New wave of migrants will be met by less welcoming EU

Europe Letter: beefed-up border force reflects the bloc’s increasingly hardened edge

A violent sweep of Taliban fighters across parts of Afghanistan as United States forces withdraw has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee and raised fears of renewed destabilisation in the region.

Elsewhere in the developing world, extreme weather events and the scarcity of resources driven by climate change are increasingly driving people to leave their homes in the hopes of finding a better future.

As the structural causes of migration worsen, European Union authorities are preparing to meet an increase in new arrivals with a beefed-up border force that reflects the bloc’s increasingly hardened edge.

Migration policy has toughened significantly in EU border states since the Syrian civil war caused millions to flee in the mid-2010s. Recent accusations that volunteer sea rescue services in Britain serve as "taxis" for migrants, or even collude with people smugglers, are repetitions of old claims about NGOs long made by the right-wing in Greece, Hungary and Italy.


Such ideas have even escalated into criminal investigations against NGOs in several countries, particularly Italy, since 2017. The seizure of boats followed, along with policy reforms designed to restrict volunteer search-and-rescue activities, while member state governments successfully moulded EU policy to fit a hardened approach.

The lesson Brussels took from Denmark and France's imposition of checks on their borders with EU neighbours due to migration concerns in recent years was that hard external borders were needed to preserve open internal ones.

Border countries have long appealed for more “solidarity” to manage the disproportionate number of people who arrive to their shores. But calls to reform the Dublin regulation, under which arrivals are obliged to seek asylum in the first EU country in which they set foot, have fallen flat.

Having tried and failed to get countries to agree to a quota system to manage asylum claims according to each member state’s population size, the EU has come up with another form of “solidarity”.

This is an expansion of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, or Frontex, which has a budget of €544 million in 2021, larger than any other EU agency. It is building up a standing staff of 10,000 border guards, alongside expanded powers, including a proposed central role in expelling failed asylum seekers from the EU.

Frontex has embedded with local border forces and coast guards to patrol the EU's external borders at a time when national authorities have adopted an increasingly hardline approach to migration. It has been accused of engaging in "pushbacks" – unlawful actions to drive back migrants – something denied by the agency's executive director Fabrice Leggeri.

Muscular approach

Earlier this year, EU anti-fraud office Olaf said it had opened an investigation into accusations of pushbacks and the harassment of migrants by the agency.

From the outset, the Ursula von der Leyen-led European Commission has rhetorically backed a more muscular approach to migration and sought to emphasise its solidarity with border states.

In 2019 the administration proposed having a commissioner for “Protecting the European Way of Life”, whose brief would have included migration reform – a title that accepted a far-right premise about migration as a threat, and which was softened to “Promoting our European Way of Life” after an outcry.

The use of migrants as an ugly way to politically pressure the EU by rival neighbouring states has also made it easier for the commission to talk about migration as a violent threat.

Last March, the Turkish government encouraged migrants to cross the border into the EU as president Recep Tayyip Erdogan angled for more cash in a deal with the EU to keep migrants within its borders. Von der Leyen visited Greece to show support, and described it as the "shield" of Europe.

This week, Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko tried a similar tactic, allowing flights of Iraqis to arrive and make their way to its border with Lithuania amid tensions over EU sanctions and support for the opposition. Frontex had 100 border guards, helicopters and vehicles on site.

Sweden's commissioner Ylva Johansson, visiting in a show of support, praised the Lithuania's border force's response to the "threat", which she described as "a very severe, aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime".

Her words demonstrated the shift in attitude within the EU in the last five years. In 2017, the EU's then-diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini spoke out against "those who wish to build walls" as US president Donald Trump talked up his border wall.

Seeing the border for herself had demonstrated “the need for also physical barriers”, Johansson said this week, “to make sure that unauthorised access to the territory will be prevented”.