Overcoming The Trust Deficit

prosperous, secure and united Europe will not be delivered to us on a silver platter. We will have to fight for it more than ever – with facts, with authenticity, with courage. It will not be enough to have the right solutions on offer – our citizens will have to be willing to trust and accept them too. As we enter the New Year and head towards the European elections in May 2019, we face an important momentum that will define the path of our societies and democracies for decades to come.

Citizens in Europe and across the world today are experiencing a growing deficit of trust. While the world is increasingly becoming globalised, interconnected, digitised and information-saturated, citizens are having trouble discerning what is fact and what is fancy – and most importantly: who to turn to and who to trust. Our citizens are looking for clear and straightforward answers and solutions, in a reality that is becoming all the more complex.

Populists and nationalists are experiencing heydays in times like these. What they tell citizens and their electorate no longer has to be true, as long as it is simple and appealing. We have seen very recently how in the absence of an actual crisis or problem, an imaginary one is created instead and how the seeds of distrust, confusion and fear are sown daily. However, it is not by playing with citizens’ fears that they deliver security.

In the last four years, the Commission has instead put forward several proposals and translated them in concrete actions. We are taking steady steps towards a genuine and effective Security Union.

Today, there is no single, coherent enemy or threat: terrorism, cybercrime or hybrid threats constitute a particularly toxic and interchangeable cocktail of risks that we need to face on a daily basis, with the same unity in our approach. The cooperation between Member States was enhanced especially in the field of exchange of information between law enforcement authorities, crucial to fight terrorism, organised crime and cybercrime.

The security of our citizens matters not only in the physical world but also in the virtual one, and our proposal against Terrorist Content Online goes in this direction as well as our constant dialogue with big internet companies within the EU Internet Forum that we established in 2015.

The recent terrorist attack in Strasbourg has shown once again that we live under the spectre of terrorism and that home-grown radicalisation continues to fester within our societies.

In the run up to the European Parliamentary as well as several national, regional and local elections, the biggest enemy to European progress and unity will be fear and mistrust, fed by populists, using fake news and disinformation.

In times like these, when framed or fake messages are shared instantaneously, it is easy to resort to an “us-versus-them” logic and start building walls in our minds, and our societies. As 2019 kicks off, the biggest task for our democracies will be to precisely fight fear and distrust, and for our leaders to strive for unity, cohesion and trust – by giving our citizens what they need and ask for.

Just as we know that European citizens are worried about issues such as migration and terrorism, we also know that they believe in common answers and solutions to such challenges. Very concretely, they ask for more EU engagement and investment to manage our external borders, they believe in a common European migration and asylum policy, and they believe precisely that Member States should trust each other more and exchange more information to step up security.

These convictions have been the starting point for our actions. To increase trust and information sharing, we have established a European Counter-Terrorism Centre with Europol and proposed to make our migration, border and security information systems interoperable. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency was set up and should be reinforced with a 10,000 standing corps and an extended mandate. When it comes to our asylum reform, five out of seven of our proposals are close to adoption.

Every single one of them brings positive developments towards a fairer, responsible and future-proof migration policy. On the external dimension, more trust between Europe and third countries is needed, therefore a comprehensive approach is the sole viable option. It has already delivered tangible results in terms of decreased number of irregular arrivals, breaking down of some smuggling networks while opening legal pathways, and most importantly saving lives at sea.

The European Union is built for its citizens, and has been so already for more than 60 years. The EU has evolved and adapted to the changing societies and needs of its citizens, and will continue to do so, but without ever relinquishing the fundamental freedoms, rights and principles, which our citizens are so much attached to. Ahead of the many elections in Europe in the coming months, not least the European Parliamentary ones in May, it is time to shift gears. We have to show our citizens that the European Union delivers and that their trust, faith and hopes are safe with us. We have to fight with our citizens to complete the European project and to defend it from the divisive dangers of populism and nationalism. They unfortunately close the doors to trusting relations, while we believe that if there is trust, national and European policies can go hand in hand.

Dimitris Avramopoulos is the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship. A former career diplomat, he has served in multiple high-level cabinet posts in his native Greece, including as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for National Defence. He was Mayor of Athens from 1995 to 2002.