'Europe represents a beacon of hope for families fleeing terror' - Juncker
EC President Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday urged EU governments to accept a mandatory system to share out the wave of refugees fleeing war and poverty - but also promised to improve frontier defences and deport more illegal migrants.
In his first State of the Union address to the European Parliament, Mr Juncker outlined an emergency plan to distribute 160,000 refugees among the 28 EU member states and promised a permanent asylum mechanism to cope with future crises.
Defending his much-criticised proposal for mandatory burden sharing, he said Europe could not leave Greece, Hungary and Italy, the main receiving countries, to cope with the flood.
He appealed to Europeans to respond to the crisis with humanity, dignity and "historical fairness" and not take fright, saying the vast majority of the 500,000 people who had arrived in Europe this year were fleeing war in Syria and Libya, "the terror of the Islamic State" or "dictatorship in Eritrea".
Europe was a continent where many had been refugees over the centuries and it was rich enough to cope with a challenge far smaller than the one facing Syria's neighbours - Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
"It is Europe today that represents a beacon of hope, a haven of stability in the eyes of women and men in the Middle East and in Africa. That is something to be proud of and not something to fear," the former Luxembourg prime minister said in marathon 80-minute speech.
"The Europe I want to live in is illustrated by those who want to help," he added, denouncing calls to discriminate among refugees according to their religion.
Mr Juncker mentioned huge waves of Irish, Scottish and Polish immigration to the United States.
"Have we forgotten that there are more Murphys and O'Neills living in the United States than in Ireland...?" he said.
"It is true that Europe cannot house all the misery in the world. But we have to put it into perspective."
Juncker said the refugee crisis was his top priority, ahead of the economy, Greece's debt woes, Ukraine, climate change and a looming vote on Britain's membership of the bloc.
"There is not enough Europe in this Union, and there is not enough union in this Union."
He confirmed plans for a common EU list of "safe countries of origins" whose citizens would be subject to fast-track deportations if they breached EU immigration laws.
Juncker's proposals face opposition from several central European governments when EU interior ministers meet on Monday.
Many reject compulsory quotas and some, such as Slovakia, want to take in only a handful of Christian refugees.