Friday

23rd Feb 2018

EU leaders to focus on protecting external borders

  • Fence around Hungary: 'Sealing oneself off is not a sensible option in the 21st century' Merkel warned (Photo: Freedom House)

EU leaders will again focus on migration at their last summit this year, starting Thursday (17 December). They will concentrate efforts on salvaging the passport-free Schengen zone, after 1 million people seeking refuge made it to the bloc so far this year.

The year has seen divisions deepen between frontline states in the south struggling to protect external borders and destination countries in the north that want to stop the flow, an initially more welcoming western Europe and more closed eastern member states.

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EU leaders meeting in Brussels will focus on implementing previous decisions, such as setting up hotspots, relocating refugees from other member states, fingerprinting new arrivals, and making sure that countries return people who were not granted asylum.

“No one should have illusions, the priority needs to be regaining control over our external borders,” an EU official said.

As thousands continue to arrive to Greece every day, reception capacities of hotspots in Italy and Greece are still in the low hundreds, while fingerprinting new people according to EU rules is still random.

Member states have been dragging their feet in living up to earlier commitments.

Some also argue that policies, such as relocation - distributing refugees among EU member states to share the burden - simply do not function.

“The whole system is designed in a way that is not working,” an EU diplomat said.

However, the draft conclusions of the summit, seen by EUobserver, warn grimly: “For the Schengen acquis to be preserved it is indispensable to regain control over the external borders.”

'Noble, amusing'

Leaders will have a chance to give their first reaction to the EU commission’s proposal on beefing up external border protection with a new border guard agency that could be deployed in emergency situations to border sections under pressure without the consent of the member state concerned.

The proposal faces resistance from countries, most vocally from Hungary and Poland, as it requires member states to partly give up a core national sovereignty - border protection.

However, the commission argues that quick EU help is needed in crisis situations even when the member state is reluctant or unable to act, as in the recent case of Greece.

Germany is throwing its weight behind the proposal, with chancellor Angela Merkel saying Wednesday that the 28 members of the bloc should work together toward a “common European and international answer to sustainably reduce the number of refugees.”

“Sealing oneself off is not a sensible option in the 21st century," she told parliament, referring to countries trying to stem the flow of people with fences.

“That's why we must resist the temptation to fall back on national solutions,” she was quoted as saying by AFP.

While some member states agree with sharing assets, others remain concerned about sharing power with Brussels, as common efforts have so far showed little results with countries resorting to unilateral measures.

“There is a good reason to go ahead and share responsibility,” an EU diplomat said before the summit.

He likened the sharing of capabilities to recent efforts by eurozone members to create common buffers against further economic crises.

“If countries are in trouble it is clear we need to have imput from the European side, some resources need to be shared,” he added.

Others argue it is too little, too late.

“The proposal is noble, imaginative, part of the commission’s effort to raise the spirits and make the end of the year more amusing,” quipped an official, arguing that measures are needed which can be implemented now and not in 2020, when the new EU borders agency would be fully operational.

“We need to deploy people there now, instantly,” said the official.

New EU border force: 'right to intervene'

New EU border force, to be proposed Tuesday, would have “right to intervene” if member states fail to protect external boundaries, a draft text, seen by EUobserver, says.

EU refugee relocation grinds to near halt

Two months after agreement, only 160 refugees have been relocated from Greece and Italy, with just two EU "hotspots" out of 12 up and running.

Sweden to tap Hungary's EU relocation quota

Sweden, which hosts the most asylum seekers per capita, has asked other EU states to relocate some people under a quota originally designed for Hungary.

Libya return demand triggers reintegration headaches

The UN migration agency (IOM) had planned to help return and reintegrate 5,000 people from Libya to their home countries, but ended up aiding 20,000 in 2017. The extra demand has piled on the pressure.

Frontex naval operation to look for 'foreign fighters'

The EU border and coast guard agency, or Frontex, has launched a new naval operation called Themis. The operation replaces its surveillance Triton mission but with a bigger emphasis on security and intelligence gathering.

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