Frontex, the EU border control agency, is to boost its visibility by deploying European Border Guard Teams, and will be better equipped to monitor respect for fundamental rights, under changes to its mandate agreed by Parliament and Council and backed by the Civil Liberties Committee on Tuesday. Frontex will promote solidarity among Member States, and especially those facing "specific and disproportionate" migratory burdens.
MEPs and the Council had agreed on a series of changes to the rules governing Frontex, the EU external border agency set up in 2004, to improve its workings in the light of experience gleaned in its first years of operation.
During the negotiations, MEPs successfully introduced the notion of European Border Guard Teams, replacing and unifying the current Frontex Joint Support Teams and Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABITS). The European Border Guard Teams will consist of a pool of national border guards assigned by Member States to the agency for joint operations, rapid interventions and pilot projects. Within one year, the European Commission will present a feasibility study on establishing a system of European Border Guards, one of Parliament's initial proposals.
To strengthen its effectiveness, Frontex will be able to purchase or lease its own equipment, such as cars or helicopters, either by itself or in co-ownership with a Member State.
The compromise text says that once the agency and a Member State agree on an annual plan, the country will be obliged to fulfil its commitments and contribute with staff and equipment to Frontex operations. It also says that the agency will focus its activities on EU countries facing "specific and disproportionate" migratory pressures. Additionally, an Erasmus-style exchange programme will be created for national border guards.
Frontex will process personal data obtained during missions to use it in the fight against criminality, human trafficking and irregular migration. The agreement says that data must not be stored for more than three months and will only be forwarded to Europol or other EU agencies on a case by case basis. Sending data to third countries will be prohibited.
Fundamental rights strengthened
One of Parliament's key concerns in the negotiations was to ensure full respect for fundamental rights. At Parliament's request, Frontex will appoint a fundamental rights officer and set up a consultative forum on fundamental rights. These will assist the agency's management board and will have access to all information concerning respect for fundamental rights. The consultative forum will involve the EU Fundamental Rights and Asylum Support agencies, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and NGOs specialised in this field.
Parliament and Council agreed that, in case of a breach of fundamental rights or the rule of law, Frontex missions will be suspended or terminated. Also, the tasks of the agency will include providing assistance to Member States in situations that may involve humanitarian emergencies and rescue at sea.
Frontex will also develop codes of conduct to guarantee compliance with fundamental rights and the rule of law in all operations, including return operations. Under international law, no person may be disembarked or handed over to the authorities of a country where his/her life or freedoms could be threatened. The agency will respect this principle of "non-refoulement" in all circumstances, says the agreed text, adding that Frontex-funded return operations will be monitored from beginning to end.
To reinforce the democratic scrutiny of Frontex, the agency will be required to report regularly to the European Parliament on its fundamental rights activities. Parliament will also be regularly updated on Member States' contributions to Frontex operations and on agreements with third countries and other agencies. The EP will also receive an annual report on the monitoring of return operations.
Result of vote: 42 in favour, 5 against, 7 abstentions
In the chair: Juan Fernando López Aguilar (S&D, ES)
Rapporteur: Simon Busuttil (EPP, MT)
Procedure: co-decision, first reading
Plenary vote: September I