Towards a Federal EU Border and Coast Guard

The European refugee crisis has laid bare the many challenges of guarding the external borders of the EU. Responsibility for guarding these territorial external borders falls largely to the member states holding them, whose resources are often limited and sometimes badly organised. The European Commission has presented a proposal to address this dilemma: a European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG). Seen as a flagship initiative, the EBCG would strengthen the EU Borders Agency (Frontex) mandate to coordinate and support member states in their border control and coast guard activities.

At first sight, this proposal apears to be radical. The Commission proposes that the new agency send European teams of national border and coast guards to a member state facing systemic difficulties in complying with EU border standards – without its consent. This ‘right to intervene’ has proved to be one of the more controversial components of the EBCG initiative; it remains to be seen whether this aspect will survive the ongoing negotiations.

Even if adopted in its current form, the EBCG would still leave a number of questions unanswered. Critically, the new agency would remain dependent on EU member states’ political willingness and structural capacity to cooperate in practice. It would not have its own EU border staff but rather rely on seconded teams of national border and coast guards. This constitutes a key limitation. Enhancing the funding and powers of Frontex without permanently addressing this dependence on national contributions and structures will be of limited value in the long run.

Guarding the EU’s frontiers in the Mediterranean Sea is a case in point. In recent years there have been numerous ‘localised migration crises’ that have been dealt with in piecemeal fashion, mostly by the member states directly concerned. Frontex has often found itself at the eye of the storm, without being granted either the means or the necessary powers to ensure a consistent implementation of EU external border rules by all relevant national authorities. This has taken place alongside the parallel, yet controversial, involvement of defence actors in countering irregular immigration and maritime surveillance, such as the EU military operation in the Mediterranean, EUNAVFOR MED.

The most significant challenges stemming from this scattered and multi-actor picture are twofold: first, the predominance of ad hoc (crisis-led), uncoordinated and unilateral policy responses; and second, an unclear sharing of responsibilities and lack of effective monitoring mechanisms.

Previous CEPS research has recommended a paradigm shift in this discussion through the setting up a truly European border authority. This would mean the development of a federal agency with its own personnel and assets to guard the EU’s external borders, with particular attention paid (in its preliminary phase) to the southern maritime frontiers. This federal agency would have vastly superior means to the frontier states, thus potentially guaranteeing better protection and a uniform application of EU laws and relevant international standards across all external borders.

The setting up of such an EU authority would of course open up a number of far-reaching dilemmas that call for detailed exploration. During the coming months CEPS will undertake an in-depth examination of the legal, ethical, political and practical challenges – and consider possible ways to overcome them – to go beyond the coordination of national efforts and towards the creation of a single European border and coast guard mechanism.

Senior Research Fellow and Head of Justice and Home Affairs Unit