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The Warsaw-based agency Frontex is an EU “practitioner body” that contributes to the implementation of EU policies concerning external borders’ protection. Although its mandate was significantly expanded in 2016, the Agency’s potential remains underexploited for political reasons.

The EU Agency Frontex was set up in 2004 to assist Member States in protecting the EU’s external borders, the security and functioning of which is guaranteed by the Agency.
Although the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital within the EU has been provided for since its creation, it was not until 1985, when the Schengen area was established, that it was anchored in European law. The Convention implementing the Schengen area, signed in 1990, entered into force in 1995. The area comprises 22 EU Member States, with Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Cyprus also working to prepare for accession. Conversely, the United Kingdom and Ireland have decided against such a system. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have signed the Convention, while Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City State are de facto members.

In the years that followed, the EU institutions recognised that strengthening external border controls was of utmost importance for the EU’s internal security. The External Border Practitioners Common Unit set up in early 2000 to implement borders’ control operations was replaced in 2004 by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, better known as Frontex.

As the surveillance and management of the external borders is the responsibility of the Member States, Frontex’s role focused on monitoring the implementation of the relevant European policies and ensuring effective and uniform checks on persons at the EU’s external borders. The Agency’s main tasks are therefore to manage migration (legal and illegal) and prevent cross-border crime.

Frontex, which is granted juridical personality in all EU countries, is mainly funded by subsidies from the general EU budget and contributions from Member States. The budget for 2019 is €330M.

A European Border and Coast Guard Agency

In the wake of the migration crisis that severely affected the EU in 2015, Frontex’s tasks and mandate were revised to better adapt the Agency to the challenges it faces.
The crisis has shown that the Agency was unable to effectively address the increasing security challenges on the EU doorstep, mainly due to political and financial constraints. On the one hand, Frontex did not have its own staff or assets and had to rely on the scarce human and material resources of the Member States. On the other hand, Frontex was not allowed to take independent repatriation or border management measures, but had to respond to requests from national governments.

The European Border and Coast Guard was established in October 2016. It consists of member states’ authorities responsible for border management and of the Agency with the same name – still known as Frontex.

The Agency’s main tasks are:

  • to contribute to effective border control at EU external borders, including the facilitation of legal border crossings and the detection of cross-border crime;
  • to provide technical and operational assistance to participating countries through joint operations and rapid border interventions. This includes the support of SAR operations for persons in distress at sea, which may arise during border surveillance missions;
  • to perform risk analyses concerning both internal security and the threats that may affect the EU’s external borders;
  • cooperation with non-EU countries and non-Schengen associated countries, focusing on neighbouring countries and countries of origin and/or transit of illegal immigration.;
  • to carry out a vulnerability assessment concerning the capacity and readiness of participating countries;
  • to organise, coordinate and conduct return operations and interventions.

Despite these tasks resembling the original list of tasks, Frontex’s mandate has been considerably extended and the Agency has received additional resources to better fulfil its tasks.

Frontex’s Joint Operation POSEIDON SEA, which includes the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea and Crete, has the task of assisting the EU’s frontline states in border surveillance. (Photo: Frontex)

In a sort of reversed trend compared to the past, the new Frontex can pledge its own assets to frontline member states in need, as it has been granted the capacity to lease or purchase its own equipment. To better support the Agency in procurement procedures, the European Commission proposed to increase Frontex funding by 34.6% in 2020, to €420.6M.

To ameliorate the Agency’s efficiency, EU institutions agreed on the need to provide it with more human resources. About 1,000 additional employees are expected to join the 700 people-strong staff working in Warsaw’s headquarters by 2021. An additional 250 people will be recruited to manage the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), a fully electronic system aimed at keeping track of visa-exempt visitors entering the Schengen Area, expected to be in place by 2021.

However, the setup of a new standing corps between 2021 and 2027 is probably one of Frontex’s most important achievements. The number of border coast guards and seconded national experts will increase from 5,000 people in 2021 to 10,000 in 2027. A first revision is expected by December 2023 to verify whether the staff and composition of the standing corps is consistent with Frontex requirements and objectives.

These additional recruitments will ameliorate the efficiency and efficacy of the Agency’s response to crises, as they will also feed up the rapid reaction teams, currently consisting of 1,500 people – a new category of operational staff swiftly redeployable in Rapid Border Intervention missions to support migration management support teams. Up until now, the Agency has relied on the personnel and equipment provided by the Member States in accordance with the list that was agreed during the regular consultations with Frontex.

Frontex Operational Cycle and Missions

Following a request from a member state, Frontex can launch a joint operation to solve a crisis situation threatening EU external borders. These operations, involving personnel pledged by member states and coordinated by Frontex, can take place at sea, land or air borders. Regardless of the operational environment and the scope, the operational cycle always includes a planning phase (including intelligence gathering and analysis), an implementation phase and an evaluation phase.

