The issue of integration has always been one of the European Economic and Social Committee's greatest concerns and it has devoted opinions on the subject and organising conferences and events.
It is obvious why civil society is so crucial to successful integration. Governments can create the framework, but integration itself can only occur in the places where people meet: in workplaces, schools, clubs etc. Without local support and understanding integration is an empty concept. Integration also means encouraging intercultural dialogue and understanding, access to the labour market and social dialogue.
Because integration is part of everyday life, civil society – represented by the EESC at EU level – has a vital role to play. This has been clearly recognised both by European institutions and civil society organisations which consider the Committee as a bridge between them.
The EESC is a strong advocate of involving organised civil society in various policy areas. We believe that the European Union can create better policies in consultation with organisations. This is certainly true in the case of integration, where the Committee has achieved a major success.
In line with this conviction, the EESC first called for “a platform for the greater involvement of civil society in the EU-level promotion of policies for the integration of third-country nationals” in 2008. In April 2009, this became a reality when the European Integration Forum held its first meeting. The goal of the Forum is to enable civil society organisations to have a concrete input into the decision-making process.
Today, the Forum meets twice yearly and brings together some 100 members (including two from Sweden), representing EU and national umbrella bodies working for integration, to exchange good practice and make recommendations.
At each meeting of the Forum Commissioner Cecilia Malmström participates in an open debate with the representatives and the Commission services make use of the results of the meetings when preparing new strategies. Examples of recent topics are: family reunification and contribution of migrants to economic growth. In June the Forum will debate how to improve the integration of migrant youth.
The Committee’s approach is based on the belief that migrants have the same fundamental rights as EU citizens, which must be respected and safeguarded. “Although states have a sovereign entitlement to control entry and grant residence permits to third-country nationals, the EESC recalls that they must comply with their obligations under international and European instruments and conventions on fundamental human rights,” it declared in its opinion on Fundamental rights in European immigration legislation.
As the EESC underlined in its 2012 opinion (drafted by Brenda King) on Migrant entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship is one of the solutions to the problem of unemployment and a factor of better integration.
Migrant entrepreneurs contribute to economic growth and employment, often by rejuvenating neglected crafts and trades, and increasingly participate in the provision of value-added goods and services. They also form an important bridge to global markets and are important for the integration of migrants into employment. In France, for example, migrants are behind more than 50% of new start-ups.
Migrant entrepreneurs also enhance social opportunities for migrants, create more social leadership, are role models in society, especially for young people, increase self-confidence and promote social cohesion by revitalising urban areas.
Migrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than natives (for example in the UK, while migrants represent 8% of the UK population, they own around 12% of all UK SMEs).
In order to use the full potential of migrant entrepreneurship, the Member States should recognise and promote it as part of wider integration policies. They should also reduce unnecessary administrative requirements that can be barriers to starting a business.
Sweden has been a state that has recognised the need to support entrepreneurs of non-Swedish background early on (support given by Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth since 2008). It is important that all Member States go in that direction.
It is also important to strengthen the capacities of intermediary organisations, such as trade associations, chambers of commerce and cooperatives, so that they can support these businesses in meeting legal requirements such as labour and tax regulations.
Organisations like our hosts today: UNITEE and Sweturk are also such intermediary organisations who have helped many entrepreneurs of foreign origin. We wish them a lot of further success in their work.