Immigrants are escorted by German police to a registration center after crossing the Austrian-German border in Wegscheid near Passau, Germany, October 20, 2015.
Michael Dalder / Reuters

When it comes to the ongoing influx of migrants into Europe, there is one thing that policymakers and officials seem to agree on: Europe needs to increase border security and establish a pan-European asylum policy. But the former has to come first. And getting it right will mean addressing three concentric “security circles”—outside Europe, at Europe’s borders, and inside Europe.


The European Neighborhood Policy was first conceived in 2003 as a means to create a “ring of friends” around the EU’s eastern and southern borders. After the onset of the Arab Spring, European policymakers felt the need to more specifically tailor the ENP’s approaches to different partner countries. The European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI), which was created in 2014 to provide a more solid financial footing for the ENP, moves in the right direction by focusing resources on a few selected countries rather than spreading funding out.

But more needs to be done. For example, the ENI’s budget of 15.4 billion euros, which is currently allocated according to rules set forth in Article 4.1 of Regulation 232/2014, could be disbursed with stricter conditionality and only to the most cooperative countries. Mutually agreed upon between the EU and partner countries, such conditions would concentrate on actually implementing economic, political, social, and democratic reforms as already envisioned. In this system, the ENI would continue to be managed by the European Union’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, but the development assistance that member states currently offer on a bilateral basis could be added to the ENI to boost its coffers.

Sea patrols are another issue. Operation Triton, which was launched in November 2014 in response to the refugee crisis and is conducted by Frontex but is under Italian command, should not be the effort of a single country. Each EU member state should contribute financial, human, and logistic resources in proportion to the number of votes it holds in the European Council. Currently, only Austria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden make voluntary contributions, as do non-EU member states Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland.

As for Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, which has been deployed to the Aegean Sea, its assets should be returned to NATO’s “core business”—namely, Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean Sea and Operation Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa—as soon as the surge in arrivals on Greek shores abates. Then, the navy component of a European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) should take over its duties. Although deploying such missions to the central Mediterranean and eastern Mediterranean is a matter for the European Council to take up, their operationalization should be left to the EBCG, which should control its own resources independently from the member states.

Limited support from non-EU countries has been an obstacle to implementing the Return Directive, which in 2008 set out common standards for sending illegal migrants back to their countries of origin. Emblematic of this state of affairs were the (now largely resolved) challenges faced by the EU in dealing with Pakistan owing to the latter’s decision not to implement a previously ratified deal that Islamabad had come to see as lopsided in Brussels’ favor. The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council should weigh carefully not only whether a third country is party to one of the 17 bilateral readmission agreements between the EU and other countries. It should also consider whether the current bilateral agreements are being properly implemented. Such an assessment can help the EU determine whether a partner country should receive the special rewards offered by the ENI.

A makeshift camp for migrants and refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the village of Idomeni, Greece, April 25, 2016.
Alexandros Avramidis / Reuters


Which borders should be secured? European officials talk of striking a grand bargain in which a “core area” of the Schengen zone would be established for countries ready to accept a share of refugees from within and outside the EU. Articles 23 to 26 of the Schengen Borders Code—as well as provisions for enhanced cooperation—could provide the legal basis for such a program. France, Germany, Sweden, and Spain would be party to such a deal (with Germany and Sweden, in particular, receiving high numbers of asylum applications). Others struggling to secure their borders, such as Greece, would be excluded from it and allowed to join only after addressing their challenges. And those countries that refuse to host refugees, such as Poland and Hungary, would be excluded until they change their policies. The Schengen zone borders would essentially shrink, to be reexpanded over time.

Greece and Italy have already set up hot spots to coordinate the reception of asylum seekers in their countries. All Schengen member states should participate in such initiatives by providing funding, staff, and equipment for the zones. Together with national authorities, European agencies are involved in the hot spots: the European Asylum Support Office to process asylum applications; the soon-to-be-replaced Frontex to assist in border management; and Europol to provide a “second line of screening” for individuals deemed potentially involved in criminal or terrorist activities. International organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Committee of the Red Cross could observe for potential human rights abuses. 

The presidency of the Council of the European Union, currently held by the Netherlands, is rushing to secure a political agreement for a new European Border and Coast Guard to be established and operational by the end of the year. Crucially, and unlike its predecessor, Frontex, the EBCG will not have to continuously beg for member state support; it will have double the staff and the financial resources of Frontex, an extended mandate, and the ability to acquire its own equipment. Controversially, the European Commission suggested that the EBCG should, subject to a majority vote of the council, be allowed to deploy in a member state even against its will. This proposal is radical in that it would put the collective security of the EU above the sovereignty of individual member states. Member nations look set to compromise on the measure by limiting the punishment to an informal threat of temporary suspension of a member state.

Latvian border guards patrol a newly built fence at the Latvian-Russian border near Goliseva, Latvia, April 26, 2016.
Ints Kalnins / Reuters


Europe’s Visa Information System and the Schengen Information System work reasonably well. The Eurodac Regulation for a European fingerprinting database, however, does not. Greece and Italy, in particular, are accused of failing to fingerprint all migrants reaching their shores. Although fingerprinting rates are finally approaching 100 percent in both countries, security agencies and the European Commission are calling for an expansion of Eurodac’s remit beyond asylum applications to include the processing of all migrants entering the EU. A big fight on privacy and civil liberties is thus brewing with the European Parliament.

One potential bargain could be struck between the European People’s Party on the one hand and Socialists, Liberals, and Greens on the other, who would band together to pass the proposed General Data Protection Regulation. For it to stick, however, a deal would also need to resolve ongoing disagreements on passenger name records, the establishment of a pan-European entry-exit system, and a European Information Exchange Model. Existing European Commission proposals aim at obtaining such a balance, but they should be applied not only to migrants but also to EU citizens who can also pose security threats.

Ninety percent of irregular migrants use people smugglers at some point in their journeys, but terrorist groups are highly unlikely to use smuggling routes to infiltrate Europe, as terrorists often hold European citizenship or long-term residence permits. Nevertheless, Europol’s Joint Operational Team Mare and Focal Point Checkpoint (within the newly established European Migrant Smuggling Centre in The Hague) must be unhindered in their joint efforts with Mobile Investigation Teams and Mobile Analysis Teams deployed across Europe’s hot spots. At the same time, Europol’s Secure Information Exchange Network Application should be made fully compatible with the Visa Information System and the Schengen Information System. If they aren’t, Europol will never be able to act as a second security filter on migrants.

Once all of these measures are in place, some of the temporary (and astronomically expensive) controls within the Schengen area could be lifted. Since September 2015, eight member states have unilaterally reintroduced temporary border controls at selected locations within the Schengen area. Should the current situation persist beyond May, the European Commission is likely to present a proposal for a more coherent pan-European approach to internal border management. Although such moves might be inevitable and even welcome for the time being, the aim should still be to lift all internal border controls by the end of the year.


No common European asylum and refugee policy can be expected until Europe’s borders are adequately managed and the number of migrants reaching its shores falls. Europe’s borders can be secured only through a concentric circles approach: outside Europe, at Europe’s borders themselves, and within Europe’s borders. This year, 2016, must be dedicated to this enterprise. If it succeeds, next year could be one when Europe finally establishes a basic framework for a meaningful common asylum and refugee policy.

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  • MATTEO GARAVOGLIA is the Italy Program Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe. He is a Research Associate at the University of Oxford's Centre for International Studies and serves as an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
  • More By Matteo Garavoglia