Whose Mare? Rule of Law Challenges in the Field of European Border Surveillance in the Mediterranean

Written by | Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Sergio Carrera and Leonhard den Hertog (Centre for European Policy Studies)

The tragic death of more than 300 refugees off the Italian island of Lampedusa forced Rome to launch a humanitarian and security operation led by the Italian navy. The operation called Mare Nostrum began in October 2013 practically without any consultation with the European Commission or any other European institution. Over the course of one year since the start of the operation, 150 000 refugees were handled by the Italian navy. The whole mission and particularly its high operation costs were criticized on the domestic political scene. Some voiced their concerns over what they described as an operation that serves only as “a taxi for refugees”. Paradoxically, from the refugees’ point of view, the situation was further exacerbated when the people smugglers took advantage of the heightened presence of the Italian navy and occupied the already overloaded boats with even more passengers. The illegal smugglers were indeed counting on the Italian navy to rescue the refugees if their lives were in danger.

Within the framework of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Italian government pushed for the transfer of the operation under the EU supervision. As a consequence, a directive adjusting the powers of Frontex was passed in May 2014. In November, operation Triton was launched, which, however, has only a third of Mare Nostrum’s budget and its scope of action is considerably smaller. The launch of the operation was preceded by the adoption of the Maritime Security Strategy in June 2014, which addresses the question of migration as well as the issue of securing external maritime borders. On top of that, yet another problem emerged alongside the ambiguities regarding the delegation of power between Member States and EU institutions with respect to the question of the maritime borders protection. At the moment, there is a dispute about which maritime borders protection system will be adopted, whereby the EUROSUR system, as well as other systems, such as MARSUR or CISE, are all hot contenders for the top position.

The disputes over the degree to which states should give up part of their power and competences to a unified European system have held back the development of a more effective strategy to tackle the problem of migration across the Mediterranean, especially originating from North Africa. A solution could come from a framework strategy penned by Commissioner Frans Timmermans, which seeks to address the control over the rule of law in the given area. The scope of the afore-mentioned Frontex directive should also be expanded. In addition to that, the relevant authorities should explore the possibility of creating a new control mechanism. Finally, the situation could also be improved if the European Parliament and the Ombudsman became more engaged in the area of control.

(The study can be downloaded here)

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