Thursday, 23 June 2011

'Baby steps' toward a real EU border patrol

The EU institutions and member states reached an agreement last night to beef up the EU's border patrol agency, Frontex. The news, coming just before the summit of EU national leaders today and tomorrow in Brussels, shows how much immigration concerns are at the centre of the political agenda right now. While the populist rhetoric in member states is more often calling for less EU rather than more of it these days, an agreement to expand the EU's border patrolling powers was easily reached.

The deal will allow Frontex to buy its own equipment, so that it will be less dependent on helicopters and vehicles leased from member states. It will also make it binding for member states who have pledged personnel to the agency to deliver on their promises. The Frontex patrols will now be coordinated into "European border guard teams" that will be swiftly brought in if a member state is struggling to control it's external EU border – but still only on the invitation of the member state. To date, the only EU member state that ha summoned a significant number of Frontex forces is Greece.

On the commission's end, the move is likely an effort to assuage the concerns of member states who in recent months have become so alarmed by the influx of illegal immigration from North Africa that they want to re-introduce internal Schengen border controls. For member states like Italy and Greece, who are struggling to deal with migrants, it is surely a way to demonstrate to their people that they are getting assistance to deal with the issue.

The cross-border crimefighting abilities of Frontex will also be strengthened. The Warsaw-based agency will now be able to transfer personal data it collects to law enforcement agencies like Europol. These investigations would usually be focused on human trafficking activities or other forms of illegal immigration. Frontex will also be able to deploy officers to the countries that the migrants are coming from.

The deal is also meant to allay the concerns of human rights campaigners, who have been horrified at the way Greek and Italian border guards have been treating migrants. Frontex will be now have a 'fundamental rights officer' who will hear cases of abuse and try to coordinate a systematic way of dealing with asylum seekers. Well, as systematic as is possible considering EU member states have vastly different asylum policies.

It's a long way from a real external border institution like the US Customs and Border Protection agency, but it's a start. Given that the EU now has no internal border controls between member states (except the UK and Ireland who are exempt), many have said an EU border patrol that all member states pitch in to would be the next logical step. Otherwise the peripheral states are left to do al the work while the inland states do nothing (except at airports of course). It would be like the US leaving states like Arizona and Texas in charge of its external border with Mexico, with funding only coming from those states.

But for years the expansion of EU external border controls was a subject avoided by the institutions and the member states, as many saw it as a controversial intrusion by the EU into what should be a member state competency. In this way many saw the Schengen project as incomplete, an illogical half-step that abolished internal borders without stregthening external ones. But events being what they are these days, and with the anti-immigrant rhetoric heating up from European politicians, it seems this is one area of EU expansion that everyone can now agree on.

But at what cost? Tomorrow European leaders will also be discussing changes to the Schengen Zone. They are expected to ask the commission to tweak the law to allow member states to set up temporary border controls with other Schengen states when the EU's external borders are under 'heavy pressure' or when a member state on the external border is not protecting it adequately. This may be given to them, as a quid pro quo for their accepting the agreement on Frontex (though this is bizarre negotiating on the commission's part considering the member states now want more frontex).

Many fear this will open the floodgates to a waterfall of distrust between member states, where each one sets up "temporary" border controls in response to another, ending up with a situation of de-facto permanent border controls stretching across the block. Right now it's possible to drive from Lisbon to Tallinn without ever needing your passport. If the commission fails to stick up for the basic principles of Schengen tomorrow, that may not be a reality much longer.

1 comment:

Dagmawi Elehu said...

My proposal is that the Commission should agree to Schengen changes provided that any internal border introduced must be decided on EU-level and maintained by impartial Frontex personnel. That would help with the distrust between the countries and hopefully make the implementation more objective.