The new European Border and Coast Guard: much ado about nothing?
The velocity with which the Council and the European Parliament agreed on the extension of the Frontex mandate should be a sign of political willingness on the part of European leaders. The new entity became operational on 6 October, less than a year since it was tabled in December 2015 by the European Commission. The European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) agency can boast extended financial and human resources when compared to its predecessor, Frontex. These changes are, however, not commensurate with the task facing the EU in the coming years: that migration is going to be the new normal.
A European Border Guard Unit
What’s new under the sun? Drawing from an old dream of creating a European Border Guard Unit, which predates the creation of Frontex, this new entity can deploy 1,500 experts as a rapid reserve pool of border guards and technical equipment within three days. Frontex staff is almost double and should reach 1,000 permanent staff by 2020, and work more closely with the European Fisheries Control Agency and the European Maritime Safety Agency in order to perform coastguard surveillance. It will also have a stronger mandate to work in third countries, notably through the organisation of joint operations on a third country’s territory and strengthening co-operation on return with third countries (Official Journal of the European Union, 2016). Its budget should increase from 91.2M Euro in 2014 to 281.3M Euro in 2017, which is certainly remarkable.
The impact and efficiency of EBCG could nonetheless be lessened by a number of deficiencies. Member states remain the gatekeepers, as they retain executive enforcement powers for operational border management at the EU's external borders, thus limiting the innovative potential of the new unit. This shared competence is, however, not matched by shared accountability, in particular when it comes to the incident reporting mechanism in the event of fundamental rights breaches during an operation. Criminal proceedings are, indeed, still regulated by EU member states’ legislation. This might be problematic where the judicial system of an EU member state does not offer an effective remedy to address human rights violations, as outlined by several European NGOs. In addition, a fundamental rights officer will be in charge of processing the complaint from a person who considers him or herself to have been the subject of a breach of his or her fundamental rights due to actions of the EBCG. Yet legal experts have cautioned about the lack of independence of such officers, who would be part of the EBCG staff.
Another novelty is that in case of the failure of an EU member state to control migratory fluxes, a procedure is foreseen in the Council of the EU to plan to intervene in that country. If that country does not co-operate, then other EU member states will be able to re-establish their internal border controls, thus impacting upon the freedom of movement within Schengen. This measure specifically caters for the lack of capacity faced by the Greek authorities and other member states located on the Western Balkan route. Allowing other EU member states to close their borders would only block migrants in that country, sometimes at the expense of their rights and living conditions.
A drop in the ocean
This new entity, which provides a golden opportunity to rebrand an agency that has acquired a bad reputation amongst European migrants’ rights NGOs, is only a drop in the ocean. Controlling borders is certainly important but, so far, the agency has not really been very efficient, given that detections of illegal border crossings boomed from 159,100 people in 2008 to 1,822,337 in 2016. Although the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, as well as remote conflicts in Eritrea and Yemen, have pushed on migratory routes unprecedented numbers of migrants towards Europe, the current situation is also the result of EU migratory policies. Migration is not an independent phenomenon. Restrictive policies and surveillance of borders lead migrants to undertake riskier journeys. If the EU would open up legal means such as delivering humanitarian visas or private sponsorship, such as in Canada, for instance, migrants would certainly not die in the Mediterranean Sea. The new European Border and Coast Guard will now be able to rescue migrants at sea, but if restrictive policies continue, migrants will still choose longer and more difficult routes, thus paying huge amounts of money to the smuggling industry.
Migration is the new normal
The EBCG cannot alone solve the issue. So far, the EU’s efforts to stop irregular migrants entering the EU is only displacing the issue somewhere else. Thus, the EU/Turkey deals of October 2015 and March 2016 have redirected migrants through the Egyptian route, with 204 dead and 84 missing migrants reported on 21 September.
Migration is not a choice and is not going to stop. The creation of the EBCG is one step towards a much broader and more comprehensive solution that involves genuine partnerships with third countries. Asking countries such as Jordan and Lebanon to do more is impossible, as their societal resilience is already under great strain. In October 2016, there were 1 million Syrians in Lebanon, 656,000 in Jordan and 2.7 million Syrians registered by the Government of Turkey. In Europe, national resistance is slowing down considerably any political leap forward. This paralysis is illustrated by the relocation of fewer than 5,000 refugees out of the 160,000 refugees that EU member states agreed to relocate from Greece and Italy in September 2015.
The EBCG is thus the lowest common denominator that EU member states could agree upon: stopping migrants entering the EU. The broader implications of this strategy and the essential reforms that EU migration policy requires are, however, not yet on the table.