The European Union is set to take its largest step in European integration to date with the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard which will replace Frontex and have new powers, including the right to deploy intervention forces if the integrity of the Schengen borders are considered to be at risk. Between January and November 2015 an estimated 1.5 million people entered the EU illegally. This figure represents an all-time peak in European Union history.
According to EU officials and documents seen by New Europe, the European Border and Coast Guard will run under a new EU agency tentatively named the European Border Agency, which is set to have double the budget, more than double the staff of Frontex, and a pool of at least 1500 on-call field operatives which EU member states will make available within three days of requests. The European Commission will share the proposals with the European Council and European Parliament on Tuesday, 15 December.
The EU finds itself with the refugee crisis, reliving a parallel with September 2010, when EU member countries realised that national tools at their disposal were not enough to fight the financial crisis. The European Banking Union, a single supervisory mechanism to oversee the national banking supervisory authorities, was born to tackle at a collective level what EU member states were powerless to take on alone. Similarly, with even resistant Greece activating three EU emergency mechanisms last week, the refugee crisis is not only one which individual countries cannot handle alone, but one which the EU apparatus is no longer sufficient. The European Border Agency will encompass the necessary mechanisms to be able to deal with the refugee crisis on a collective level, with most EU heads of state in the last months reminding each-other that the crisis is one which cannot be dealt with by any one country alone.
European Commission First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, told New Europe that:
“Managing the EU’s external borders is a collective European responsibility we all share. We need to help frontline Member States address crisis situations and we need the instruments to deal with them more effectively . That is why the European Commission will propose to establish a European Border and Coast Guard – with a much broader mandate than the current EU border agency, Frontex – which plays an essentially coordinating role – and access to a reserve pool of border guards and technical equipment. Secure external borders are what allow us to maintain an area of free movement in the EU.”
Addressing the limitations of Frontex
The European Commission is seeking to abolish Frontex and replace it with a new and improved European Border and Coast Guard. This will be a new regulation, and not an amendment to the existing regulation. The limitations of Frontex were found to be such that it was not possible to simply amend it. Frontex is solely a coordination mechanism, not even able to purchase its own equipment.
Saving lives at sea
When Frontex was instituted the refugee and migrant influx was stable and manageable. As such, Frontex had no search and rescue mandate. In Lampedusa for example, where hundreds of lives were lost, Frontex could only participate in joint operations which were limited to border surveillance. With the EU seeing thousands in boats crossing the borders in inhumane conditions and using travel means that are not safe, Frontex could only save drowning people if they came across them by chance as is foreseen by the law of the sea.
European Border and Coast Guard to get more staff and on-call agents
Frontex had 300 permanent staff at the start of 2015, and this grew to 400 as the refugee crisis was amplified. However the staff consists primarily desk officers. Field operatives were only made available to Frontex through a shared pool of member state resources. 775 such agents were requested to assist in Greece and Hungary earlier this year, yet to date only 447 have been offered by other countries.
EU Sources told the new European Border and Coast Guard will have a permanent staff size of 1000. Member States will also asked to commit at least 1500 field agents to a reserve pool. These field agents will have to be deployed within 3 days of being requested by the EU’s Border Agency. In the field, agents’ uniform will include the EU flag as to distinguish and make them identifiable to operatives from other national and international agencies that may be involved.
The reserve pool of the readily available agents will also apply to machinery with member states also committing necessary equipment to a reserve pool. Beyond the pool, the new agency will also have purchasing power, meaning that it can have its own fleet of boats, helicopters, patrol vehicles, but also the necessary finger printing machines. Greece is still struggling to find 50 of these Eurodac machines necessary for the refugee hotspots.
A new role in return operations with the European Return Office
Currently one of the biggest challenges in the refugee crisis is returning individuals to their countries of origin when they do not qualify for asylum. Frontex has a very limited role in return operations, currently only coordinating and finding opportunities for efficient operations between member states who may be looking to send back people to the same countries. Frontex then helps coordinate the operation so that it, on the whole, is both cheaper, and more efficient.
