European Union leaders appear to have already reached a verdict on protecting the bloc’s external borders ahead of their summit on Thursday.
“Despite the hard work in recent months, the level of implementation of some of the decisions taken to address the migration and refugee crisis is insufficient,” they warned in a draft communiqué, obtained by Handelsblatt. “The Schengen area is under severe pressure.”
The leaders view measures such as tighter security of their external borders and hotspots to ensure registration and distribution of refugees as long overdue.
As a result of that sobering assessment, the European Commission is planning to expand the powers of its Frontex security agency and turn it into a more effective European coast guard and frontier defense unit. The commission presented its plans on Tuesday in what could be the last chance of saving the Schengen accord, which abolished the E.U.’s internal borders and enabled passport-free movement across most of the bloc.
According to the plans, Frontex would help protect a E.U. member state’s border – even against its will – if that country were unable to secure its own frontier effectively by itself.
To do that, E.U. member states have agreed to create a new 1,500-strong rapid reaction force that could be deployed within a matter of days if called upon.
On top of that, the revamped agency will have its own pool of technical equipment to help boost security on the E.U.’s perimeter.
“We’ve got to think about how we can supplant national authority with European authority.”
Frontex will also be equipped with the authority to decide when to take action. Until now, the agency was only allowed to intervene to protect Europe’s outer border when assistance was requested by a member state – which hardly ever was.
It’s still an open question whether E.U. member states will go along with the commission because the foray amounts to a clear-cut infringement of national sovereignty. Eastern European E.U. leaders, who have vehemently opposed an E.U.-wide distribution of refugees, are also not likely to simply rubber stamp the commission’s plans.
Jean Asselborn, the foreign minster of Luxembourg, which holds the E.U.’s rotating presidency until the end of the year, urged skeptics to rethink their opposition on expanding Frontex’s powers, claiming it’s in everyone’s interest to preserve the Schengen zone. “That’s why we’ve got to think about how we can supplant national authority with European authority,” Mr. Asselborn said.
Germany and France are also trying to drum up support for the plan despite the accompanying debate about sovereignty.
Policymakers in Berlin are discussing emergency backup plans in the event E.U. leaders fail to agree on the proposal. They’re doing so despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s committment to Schengen and rejection of any unilateral action, which she underscored at a congress of her Christian Democrats this week.
Government sources in Berlin say the country’s own borders must be secured and are paying close attention to the Netherlands, which is exploring the idea of creating a core Schengen area. The pressing question is, a German official told Handelsblatt, how much time remains for the European Union to come up with a pan-European solution.
Greece, in particular, has provoked a tougher stance from its European partners, pointing to the various difficulties of working with Frontex. Athens has still not made any official comment on the proposals to reinforce the agency. Government sources have pointed out that the country has already been forced to surrender much of its sovereignty to creditors as a result of its financial crisis and is now concerned about relinquishing control over protecting its borders at well.
The problem is, Greece’s external borders remain porous. Even though Greece tried to close off parts of its border to Turkey in 2012 with a fence, the frontier running across the Aegean Sea can’t be easily secured.
Once the refugees’ boats reach Hellenic waters, they can no longer be turned away. According to Frontex, more than 715,000 asylum-seekers have arrived this year on the Greek islands Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Kos, which are located directly next to Turkish territorial waters.
So a key to the problem is Turkey. And that is why Greece Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has invited Chancellor Merkel and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a summit on the island of Chios in early 2016.
About 1.55 million people have illegally crossed the E.U.’s external frontiers between Janaury and the start of December this year, according to Frontex. There were 269,000 illegal entries in November alone, marking a slight reduction from the previous month when 283,000 illegal entries were recorded.
“We want to, and will, appreciably reduce the number of refugees.”
Ms. Merkel has come under increasing pressure from her Christian Democrat party to take action after more than 1 million refugees arrived in Germany this year. Despite her refusal to put any kind of a cap on the number of refugees entering Germany, she did make some concessions, at least rhetorically, to hardliners in her party at a congress in Karlsruhe this week.
“We want to, and will, appreciably reduce the number of refugees,” Ms. Merkel told delegates, many of whom had demanded a change to her open-door refugee policy.
Even though the numbers of refugees arriving in Germany slipped recently, between 4,000 to 5,000 continue to arrive daily in the southern state of Bavaria.
Of the 1 million registered new immigrants in the country, many are believed to be registered twice. The interior ministry doesn’t expect all the refugees to remain in Germany but is concerned that there could be another million arriving in 2016.
Although Ms. Merkel once hailed as a “great success” the recent European Union agreement to distribute at least 160,000 refugees among member states, the distribution has proceeded at a snail’s pace and continues to face fierce resistance by Eastern European countries. Hungarian and Slovakia, in fact, have filed a lawsuit against the distribution plan at the European Court of Justice.
So far, only about 200 people have been sent from Greece and Italy to other E.U. member states. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that it could take more than eight years to distribute 160,000 refugees at the current sluggish pace.
Gerd Höhler is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Greece. Thomas Ludwig is one of Handelsblatt’s European Union correspondents. Jan Hildebrand covers politics in the Berlin bureau. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org