Guarding Europe’s Unmanned Borders

September 5, 2016 Updated: September 5, 2016

From the moment the migrant deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey came into effect, observers asked how long it would take for the crisis to move elsewhere in the the Mediterranean. Now, with the Italian coastguard announcing on Aug. 30 that it had rescued around 6,500 people in just one day, the inevitable has come to pass. With the Aegean closed off, European leaders have dared migrants and refugees to travel instead via Libya and undertake a more dangerous trip across the Mediterranean to Italy. By ensuring those arriving from Africa and the Middle East could not pass through the Balkans on their way to Germany, Europe has instead offered Italy up as the new bottleneck.

That the Italians now find themselves on the front lines should come as nothing of a surprise, considering it has been over five years since a wave of Tunisian arrivals in Italy first showed how regional upheaval would lead many to Europe’s shores. Even now, the EU seems as unprepared as ever. Instead of contributing to a rational, effective collective response, the EU member states have resorted to myopic measures, typified by Viktor Orban’s upcoming referendum on blocking refugees from staying in Hungary.

Though frustrating, the impasse is the natural result of competing priorities. Where European policy tries desperately to uphold open borders and distribute the task of integration, nationalist-minded leaders work just as hard to keep new arrivals out. In the words of Elizabeth Collett of the Migration Policy Institute: “What we are in is the no man’s land of an incomplete system,” typified by negligent border control, uneven enforcement, and weak institutions. Frontex, Europe’s external border agency, is nominally entrusted with promoting, coordinating, and developing European border management and helping national authorities work together. Instead, the organization is chronically underfunded and works within the constraints of a limited mandate, leaving it reliant on member state resources and their willingness to cooperate.

In the absence of a coherent European border control regime, Germany, France, and Austria have resorted to temporarily reintroducing pre-Schengen border controls as a response to the migrant crisis (in the German and Austrian case) and the threat of terrorism (in the French). One small problem: these controls, thrown up in haste after years of free movement rank as more of a symbolic gesture. France, even in the face of clear and present danger, no longer possesses the infrastructure to screen those entering the country.

The migrant crisis, as bad as it has been, has simply unmasked a fundamentally flawed system. Though European member states entrust their collective borders to the EU, the bloc lacks the capacity to police them in anything more than an arbitrary manner. That dysfunction extends to its agencies as well. In its 2016 Risk Analysis Report, Frontex lamented the lack of coordination between Frontex, Europol, and Interpol in mutual database access and the lack of coherence among various national border guard agencies in terms of missions and terms of engagement.

Over the long term, the silver lining of the migrant crisis may be that it compels the European Union to build Frontex into a truly European border force. The debate is still out on the morality of welcoming refugees and migrants, but other threats—the surreptitious entry of militants from abroad and rampant black markets in drugs and contraband—unquestionably need to be addressed. In the absence of a functional border control agency, both criminal and terrorist organizations have found smuggling across European borders a reliable way of securing a steady cash flow.

Not only are European citizens linked to Islamic State returning to their home countries using crowded migration routes, as Europol explains in its most recent European Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, but the smuggling of guns from the Balkans and North Africa also continues unabated. Even as both France and Germany grow increasingly concerned about the links between cigarette smuggling and terrorist financing, the European Commission decided to drop an anti-trafficking agreement with tobacco company Philip Morris International over compliance concerns with the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), whose article 5.3 advises policymakers against interacting with industry sources.

Slovak participants in the debate, for example, made clear that the EU had no “alternative mechanisms” to replace the tool it has now given up. In general, the FCTC’s policy recommendations (plain packaging and increased taxes among them) have been accused of augmenting black market profits and encouraging smugglers, which may explain why the Convention has struggled to find the 40 ratifying countries it needs to enter into force.

That debate, in some respects, typifies the EU’s chronic inability to balance competing priorities. If the EU is to get a grip on its porous borders, it requires first a unity of purpose and then the power to execute its decisions beyond Brussels. One promising development would be the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard with a strengthened mandate that includes “monitoring and supervisory responsibilities, as well as the capacity to intervene in urgent situations,” even when a Member State “is unable or unwilling to act.” The proposal still has to pass, but it does signal willingness to establish a comprehensive system for the movement of people and goods across Europe’s external borders. Without that line of defense, there is no way to realistically preserve a key pillar of the European project—free movement inside the Schengen zone.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.