The European Union moved closer to strengthening control of its external frontiers on Wednesday, following last year's migration surge, with EU governments and lawmakers agreeing to give the bloc's border agency more powers.
EU member states and lawmakers reached a deal late Tuesday to convert the bloc's border agency, Frontex, into a European border and coast guard agency with ramped-up powers.
"As of now, Europe treats the protection of its borders as a common mission of solidarity," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.
Border controls have been a jealously guarded national competence in the 28-country EU, but some member states struggled last year to contain a flow of more than 1 million migrants and asylum seekers entering Europe.
Greece, in particular, came under fire for failing to secure its coastline or register all arrivals, effectively allowing people to continue their journey unchecked towards wealthier countries such as Germany and Sweden.
Arrivals in Greece have meanwhile slowed to a trickle due to a deal the EU struck with Ankara in March to curb migration from Turkey.
Last year's events triggered fears that uncontrolled movement poses not only a security risk, but could also lead to the dismantling of Europe's prized free-travel Schengen area.
"This is not a silver bullet that can solve the migration crisis ... or fully restore trust in the Schengen area, but it is [a] very much needed first step," the European Parliament's lead negotiator, EU lawmaker Artis Pabriks, said of the deal reached Tuesday.
The agreement now needs the final approval of the European Parliament and member states, a move that is expected to be a formality.
The new agency will assess member states' ability to control their borders and offer assistance in case of high migration pressures or other emergencies. As a last resort, Schengen members will be able to reintroduce border controls if a country does not cooperate.
The deal also foresees the creation of a pool of 1,500 border guards and technical equipment to be deployed at any time. The agency will have a bigger role in returning migrants who have no right to stay in the EU.
Not everyone is happy with the plans.
"This is not a good deal for Europe," Green EU lawmaker Ska Keller said. "The goal is a further sealing-off of the EU," she added, noting that human rights and refugee protections would suffer.
The threat of effectively excluding a country from Schengen if it rejects EU advice or intervention in managing its borders goes against European principles, she said.
The passport-free Schengen area, in existence since 1985, covers 26 countries. It includes all EU member states except Britain, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and Bulgaria. Also members are the non-EU countries Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
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