With the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist threats and calls to end Schengen, EU policymakers have been struggling to come up with effective ways to manage Europe's external and internal borders. The European Commission has now announced plans to introduce a European border and coastguard, as well as systematic checks for all people entering and leaving the Schengen zone.
The European border and coastguard will have double the current resources of Frontex; the aim is for it to employ 1000 permanent staff by 2020. Liaison officers will be deployed in the member states to assess risks on the ground and the agency will be allowed to carry out joint operations with third countries, including operating on their territory.
European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans explained; "The European border and coast guard will bring together a reinforced agency. This will have the ability to draw on a reserve of people and equipment and the member states' authorities, which will continue to exercise day-to-day border management."
"The system we propose will allow for any weaknesses to be identified in real time so that they can be remedied quickly. It will also improve our collective ability to deal effectively with crisis situations where a section of the external border is placed under strong pressure."
European migration, home affairs and citizenship Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos added; "The current migration and security challenges know no borders and require a truly European approach. Where Frontex was previously limited to supporting member states in managing their external borders, the new border agency will go beyond this."
"What we are creating is more Europe; to manage our external borders; to step up returns of irregular migrants; to allow our asylum system to function properly for those in need; to strengthen checks at the external borders of the EU."
The European Parliament was mostly supportive of the proposals. EPP group Vice-Chair Esteban González Pons said; "We have to be prepared not only to save human lives but also to save the very existence of Schengen. If external borders are permeable, internal borders will inevitably be set up. The security of external borders is vital to the existence of Schengen and indeed of the EU."
S&D group Vice-Chair Tanja Fajon commented; "This more joined-up approach to external border management is positive. However, we need to see how this is actually going to work in practice, especially regarding questions of national sovereignty and financing. So far, we have heard a lot of promises for solving the crisis, but the details and implementation have been lacking."
The Slovenian deputy underlined that; "If our citizens are going to trust Frontex's new role, then it must be subject to real political scrutiny and have a robust fundamental rights compliance system. The European Parliament should be given the task of monitoring this new role to ensure proper accountability."
ALDE group Chair Guy Verhofstadt urged EU leaders to support the plans, calling the new agency, "key for the future of Europe. Without this, Schengen is finished and the ping-pong game between member states to move refugees will continue. Countries who are against the European border and coastguard do not have a place in Schengen."
However, other groups did not react so favourably to the Commission's announcements. According to Timothy Kirkhope, ECR group home affairs spokesperson, "There are countries in the EU that are unable to protect their borders. They need to ask for help. At the moment, some are failing to do so and the implications of this are being felt across the entire EU."
"These countries cannot continue to ignore offers of help while at the same time waving through refugees and migrants onto other countries. Therefore, we certainly need a Frontex agency capable of helping those countries in need. That agency should have resources pooled voluntarily from the member states so it can be deployed to assist."
"If a country is failing to control its borders, and refusing to ask for help, then we should offer them a choice: take the help, or the rest of the EU will be within its rights to take action to protect the EU's internal borders."
The British MEP added; "My message to the Commission is this: the EU has rules. Too often we see countries flouting the rules with little consequence. The answer from the Commission is to demand that more sovereignty is handed over. But why don't they enforce the rules we have already?"
Parliament's GUE/NGL group blasted the package, with Malin Björk saying, "It is absolutely unacceptable that when the refugee crisis is reaching its peak, we are closing our borders."
In her view, the proposals turn Frontex, "into a superpower with huge competences across many different areas and the EU is basically allowing member states to work with third countries to stop people who are trying to flee wars. There is no legal way for refugees to get into the EU."
Her colleague Kostas Chrysogonos highlighted that, "immigration and refugees must not only be dealt with at the borders, but at the sources. Here the EU must play an important role in assuring peace and stability which creates the conditions for human beings to survive and thrive."