A video conference ministers of interior chaired by Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Croatia, dr.sc. Davor Božinović, was held today within the framework of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Opinions, experiences and practices in fighting the coronavirus were exchanged, as well as reflections on advantages and disadvantages of joint efforts made by Member States in such an unprecedented situation.
Comprehensive measures that have been taken by Member States with a view to controlling the spread of the virus have changed the everyday life of their citizens as governments strive to meet their obligations in order to protect their population. Regular video conferences of home affairs and health ministers are being held in order to coordinate, in proportion with the epidemiological situation, decisions on further activities to maintain public health and preserve a single market.
Today EU ministers of interior also discussed further improvements in transit corridors in order to enable continuous functioning of the single market and free movement of goods. Under the current circumstances, it is essential to have coordination among Member States to ensure continuous supply of the market, primarily with goods of special importance, such as food products, medicines and protective and medical equipment. The procurement and distribution of medical and protective equipment represent a special challenge since they depend on world market trends and the current demand significantly exceeds the supply.
In order to facilitate the procurement of the prior mentioned equipment for Member States, joint public procurement procedures have been launched at the EU level. In addition, a strategic rescEU stockpile of medical equipment has been established.
The ministers also shared their views on potential gradual easing or removal of restrictions introduced on the borders. They also discussed the European roadmap to lifting coronavirus containment measures announced by the European Commission, since a balanced and timely approach to lifting the measures is key for ensuring a sustainable epidemiological situation and revitalising the economies of Member States, whereby the cooperation among neighbouring Member States is crucial. The borders could be gradually reopened, starting from border areas with recorded decrease in COVID-19 cases.
The ministers also discussed applications for contact tracing, given that contact tracing is one of the key measures for controlling the spread of the virus, particularly within the framework of the gradual easing of restrictions on movement. Certain Member States are already working on such applications or are already using them, and some member states have proposed that one application should be accessible to all because they think that this would contribute to transparency at EU level.
The aim of such applications, which would be used only on a voluntary basis, is to easily trace contacts, while fully respecting privacy and the relevant provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation, thus preventing the spread of the new wave of virus infection. Coordination among Member States is also important in this context due to the fact that such applications could contribute to easing or abolishing of internal border checks and potential lifting of entry restrictions on the external Union borders. They could also be beneficial in terms of transportation measures, for example in air transport.
The ministers also examined the current security challenges with regard to criminal activities.
Particularly evident is the rise in cybercrime, the sale of counterfeit goods and spread of fake news, as well as continuation of migrant smuggling and drug trafficking. In this context, the ministers outlined the type of additional support that their law enforcement authorities would require (financial and other means) in order to improve their efficiency in combating various forms of organised crime.
As regards the fight against the coronavirus, it was concluded that all relevant stakeholders are simultaneously investing efforts in preparations for the gradual return to normal functioning, which must be based on scientific and epidemiological indicators and implemented in a transparent manner. Member States should mutually inform each other of their intentions to ease the measures, particularly given the fact that the epidemiological picture is not the same in all Member States.
A part of the video conference was also dedicated to migration issues, which are in the current situation less extensive but still present. Efficient migration management at the EU level is faced with difficulties due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the presence of the virus among migrants also represents a significant challenge.
The European Commission, the European External Action Service, the Presidency and those Member States which are most exposed to migration presented the current situation concerning this area, with an emphasis on the situation at the borders with Turkey, as well as on the Western and Central Mediterranean. The resettlement of unaccompanied minors, which is currently underway, is significantly hampered by the COVID-19 outbreak.
This pandemic has direct consequences on the manner in which Member States implement rules on asylum and return and it restricts the fulfilment of resettlement pledges. In order to support Member States, the European Commission adopted the Guidance on 16 April which illustrates how to ensure continuity of procedures as much as possible while fully ensuring the protection of people’s health, given the healthcare measures introduced by Member States.
The Presidency is of the opinion that it is key to implement the activities initiated with a view to strengthening borders and asylum capacities in the Western Balkan countries, given the large number of migrants in Southeast Europe. It is also essential to continue fighting against smuggling networks and invest further diplomatic efforts to ensure that all Frontex agreements with Western Balkan partners become operational as soon as possible.
The ministers concluded that it is of an exceptional importance to continue working on a sustainable and comprehensive Pact on Migration and Asylum. The Pact should provide a clear framework of action for enhanced protection of the external EU borders, increased cooperation with key third parties in the area of migration, and reform of the Dublin asylum system, by applying the principle of solidarity and equal share of responsibility, including a special focus on search and rescue operations at sea. The Union must continue to closely monitor the developments on all migratory routes, in particular the Eastern, Central and Western Mediterranean routes, in order to be prepared for timely and appropriate action.
Under the current circumstances, the Presidency will also continue to hold ministerial video conferences with the aim of the following developments on the main Mediterranean migratory routes.