New EU border guard agency is no magic bullet

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Frontex had its failings, but the new agency should go some way to addressing the crises on Europe's doorstep. [Frontex]

The European Union’s new border guard agency is meant to remedy the failings of its predecessor, Frontex. Dr Lisa Watanabe asks whether the EBCG will be endowed with what Frontex lacked.

Dr Lisa Watanabe is a senior researcher at the Centre for Security Studies (CSS), Zurich.

The EU’s new European Border and Coast Guard agency (EBCG) will replace its existing entity, Frontex, and will be operational next month. The EBCG is one of the most visible measures taken in response to the migration crisis and is aimed at overcoming the inability of Frontex to adequately secure the EU’s external border.

Shortcomings in the management of the external border resulted last year in humanitarian crises in countries under acute pressure, such as Greece, and even called into question the desirability of the border-control free Schengen zone.

Frontex was perceived as having a number of limitations that hindered its capacity to respond effectively to the situation on the ground at the height of the migration crisis. The European Commission lamented that “it is not able to purchase its own resources, it does not have its own operational staff and relies on member state contributions, it is unable to carry out its own return or border management operations without the prior request of a member state and it does not have an explicit mandate to conduct search and rescue operations.”

The new agency will be able to purchase some of its own equipment to ensure that its needs are met. But, it will still rely heavily on a pool of equipment owned or co-owned by member states. As such, the new agency will still be dependent upon contributions from member states, as was Frontex.

Much the same can be said with regards to operational staff. The EBCG will have a new tool at its disposal – a rapid reserve pool of 1,500 border guards, ready to be mobilised within five working days – which does mean that it will have more staff available to deploy to hotspots at the external border. Yet, the pool of border guards will be comprised of national border guards.

Although the new agency will not escape dependency on member state contributions, it will have more powers than Frontex. When a member state does not comply with its recommendations within a specified period of time, the agency will be able to carry out border operations to strengthen that country’s capacity, including search and rescue operations, even without a prior request from the country concerned.

It will also be able to send border guards from its rapid reserve pool to frontline states struggling to cope with large influxes of asylum seekers and migrants, even if those countries have not asked for assistance or if they are failing to secure the external border and, as a result, placing the Schengen zone at risk.

The EBCG will also have the capacity to initiate technical or organisational assistance, in cooperation with member states, to ensure the return of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected, as well as others who have no legal right to remain in the EU. It will be able to propose and organise joint return operations, provide escorts for forced returns, and even charter flights, for example.

The bigger question is, of course: will the EBCG help the EU to better face the challenges of irregular migration? To be sure, its provisions are far from amounting to a dedicated European border guard able to be deployed across the Union to ensure uniform standards are met.

That said, in the absence of changes to the Dublin Principles, which dictate that the country in which an asylum seeker first arrives in the EU is responsible for handling that person’s asylum application, it will go some way to responding to emergencies that will inevitably arise.

Its capacity to intervene in member states failing to meet or to uphold EU border management and asylum standards should, at least, help to avert hotspots from transforming into national crises situations and also to reduce secondary movements of migrants and asylum seekers within the Union, thereby, reducing the likelihood of Schengen members re-introducing border controls or constructing fences, as we saw last year.

But, the new agency will still encounter difficulties in improving situations on the ground where border management and asylum systems are severely deficient or where national agencies are reluctant to cooperate with intervention teams that have not been requested. As such, the new agency will not be a magic bullet, but it should go some way to reducing the scale of emergencies.

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