Safeguarding borders for an open Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A new row has broken out between Italy and Malta over boats carrying migrants. [Frontex]

Freedom of movement is a right enshrined in the European Union’s area of freedom, security and justice. But it is only by protecting the EU’s external borders that this freedom can continue to exist, writes Fabrice Leggeri.

Fabrice Leggeri is the executive director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex).

At the same time, returning to the old system of checking passports and customs papers at every border within the EU would not only damage mutual trust but could do irreparable harm to our economies.

But even though a recent study by the European Parliament found that the indefinite suspension of the Schengen Area could cost up to €230 billion over a period of 10 years, the concept of the area of freedom, security and justice has taken a series of hard knocks over the last few years.

This was due in part to the influx of refugees that began with the deterioration of the situation in Syria. Then there were the terror attacks that have taken place on European soil with horrifying frequency have aroused fears for security, a topic that surveys show is high on the list of priorities of EU citizens.

In seeking remedies, we must not frame migration as a security problem. Indeed, conflating these issues would play into the hands of the very extremists we are struggling to defeat. However, we need stable borders, and for this, we need new and innovative European solutions.

The recent transformation of Frontex into the European Border and Coast Guard Agency is just such a solution. It allows us to move beyond our former focus on migration and migratory flows to safeguarding the security of the EU’s external borders, including the crucial fight against organised crime.

It is a tough task. But our increased budget and expanded mandate give us invaluable tools to assess weaknesses in the border control capabilities of member states and address them by making specific recommendations, such as modernising equipment, deploying additional officers to particular sections of the border, providing training to frontline practitioners, or in some places improving the reception and registration facilities for newly arrived migrants.

With a coastline of almost 66,000 km and land borders of more than 13,000 km, Europe is only as secure as its external borders. And on the basis of our own findings and analysis, we know there are indeed many dangers lurking, from the human traffickers through to the many tonnes of hard drugs and weapons seized with our help on their way into the EU.

That is why we now have more than 1,700 officers deployed at the EU’s external borders to assist member states. The new mandate has also allowed us to establish a large pool of officers committed by national authorities, who can be rapidly deployed in case of proven threats.

So Frontex is increasingly moving from a supporting role to coordinating and complementing the work of our partners in the member states, and this trend will strengthen further over the next decade.

However, we will still remain only one piece of the puzzle. Our colleagues in the European Commission and Parliament are another. And the many remaining pieces are made up of the national border and coast guards, the frontline workers at the EU’s borders and their brave colleagues out on the high seas. It is together with them, and only together, that Frontex forms the European border and coast guard.

Since its inception in 2004, Frontex has found itself the brunt of criticism, either that the agency is trying to create ‘Fortress Europe’, ignoring the needs of those fleeing war and persecution; or conversely, that it is not being tough enough on protecting the EU’s external borders.

Of concern to me is not so much that the errors at the root of this critique indicate a lack of understanding of our work, but – far more importantly – of the issues at stake.

For border security is not a matter of encouraging unfounded suspicions, or indiscriminately excluding those who need our help. In fact, it is quite the reverse.

By improving our risk analysis, intelligence sharing, and surveillance techniques, we ensure that the needs of people seeking international protection from war or persecution are met, while those who could endanger our security are detected and dealt with appropriately.

And strengthening our borders is not just about irregular migrants. Since March 2017, everybody crossing the EU’s external borders legally has been checked. And the EU is at an advanced stage of establishing a system similar to the one used in the US, to check that visitors from countries exempt from visa requirements do not pose a threat of any kind during their stay.

As Frontex continues to expand, there is nonetheless one thing that will not change. Rescuing people in danger is an essential part of our mandate wherever Frontex is active at the EU’s maritime borders.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that respect for fundamental rights is an integral component of effective border management. The agency is bound by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, and Frontex has advanced mechanisms for recording potential or alleged violations.

Finally, I must make the point that border management is not the answer to all Europe’s challenges, just as it is not an ersatz for migration policy. If we want to put an end to the drowning in the Mediterranean and the deaths in the Sahel, we need to work harder and cooperate more closely to eliminate the root causes of migration, from armed conflict through to famine.

At the same time (and as reiterated by the European Commission on numerous occasions), we need to offer those in need of international protection legal paths to enter the EU. This would not only save lives but also cut off financing for the criminal smuggling rings currently making a fortune out of the misery of their fellow humans.

So we are speaking here not just about migration or borders, but about the EU and our own future. Some people took the events of 2015 and the ongoing crisis to claim that the EU has failed as a project and belongs on the rubbish heap of history. I believe the opposite.

With the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard, the EU has embarked on a new stage of its journey. There is no single country that can safeguard its citizens from internationally organised crime, and at the same time meet its humanitarian obligations to assist those fleeing persecution.

If protecting our external borders and safeguarding free movement really matters to us, then it is time to speak out for Europe, and for the additional resources needed at the regional and national level to avoid a repeat of 2015. This would serve the interests not just of a few, but of everyone in the EU.

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