Monday

14th Jun 2021

EU plans to lift internal border checks with focus on IT

  • "It is not a policy announcement, it is not an objective, it is happening," said Schinas (l) of the IT plans for border management (Photo: European Union, 2021)

The European Commission has cemented its desire to create a digital-like 'Fortress Europe', with the EU border agency Frontex playing a key role.

On Wednesday (2 June), it unveiled a 25-page strategy paper on getting EU states to lift internal border checks and controls throughout the Schengen area - which is composed of all EU countries, except Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Cyprus and Ireland.

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"We will have very shortly the most sophisticated external border management system in the world," European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas told reporters.

The head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, made similar comments earlier this year.

The Warsaw-based agency is next year set to host the central unit of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias).

Etias is a largely-automated IT system created to identify irregular migration and other security risks posed by visa-exempt visitors traveling to Europe.

"That is something that will revolutionise border guard work," said Leggeri in February, who qualifies Frontex as a law-enforcement agency.

"It will be necessary that our own Frontex agents 'category one' (armed border guards) have total access to all databases of the European Union," he added.

Frontex's budget is around €6bn spread out over the next seven years.

Etias will become operational next year. So too will the so-called entry/exit system, which aims to track visiting non-European nationals.

The Eurodac finger print database will seek to stop unwanted migrants from travelling around the EU.

And a revised Schengen Information System, a massive EU police database, is set to be completed within the next six months.

The focus on external border security is paramount, blending in a pre-screening proposal in the EU's migration and asylum pact to expedite unwanted entries.

Plans are also underway for Frontex to carry out joint operations with other non-European countries, aside from those already based in the Western Balkans.

'Alternatives' to border checks

Changes are also coming internally, in what Schinas described as "alternatives" to internal border checks.

Among the ideas is a legislative proposal for a new EU police cooperation code, set to be unveiled later this year.

The aim is to ease police access to fingerprints, DNA and vehicle-registration held by other EU states. This may also include photos and driving licences.

The commission is also preparing legislation to get more police data on people flying within the EU's Schengen area.

"These are an important part of securing our citizens in an area of free movement," said EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johannson.

Wednesday's strategy and security-centric focus aims to convince EU states internal checks will no longer be required.

The commission has for the past few years been at pains to stop national governments from introducing them.

Four years ago, it had announced an end to the prolongation of internal border controls. The Brussels-executive was roundly ignored.

The internal border controls have been a permanent feature since 2015, often on the pretext of terrorism threats or migratory movements.

While they are supposed to be used as a last resort and must be "proportional and necessary", the evidence presented in their reports to the European Commission has been scant.

The commission cannot veto a state's decision to impose an internal border control, introduced almost 300 times since 2015. But it can issue a negative opinion.

Asked if it had ever done so, Schinas didn't know.

"I cannot offer a reply just like this," he said.

Instead, the European Commission now plans to revise the Schengen Borders code later this year.

The current code is used whenever an individual state faces a threat.

The revised code seeks to impose new rules whenever numerous states face the same issue, similar to the pandemic-driven border closures.

Investigation

Revealed: little evidence to justify internal border checks

EUobserver has obtained notification reports from five European states explaining why they want to impose internal border checks. Few provide any substantial evidence to justify the controls, putting the European Commission in a difficult position to end them.

Analysis

Frontex: Europe's new law enforcement agency?

The past 18 months have seen the EU's border agency Frontex morph into a law enforcement as it steps up efforts to crack down on crime and terrorism.

EU defends Spain, after thousands enter Ceuta enclave

Spain has warned of a "serious crisis" for Europe after some 6,000 people entered Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco. The European Commission has voiced its support for Spain as diplomatic tensions with Rabat heat up.

Frontex 'own worst enemy', says EU auditor

A special audit on how Frontex supports member states in cracking down on "illegal migration and cross-border crimes" has painted a bleak picture of an EU agency, whose annual budget rocketed from €19m in 2006 to €900m in 2021.

EU sends mixed message on Turkey as 'safe' haven

Greece has declared Turkey a safe country for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia. But the European Commission appears to have shed doubt on the claim, saying individual cases still need to be assessed.

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