The EU Commission wants to create its own border and coast guard agency as an answer to the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. This will take years - if all members agree. Bernd Riegert reports from Strasbourg.
The European Union must learn from the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, and finally improve control of its external borders. That is exactly what European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for during his "State of the Union" address in September. Now he has presented a proposal in Strasbourg on how the existing Frontex border patrol agency can be expanded into a true European border and coast guard agency.
His plan calls for a doubling of Frontex personnel from 500 agents to 1,000 within the next five years. Beyond that, Frontex is to maintain a staff of at least 1,500 border guard reservists that can be deployed to crisis regions within three days. The Commission also wants to reserve the right to control sections of border on its own in emergency situations, without the approval of, or when necessary, against the will of individual member states.
1.5 million illegal entries
While presenting the proposed law, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament that more than 1.5 million people had entered the EU illegally this year: They did not register for asylum, nor did they have visas or residency permits. Timmermans says the system cannot go on like this. "That clearly illustrates the mistakes that we are making at our borders. These illegal entries have an effect across the entire European Union. Several member states have reintroduced internal border controls."
The vice president says he fears that passport free travel within the so-called Schengen Area will now be under threat because of the situation. "What began as a problem along the external border has now thrown the whole Schengen system into question. If we want to keep Schengen, we have to improve our shared management of the external border."
If necessary against the will of a government
EU officials involved in the drafting of the new Frontex mandate played down fears that the measures would take away states' sovereign rights to control their own borders. "It is about evenly distributing responsibilities between the EU and the member states," said an EU expert who did not wish to be named. Until now, individual states have been responsible for securing external borders, and controlling air and seaports. The example of Greece, however, shows that so-called front-line states, where especially large numbers of refugees arrive, are now overwhelmed after having refused help for years.
That is supposed to change now. If the Commission, after consulting with all 28 member states, decides that a member state is unable to control an external border despite being requested to do so, then they want to be able to send their own quick response force in to secure it. In emergencies, the EU wants to be able to organize the registration of arrivals independently of the individual member state.
Poland has already said no
Member states are very sensitive about questions of sovereignty. The European Commission knows that, and has therefore written a guarantee into their proposed law stating that Frontex officials are only allowed to act when officials in the host country are "present." Newly appointed Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski has already said that his country will not turn over sovereignty rights to Frontex. He said the Commission's proposals were "surprising" and could not be democratically controlled.
The Green party's domestic policy expert in the European Parliament, Franziska Keller, also criticized the proposal, though she warned of a European fortress. "It is designed to punish member states that take in refugees. The Commission wants all of the member states to completely shut themselves off. That goes against European law and is entirely unacceptable from a human rights perspective," said Keller in Strasbourg.
Controlling and recording EU citizens
The border situation will change for EU citizens that travel in and out of the Union as well. Until now, passports were simply examined to verify their validity. Soon, all passports are to be systematically compared to databases and wanted lists from every investigative authority in Europe; something expressly forbidden in the Schengen Borders Code. EU Vice President Timmermans justified the step, saying that things needed to change to protect against the threat of terrorism. "Tragically, our current security risks appeared before our very eyes in the Paris terror attacks. They made it clear that we need to act immediately."
Timmermans said it was wrong to lump together refugees and terrorists, but argued that more effective border controls were important for the security of all. "The growing number of EU citizens that leave and return to the Union for terror purposes is just one of the reasons we can no longer do without more effective control of our external borders."
The European Commission does not expect that stricter controls will lead to longer lines at airports and border crossings. The Commission hopes that central databases will allow a quick and efficient comparison of EU citizens' passports with authorities' wanted lists. Should some border crossings experience traffic backups during holiday travel seasons, the systematic control could then be temporarily waived. Stricter entry and exit checks will also apply to citizens of non-EU states that do not require visas for travel. Travelers that currently need visas are already recorded and checked through a visa information system.
Quicker deportations with Frontex
The European Commission also wants to create a common European document for those people who have had their asylum requests denied. It is intended that this "deportation passport" will be recognized by states of origin to which deported persons are to be returned. Pakistan and Sri Lanka, for instance, do no recognize a similar document in use today.
The EU has already ratified repatriation agreements with 17 countries of origin. The European Commission criticizes, however, that these have been insufficiently implemented. Of the 500,000 deportations that are supposed to take place each year, only about 40 percent actually do. Now, the border agency Frontex is to set up a so-called "returns office," designed to help member states repatriate and deport those people whose asylum has been denied.