Timely boost for maritime security efforts

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New proposal to streamline EU maritime security in a time of dire need… Can it be implemented fast enough to protect borders and save lives?

The European Economic and Social Committee is backing moves by the European Commission to boost cooperation and information exchange between various EU agencies and national bodies currently carrying out coastguard functions. But it stresses that “time is of the essence in implementing the proposed measures”. 

“The situation whereby the flow of refugees continues to claim lives at sea, the irregular influx of migrants persists and Member States take unilateral measures by introducing permanent border controls cannot and must not be allowed to continue,” the Committee stressed in an opinion on the proposed amendment to the Commission's Regulation. It further calls into question whether the proposed changes to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) are adequate to cover the human and financial resources required to respond quickly enough to pressing humanitarian and security needs.

A more efficient and cost-effective coastguard system would enable Member States to loosen or even forego permanent controls and allow Schengen to be fully and properly reinstated, suggests the opinion by rapporteur Jan Simons.

Among the measures proposed by the Commission, the Committee endorses the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) to support the sometimes patchy surveillance from satellite coverage alone – smaller wooden or rubber boats are difficult to spot. “EMSA was the right choice to be given a leading role in organising RPAS (drone) services,” it confirms, helping to reinforce Schengen’s external borders, but also to avoid tragic loss of human life. “The urgency of the problem allows no delay!” urges the opinion adopted on 16 March 2016.

More than 1.5 million irregular crossings into EU territory took place between January and November 2015. That flow is continuing largely unabated in 2016 and migrants are now backing up at border crossings between Greece and neighbouring states as several Member States halt the free movement of people within the EU. This could have more than just humanitarian consequences, the opinion points out. Economic costs could reach EUR 100 billion with a 10-20 % drop in trade between the 26 Schengen states over the longer term. 

Vitally important steps

The underlying problem, according to the Commission proposal, is that coastguard operations, including border controls, maritime safety and security, search and rescue, fisheries and pollution controls, are currently carried out by more than 300 authorities which are not even well-coordinated at national level.

Closer collaboration between authorities carrying out coastguard duties is “vitally important” in the short term and consistent with Union policies on migration, security, fishing as well as transport and mobility.

The EMSA has a proven track record in improving maritime safety and tackling pollution from shipping, and the Committee is confident its expanded activities would boost real-time maritime surveillance and data flows between the three agencies and national coastguards. As part of the reorganisation, EMSA’s budget would be increased by EUR 22 million per year until 2020, and provide for 17 temporary recruits.

But according to the opinion, the EESC maintains “serious doubts” as to whether the funding will be sufficient to perform the additional activities properly, and calls for a “financial buffer” to deal with what it calls “inevitable disasters”.