South EU Summit: The SRSS coordinates and provides technical support to EU member states and is geared towards the implementation of structural reforms that promote job creation and sustainable economic growth. Having started first in Greece, the EU body’s mandate and scope have evolved substantially, with it now operating in 24 EU countries. Can you provide us with an overview of what the catalyst was behind the creation of the SRSS and exactly how it supports the implementation of structural reforms? How has this translated into specific results in both Greece and Cyprus?
Maarten Verwey: The SRSS was established in 2015, as a successor to the Taskforce Greece and the Support Group Cyprus. The Taskforce Greece and Support Group Cyprus had been created to help Greece and Cyprus with the implementation of their macroeconomic adjustment programmes, by providing technical support.
However, accelerating the pace of reform is not only relevant for Member States that are in a crisis. It is important for all EU Member States. For this reason, the Juncker Commission decided in 2015 to create the SRSS as a technical support service for all Member States of the EU. The SRSS provides hands-on technical support in a broad range of policy areas, including public financial management, public administration reform, business environment, education, health etc. The support that the SRSS provides is on demand, practical and tailored to the need of the specific Member States. Recent experience has demonstrated that there is a lot of demand for this type of support. In the last finance rounds the request from Member States exceeded the available resources by a factor 5. The SRSS is now operating in 24 Member States.
Both Greece and Cyprus have benefitted extensively from technical support from the SRSS. A good example would be the support provided to the Greek revenue administration. This support has contributed to a significant increase in tax revenues for the Greek state. Another example would be support for the introduction of a general minimum income schemes in both Greece and Cyprus. In both Member States the system is now up and running.
South EU Summit: Greece is hoping to make a “clean exit” from the bailout without requesting additional financial aid, and the government has its sights on exiting the programmes by August of this year. Greece has implemented far reaching reforms over the past few years, yet many are pending. What is your evaluation of the reform process to date, and what are the biggest challenges remaining within this context? What role will the SRSS play in the Greek economy following the exit from the programmes?
Maarten Verwey: Greece has indeed implemented far-reaching reforms over the past few years. The country has come a long way: at the start of the crisis fiscal imbalances were huge, competitiveness was very low, the pension system was unsustainable and the functioning of the public administration was weak and inefficient. A lot of work has been done. In particular the management of government finances has improved dramatically and flow imbalances have been largely corrected. At the same time, substantial stock imbalances remain: not only the public debt stock, but also the NPLs burdening banks’ balance sheets or the number of unemployed, which are all expected to take time to return to more acceptable levels. It has also been clear from the onset that the implementation of most reforms would need to continue after the end of the programme. Big institutional reforms, like setting up a single pension fund (EFKA), a fully independent pubic revenue agency (IAPR) or the cadastre, each take time to implement and even more time to become truly effective and efficient. Also, even though the competitiveness of the Greek economy has certainly improved, Greece still has further work to do to catch up with other EU Member States. Reforms in this area will therefore have to be pursued. If I had to single out one area for further work, it would be the public administration and the judiciary. Important reforms in this area have been adopted but continued efforts are crucial for a sustainable recovery. The SRSS will continue to help Greece as best as we can, also after the programme ends.
South EU Summit: Do you believe the exit from the programmes is going to mark a substantial turning point for the Greek economy? Why or why not? Greece’s public debt totals 180 percent of its economy, making debt relief essential for sustainable growth. What are your expectations in this regard following the latest technical agreement of its fourth and final bailout review?
Maarten Verwey: The end of the programme is expected to mark a clear turning point: Greece will have more autonomy to design its own policies. This also comes with responsibilities: Greece needs to stand on its own feet both in terms of financing and policies. The Greek government will be solely responsible managing the country in a sound, responsible and forward-looking manner. Our shared objective is to ensure that Greece achieves a sustainable economic recovery which would significantly and lastingly reduce unemployment and enable living standards in Greece to converge to levels elsewhere in the euro area. Two conditions are needed to achieve this: European partners need to implement the debt measures they have committed to; and Greece needs to continue to implement sound economic and fiscal policies over the medium and long run, building upon a successful conclusion of the ESM programme.
South EU Summit: The EU-Turkey Agreement on migration marked a turning point in the largest migration crisis that Europe has encountered since World War II. What drove the creation of the EU’s first united action in terms of foreign policy through the EU-Turkey Agreement? Two years on, what is your evaluation of the effectiveness of this Agreement in countering migrant inflows, and what has been key to achieving this?
