Advice to the President of the Commission

Dear Mr Barroso
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given for application in both professional and personal spheres is “always apply the So What? question”. If you are proposing a course of action, writing a funding bid, designing a project, introducing change to your life, look at the expected outcomes and if you can’t answer So What? positively and with vigour the chances are, what you are proposing is a waste of everyone’s time, including your own.

I have spent 4 weeks in Brussels talking to a LOT of people, looking at a LOT of projects, reading a LOT of stuff about integration, and I have been left somewhat bereft that my So Whats? have gone largely unanswered. I wrote in an earlier blog about the self-evident truths of the Common Basic Principles of Integration drafted by the European Commission, ten years ago. Nice pleasant statements that no-one could take offense at, but  also nothing to write home about, or to add to any of the dynamic and challenging debates around Refugee and Migrant Integration; and nothing specifically about the most lumbering of elephants in the room: Labour Market Integration. How oh how I wish I had been going to that conference at the END of my four weeks and not at the beginning. 4 weeks ago I was still ready to be seduced by the Commission and all her workings, eager to flirt with her committees, dally in her seminars, and run my fingers through her Directives. Now I am tempted to stand astride the roundabout at Robert Schuman, the Beylramont building in my sights, and scream SO WHAT at the top of my lungs. It’s not that I have become a secret UKIP voter in the last 4 weeks. I am as committed to the European Project as ever I was. I am just confused and a little grumpy about the disconnect between the policy directives emanating from on high and the hard graft of those of us at the practice coal front. Plus ca change you may very well say and surely we have that with National Governments too, so what’s new? But here in Brussels there is a second impermeable membrane of organisations in the way. European NGOs and Quangos and “Bodies”. Brussels has more bodies than the average city Cemetery.

In reality that doesn’t matter of course. All these groups do not stop for one minute the excellent work being done at grass roots ground levels supporting migrants and refugees into work, but they do stop that excellent practice filtering up and doing some good, and oh yes they soak up quite a bit of money too. They also have manoeuvred themselves in to a position of influence, saying the right pleasant things so that the Commission and the Parliament can tick some boxes and believe that it’s all going very nicely thank you in Integration Land. Well breaking news “Pres” old boy…….it ain’t. Not by a long chalk.

When I came to work with ECRE four weeks ago, they and their members were still of the view that in order for them to improve labour market integration it  was important to engage at the highest levels of the Euromachine and with business at a similar macro level. Four weeks later I have, I think, persuaded the secretariat at least that is a thankless task and probably won’t ensure a single extra refugee into work. Persuading their members that the answers lie in their own local hands is now their job. I have made a start and a locally based member I went to speak to this morning, Flemish Refugee Action have had the messianic pitch, and though daunted are “fully on board”. Earlier in the week the very nice gentlemen at the European Trade Union Congress also agreed to help me punch a few holes in the impermeable membrane. Trade Unions get grass roots!!

I have spent 4 weeks designing projects, writing action plans, listing outputs and outcomes, and there is a whole selection of pretty log frames now in my colleague Anne’s inbox.

Emboldened by my success so far, for what it’s worth, this Mr President, is what needs to happen if we are serious about a) labour market integration for migrants and refugees and b) improving the holy grail of the European Union, Labour Market Mobility. Oh yes did I mention only 3% of European Citizens are mobile (and half of them must be Old Brits retiring to the Costa del Sol) the other half students and all the interns Pluxing* away like mad on a Thursday evening outside the European Parliament.

1.       Europe has put Integration in the Wrong Hands

As in so many of the members states, the departments which are responsible for keeping the barbarians at the gate (e.g.  in the UK it’s a division of the Home Office) integration is the fall guy of those controlling Migration. So in Euroland that is DG Home Affairs.

Which is Poacher turned gamekeeper at best, schizophrenic at worse. The result is that Integration is all about “soft” integration, for want of a better word. Citizenship, Diversity, Rights and Responsibilities, Improved Access. Migrant voices (unless they are collectively using their voice to say “give us a job”). Wrong! Put integration where it will do most good and split the brief between DG Employment and DG Education and Culture. DG Employment manages ESF funds which are all about employment. Get the Long Term residency Directive approved and accepted and hey! you just might see an upswing in labour market mobility too, as evidence suggests migrant and refugees are more likely to want to move for work and opportunities. But suggest that to DG Employment and they literally turn their face to the wall. So DG Home Affairs administers oodles of Integration money through members states Home Affairs departments, spreading the joy of citizenship and shared values etc. etc. but they won’t let much, if any of it be spent on labour market integration, because that is the role of ESF, managed by DG Employment who are still looking at the wall, fingers in their ears singing la la la we can’t hear your migrant/refugee voice!

2.       Directives are for ever not just for Christmas

It’s great news that the new Family Reunion Directive has been approved by the Commission (don’t worry though the UK Ireland and Denmark will, as usual, not sign up to it). Super too that the new Reception Conditions Directive gives the right of “efficient entry into the labour market” for asylum seekers after 9 months (except in the UK Ireland and Denmark of course). Top of the class for the Directive not yet agreed on long term residency making it easier for those who are in the EU from outside to settle and be fully contributing and mobile EU citizens (except you know where – spotting a pattern are we?). But hang on a minute why won’t DG Employment see that these very things, especially the long term residency and family re-unification, are actually about boosting access to the labour market and not just rights for their own sake to be controlled and permanently residing with Colleagues at DG Home Affairs. As I am tired of saying giving someone the right to work is not the same as giving them the opportunity. These Directives ARE ESSENTIAL for labour market integration but why is that not more fully understood. It is as if, across Brussels, Labour Market Integration hasn’t quite been invited to the party as if it is something extra,  not integral…… in fact not integrated!

3.       Engaging with Employers is a skill… but a skill that can be taught

Despite the nervousness and awe with which most NGOs regard the Private Sector, there is no mystery or secret to engaging with them. It is what we Employer Engagement professionals call Active Discourse Commitment ADC or you might know it by its other name …talking to them!! There is a huge need across migrant and refugee support programmes to capacity Build the skills and competences of support workers to be able to do this and to stop presenting Refugees as victims and vulnerable. It is time to invest in organisations that can bring resilient Refugees and migrants to the labour market and find ways of engaging with employers positively. Refugee and migrants are not part of the problem they are part of the solution.  In the law of supply and demand Employers need skills, refugees and migrants have skills. Sure there is job to do to match the two, to prove the experience is valid but that’s also the job for the support organisations.

One of the greatest mysteries in this whole mysterious world of Employer Engagement is that of skills. Yet there is not a single business in existence in Europe anywhere who does not know what skills are needed to do a job of work. It is not a secret, known only to a select few and it is in no-one’s interest to pretend that it is. This is where investment should be made; this is where the money needs spent. This is the work on the ground that some like the ETUC and now ECRE UNHCR and the Committee of the Regions instinctively understand makes the difference.

As for Bridges, we will continue to beat our messianic drum and do everything in our power to aid capacity building and developing new and innovative ways to work with employers. The Commission can cling to its Common Basic Principles and the intermediaries can continue to promote the safe non-controversial integration they have been doing for some time, based around rights but not necessarily providing opportunities.

You Mr President and those that come after, can choose, the grass roots of activism and practical application or the manicured lawns of pretty policy. Just don’t let the latter get in the way of the former.

Yours sincerely

Maggie Lennon

*Pluxing: the habit of Commission and Parliament Interns gathering in Place Luxembourg on Thursday evenings to drink, network and “go fishing”

PS If you could refrain from any more silly comments about an Independent Scotland’s place in the EU, that would be much appreciated to. Thanks
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