The push for a bigger, badder Frontex is about political showmanship -- not a real solution to the migration crisis.
- By Philippe LegrainPhilippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think-tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute. Previously economic adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of four critically acclaimed books, including Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them and European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right.
The stunning bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden has been immortalized by the hit TV series The Bridge, in which Swedish and Danish police collaborate to solve gruesome murders. More prosaically, the Oresund region which spans the bridge — encompassing the Danish capital of Copenhagen, the Swedish city of Malmo, and their hinterlands — is marketed to global businesses as a single entity. But now, for the first time since the 1950s, people crossing between the two countries will have their identities checked in a bid to stem flows of refugees into Sweden. Denmark, in turn, has reimposed controls on its border with Germany. Austria, France, Germany, and Norway have also reintroduced controls on their borders in recent months. Decades of European integration are unraveling day by day. How to stop the rot?
Before World War I, people could travel around the world without a passport, as Austrian writer Stefan Zweig famously did. Since then, passports, border checks, and bureaucratic and physical barriers to freedom of movement have become the norm. That’s what made the Schengen Area so special: From 1995 onward, 26 European countries (22 of the 28 EU countries, plus four others) abolished their border controls and adopted a common travel-visa policy. People and goods were able to travel unimpeded from Lisbon to Lithuania, Budapest to Brittany. As well as providing practical advantages, it was a powerful symbol of how Europe was coming together.
But the refugee crisis and the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, have strained Schengen to the breaking point. Germany (to limit refugee inflows) and France (to keep out potential terrorists) are now demanding the creation of a powerful EU border guard to police the Schengen Area’s external border. The European Commission has duly proposed the establishment of a beefed-up “European Border and Coast Guard” with a bigger budget and staff than its feeble current incarnation, Frontex. Controversially, the new force would have the power to intervene to plug leaky borders — even against the wishes of the government of the country concerned. But such a huge surrender of national sovereignty to an EU agency of dubious competence and limited accountability is undesirable, unnecessary, and potentially illegal.
The European Union ought to be able to handle the arrival of the roughly million refugees and other desperate migrants who entered without permission last year. They account for only 0.2 percent of the EU population of 508 million — and are outnumbered by the 1.25 million Syrian refugees in tiny Lebanon (population 4.5 million). They are also far fewer than the 2 million or so other migrants who arrive in EU countries each year through standard channels.
But regrettably, the predominantly poor and Muslim newcomers tend to be seen as a burden and a threat. And in the absence of a generous, orderly, and fair system for welcoming refugees and processing asylum claims, most governments try to pass the unwanted newcomers on to others through a variety of means, from waving them on their way (Greece and Italy) to keeping them out with razor-wire fences (Hungary). Now that the two countries that had maintained an open door, Germany and Sweden, are closing it, the EU is trying to stop refugees from reaching Europe altogether.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally negotiated a deal with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offering the Turkish government 3 billion euros of EU money and other concessions in exchange for Turkey’s preventing refugees from reaching Greece, so far to little effect. And now the EU wants the power to step in to police Greece’s borders, through which most refugees arrive.
Let’s be clear: An EU border guard would not have prevented the Paris attacks. Most of the attackers were French, and since nearly everyone entering Greece is not a terrorist, tougher border checks are of little use in combating terrorism without proper intelligence.
But if the EU deems tougher controls politically necessary, it ought to provide the cash-strapped Greek government with financial and technical support to improve its own border management, instead of stepping in directly. EU officials already control Greece’s budget. Do they really think it’s a good idea to march into Greece and take control of its borders too?
Indeed, Steve Peers, a professor of EU law at the University of Essex who edits the EU Law Analysis blog, argues that the EU border guard’s proposed powers would contravene the EU treaties: “[W]hile the EU can establish rules on border controls and regulate how Member States’ authorities implement them, it cannot itself replace Member States’ powers of coercion or control, or require Member States to carry out a particular operation.”
In any case, an EU Border and Coast Guard is scarcely a solution to the refugee crisis. What would the EU guards do with the refugees they intercepted? Legally, the U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees prevents them from turning away asylum-seekers. Morally, Merkel has repeatedly said that closing the borders would be unacceptable. Practically, EU guards don’t have a magic wand to restore order. So the result would most likely be a shambles, further undermining the EU’s credibility.
The best way to achieve a more orderly entry process would be to create safe, legal channels for refugees and other migrants to reach Europe. Generous schemes that allowed people to apply for asylum or a work visa from neighboring countries would put the people smugglers out of business, thereby avoiding the nearly 4,000 deaths recorded last year. Refugees could also be vetted, as the United States does, to weed out any potential terrorists. With luck, Schengen might also be saved. Merkel is the most powerful person in Europe. Instead of backtracking on her commitment to welcome refugees by trying to prevent them from reaching Germany, she should continue to make the case that welcoming vulnerable people is a legal and humanitarian obligation that can also provide an economic and demographic boost. It would be a tragedy if an open Europe tried to become a fortress.
Photo credit: IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images