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Good afternoon. It was a real pleasure for me to meet President Van der Bellen for the first time since his election last December, and of course to welcome Chancellor Kern again here in Brussels.
One of the issues we discussed is our cooperation when Austria takes over the EU’s rotating Presidency in the second half of the next year. Holding the presidency is a privilege and opportunity, but also a demanding task. I remember this from my own experience as Polish Prime Minister. I assured the President and the Chancellor of my full support and cooperation.
During our very constructive meeting, we also talked about the migration challenge. I know that this is an issue that continues to be on the minds of many Austrian citizens. At the height of the migration crisis, Austria was very much at the centre of the storm. Since then we have in fact, through collective decisions, determination and actions, stemmed the flow via the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route. Our main goal is and will remain the effective control of the EU’s external border. The last four months have seen only 2%, let me repeat 2%, of the number of irregular migrants that came to Europe from Turkey at the peak of the crisis in the same period in 2015. So, we have come a long way since then.
At our informal meeting of the European Council in Malta ten days ago, we focused on how to reduce illegal migration from Libya to Italy, the so-called Central Mediterranean route. EU leaders agreed on immediate operational measures, to be implemented in cooperation with Libya and its neighbours, that should help reduce the number of irregular migrants and save lives at sea. The EU will also support Member States’ bilateral activities in this regard. But, and this is something that Chancellor Kern and I very much agree on, we also have to remain vigilant about the Eastern Mediterranean route. It needs to stay closed for good, and close cooperation with our partners in the Balkans and in Turkey remains key to ensure this. It is clear that we will have to take additional steps in some areas. Ensuring effective returns is one of them.
Another important topic of discussion was the future of the EU. As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in March, the challenges that the EU is facing are bigger than at any time since the signature of the Treaty of Rome. The geopolitical situation is difficult, to say the least, and populist forces are coming to the fore in many European countries. In some circles, it has become fashionable to be anti-EU. This is why I again expressed my great admiration and respect for President van der Bellen, whose victory became a sign of hope for millions of Europeans.
When European leaders meet in Rome in March, we will on the one hand take stock of the EU’s achievements and on the other hand, look into the future and discuss how the EU can better deliver for its citizens. Personally, I am deeply convinced that it is worth fighting for what we Europeans have already accomplished over the last sixty years.