Europe has never faced so many challenges. It is more criticised than ever. It is accused of being distant and unintelligible, dictating national decisions, impinging on sovereignty and weakening us against external threats.

Does Europe deserve the criticisms levelled by European nationalists and populists seeking to dismantle it? No, it does certainly not. We have never needed Europe as much as we do today. From climate change to terrorism, and from the digital revolution to migration, no national response alone can suffice to address issues that cross national borders.

Nevertheless, Europe has become far too removed from its people. The Europe we know must be overhauled to better meet aspirations and protect citizens. This overhaul will not come from Brussels; it will be completed by those who wish to reclaim the European project. This is the purpose of the Citizens’ Consultations initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, which have been held in 27 member states and will end in a few days’ time in Malta.

This democratic initiative on an unprecedented scale has already allowed many Europeans – including those who sometimes feel removed from the European project – to express their criticisms, fears and suggestions for tomorrow’s Europe. In France alone, more than 1,000 non-partisan Citizens’ Consultations were organised by civil society organisations for all kinds of participants. Debates on Europe took place everywhere: in town halls, universities, cultural venues, prisons, businesses, trade unions and non-profit organisations.

Summaries of the discussions held throughout Europe will be presented to heads of state and government at the European Council meeting of December 14, and will be used as a foundation for the European overhaul.

Over the past seven months, I have taken part in over 50 consultations in France and the rest of Europe. The first was in Croatia, the most recent country to join the European Union. The last will be today in Malta, at St Paul’s Bay, and will focus on the key issue of migration.

Malta is on the frontline when it comes to migration, because of its geographical location and because it is one of the countries that welcomes the most asylum seekers per capita. France does not forget it. France and Malta share the same general solidarity-based approach, which focuses on working closely with countries of origin and transit. Malta has made a significant contribution to the development of this approach in recent years, particularly during the Maltese presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2017.

In recent months, we have worked hand in hand on the issue of the disembarkation of migrants on the Lifeline and Aquarius rescue ships. I want to thank Malta for its humane and constructive approach. On each occasion, France has played its part, helping to create a responsible and solidarity-based response to these emergency situations. Since the beginning of summer, France has taken in 250 individuals within the framework of this kind of emergency response.

Europe has become far too removed from its people. The Europe we know must be overhauled

The European Union is founded on the spirit of cooperation. We understand the difficulties faced by countries of first entry as a result of the mass influx of migrants and asylum seekers. As reiterated by President Macron, when we talk about migration, we must not forget that we are also talking about human tragedies, human lives, individual situations and involuntary exile. We must never lose sight of our collective duty.

However, although case-by-case solutions have been found in the humanitarian emergency context, a permanent mechanism must now be implemented. This mechanism must combine responsibility, solidarity, support for the international legal principle of disembarking people at the nearest safe port, and the effective distribution of individuals in need of protection.

Illegal economic migrants should be returned to their countries of origin, in the best possible conditions.

During my visit to Malta, I will hold in-depth discussions on this topic with my Maltese counterpart Helena Dalli, as well as the other ministers concerned. I will also meet with the acting director of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which France would like to see become a real “European Asylum Office” to speed up and harmonize procedures.

We welcomed the European Commission’s proposal to this effect. Nevertheless, the permanent distribution mechanism must be accompanied by efforts to better prevent departures. Initiatives targeting Africa – to partner development and fight human trafficking – should be encouraged.

Lastly, no response to the migration challenge would be complete without the effective protection of European Union borders. France, therefore, supports increasing the number of Frontex staff sevenfold, bringing the total to 10,000 by 2020. The European Union must be able to help any member state facing strong migratory pressure at its borders. This was the essence of the European Council conclusions of June, which must now be implemented.

Everyone’s voice must be heard. Some populists prefer to act against Europe and not prevent future humanitarian crises. Unlike them, France and Malta are jointly seeking solutions. We are doing so as part of our excellent, confidence-based bilateral relations, in the same way as for the other challenges we face, from migration to Brexit.

This path is a demanding one, and requires constant commitment, willingness to compromise, and the reaffirmation of the European values underpinning the European project. This is the path that we are determined to follow, along with Malta.

Nathalie Loiseau is French Minister for European Affairs.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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