Billy Perrigo, Time, September 12, 2018
The European Union will deploy 10,000 armed border guards to tackle unlawful migration by 2020, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced in a speech on Wednesday.
The force will have the power to use armed force on the E.U.’s external borders, according to a draft of the document reported Monday by the Financial Times.
The proposal for a heavily beefed-up E.U. border force is also likely to be highly controversial — with rights groups who decry the construction of a “Fortress Europe,” and with political parties who resent centralized European institutions accruing more power.
The proposal is actually to significantly strengthen an existing force, rather than to create a totally new one. The body, Frontex, currently employs just 1,500 border guards and works alongside national border control agencies.
According to the Financial Times, under the new proposal the force will not only gain members but also increased powers. The document suggests it will be deployed on the E.U.’s external borders and also have powers to prevent “secondary movements” between E.U. nations, as well as “step up the effective return of irregular migrants” to countries outside of the bloc. These are powers long demanded by anti-migrant voices in the E.U.
It is unclear whether the plans mean borders between member states will also be policed. If they are, it would mark a seismic change to one of the E.U.’s founding principles of free movement.
The Financial Times, breaking the news of Juncker’s plan before the annoucement, quoted one E.U. diplomat saying that it would be the “moment of truth” for the Schengen area, a zone covering 26 states in mainland Europe where cross-border travel is allowed without passport checks.
The Schengen area is beloved by Europeans of most political leanings, but it has come under pressure for its role in allowing migrants to move from one country to another. Juncker’s proposal is an attempt to safeguard free movement by bolstering oversight of who is allowed to enter Europe in the first place. “A Europe without internal borders can only exist if it has functioning external borders,” Austria’s right-wing Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told the New York Times in July.
The E.U.’s previous attempts to tackle the migration crisis suggest how difficult it is to reach bloc-wide cooperation on such a politically sensitive issue. Not a single state has volunteered to host migrant-processing facilities, a core measured agreed by E.U. leaders in June. Those plans involved building “controlled centres” to process migrants inside member states and “disembarkation platforms” in non-member states where rescued migrants could be taken.
But, says Matthew Goodwin, the author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, the E.U. is under pressure to reassure its citizens first and foremost. “The big challenge facing the European Union is how to give citizens a stronger feeling of both physical and cultural security,” he tells TIME. “We know from E.U.-wide surveys that public concerns about immigration and terrorism have increased dramatically, and that these worries about identity and security are now also bleeding into how people think about the E.U. more generally. This is the big risk for the E.U. — that by failing to bolster people’s sense of security it will further erode support for the E.U. project more generally.”