The European Return Office will be part of the European Border Agency, and will have the ability to deploy rapid return forces composed of specialists in return policy and implementation. These teams will be able to run their own return operations and their own return flights. This is particularly important for hotspots where the mass influx of people often means that the authorities do not have the capacity to carry out returns of people who have had their asylum applications rejected.
A harmonised EU return document
For the first time, the EU will also get a harmonised European document for return. This document will be integrated with the readmission agreements that are made with third countries on the European level. This document will guarantee that the third countries will no longer have any legal or administrative basis not to accept returns of people accompanied by the EU return document.
The document will also be able to be used for bilateral agreements of member states and third countries once these agreements are amended to take this into account. Greece for example saw a flight hired and coordinated by Frontex carrying 49 Pakistani nationals who did not qualify for asylum, returned from Greece, only to be sent back with 30 of the 49 because the Pakistani authorities did not accept the travel documents as valid and as such did not allow them to disembark. This is the type of situation that the European travel document seeks to resolve.
EU’s Border Agency to have ability to assist countries outside the EU
Frontex cannot, according to the regulation which rules its operation, cannot operate in third countries. With one of Europe’s biggest problems being a route through the western balkans which creates additional stress on the national resources of non-EU countries like Serbia, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the new Border Agency will be able to also carry out operations in neighbouring countries, but only at their request.
Deficiencies at the external border
Another problem with Frontex at the moment is that its agents don’t have security clearance to access databases such as Europol, Interpol, and other databases which could help them guarantee the safety of the EU’s border against criminals and terrorists. The agents of the European Border Agency will have the necessary access to make Europe’s borders safer from such threats.
Furthermore, where necessary, one or more liaison officers will be embedded into national ministries in order to be able to relay information to the European Border Agency in real time. These liaison officers can also be embedded in non-EU countries if such a request is made by the country and accepted.
In this way, the agency will use feedback to carry out constant risk analysis in order to prevent crises based on the information that the liaison officers provide. The EU’s Border Agency will, when necessary recommend corrective actions to the member state, or suggest the use of rapid border intervention teams.
EU to have the right protect the Schengen border on its own initiative
The most bold part of the proposal for a European Border Agency is to give the agency the right to intervene if the integrity of the external Schengen border is considered to be at risk. The agency will even be able to intervene even if a member state does not request it, or, more importantly, even if the member state does not agree that they need any intervention.
While this is not expected to happen, as it would raise intra EU tension, the mechanism to make this happen is under the comitology examination procedure where a European Commission chaired committee of 28 member state experts can only block the decision with a reverse qualified majority.
Countries like Greece have long called for the European Union to look at the external borders as a collective responsibility. For the first time, The European Border Agency sets Union-wide standards for border management and sees a common approach to protecting the EU’s borders.
The origins of the European Border and Coast Guard
The European Border and Coast Guard was proposed by the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, in his state of the union address on September 9, 2015. Momentum for such a body started to build after a European Parliament resolution called for a system of integrated border management. An informal EU Council on 23 September and formal EU Council of 15 October also concluded that the EU needs an integrated border management system at the external borders.
Most recently on Thursday, French interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, and German Federal MInister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière, sent a joint letter to European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, outlining details of what they would like to see in an integrated border management system.
Interior ministers are usually the last line of defense when it comes to member states who seek to keep as much intervention power as possible at the national level, and the letter of the two ministers shows that the EU has seen that the border management and control can only be done efficiently and effectively if tackled at a collective level.
The European Border Agency and its European Border and Coast Guard are the bodies that, if finalised and implemented, will be European response that will save the Schengen area. It will also be the boldest step in European integration in the Union’s history; a step that is unquestionably necessary not to strengthen the European Union’s core, but to protect the integrity of its 28 member states.
Photo Credit: EPA