We don’t need no Frontex badges

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.

But other countries are less pleased by the idea of an agency with mandatory powers. Poland’s foreign minister described it as a potentially “undemocratic structure”. Greece cautiously welcomed the idea but insisted it should retain ultimate authority over its borders. Such grumblers may not have much power when it comes to voting, as the proposal requires only a qualified (weighted) majority among states to pass, rather than unanimous approval.

Yet even if it passes, obstacles remain. “There is a huge gap between what member states vote on and what they actually do,” says Angeliki Dimitriadi of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. For example, the EU passed plans in May and September to relocate 160,000 refugees over two years. Yet just under 4,000 places have been allocated and around 200 refugees moved. Without the political will to implement them, such ambitious plans are often stillborn.