Frontex usually performs border control by carrying out checks at border crossing points of entry to the EU (such as sea ports, road and rail points, airports) and border surveillance. Frontex’s staff can carry out a broad range of missions, from passport checks to the monitoring of pollution and illegal fishing.

The annual European Border and Coast Guard Day is the Agency’s flagship event. In 2019, Frontex hosted 600 European border and coast guard representatives from more than 30 countries in Arlamow near Poland’s border with Ukraine. EBCG Day presents Europe’s border-guard community with an opportunity to share experiences and best practice. (Photo: Frontex)

To date, the Agency leads five naval operations (Poseidon in Greece; Minerva, Hera and Indalo in Spain; Themis in Italy) and assists the Western Balkans in the management of land borders. In all cases, and as usually happens with Frontex missions, deployed officers support frontline countries in the management of illegal migration and in the fight against cross-border crimes. These include human smuggling and trafficking, but also the confiscation of goods subject to customs duties, weapons and drugs.
Frontex’s vessels participating in operations Poseidon and Themis are all equipped to perform Search and Rescue (SAR) missions. According to the new regulation, the Agency is obliged to provide technical and operational assistance to member or non-member states should the need of SAR operations arise during border surveillance. Once the rescue operation is completed, migrants are disembarked and handed over to national authorities for identification and registration. Frontex assists both Italian and Greek authorities in readmission operations from hotspots.

Frontex’s Role in Return Procedures

Frontex also plays other important roles in migration enforcement, as it coordinates return-related activities. In addition to IT and technical support, the Agency can assist member states in organising and coordinating national, joint or collecting return operations concerning irregular migrants, overstayers and failed asylum seekers.

Rapid Border Intervention

Since 2016, Frontex can launch a rapid border intervention, always following a request from a member state. The Agency’s executive director decides on the mission within two working days from receipt of the request, which must include a description of the situation, possible aims and envisaged needs.

Once Frontex and the host member state have agreed on operational plans (within three working days of the decision), the Executive Director shall request member states (written request) to immediately deploy the required staff previously identified in the Rapid Reaction Pool and shall also notify any request for additional staff. The redeployment must take place within five working days of the approval of the operational plans and, for additional staff, within seven working days. The members of the Frontex teams perform tasks and exercise powers under instructions from and in the presence of border guards of the state requesting assistance.

The Crucial Role of Intelligence

Monitoring and risk analysis are at the core of the Agency’s missions, as they represent the core of the whole operational cycle.

Frontex provides strategic risk analysis to advise high-level decision-makers on patterns and trends in irregular migration and cross-border criminal activities affecting the EU and the Schengen area. The analyses are shared with Member States and EU institutions.
The Agency’s activities are all risk-analysis driven, as this approach allows resources to be optimised and the effectiveness of interventions to be maximised. Thus, analyses concerning the trends in the medium and long term are coupled with operational analysis, based on daily developments in the areas of joint operations. Specific assessments are made before, during and following Frontex operations.

The new Regulation also mandates the Agency to carry out continuous vulnerability assessments of States’ border management capacities, resulting in annual baseline assessments. The monitoring concerns equipment, systems, capabilities, resources, infrastructure and personnel, but also specific assessments stimulated by the identification of the challenges ahead.

Information sharing with dedicated EU and non-EU intelligence networks, as well as with relevant organisations such as Europol, is paramount for the protection of external borders and the Schengen area. It is therefore at the core of Frontex activities concerning cross-border crime, along with risk analysis. The Agency shares the intelligence gathered at the borders with relevant national authorities and European agencies. This includes information on persons suspected of involvement in criminal activities. Frontex also formulates risk mitigation measures to be implemented together with member states. As for migration, these can receive operational and technical support when needed.

The migration crisis in 2015 led to Frontex being strengthened in financial and personnel terms. (Photo: Frontex)

Assessing Frontex’s Efficiency

Terrorist attacks and the waves of irregular migration that have been afflicting the EU since the 2010s have openly demonstrated the extent of Europe’s lack of coherence in protecting its external borders. Since then, the EU has taken some countermeasures, such as strengthening Frontex missions, approving a new entry/exit system for non-EU citizens, and enhancing cooperation within the EU on information exchange and interoperability of EU databases. In this new framework, Frontex is responsible for close surveillance of the external borders and cooperation with the Member States to quickly identify and address security threats to Europe.

Nevertheless, the lack of a clear common strategy, as is also the case in other EU policies, combined with the general reluctance to promote cooperation on the management of the EU’s external borders, has hampered the effectiveness of EU-led activities in general and Frontex-led activities in particular.

