We need more people; our populations are not growing, says EU envoy

Published February 12, 2015
Lars-Gunnar Wigemark speaks at ASCE on Wednesday.—White Star
Lars-Gunnar Wigemark speaks at ASCE on Wednesday.—White Star

KARACHI: Steps are being taken to track those entering and exiting European Union borders to keep a check on the recruitment process for extremist groups involved in different conflicts in the world.

This was stated by Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, EU ambassador and head of a delegation of the European Union to Pakistan, in response to a question after delivering a lecture titled ‘Achievements and challenges for the European Union’ organised at the Area Study Centre for Europe, University of Karachi, on Wednesday.

Mr Wigemark first underlined the EU’s achievements. He said the union had managed to maintain peace in the region, and bearing in mind the last major conflict, World War II, it was no small feat. No armed conflicts had been witnessed among the EU member states and for that a great deal of credit went to the EU. By pointing at the consuls general of France and Germany, who were present on the occasion, he said peace was a reality since in the past the two countries had fought wars.

The second achievement that Mr Wigemark highlighted was that all borders had been broken down within the EU. There was freedom of movement in the zone, and in many cases people didn’t even have to show passports to cross borders. Next, he said, was the fact that the European bloc comprised countries which were all democracies; the essential criterion to join the EU was the country must be a democracy. It meant that basic freedoms for the people, including safeguarding their human rights, were ensured.

Speaking on the challenges faced by the EU, Mr Wigemark said they were in three spheres: security, economic and social/cultural. On the first, he said today the world was mired in major conflicts, such as the one taking place in the Middle East, which spilled over to neighbouring countries. The rise of IS was a manifestation of it and the problem was compounded as many of its recruits were coming from EU states. There also were problems in north and central Africa causing high migration flows.

Mr Wigemark then touched upon the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine and argued it didn’t involve rebels but two countries. He said the situation was escalating and hinted that just like Pakistan wanted its position on Kashmir to be understood, the EU’s stance should also be taken into consideration.

Another point that Mr Wigemark made about the challenge of security faced by the EU was the rise of populist right-wing movements in Europe. “We do take it very seriously,” he remarked and supported his claim stating that Europe had already fought a bloody war (WWII) against extremism. He clarified that nationalist movements were aimed to be anti-immigration movements and not just against Muslims. As to how to tackle the issue, he said the EU was now better equipped to deal with that kind of conflict. Referring to what happened in the Balkans in the ‘90s, he said at the time “we were largely passive which had a negative impact”.

Talking about ‘enlargements’ taking place in the European bloc, Mr Wigemark said since 2004 13 more member states have joined the EU and after every enlargement there’s a period of consolidation. “Our doors remain open for any democracy that’s part of Europe.” On the economic front the issue of the euro was the first challenge, said Mr Wigemark. He stressed that it

wasn’t just a European problem. Initially the euro was worth less than the dollar but today it’s doing better than where it started from. He argued that a high number of EU member states joined the EU monetary union prematurely. “You cannot have a monetary policy without a fiscal policy. The focus on the euro is misplaced,” he said.

On the third challenge, pertaining to the social/cultural aspects of the region, Mr Wigemark said the EU had evolved since its inception. For the past 20 years the traditional and social norm patterns in the region had been transforming, and the social fabric was undergoing a change. The freedom of movement had allowed people to do jobs elsewhere but not many had taken advantage of it because of problems such as language barriers. Still, there was much more interaction in all countries. The influx from conflict-hit countries (Syria, for example) was making people cross borders in an unregulated manner and many of them were even risking their lives. The paradox was, he said: “We need more people; our populations are not growing.”

Mr Wigemark said all of this had come at a difficult time where the region was experiencing the effects of economic downturn, leaving a large number of EU member states with unprecedented high levels of unemployment, leading to social tensions like Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. To counter all of that it was important not to roll back the fundamental freedoms.

Replying to a question on the steps taken to deal with the influx of unwanted individuals, Mr Wigemark said steps were being taken to strengthen the borders and to keep a check on irregular movements.

On the question of Turkey’s inclusion in the EU, he said the country was officially still an applicant because it’s considered a democracy. However, the issue of freedom of expression there was a concern.

Earlier, Area Study Centre for Europe director Prof Dr Uzma Shujaat welcomed the guests. Abid Azhar, dean of the science faculty, delivered the vote of thanks.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2015

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