Last Tuesday 15 December the European Commission adopted a groundbreaking proposal for the establishment of a powerful European Border and Coast Guard to ensure strong management of the Schengen area external borders and better administration of immigration flows. According to the Commission, this Guard should be able to intervene with or without the consent of the concerned member state. The target is to effectively secure the external borders, so as the free movement of people to continue completely unhindered within the Schengen area.
The Schengen area agreement was signed in 1985 by five EU member states and since then it has been endorsed by all but four EU countries. It provided for an internally borderless area of free movement of people. Britain and Ireland chose not to participate, while Bulgaria and Romania applied but were rejected and still are candidate countries. There are also other European countries, non EU members, which participate in it (Switzerland, Norway and Iceland).
Timmermans puts it bluntly
Commission first Vice-President Frans Timmermans during a Press conference on Tuesday afternoon said that this new Border and Coast Guard will be able to take action, “even against the will of member states” and he added that “this may not happen very often”. Timmermans is well-known about his blunt statements. This time he used this tough phrasing for obvious reasons. He knows that despite the urgency and the political impasse with the immigration problem, this proposal for central action “against the will of member states” is a step too far, and the Commission first Vice President wants to make sure everybody understands that the Commission is adamant about it.
Of course the Commission proposal has to be approved by the European Parliament and the Council. As things stand now the Legislative appears rather ready to endorse with a majority vote this new and powerful Border and Coast Guard. In the European Council however the Commission proposal has to be approved in unanimity. Only then the European Union will be legitimized to send Border and Coast Guard teams to a country without her consent.
There are more tough proposals
There are more tough items in the Commission proposal though. A “European Return Office” will be established to allow for the deployment of “European Return Intervention Teams composed of escorts, monitors and return specialists”. These officials will work to “effectively return illegally staying in the EU third country nationals. A standard European travel document for return will ensure a wider acceptance of returnees by third countries”. One can easily imagine that all that would very likely entail the use of strong police action or even the deployment of military forces. To be noted that the national border and coastal guards, which will make up the EU Guard, are military bodies.
The Commission also proposes that the EU citizens themselves would undergo tougher checks and controls while entering or exiting the Schengen area. “A targeted modification of the Schengen Borders Code will introduce mandatory systematic checks of EU citizens at external land, sea, and air borders. Obligatory checks on EU citizens will be introduced against databases such as the Schengen Information System, the Interpol Stolen and Lost Travel Documents Database and relevant national systems, in order to verify that persons arriving do not represent a threat to public order and internal security”.
Scrutinizing the EU citizens too
The proposal also reinforces “the need to verify the biometric identifiers in the passports of EU citizens in case of doubts on the authenticity of the passport or on the legitimacy of the holder. Checks will now also be mandatory when exiting the European Union”. In short all those measures are reminiscent of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ nightmare. For one thing who will “verify that persons arriving do not represent a threat to public order and internal security”. And mind you this is about EU citizens not immigrants or refugees.
Reportedly, the driving powers behind this new Commission initiative are Germany and France, the two leading EU member states, which make up the authoritative ‘directorate’ of the EU. Understandably, despite the fact that urgent and vigorous action is needed in view of the unseen before immigration flows in the EU, there are member states which appear very skeptical about the institutionalization of a centrally controlled Border and Coast Guard.
New sovereignty concessions
The whole thing comes to the concession of a critical part of national sovereignty to Brussels. Especially the advertised by Timmermans Guard interference ‘against the will of the concerned member state’, will be very difficult for a number of European capitals to swallow. As a matter of fact Greece, the country that is currently accused by everybody for letting the immigrant flows choke Europe, found it very difficult to even ask for help from Frontex. This last European service intervenes unarmed in the supervision of external EU borders, after the concerned member state asks for it. Compared with the new heavily armed Guard, Frontex is an easily palatable Brussels scheme that the Eurosceptic political groups have tolerated.
However, as they say every crisis, along with the problems it creates it also offers opportunities. In this case, if this new Commission initiative is endorsed by the Parliament and the Council will constitute a giant step forward, towards the political union of the EU. The problem is thought that the Eurosceptic political forces may use it, as an additional argument against the entire EU project, on the grounds of it being an unacceptable compromise of national sovereignty.
Who will be the first
In any case the first country to be targeted by the new Guard will be Greece, the member state that made this change to be considered as necessary. The country however is haunted by a large number of EU interventions in its economic and social policies. Now an unsolicited Brussels involvement, accompanied by a possible cooperation between EU and Turkish coast guards in the shores of the Aegean Islands, may be the last drop in an already full glass. Athens may explode under additional pressures from Berlin and Paris, over an issue touching not only its national sovereignty but Greece’s national integrity too.
In any case the Commission is now promoting its plan and yesterday Wednesday 16/12/2015 presented it in the European Parliament. The crash test for it though will be today and tomorrow at the European Council meeting of the 28 heads of government and states.