As the Schengen area was being created, the Member States enthusiastically welcomed the abolition of internal borders and the establishment of the four fundamental freedoms that this would entail. The enlargement of the internal area of the Member States beyond their national borders has made intra-EU exchanges of goods, persons and services faster, easier and cheaper.

However, Member States have failed to take into account the consequences for European security. No concrete measures were taken to strengthen external borders to compensate for the dismantling of internal ones. Worse still, the competences of the EU Member States at the external borders were not adapted to the new circumstances. Consequently, the area of freedom, security and justice was placed under the responsibility of the European Commission (and thus managed by the EU), while the control of the EU’s external borders remained under the purview of the frontline countries.

This situation may seem logical at first glance, since the EU’s external borders are also the external borders of the individual front member states. However, this concurrent jurisdiction is a major obstacle to the creation of strong and effective EU border protection.
It is a well-known and often repeated mantra: EU Member States are not prepared to transfer part of their sovereignty in the management of external borders to the EU and thus continue to relegate Frontex to a subordinate role – supporting Member States in their activities and harmonising training and requirements.

As far as material is concerned, Frontex remains heavily dependent on the equipment pledged by the Member States. The Agency received its own 16 patrol cars only in May 2019 and will use them as mobile offices for the registration of migrants. However, it is reported that no other procurement procedures have yet been completed. Meanwhile, a Leonardo FALCO EVO UAV has been participating in Frontex missions in the Mediterranean since December 2018.

As regards strategic planning, the reform has not strengthened Frontex’s independence from the Member States, which are still central in decision-making. The Agency finally has executive powers, but it is still subject to approval by the Member States, which will use it to organise operations. In other words, Frontex can be prevented from using its resources and expertise in the event of a crisis if a Member State refuses to grant the necessary authorisations. In fact, rapid intervention can only be initiated if a Member State so requires.

Concerning returns, the Agency has gained new tasks, but cannot autonomously organise return operations to third countries nor deploy its management personnel in controlled centres (hotspots).

Final Remarks

In its 15 years of existence, Frontex has acquired highly relevant capabilities and skills in external border management. The Agency has extensively supported EU institutions and member states in implementing EU policies on migration and cross-border crime.
Frontex is at the forefront of tackling irregular migration, especially since the peak of the crisis in 2015. The Agency is involved in various maritime missions with SAR and anti-smuggling tasks. Since the new mandate came into force, it has helped to save some 65,000 lives and arrest nearly 300 suspected facilitators and more than 100 people smugglers. Frontex has pledged its migration management support teams to assist Member States in registering migrants to speed up the long and often ineffective procedures required for relocation or eventually return. Support to the Agency for return measures has increased significantly since 2015, as the number of returnees has increased from 3,500 to around 15,000 in 2017. Frontex is currently responsible for 10% of all effective returns from the EU.

Moreover, the Agency has developed cutting-edge risk analysis capacities, yearly assessing, and then monitoring, the most important threats to EU’s external borders’ security as well as Member States’ capabilities to effectively protect borders. The analyses, disseminated to the EU institutions and member states, provide a comprehensive situational awareness of the trends to follow, which are assessed according to their likelihood.

Although Member States and EU institutions have been actively collaborating to ameliorate their response to contemporary threats, external borders’ management continues to remain a state-driven policy. As each state remains in charge of border protections, duplication is the norm, with a negative impact on the allocation of scarce resources, but also on citizens’ rights. Indeed, the most rapid response that EU states provide in case of major crisis is the “temporary” reintroduction of border controls. For instance, France requested an authorisation following 2015 terrorist attacks, but the measure is still in place.

In this context, Frontex’s capabilities are somehow underexploited. The Agency has to struggle to receive resources that are consistent with its mandate and must obtain specific authorisations to launch operations.

Article 19 of the Regulation on Frontex’s modernisation (2016/1624) establishes a sort of emergency procedure that might be launched if an ineffective control of external borders risks jeopardising the Schengen area. Should a state fail to manage specific and disproportionate challenges to their border due to the given reasons, the European Council may immediately act to mitigate the threat. Frontex is in charge of the rapid intervention, and the state concerned will be required to collaborate with the Agency.

Nonetheless, even though the Council would be approving an act proposed by the European Commission, the final decision would remain fully intergovernmental.

In the defence domain, strengthening European collaboration in external borders’ management by creating a comprehensive common strategy could significantly enhance efficiency. Such a strategy should include the creation of a legal framework providing Frontex with more autonomy, for instance by permanently authorising some kind of missions – such as the redeployment of rapid intervention pools in the case of mass migrant influx.

Giulia Tilenni is an analyst in international affairs based in Paris, France.