The EU launched its beefed-up border force today (6 October) in a rare show of unity at a symbolic location – the Bulgarian-Turkish border guarded by a metal fence and razor wire.
European Union officials inaugurated the new task force at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the main land frontier for migrants seeking to enter the bloc and avoid the dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing.
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG) will have at its disposal some 1,500 officers from 19 member states who can be swiftly mobilised in case of an emergency, like a sudden surge of migrants.
Brussels hopes the revamped agency will not just increase security, but also help heal the huge rifts that have emerged between member states clashing over the EU’s refugee policies.
The long-term goal is to lift border controls inside the bloc and fully restore the passport-free Schengen Area.
“The new agency is stronger and better equipped to tackle migration and security challenges,” EBCG director Fabrice Leggeri said at the launch.
The force will also conduct stress tests at the bloc’s external borders to “identify vulnerabilities before a crisis hits”, he added.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos hailed the launch as a “historical day for the European Union”.
“From now onwards, the external EU border of one member state is the external border of all member states — both legally and operationally,” he said.
“Countries like Bulgaria, Greece and Italy are still under pressure, but they are not alone.”
As part of its expanded mandate, the EBCG will be involved in the repatriation of migrants who have their asylum claims rejected or are considered a security threat.
Its new coast guard unit will also “play a key role at Europe’s maritime borders”, Leggeri said.
A growing number of desperate people attempt the treacherous sea journey from North Africa to Italy, after the so-called Balkan migrant trail was shut earlier this year.
Praise for Bratislava summit
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov who hosted the event conveyed the message that at last, the EU had followed his advice to strengthen borders.
“From two years now, we have insisted that the external borders of Europe should be closed. Not the Bulgarian-Turkish border, not the Greek-Turkish border, not the Italian border. All borders. Because if we create the illusion that we have secured the border here, they [the migrants] will cross across Finland,” Borissov said.
He praised the Bratislava informal summit held on 16 September, where, Borissov said, his colleagues finally understood that without quick and effective action, “the fashion to speak against the EU will grow bigger”. At the Bratislava summit, Borissov received pledges for up to €160 million to police its borders.
The Bulgarian prime minister praised the EU-Turkey deal, according to which Anakara prevents refugees from reaching the Greek islands, in exchange for a financial contribution and a roadmap to removing the visa requirement for Turkish nationals, and stressed that the agreement needs to be respected.
“Three million [refugees] are standing a little bit farther, at 40-50 kilometres,” he said.
“No border police can stop several millions of migrants. Especially in Europe, where NGOs dealing with human right issues scrutinise every action of ours,” Borissov added.
“Turkey needs to remain a strategic partner of Europe. I know how fashionable it is to speak against Muslims, to raise nationalistic slogans, but I want to stress that not only Turkey needs to be our partner, also Lebanon, Jordan. The war in Syria can be stopped only if the US and Russia find an agreement. Let’s call on Mr. Lavrov and Kerry, to agree on even the worst peace, but make it possible for these people could return there”, he added.
After Bratislava the EU is not the same, Borissov said, adding that this lates gathering of EU heads of state and government proved to be able to decide fast and effectively, “with the necessary degree of solidarity, and first and foremost – by concrete measures on the ground”.
He repeated that it is not normal that his country would maintain troops in Afghanistan while hundreds of Afghans seek refugee status in Bulgaria. The previous day, Borissov was on a surprise visit to Brussels, where he apologised for an ultimatum he gave last week – that he would withdraw Bulgarian troops from Afghanistan if he cannot deport Afghan refugees back home.
Bulgaria has built up a barbed wire fence that will soon cover most of its 259-kilometre border with Turkey.
Just 13,000 migrants remain stranded inside Bulgaria compared to the 60,000 stuck in Greece and the 140,000 who have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year.
But with Bulgaria’s refugee centres overflowing, the EU’s poorest member is still worried it will become a “buffer state” if a shaky EU deal with Ankara breaks down after the July coup attempt.
All 28 member states agreed on the creation of the new border agency earlier this year.
The boosted force is an expansion of Frontex, founded in 2004 to help coordinate Europe-wide efforts to combat people smuggling and illegal migration.
But the Warsaw-based agency proved inefficient last year when it was caught off guard by the hundreds of thousands of people who began trekking up from Greece across the western Balkans towards northern Europe.
With limited staffing and powers, Frontex was unable to effectively patrol the EU's external borders, including those of frontline countries Greece and Italy where most migrants enter. The relaunched agency will have an annual budget of €320 million.
The uncontrolled arrival of well over one million people, many fleeing war in Syria, triggered chaos on the continent, prompting key transit nations along the migrant trail to seal their borders with fences.
The influx also heightened tensions inside the bloc, with eastern and central European nations lambasting Germany's "open-door" policy which they say allowed Islamist radicals to pose as refugees and help to carry out attacks inside Europe.