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The New European Border and Coast Guard: Lessons Learned or Easy Way Out?

November 1st, 2016

By Irena Baboi – Research Assistant

On 6 October, the European Union launched its European Border and Coast Guard on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. As Frontex’s new and improved successor, the border agency has been granted a bigger budget, more personnel, and extended powers to intervene in defending Europe’s external borders. Its main aims include ensuring a rapid response in emergency situations, conducting effective search and rescue operations, returning illegally staying third country nationals, and preventing terrorism. These are all important actions, and necessary in the current climate; but meeting the new security challenges faced by Europe will require further efforts. The European Border and Coast Guard is not the solution that will end the migration crisis – it is merely the first step in a long-lasting and highly complex process.

Due to its unsolved limitations as a border agency, Frontex received widespread criticism for its ineffective handling of the migration crisis. As a consequence, the new agency has at its disposal more than double the border guards, permanent staff, technical equipment and funding of its predecessor. Crucially, it can carry out operations on the territory of non-EU countries bordering at least one member state; and it has been given the controversial right to intervene when and where it deems necessary, even if the state in question has not requested it or considers there is no need for it. Opposition to the latter was, unsurprisingly, voiced repeatedly; but in a Europe where states are increasingly unwilling to cooperate on the issue, its inclusion in the list of necessary measures was inevitable.

The ongoing migration crisis continues to divide opinion in the European bloc, which in turn has prevented its member states from agreeing on a common solution to it. The reactions have ranged from support and compassion to animosity driven by fear and a lack of understanding. With the terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium, the fear that was steadily spreading throughout the continent intensified – and the crisis went from humanitarian to political in a matter of months.

The challenges faced by countries due to the crisis, however, do not limit themselves to deciding who is allowed to cross the border and who needs to return – from the deplorable living conditions of the camps migrants wait in, to the severely stretched resources of the current host countries, the migration crisis demands action on multiple fronts. Moreover, as an important first step, the European Border and Coast Guard may serve to help regain sufficient control and restore order; but if this crisis is to be solved, the European Union needs to start looking at the bigger picture.

It follows then that, while necessary and appropriate in the given circumstances, the European Border and Coast Guard is an immediate response rather than a long-term solution, and addresses only one part of the problem. It is also part of a long history of employing a reactionary approach rather than prevention mechanisms; and an attempt on the part of the European Union to show that they are in control, but also that they understand what their member states want and need.

The European Border and Coast Guard serves to reassure both the political leader and the people of its member states that actions are being taken to increase the security of their countries. It may even serve to ensure, temporarily at least, that less migrants come to Europe. It does not, however, go as far as to clarify what will happen with the people who will qualify for international protection – and there will be a lot of them who do.

Europe’s focus, then, needs to be not only on who gets to stay or not, but also in what conditions. A coherent and comprehensive asylum policy needs to be devised – and it needs to be agreed on and implemented by all member states. Despite plans made and quotas set, only just over 4,000 refugees have been relocated from Greece so far, and a little over 1,000 from Italy; and these countries representing the first point of entry are overwhelmed. Reluctance is understandable, and weak economies and high rates of unemployment serve only to contribute to it. As challenging as it is and will continue to be, however, the European Union will need to re-iterate the need for burden-sharing among member states, and commit to helping them, financially and materially, with the difficulties that come with it. This crisis is likely to not be a one-time event, and Europe needs to show it will be ready when it happens again.

The border agency could, however, buy the European Union time: the screening and registration processes are lengthy, and the appeals that migrants are given the right to file are likely to delay it even longer. In the meantime, the Union can and should devise a plan for what happens next; and this is the crucial part of the problem that needs to be tackled. Strengthening the borders, in this case at least, is the easy part; the hope, however, should be that it will appease member states enough as to make it more likely that agreement on what needs to be done next is reached.

A further important issue relates to the distinction made between refugees and economic migrants by the agency. Priority will likely be given to Syrians with legitimate asylum claims, while migrants from African countries, as well as war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq, will be last on the list. Many of those deemed economic migrants, however, are also fleeing conflicts, human rights abuses and persecution; yet the European Union has said that most will not be eligible for asylum in Europe. The aim, then, will be to provide aid that is conditional on these countries’ readmission of economic migrants and asylum seekers whose applications have failed. In essence, what this shows is that human rights can be traded for political and financial favours – and that Europe is more focused on decreasing the flow rather than preventing a new one.

People risking their lives to come to Europe do so out of a lack of alternative; more often than not, both war and poverty translate themselves into little to no chances of survival in their home countries. The problems in the countries migrants are sent back to will not simply go away – they will escalate and force them to flee again. If the aim is to send a signal that Europe is not an option, the agency will not find it difficult to achieve this purpose; but if Europe is to prevent another crisis, it needs to tackle this one appropriately and efficiently.

Funding African and Middle Eastern countries is a start, but effective help requires long-term commitment to development projects. In its current form, the deal with these countries is similar to that with Turkey, and likely to have the same consequences: the flow of migrants and refugees will indeed be slowed even further; but the difficulties they face in the countries they will live in will not be resolved.

As it stands, the European Border and Coast Guard is a necessary response to a clear need for increased security; but without a long-term plan, it is merely a convenient way of avoiding the real solution: providing aid and support to resolve the underlying causes of the crisis. As long as unending conflicts continue to exist, so will people who are forced to flee them; and many of them will have a rightful claim to refugee status. Without an effort to address the causes, the effects will inevitably repeat themselves.

All these points serve to showcase the most important one: that the European Border and Coast Guard needs to be a temporary solution, not a permanent reality. The goal has to be to bring back a Europe of open borders, not create one that is increasingly distrustful of the neighbouring world; and the European Union needs to ensure that this does not become the new normal.

The fact that this border agency was approved and launched less than a year after being proposed shows that progress is possible. The European Border and Coast Guard has learned the lessons of Frontex; all that remains now is for the European Union to learn that only increased involvement will ensure its survival – and that long-term commitment and rapid response are the best way forward.

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.