Reactions to the European Commission’s proposal to upgrade Frontex

The European Commission’s plan to upgrade Frontex from a European agency with 1 500 employees into a complimentary European border and coast guard with 10 000 armed guards by 2020 has caused mixed reactions in the European Union. Under the proposal, €12.6 bn would be allocated to Frontex between 2019 and 2027, with the agency supporting national border patrols as well as coast guards and operating at the command of national authorities. This attempt to curb migration has been criticized by among others the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) that accused the EU of effectively denying refugees the possibility to apply for asylum with the proposal. By forcing refugees to stay in Libya, the EU contributes to their ongoing suffering, ODI stated.

European Parliament factions split on proposal
The spokesperson for home affairs from the Socialists and Democrats in the Parliament, Birgit Sippel, welcomed Juncker’s push for a reform of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), but criticized the allocation of funds for European isolation. Instead, she called for more inner-European solidarity for the redistribution of refugees and European support for the processing of asylum applications.

The president of the conservative European People’s Party, Joseph Daul, welcomed the proposal by the Commission, stressing that the EPP had long advocated for a strengthened European border protection. Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP group in Parliament, added that “strict border controls are the precondition for everything”. According to him, “real refugees” can only be helped “if illegal migration will be stopped”.

The leader of the ALDE faction, Guy Verhofstadt, wants to see a “real European asylum and migration system, including a border and coast guard” so that the EU is not dependent on Erdogan anymore. In 2016 the EU struck a deal with the Turkish president on migration, paying Turkey up to €6 bn and effectively halting arrivals of refugees from Turkey.

Austria, Germany and France push for upgrading Frontex
In national capitals the idea of boosting Frontex received support from conservative Austrian Chancellor Kurz whose country is holding the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. In the last days he visited Europe’s capitals to hold preliminary talks with heads of government before Wednesday’s European summit in Vienna. Talking to Angela Merkel, who supports the plan, on Sunday, Kurz stressed the need for a reinforced European border protection agency with the goal that ships from North Africa do not disembark in the first place. After his meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron who agreed to upgrade Frontex, Kurz stated that Southern European countries deserved European solidarity with regard to the acceptance of refugees, but that they had to accept European support in exchange, alluding to the resistance among several member states to share sovereignty in their border protection.

The strongest opposition to Juncker’s plans came from Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán who suggested the EU would be sending “mercenaries” that would “let in the migrants”. He announced his opposition at Wednesday’s European summit, insisting that Hungary has a sovereign right and knows best how to protect her borders. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini denied the need for a stronger European border agency, insisting that Europe’s Southern countries needed more funds, but that deploying their national coast guard was sufficient. Doubts about the feasibility and the costs of upgrading Frontex were voiced by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte who called the proposal during a debate in the Dutch parliament “a little wild” and too expensive, stressing that member states would have to remain “primarily responsible” for border protection.

Italy remains sceptical
The countries with the most arrivals in Europe, Spain and Italy, are in a complex situation. Before Kurz visited Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez last week, Spain voiced reservations about an advanced Frontex mandate, citing concerns about foreign guards executing acts of sovereignty on Spanish territory. However, critics pointed out that the Spanish, as well as the Italian, government opposed Frontex agents supporting national agents with the registration process of asylum-seekers because it would prevent them from letting migrants move on to Northern European countries without prior registration. But Sánchez has come under pressure from the opposition and his own party for pursuing a more liberal approach towards refugees, as Spain is now taking in more refugees than Italy. After meeting Kurz, Sánchez signalled support for the proposal to upgrade Frontex.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Tuesday still refused to back the proposal. Disagreements remained about the redistribution of refugees between EU member states. While Italy insists on other countries accepting refugees from Italy, some EU countries have refused. Kurz stressed that countries like Austria, Germany and France already processed more asylum applications than Italy.

Regional disembarkation platforms still unfeasible
In the meantime, Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Austria’s far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, proposed to hold migrants on ships for several days while their chances of obtaining asylum are assessed. The proposal comes at a time where several EU member states and their non-EU neighbouring countries, as well as key members of the European Parliament, rejected the idea of setting up “regional disembarkation platforms” on their territories. In June EU leaders had agreed on exploring the idea of setting up these platforms that would serve as a point where migrants’ asylum applications would be processed and from where those eligible for international protection would be safely resettled. While Macron favours such platforms in Europe, the Italian government prefers to set them up in Northern Africa. On Tuesday Conte complained that the EU invested billions in Turkey, but had yet to invest similar amounts in North Africa.The Austrian Chancellor plans to make deals with North African transit countries in order to prevent further arrivals in Europe.