin Schulz stood side by side for a flag-raising ceremony while a military band played the European anthem.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics was also meeting briefly with new European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and outgoing European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

Security was tight across Strasbourg with snipers posted on the top of buildings at the European Parliament and army sniffer dogs sent out to check the area before his arrival, AFP journalists said.

"It's going to be a big day," the pope, looking pale and tired but calm, told journalists on the plane before he arrived.

The climate has changed greatly since John-Paul II's visit and Vatican watchers say the pontiff must fight harder to be heard in an increasingly secular continent.

His speech repeated earlier warnings to Europe amid a rise in radicalisation, particularly among the disillusioned younger generation, and racism in countries hit hard by the economic crisis.

His visit has sparked protests in some quarters — including from a bare-breasted Femen rights group demonstrator who mounted the altar in Strasbourg cathedral on Monday — with critics angry over Schulz's decision to invite a religious leader to address a secular body.

Welcoming the pope, Schulz told parliament that his visit was important at a time when the economic crisis had caused a "tremendous loss of confidence in the European institutions."

Francis called for more to be done to tackle youth unemployment — which stands at an average 21.6 percent in the continent — and to care for those fleeing war zones and persecution, as well as the elderly.

He also spoke out on hot-button topics such as abortion and euthanasia — particularly after a slew of recent legislative changes in European countries.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.