Sunday, 20 December 2015

Greece should embrace the European border agency

The European Commission last week unveiled its proposal for a European Border and Coast Guard to replace Frontex, the existing external borders agency, which operates on a voluntary basis. Incredible as it may seem, the 500 million-strong European Union does not have a single, federal authority managing its borders. Frontex depends on EU members volunteering staff and equipment, and EU states at external borders requesting them. The new agency would be the first significant expansion of federalism since the introduction of the euro.

Lesvos' memorial to the war dead for the period of the Balkan Wars, World War One and the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1912-1922) faces Turkey's shores, a reminder that it was the last of these three conflicts that hurt Greece. The memorial, possibly modeled on the Statue of Liberty, strengthens Lesvos' impression as the new Ellis Island. 

The new Agency is largely a response to the problems Greece and the EU encountered policing the waters of the eastern Aegean. The Greeks resisted invoking Rapid Interventions, which would have forced their EU partners to cough up more staff and equipment than they had volunteered, because they wanted to prove their ability to police sovereign borders. 

If adopted, the new Agency would be empowered in several ways: It could unilaterally intervene at the EU’s external borders if national authorities could not or would not. To do this, it would have a standing pool of 1,500 border guards and an equipment pool. (In contrast, Frontex requested 743 guest officers to work on the Greek border this year; it received 447). The Agency would be able to launch border operations jointly with third countries and would be empowered to deport irregular migrants.

Greek objections are understandable. The Greeks have lost sovereignty over financial and fiscal policy through the economic crisis. They do not wish to lose responsibility for border security as well – especially on so sensitive a border as that with Turkey, which has periodically been the focus of territorial disputes. Particularly galling is the idea of joint EU patrols with Turks and Makedonski, over which Greece will have no jurisdiction.

Artists painted this face on a disused storage facility overlooking the harbour of Lesvos in the summer of 2015 - a dewy-eyed Greece looking upon the newly exiled. 

Running against this concern is the greater concern that Europe has to act if it is to preserve its internal open borders regime under the Schengen Treaty. France, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and former Yugoslav Macedonia have all temporarily re-instated national borders.

The Greeks should see this as an opportunity for three reasons. First, it marks an abandonment of European hypocrisy on migration, by signalling that EU states are in this together. For years, the countries of central and northern Europe have allowed Greece and Italy to be the breakwaters for waves of refugees from the unstable, unfree or war-torn countries that surround the continent. Their voters have steadfastly refused an EU migration policy, fearing that it will involve annual immigration quotas. Eastern states rebuffed an attempt by Brussels to impose mandatory refugee quotas last May, and after the Paris attacks last month withdrew even from their voluntary quotas for refugee resettlement.

Three Eastern states’ position is doubly hypocritical. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were among the Soviet satellites which, after the fall of communism, produced the second-largest wave of economic migration to Europe in the last 20 years. In 2003, then still candidate countries whose EU membership was all but assured, they broke ranks with the majority European view against a second Gulf war, undermining both the basis for a common foreign and defence policy and destabilising Iraq – now one of the ten top refugee-producing countries.

The Greeks have never been exemplary Europeans, but they have traditionally been pro-Europe, and this is the second reason to embrace the Agency. Eurobarometer polls going back almost two decades show that they and the Cypriots are the strongest supporters of a European foreign and defence policy (precisely because of their concerns about Turkey, now the migration gateway into Europe). They elected to remain in the Eurozone despite seven years of austerity and an on-going recession. They could now put themselves at the forefront of this expansion of Brussels’ powers by demanding that the new Agency be headquartered in Athens.

The third and most important reason to embrace the new agency is that migration pressure on Europe is unlikely to stop anytime soon. This year has seen a twentyfold increase over last year of migrants and refugees crossing the Aegean – 800,000 and counting.

The reasons are both political and environmental. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says 13.9mn people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2014, bringing the global total to 59.5mn – the highest ever number. Three million of these became refugees – displaced outside their own country.

The UNHCR’s updated Mid-Year Trends report foresees that 2015 is “likely to exceed all previous years for global forced displacement.”

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres has struck a note of warning: “We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement, as well as the response required, is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.”

Fuelling many of the conflicts that produce refugees is global warming. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has published findings concluding “that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.”

In a paper published last year, five climate experts found that “anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 two to three times more likely than by natural variability alone.”

Contrary to America’s image as the nurturer of the dispossessed and persecuted, the EU has long been the destination for about two thirds of asylum seekers entering the developed world. Over the past two decades, over six million people have applied for asylum in the EU. But this trend is increasing.

In 1992 the EU faced its then-highest number of asylum applicants – 672,000 – after the fall of the communist east. Applications peaked again in 2001 at 424,000 after the end of the Yugoslav war. Last year, Europe (including the EU) received 714,000 applications, according to the UNHCR. In the first nine months of this year, EU states alone had received 892,000 and the number is expected to top a million by the end of the year, according to the European Asylum Support Office.

In contrast, US asylum applications last year were 134,000, and the Obama administration has pledged itself to taking in 20,000 refugees this year.

Europe is slowly awakening to the reality that it is The New Colossus. Failing states, failing environments and sectarian conflicts on its periphery will fuel migration flows for years to come. Greece, with its archipelago of islands virtually touching the Turkish coast, will remain the most attractive route for smugglers enabling their passage. For all these reasons, a European border agency is inevitable. The Greeks can embrace it, and use it to bury once and for all their image as the EU’s enfant terrible.

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