Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Photo by: © European Union 2017 - European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has laid out a clear focus on tackling migration as a key part of European development cooperation in a State of the Union speech described as “egocentric” by one major nongovernmental organization.

However, his comments on climate change and tax havens were more warmly welcomed by figures in the development sector.

Addressing the European Parliament for the annual speech in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Juncker — who leads the arm of the EU responsible for proposing legislation and implementing policies — urged EU member states to increase financial contributions to the bloc’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which he said is “reaching its limits.” The controversial instrument, which has received almost 3 billion euros to date, aims to “tackle the root causes of migration” through the use of development aid.

But Fanny Voitzwinkler, head of the Brussels office of NGO Global Health Advocates — which published a report on Monday criticizing the Emergency Trust Fund — said: “We urge member states not to replenish the fund, which doesn’t respect aid effectiveness, good governance and transparency principles and diverts EU aid from its original purpose of poverty eradication.”

Juncker added that the EU would work to open up legal routes for migrants to prevent the ongoing loss of life in the Mediterranean.

Identifying migration as one of his top priorities for the year ahead, he said Europe needed to have “solidarity” with refugees. “We must also show solidarity with Africa. Africa is a noble and young continent — the cradle of humanity. Our 2.7 billion euro EU-Africa Trust Fund is creating employment opportunities across the continent. The EU budget fronted the bulk of the money, but all our member states combined have still only contributed 150 million euros.”

“The fund is currently reaching its limits. We know the dangers of a lack of funding — in 2015 many migrants headed towards Europe when the U.N.'s World Food Programme ran out of funds. I call on all member states to now match their actions with their words, and ensure the Africa Trust Fund does not meet the same fate,” Juncker said.

An inward-looking speech

The EU has been heavily criticized by many NGOs for its use of development aid to tackle migration. The Global Health Advocates report accused the trust fund of “respond[ing] to a political emergency in Europe rather than development needs in partner countries” and of “backtracking on all internationally-agreed aid effectiveness principles.”

Based on research in Niger and Senegal, it recommended that the fund should not be replenished until it is revised.

Responding to the speech, Natalia Alonso, head of Oxfam’s EU office, said that while the trust fund vehicles can be “a useful investment in Africa” in terms of poverty reduction, “the question is how [they] are being implemented. Are they really tackling the root causes of poverty or are they just tackling [migrants’] mobility?”

Kasia Hanula Bobbitt, head of policy at CONCORD, the European confederation of development NGOs, told Devex that Juncker’s focus in the speech “could potentially give you an overview of how Europe is shifting,” she said. “It’s the biggest donor [of development aid], yes — but under conditionality.”

Alonso said she was surprised that Juncker mentioned little else about the EU’s development and humanitarian efforts — or about the Sustainable Development Goals — describing the speech as “quite egocentric.”

The concern, she said, is the indication that international development is not a priority for the commission at the moment.

Bobbitt agreed, saying that: “When you look at the whole packages that are being discussed right now, this seems to be a very secondary issue. It’s not the focus point for the next years of the commission.”

She would have hoped to see Juncker give more time to the role of Europe as a global actor, she said, including in his discussion of democracy, equality, and the rule of law.

Juncker used last year’s State of the Union speech to announce the launch of the EU External Investment Plan, a development initiative to encourage investment in Africa and the EU’s immediate neighbors in an effort to work toward the SDGs — and address “some root causes of migration.”

Legal pathways for migration

Juncker placed his comments on migration in the context of the continued loss of life in the Mediterranean, with 2,500 deaths so far this year.

He said the EU would work to open up safe and legal routes, in part by making it easier for skilled migrants to come to Europe with a “Blue Card” work permit. “Irregular migration will only stop if there is a real alternative to perilous journeys,” he said, adding that, “We are close to having resettled 22,000 refugees from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon and I support U.N. High Commissioner [Filippo] Grandi's call to resettle a further 40,000 refugees from Libya and the surrounding countries.”

While safe and legal routes of migration are welcomed by NGOs, Alonso told Devex the key would be ensuring that they are “not limited to just ‘useful’ migrants for the European market. The Blue Card is for qualified professionals, but there are other legal channels that exist already — for example, humanitarian visas and family reunification — that we would like to see extended.”

Bobbitt added that: “If it actually happens, this would be one of the most positive developments. This would actually help people getting to Europe in a safe way. But how much of it’s going to be delivered is another thing.” One concern, she said, is that it might be implemented without consultation with civil society.

Juncker also stressed the importance of improving conditions in refugee camps on Europe’s borders. The EU must “urgently improve migrants' living conditions in Libya,” he said. “I am appalled by the inhumane conditions in detention or reception centers. Europe has a collective responsibility, and the commission will work in concert with the United Nations to put an end to this scandalous situation.”

Alonso said the remarks were “really welcome,” but that the EU could be doing a lot more to improve conditions in camps in Italy and particularly in Greece, which Amnesty International has described as “appalling.”

“Set against the collapse of ambition in the United States, Europe will ensure we make our planet great again. It is the shared heritage of all of humanity.”

— Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission

Attention to tax and climate change

Juncker also identified the subject of climate change as a priority for the year ahead, suggesting that Europe would assume the mantle of leadership in the face of the United States’s retreat.

“Last year, we set the global rules of the game with the Paris agreement ... Set against the collapse of ambition in the United States, Europe will ensure we make our planet great again. It is the shared heritage of all of humanity,” he said.

Alonso also welcomed Juncker’s remarks on company profits being “taxed where they were made,” highlighting the potential importance of this for global development.

“It’s really important because if we want social standards and social protection … if we want public services that provide for citizens, we need money for that, and obviously tax is one of the sources,” she said. “One way of making sure that happens is by having a fair taxation system,” including protecting against profit shifting.

However, she expressed disappointment that Juncker gave no details on how Europe would become more effective in defending against “tax dodging,” adding that his points were “good on principles, not so much on practicalities.”

Update, Sept. 15: This story was amended to clarify that Juncker addressed the parliament at its seat in Strasbourg

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About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Deputy News Editor. Based in London, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on Europe & Africa. She has previously worked as a writer, researcher and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.