Maarten Verwey: In 2015 alone, over one million people arrived in the EU, around 885,000 of them through Greece. Only a small percentage of them were effectively registered due to the lack of capacity and the vast majority moved on towards central Europe, along the Western Balkans route. A number of Member States introduced temporary internal border controls to limit the number of migrants entering their territory. This put into question the proper functioning of the Schengen area of free movement. In spring 2016, countries in the Western Balkans began to gradually apply entry conditions for migrants at their borders, but arrivals from Turkey to Greece continued resulting in an increasing number of migrants and refugees in Greece. On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey responded and agreed on the EU-Turkey Statement to end the flow of irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it with organised, safe and legal channels to Europe. This response proved to be very effective. Almost overnight the daily arrivals dropped from an average of some 3500 per day in the six months prior to the EU-Turkey statement to around 80 per day since (a drop of 97%). As a result also far less people died in the Aegean.
The key to the success of the EU-TR statement is cooperation. By joining forces and resources together, the Member States of the EU were able to reach an understanding with Turkey to better control the flow of migrants into the EU, while contributing to improving the daily lives of refugees in Turkey.
South EU Summit: The agreement received a great deal of criticism from humanitarian groups. How is this agreement compatible with the EU’s founding principle of solidarity, and how is the Commission contributing to supporting vulnerable groups such as Syrian refugees and their resettlement? How does funding from the European Commission translate into improved mechanisms for migration management?
Maarten Verwey: Humanitarian groups have indeed heavily criticized the EU-Turkey Statement. While I fully respect the views of these organisations, I do believe the EU leaders were right to intervene in the way they did. Had the EU-Statement not come into effect, the massive and uncontrolled inflow of migrants and refugees would have continued, which no doubt would have had very serious social and political consequences. The EU-TR statement has undoubtedly helped to lower the temperature in the debate.
The European Commission has been providing funding for the support of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants both to Greece and to Turkey. As regards Greece, the Commission has been providing unprecedented support, both on the ground and financially. We have allocated over €1,3 billion in financial support to Greece to manage the migration and the humanitarian situation. In particular, the Commission provides funding for sheltering vulnerable applicants in apartments and sites, funding for the extension, upgrade and winterisation of the accommodation places both on the mainland and on the hotspot islands, funds the provision of health care and medical support, cash support , food assistance, distribution of noon- food items etc. In parallel, the European Border and Coast Guard has 800 officers on the ground and over 260 EASO staff are currently deployed to support the Greek authorities with the asylum procedures.
At the same time, through the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the Commission and the Member States have provided €3 billion to Turkey, to support Syrian refugees in the country and the host communities with a focus on humanitarian assistance, education, health, municipal infrastructure and socio-economic support. The Commission has also adopted a decision for the second tranche of 3 billion euros in order. Moreover, through the resettlement programme, 13.806 Syrian refugees have so far been resettled from Turkey to EU Member States.
South EU Summit: Tensions between Turkey and Greece coincided with an increase in arrivals in 2018, with 2,900 people having entered Greece via land passages in April alone. Do you believe that the EU-Turkey Agreement is currently at risk, and to what do you attribute this increase? Are any specific steps being taken in this regard?
Maarten Verwey: The EU – Turkey Statement has been reportedly at risk since March 2016; however it has proved to be very resilient and I do not expect it to collapse so easily. It is neither in our interest, nor in Turkey’s interest to let the Statement collapse. Indeed, there has been an increase in the number of migrants who arrived in April via the land borders, but arrivals do fluctuate on a daily basis on a range of factors. Since the beginning of May, arrivals through the land borders dropped again. As regards the islands, arrivals continue to remain significantly lower comparing to arrivals before the initiation of the EU – Turkey Statement, when thousands of migrants were arriving per day. Cooperation among Greece, the EU and Turkey is key and it has proved that it brings better results. The Commission is in close contact with the Turkish side. On 24 April Commissioner Avramopoulos discussed the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement with the Turkish Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu. We also understand that the Turkish and Greek ministries have discussed the situation on the land borders. Moreover, a technical meeting, between Greece and Turkey with the participation of the Commission took place on the 4th of May at an expert level, where they discussed enhanced cooperation between the coast guards in order to address the increasing migration flows, as well as measures to increase returns.
South EU Summit: Given the need to ease the burden on frontline countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, establishing a united EU strategy to tackle the effects of the migrant crisis is currently a priority. Reforming the Dublin Regulation and the migrant relocation scheme are seen as key aspects of this. What is your perspective on these proposed reforms and how can burden sharing be achieved?
Maarten Verwey: The negotiations on the reform of the Common European Asylum System are on-going between Member States and the European Parliament in view of finding an overall agreement on the EU’s future migration policy in June. The Commission is fully supporting the Bulgarian Presidency in their efforts to find a compromise that is acceptable and fair to all sides. The Commission’s objective is to put in place a future-proof migration policy that all Member States agree on. The next occasions for Ministers to discuss the overall reform will be at the upcoming Justice and Home Affairs Council on 5 June.