FEW institutions have been as overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees passing through Europe as Frontex, the European Union’s external border agency. With a weak mandate, no equipment of its own and no power to hire its own border guards, the agency has floundered. On December 15th the European Commission came forward with a proposal, backed by Germany and France, intended to toughen Europe’s border controls. The plan is long overdue—and is evidence of a growing realisation that far more needs to be done to manage the refugee crisis and preserve Schengen, the passport-free travel zone, which has come under great strain.
Under the proposal, a new European border and coast guard would be created. It would absorb Frontex, which at present cannot do much more than fingerprint and count migrants as they pass through a country. By contrast, the new border agency would have far more authority, with twice as many staff and the ability to buy its own kit. A reserve team of border guards would be at the agency’s disposal, helping prevent shortages, while “liaison officers” would be posted to tricky spots in order to feed back information to the headquarters. Most strikingly, it would be given the power to intervene in a country whether the member state liked it or not. (At present, Frontex has to get permission before working in a country). It would also be able to gain access to European databases more easily, and have a far greater involvement in sending illegal migrants back.
Many are delighted by the proposal, including Fabrice Leggeri, the current boss of Frontex. (“It has everything I wanted,” he says.) It is less politically toxic than the idea of a “mini-Schengen”, a core group of member states, which has been mooted by several Dutch politicians but is disliked by most other countries. The plan would also deal with a weakness in the current system—the reluctance of “front-line” member states, such as Greece, to ask for help—by giving the commission the power to force them to accept assistance.
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