Monday

11th Dec 2023

Opinion

Will Nato become a transatlantic Frontex?

  • Given the US' influence in Nato, the Trump administration’s priorities may come to dominate the alliance's agenda. (Photo: DVIDSHUB)

Donald Trump’s recent speech at the Nato headquarters during the alliance’s gathering of heads of state and government received much attention and criticism.

The primary causes of consternation were Trump’s calls for higher defence spending and his refusal to reaffirm the principle of collective defence. However, one sentence went largely unnoticed.

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  • Trump said "the Nato of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration" (Photo: Holger Vaga)

During his speech, Trump commented that "the Nato of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration".

He said this after talking about how thousands of people are "pouring into" Nato countries without being properly identified.

The statement came in the context of a hard-line domestic narrative on migration in the US, and can hardly be seen as an isolated remark.

It was not the first time Nato has been called on to conduct migration-related activities – for instance, Nato ships were deployed to the Aegean Sea in February 2016 following a request by Germany, Greece and Turkey.

Nevertheless, this mission is limited in scope, with a mandate only to support Frontex (the EU border control agency) and the Greek and Turkish Coast Guards by conducting reconnaissance, monitoring, and surveillance of irregular migration routes.

Trump's statement called for much greater engagement, and perhaps even a central role for the alliance in countering irregular migration to Europe and North America.

By establishing a clear link between terrorism and migration in his speech, Trump qualified migration as a major security threat that requires joint military action in order to be mitigated.

Many European governments, which are keen to reduce migratory flows to the EU, may quietly welcome such an approach, as they themselves have not only agreed to Nato's operation in the Aegean Sea, but also deployed an EU-led counter-smuggling mission in the Central Mediterranean (EUnavfor Med Operation Sophia).

Quiet acceptance

However, more Nato involvement in such maritime activities would come with caveats.

Trump’s insistence on allies to “pay their fair share” may lead to uncomfortable deals in which the US makes its support for migration-related efforts conditional upon the receipt of some sort of compensation.

It would also give the US a strong voice in how the operations are conducted, and what objectives they seek to address.

Given Trump’s blurry distinction between migrants and terrorists, the US’ primary concern in the Mediterranean is the use of migratory routes by terrorists pretending to be refugees. In fact, this was already an issue of concern for the Obama administration, though not a prominent one.

Trump’s call for a refocused transatlantic alliance may thus result in diplomatic pressure for a Nato mission to intercept and screen asylum seekers before granting them entry.

This would represent a clear break with the current practices – not only in terms of the actors concerned but also the procedure.

The involvement of non-EU military personnel in determining the admissibility of asylum seekers would raise several legal questions, not least regarding the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This provision forbids the forcible expulsion or return of an asylum seeker to a territory in which their life or freedom are in danger.

Of course, Nato member states would need to agree on any joint migration-related action. But given the disproportionate weight that the US holds in Nato, the Trump administration’s priorities would likely dominate the agenda.

US dominance

If Nato does take on a larger role in policing migratory routes, the US would have a much greater influence on EU migration policy, which would complicate an already deeply divided political map on this issue.

Member states seeking more solidarity-based solutions would be even more isolated than is already the case.

The G7 summit in Taormina, Italy, that immediately followed Trump’s Nato debut, provided a stark example of how the Trump administration’s priorities can affect multilateral discussions.

Italy attempted to draw attention to the high number of irregular arrivals it receives by symbolically hosting the gathering in Sicily, and tried to convince attending leaders to open more legal channels for migration such as refugee resettlement. Yet these efforts fell flat.

The G7 leaders’ statement focused mainly on border control and returns, without even mentioning resettlement.

Nato support for EU border security operations can be valuable, for example when it comes to the exchange of background information for the purpose of security screening asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, European policymakers should be wary of any shift in Nato’s focus towards collective border control.

Although migration is a challenge that can partially be addressed with the support of military assets, it is not a battle than can be “won” with military might.

Further securitisation of migration management will lead to more fragmentation and the criminalisation of migrant flows, and more human suffering as a result.

Only long-term approaches to the root causes of migration and smart legal channels that acknowledge the inevitability of human mobility will succeed in reducing irregular flows.

Marco Funk is a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the EPC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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