Greece and Frontex Reimagined: The European Border and Coast Guard

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These migrants, seeking to enter Greece, were arrested and detained. Courtesy Ggia / Wikimedia Commons.

These migrants, seeking to enter Greece, were arrested and detained. Courtesy Ggia / Wikimedia Commons.

Last year was a groundbreaking for Greece’s asylum policy by any measure. More than a million refugees and migrants entered the EU during 2015, and over 820,000 of them passed through Greece. Under existing agreements, Greece bore the responsibility for registering and processing asylum applicants as the point-of-entry in the EU. However, in practice, Greece was unable to fulfill its obligations, and instead adopted a policy of facilitating migrant and refugee travel to wealthier EU countries. Similarly Frontex, the EU agency tasked with migration control, is underfunded and unable to cope with the current refugee and migrant influx. Going into 2016, the EU refugee crisis has not subsided, as over 3,500 migrants arrived in Greece daily during December 2015. As negotiations between EU member states continue on how to handle the arrival of migrants, the proposal to strengthen external EU border security through a redesigned Frontex could have a particularly monumental impact on Greece.

The logic behind increased border enforcement is that increasing external security will decrease the number of migrants entering the EU. The current proposal would rename Frontex as the “European Border and Coast Guard,” (EBCG) and give it greater resources to secure Europe’s external borders. This would be a major change; remaking, expanding, and substantially increasing the agency’s powers.  The EBCG would share responsibility for controlling immigration into the EU with member states border control agencies. Most importantly, the agency would be empowered to implement its own policy even if the member state was “unable or unwilling to act.” In effect, the EBCG could independently determine whether a nation needs increased border control assistance. However, the EBCG’s proposed authority would be limited to the Schengen Area, meaning that England and Ireland would be unaffected.

This proposal is likely a direct response to Greece’s decision to ease migrant travel further into Europe. Unlike under the current arraignment, the new EU immigration agency could independently determine that Greece is in an immigration crisis, and then create a different policy, independent of the national government. While this outcome is unlikely, because Greece would probably acquiesce to an EU wide immigration management system, this possibility is drawing harsh condemnation from Nationalists. For instance, UKIP leader Nigel Farage characterized the plan as a “power grab” by Brussels. Similarly, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski criticized the proposed agency as having “an undemocratic structure reporting to nobody knows who.” However, there are some protections for national interests, since the proposal for the EBCG contains process safeguards to allow member states to voice their opinions. Ultimately, the agency would be able to unilaterally determine if a country needs aid and the form that support would take.

Another area of concern is what approach the new agency would take to protect the rights of asylum seekers. For instance, European Parliamentarian Malin Björk characterized the plan as closing EU borders while “the refugee crisis is reaching its peak.” Likewise, Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Kotzias has been hesitant to endorse the proposal, calling instead for policies which “prioritizes each member state’s sovereign interests with regard to defending its security and the immigration issue.” It is possible given increasing opposition to settling migrants and refugees in countries like Germany, that the EBCG would not carefully assess migrants’ asylum claims. However, at least in its guiding documents, the agency would be tasked with upholding the EU’s and international laws regarding asylum seekers rights. Whether and how these obligations would be met, while securing EU borders, remains a matter for speculation.

In conclusion, the EBCG as proposed would be a momentous change in European governance, giving an EU agency control over immigration policy and limiting the autonomy of member states. Primarily, the new agency would have the ability to replace national immigration policy when those measures are judged too lax. Nothing in the EBCG’s proposed mandate includes the power to penalize nations like Hungary, which have arguably adopted overly strict immigration and asylum standards. Furthermore, this new agency could have tremendous implications for Greece, since it is the primary entry point for Middle Eastern asylum seekers. In contrast, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which the sovereignty of a country like Norway would be significantly altered. While the EBCG is still at the planning stage, and would have to be adopted via ordinary legislative procedure, passing both the EU parliament and Council. If passed in its current form, the EBCG will be a major step in EU integration, as a vital responsibility is shifted from national to European control.