Only five years ago, barely anyone in Europe (outside the EU bubble) had ever heard of Frontex. Today, this young agency has captured media and civil society attention as it has become a relevant actor in the worst migration crisis the continent faces since World War II. With a recently approved new mandate and additional resources, the EU expects that this agency, currently in the spotlight, will rise to the occasion. Yet this response to the refugee crisis has both critics that deem it insufficient to strengthen external borders control and detractors who believe the EU is just blocking the route to refugees that seek shelter.
An EU agency on the rise
Right after the East enlargement, the Union saw a crucial moment to consolidate the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice, which implied reinforcing its external borders and consequently enhancing member state’s cooperation in this field. Frontex was created in 2004 with the mandate of promoting an integrated approach to border management. Meanwhile, member countries remained primarily responsible for their frontiers. Since then, Frontex has had limited powers and operational capacity regarding EU external borders, performing technical assistance, training, data collection and risk analysis tasks. Thus, so far the agency has had little expertise when it comes to putting boots on the ground.
As conflicts in Syria and Libya deteriorated and migratory pressure raised, the EU increased the de facto Frontex role in border management, providing additional equipment and guards to countries like Italy or Greece and coordinating joint operations like Triton – a maritime border patrol in the Mediterranean. In addition, some states’ decision to reintroduce temporary controls at their frontiers in the Schengen area intensified calls for strengthening external borders.
However, concerns were raised among the agency capacity to cope with such expanded tasks, as it strongly relies on state contributions. For instance, in 2015, Frontex had only 5 more staff members than in 2011, according to Frontex General Report 2015.
New name, new aim?
On 14 September 2016, the Council gave unanimous final approval to the new regulation that transforms Frontex into the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Apart from the renaming, the new guard will have more money, equipment and staff, but also more responsibilities in border management, especially in return operations. Officially launched on October 10 with an event at the Bulgarian border with Turkey, it will also help to establish a reserve pool of at least 1,500 guards for rapid border interventions.
The Commission’s original proposal for the creation of the new European Border Guard allowed it to intervene in a country when border management was “rendered ineffective”, even against its will. A bold proposal with sovereignty implications that did not succeed. Instead, the final regulation is a diluted but fast response to the calls for a more fortified Europe after Greece refused EU help in controlling its external borders in 2015.
The new regulation authorises the reintroduction of internal border controls when a country is not capable of handling disproportionate challenges at the external borders. Such distrust on certain countries will also led to the placement of Frontex liaison offices to watch over their performance on border management.
As Angeliki Dimitriadi already pointed out in ecfr.eu, the new Frontex might be overestimated. For the first time, EU countries committed to provide a specific amount of border guards: a minimum of 1,500 for the rapid reaction pool. The effort does not seem that significant given that in 2014 a total of 1,315 European Border Guards provided by member states were deployed. Since Frontex’s additional tasks have certainly grown and with only an 18% increase in its budget for the next year, it is reasonable to doubt about Frontex’s short-term ability to fulfil its new mandate and thus to be an effective solution for the refugee crisis.
Controversial competences and approach
Opposite to those who advocate for a stronger agency, Frontex’s extended mandate also has detractors. A joint briefing on the initial proposal by the International Commission of Jurists, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and Amnesty International warned that human rights and EU accountability will be at a stake as a result of the unclear division of competences. As regards of possible human rights violations perpetrated by European Border Guard teams, they also criticised the redress processes lack of impartiality.
Some human rights associations and political parties also disapprove EU’s allocation of funds regarding frontiers and asylum. The 2017 Draft Budget foresees a 281m EUR contribution for Frontex and 153m EUR for the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). This means almost twice the amount of funds for managing borders than for assisting countries with the asylum process.
Once more, another EU response to the refugee crisis confronts states, political groups and civil society about how current migration flows should be managed, exposing the lack of a real European common approach to a key issue that is putting European integration at risk.