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EU plans rapid-reaction border force to stem migration

The European Union will nearly treble its spending on frontier defence and create a new 1,500-strong rapid reaction force under proposals unveiled on Tuesday to tackle the migration crisis.

The plan is aimed at boosting security on Europe's perimeter while preserving the 26-nation Schengen zone at the continent's heart, within which people can travel freely across national borders without passport checks.

If approved by governments, a new European Border and Coast Guard will replace the EU's Frontex agency and have expanded powers, including the new standby force. It will have funding worth 322 million euros ($354 million) by 2020.

Officials presented the scheme as a boost for states on Europe's Mediterranean frontier. Obligations to rescue and shelter those desperate enough to take to the sea have seen Greek and Italian coastguards and immigration services swamped by a million people this year, many fleeing civil war in Syria.

The executive European Commission also wants the power to deploy EU forces without the consent of the member state concerned -- an idea that has already hit resistance in national capitals and which many see as impractical.

Syrian and Afghan refugees are helped by locals and volunteers as they reach the shore after their dinghy deflated some 100m away from the Greek island of Lesbos, September 13, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis | Reuters
Syrian and Afghan refugees are helped by locals and volunteers as they reach the shore after their dinghy deflated some 100m away from the Greek island of Lesbos, September 13, 2015.

However, frustration among northern powers, including France and Germany, at failures by Greece and Italy to document and screen masses of people arriving by boat from Turkey and Africa has driven demands for more centralised European control of the Schengen zone's external frontiers.

"In an area of free movement without internal borders, managing Europe's external borders must be a shared responsibility," said Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans.

Concern that the Islamic State attack on Paris last month was carried out in part by militants who had travelled along the migration route from Syria via Turkey and Greece has also increased pressure for tighter checks on the frontiers.

The Commission proposal says the EU agency overseeing the frontiers should be able to "intervene immediately in crisis situations" and deploy border guards from the standby pool, drawn from other national border guard forces, within days.

However, EU officials stressed that national governments would be able to block that if a majority of them were against.

"There is a lot of debate about us imposing our will on member states," Timmermans told reporters. "This is a safety net. Most member states would gladly accept the help."

'More Europe'

Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told the European Parliament in Strasbourg: "What we are creating today is more Europe." He said the proposal would "allow us to move ahead more united, more decided, more resolved".

But the plan must still overcome concerns within the 28-nation EU. "The proposal means bringing in through the back door infringements on our sovereignty," said Notis Marias, a lawmaker from Greece. "We won't go for this at all."

Others argued failure to strengthen external borders would spell the end of Schengen, seen by many as one of the EU's most cherished achievements.

"If the external borders aren't secure, the internal borders will be raised again," said Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a Spanish conservative. "If we have common problems, we must have common answers."

The current staffing of Frontex, which serves to coordinate national border agencies, is around 400. That will more than double to 1,000 by 2020. In addition, member states will have to put a total of at least 1,500 personnel on standby for deployment within days.

The agency will also have a Returns Office with the task of stepping up expulsions of those who fail to qualify for asylum -- potentially hundreds of thousands of people, though many question how practical it is to detain and deport large numbers.

EU proposals may briefly discuss the plans at a two-day summit starting in Brussels on Thursday. The migration crisis has drive a wedge among member states that many fear threatens the overall unity of the 28-nation bloc.

The Commission also proposed legislation to increase systematic security and identity checks at the Schengen frontiers, including of EU citizens who typically pass with limited scrutiny at present.

Many of those who have carried out Islamist attacks in Europe in the past two years have been EU citizens, notably French and Belgians, who have fought in Syria and gone home.