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EU: Proposal For Border Guard Highlights Delicacy Of Sovereignty Issues

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Commission has put forward proposals for a common border guard, which would help protect the European Union against illegal immigration and terrorism. The proposal, made in Brussels this week, can be seen as a another step toward an enhanced role for the EU in security and foreign-policy matters. But it also illustrates the great delicacy required to avoid upsetting individual member states, which view protection of national borders as their sovereign right.

Prague, 10 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission is proposing the creation of a European corps of border guards, which would strengthen the fight on the union's outer borders against illegal immigration, organized crime, and terrorism.

Announcing the proposal this week, Home Affairs Commissioner Antonio Vitorino said the EU is not trying to create a "fortress Europe." He said it believes that a common border force best serves the security interests of the EU's citizens, while ensuring free movement of people.

The proposal from Brussels has been formulated at the request of the member states, made at their summit at Laeken in Belgium last December amid alarm over the rising tide of illegal immigration, and in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States.

As such, the move can be seen as being aimed at further developing an EU role in a key area, namely security and foreign policy. As London-based security consultant Alexandra Ashbourne put it: "Obviously, it's part of [the process] of increasing European security, in that the idea of a common border guard is a step toward that [aim]."

Various elements of security policy have been put in place over the past three years, including the opening of the Europol police agency and the appointment of Javier Solana as foreign- and security-policy coordinator. There is also the EU's military rapid-reaction force, which is now being created -- albeit haltingly and with some difficulty.

The border-guards proposal also illustrates the potential problems of actually carrying out such a pro-integrationist move without upsetting some of the member states, particularly those that are militarily neutral.

"Even if they are wearing EU berets, the idea of foreign nationals protecting neutral states' borders is, perhaps, questionable," Ashbourne said.

She also pointed out that some of the Central and Eastern European states expected to join the EU soon may find difficulty in accepting the presence of EU security officials at their national borders.

However, a spokesman for EU Home Affairs Commissioner Vitorino went out of his way to downplay the possibility of demarcation or sovereignty disputes. The spokesman, Lionello Gabrici, said, "We are not talking about creating [a corps] of people with blue uniforms with 12 stars, for heaven's sake."

Framing his words cautiously, Gabrici said that what is being discussed is, in the first instance, a series of initiatives to integrate the management of borders. Only then, if the need arises and if the member states agree, would an EU-level entity be created.

As he put it, this entity should be regarded more as a body of experts rather than a militarized guard force.

"This means, for example, that if you want to check what is happening in the Mediterranean Sea, by satellite, using the Galileo European system, then you can have people detached from certain member states, who are running this particular task force on behalf of all the other member states, and these people will be financed, and sort of seconded [to you] by the member states," Gabrici said.

Gabrici said there will always be national sovereignty at national borders, but what is proposed is that there should be available an additional Euro team to take specific steps if and when needed. He compares the concept to that of the Europol police organization, which supplements rather than substitutes for the national police forces.

Security analyst Ashbourne said the increasing accent on security is necessary following in particular the events of 11 September, but she sounded a note of caution.

"It just remains to be seen how much momentum there will be to drive forward such a policy. One of the interesting things of the past few years is that -- with all the emphasis placed on European security -- momentum for the development of the rapid-reaction force has subsided somewhat," Ashbourne said.

The commission proposal on creation of a border guard envisages 2007 as the date for the force to be operational.

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