A 10,000-strong EU border guard force with extensive powers to bear arms and deploy inside and beyond the bloc is to be set up by 2020, according to draft plans that highlight Europe’s toughening approach to migration.
The proposed cadre would intercept new arrivals, stop unauthorised travel between EU states and accelerate the return to their home countries of people whose asylum claims have failed, according to the European Commission document seen by the Financial Times.
The blueprint is due to be announced on Wednesday in commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s annual “state of the union” address, amid criticism from rights groups that the EU is turning itself into “fortress Europe” because its members cannot agree on a common migration policy.
The border guard plan comes after Italy’s new government refused to take in several boatloads of rescued migrants over the summer, underscoring the scant progress made on EU plans to redistribute people among its member states and to third countries in regions such as north Africa.
One EU diplomat supportive of the border guard plan described it as a “moment of truth”, if Europe wanted to preserve the integrity of its Schengen passport-free travel zone covering 26 EU and non-EU states.
A senior EU official said: “We want to federalise external border protection as much as possible and help out countries on the front line.”
The force will have wide-ranging authority to tackle perceived shortcomings in the EU’s migration policy, according to the draft paper. The guards will be tasked to protect “the union external borders, prevent secondary movements [between EU countries] and significantly step up the effective return of irregular migrants”, the document says, and that the force is a response to “the demographic dynamics and instability in Europe's neighbourhood”.
The 10,000-strong corps is due to be in place by 2020, the document says, which the commission indicated in June. The EU guards will provisionally have the power to use armed force to police member state frontiers and to deploy in states outside the bloc — with the consent of the third country governments concerned. The European Border and Coast Guard agency — under which the frontier force will operate — would gain enhanced powers to exchange information with third countries in an effort to boost migrant returns.
The border force is likely to face questions from both rights groups and “frontline” Mediterranean states that under the plans will host many of the guards and are keen to preserve sovereignty of their own frontier policing efforts.
One diplomat from a Mediterranean country said the plan was a “doubled-edged sword”.
“It’s good to have the structure and greater strength,” the diplomat said. “But there’s always the concern that federal control will take over national competencies.”
The rise of anti-establishment political movements has tipped EU governments into a renewed sense of crisis over migration, even though arrival numbers in the bloc remain a fraction of 2015-16 highs. The imminent offensive on Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province by President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces has also raised fears of a flight of refugees to Turkey and on to the EU.
Plans agreed by EU leaders in June to send migrants rescued at sea to “controlled centres” in the EU and “disembarkation platforms” in third countries remain at an early stage.
Under the deal, rescued people who had already set foot on the bloc’s territory would be taken to a controlled centre for “rapid and secure processing” of their asylum claims. Those still at sea would be sent to disembarkation platforms outside the EU, where they might be able to apply for asylum.
Diplomats said no state had yet offered to host either facility, which critics say shows the plans are unworkable for legal, logistical and political reasons.
The commission is also expected to offer a more positive narrative on migration by pressing ahead with plans to promote private sector investment in Africa. Diplomats said it wanted to renew efforts previously scuppered by member states to clear more paths for legal migration, such as offering long-term work visas to skilled workers.
“Now we are taking action on the external borders and there is no crisis moment, it is time to talk about it again,” the senior EU official said.
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