BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union heavyweights France and Germany on Thursday backed a potentially divisive plan for a border guard agency with powers to unilaterally deploy to member states unable or unwilling to manage their borders.
The border and coast guard project is chiefly aimed at protecting Europe’s external borders in countries like Greece and Italy as they struggle to manage the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict or poverty for better lives in Europe.
But the idea that the agency could send ships, planes or other assets to a country even if it opposes the deployment is reviving old fears about a loss of national sovereignty to unelected officials at the EU’s executive Commission in Brussels.
Countries further north in Europe like Germany and Sweden — the preferred destinations of many migrants — are keen to have tighter controls to ease the flow of people, as is France.
“The external borders must be protected. I’m entirely in agreement with the proposal from the European Commission on a border guard,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters at the EU summit in Brussels.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also underlined that she “very strongly supports” the plan.
Before chairing the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk acknowledged that the border agency is a “most controversial idea” but said that passport-free travel in the 26-nation Schengen area would be compromised if Europe’s outside borders are porous.
“Europe cannot remain vulnerable when Schengen states are not able to effectively protect their borders,” Tusk said.
The new agency would have a standing reserve force of at least 1,500 border guards that could be sent to EU border crossings within three days, rather than relying on time-consuming calls to nations for volunteers during emergencies.
But for some, the plan touches at the very heart of national identity — a country’s right to decide who or what can be deployed on its territory — and Greece, Italy, Croatia and Hungary were expected to oppose it.
A senior EU diplomat, briefing on condition of anonymity because the negotiations have not taken place yet, said it was unlikely that the European Commission would ever order the border guard to a country that objected, as that would mean imposing an occupying army.
The proposal is just the start of a potentially long and divisive legislative process. Still, the EU has planned a 2016 budget for the agency of 238 million euros ($260 million).
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 920,000 people have entered the EU so far this year. The influx has overwhelmed national border guards and reception capacities, notably in Greece, where some 770,000 migrants have arrived, most of them from Turkey.