The recent Lampedusa tragedy put Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean on the top of the agenda of the European Union. The wide media attention managed to trigger the reflexes of the European Commission. Informal discussions have started in Brussels on the revision of the 2002 Facilitation Directive, which currently allows Member States to punish fishers who rescue irregular migrants in distress at sea.
Furthermore, more emphasis is put on stepping up rescue missions. In October, the Commission proposed an increase in the budget of Frontex, the EU border control agency, for the deployment of an extensive search and rescue operation covering the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain. As one can see from the agreement on the EU budget of 12 November, the Commission’s proposal is backed by both the European Council and the Parliament.
Surprisingly perhaps, since it was not long ago that the European Parliament in an unusual demonstration of its powers, withheld 10 million EUR of Frontex’s budget for 2013 until practical steps are taken for the improvement of its search and rescue operations.
Decisions such as the above bring forward the Parliament’s concerns about the inadequacy of legal means and democratic safeguards that would guarantee human rights protection. They also raise questions on whether Frontex is the most appropriate actor to take up search and rescue, since its objective is immigration management, a task that it executes in practice by refusing third-country nationals entry to the EU and diverting ships back to the port of embarkation.
Judging from its decision, the European Parliament used to consider the nature or quality of the operations of the agency to be inadequate to prevent the loss of lives at sea. However, today, it seems that the EP has changed its mind. Then, it froze 10 million EUR for 2013. Today, it did not only unfreeze this amount, but it supports an increase for the budget of 2014.
What was the reason for such a shift?
In October 2012, the Parliament invited Frontex’s executive director to report on the measures taken by the agency. In his speech before the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament (LIBE), Ikka Laitinen referred to the equipment of the agency and its capacity to provide assistance, but not on measures that actually guarantee that its assets will be deployed for rescuing purposes. In fact, in the same month, a Frontex airplane reportedly crossed a migrant boat in distress without assisting which resulted in the death of 62 people.
In his speech, Ikka Laitinen also informed the Parliament that relevant instructions have been included in the operational plans, but failed to answer the MEPs’ questions on what these instructions entail, or on the available monitoring mechanisms and sanctions, needed due to the significant human rights challenges inherent in such operations. He further informed the LIBE Committee about the measures that the agency is taking with respect to search and rescue, such as training and cooperation with other EU agencies, but, despite the questions of the MEPs, the practical implications of these measures remain unclear. Finally, he declared that the agency does not take responsibility for the fate of the rescued immigrants once they are handed over to the state authorities of Greece, Malta or Libya.
The European Parliament decided to block part of Frontex’s budget until clear guarantees were given and practical steps were taken to improve its search and rescue capacity. One cannot help but wonder, was the Parliament indeed convinced by this vague address of the executive director of the agency, lacking any concrete facts and measurable deliverables? Was the decision to unfreeze the budget made in a democratic and transparent manner or behind closed doors? Was the determination of the Parliament to exercise some level of control over the agency discouraged by corridor diplomacy?
The seat of the European Parliament was placed in Strasbourg, as a symbol of its independence from the influence of the Commission and the Council. However, Brussels seems to be closer than expected.