The European Union has announced new regulation which will strengthen the mandate of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) by supplying it with an additional border force of 10,000 staff. Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri approved the 10,000 new guards and ordered their implementation on December 4th, 2019.

The new FRONTEX regulation was approved by the European Parliament in mid-November in order to give the agency more power to support EU member countries, especially in the areas of border control and cooperation with third party countries.

Under the new mandate, FRONTEX is expected to have 5,000 new operational staff by 2021, before meeting the final target of 10,000 by 2027. The new corps will be composed of agency-employed border and coast guards as well as secondary staff volunteered by European Union countries.

The new regulation is also expected to grant FRONTEX access to the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) in order to further improve its functioning.

What Is the Role of FRONTEX?

FRONTEX was founded in 2004 as the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at External Borders, and is based in Warsaw, Poland. FRONTEX stands for Frontières extérieures in French ("external borders").

The agency was originally conceived to improve the integrated management of the EU and Schengen Area external borders and to coordinate border control efforts. On 15th December 2015, the European Commission proposed extending FRONTEX’s mandate in response to the 2015–2016 European migrant crisis. The European Council unanimously approved the proposal, and FRONTEX was expanded to become the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

FRONTEX’s new role working in coordination with both border and coast guards of the Schengen Area was officially launched at Bulgaria’s external border with Turkey on October 6th, 2016.

The budget for the agency was dramatically increased as its duties expanded, from €143 million in 2015 to €238 million in 2016, and will reach €322 million by 2020. The staff of the agency also gradually increased to around 1,000 in 2019 from just 402 employees in 2006.

How Will the New Regulation Strengthen FRONTEX?

Executive Director Leggeri has said the new FRONTEX regulation is expected to help better integrate the national border and coast guard authorities and FRONTEX staff which make up the European Border and Coast Guard.

He added that the new border force will be a "daily partner" to national authorities, and help to design sustainable border management capacities rather than relying on crisis-management techniques. The ultimate goal is to ensure well-functioning external borders in Europe that apply fair laws and help to improve the security of EU citizens.

FRONTEX’s new access to some of the European Union security systems will also allow the agency to share relevant information and risk analysis, and help Schengen Area countries to predict challenges at external borders.

The new regulation will also strengthen the role of FRONTEX in:

  • Border surveillance
  • Border control
  • Supporting the reintegration of returnees in non-EU countries
  • Fighting cross-border crime, including in maritime area
  • Managing the flow of legitimate travelers across external EU borders

FRONTEX to Help Strengthen Other New EU Border Measures

The announcement of the new powers granted to FRONTEX also revealed that the agency will play a role in the management of another new EU measure to improve border security: it will host the central unit of the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS).

The ETIAS visa waiver is an electronic travel authorization which was approved by the European Parliament in 2016 and is due to be implemented by the end of 2022. Once introduced, it will be mandatory for visa-exempt travellers to Europe to obtain an approved ETIAS to visit the Schengen Area for short stays.

Like the new FRONTEX regulation, the goal in introducing the ETIAS system is to improve protection of external Schengen borders, by screening travelers for any potential security or health risks before they reach the EU.

Once implemented, eligible citizens will be able to complete the simple ETIAS application online, to receive an approved travel authorization linked to their passport. The online form will only take a few minutes to fill in with personal, passport and travel information. Applicants will also be required to answer a few questions related to security matters.

Once approved, applicants will simply be able to present the passport associated with ETIAS to border officials to gain access to the Schengen Area, making it even easier for the new FRONTEX force to meet their border management goals.

Are Schengen Smart Borders Breaching GDPR Standards?

Data protection is a priority for Europe. This is the conclusion citizens have made after the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, new concerns have arisen in regard to facial recognition technologies and the upcoming launch of the ETIAS visa waiver. Even from within the European Union.

According to EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, this feature of the smart borders could breach Europe’s data protection rules. “As it stands right now, GDPR would say ‘don’t use it’, because you cannot get consent,” declared the Danish politician at a press conference last week.

Her words are of paramount importance since Vestager is currently the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for a Europe fit for the Digital Age, which means her main tasks have to do with creating better access to online goods for consumers and businesses, fostering spaces for digital networks and services, and giving people control over their data.

In that sense, smart borders can find obstacles when trying to collect biometric data from non-EU nationals entering the Schengen Area. The main issue is related to articles 6 (Lawfulness of processing) and 9 (Processing of special categories of personal data) of the GDPR:

  • "The data subject has given consent to the processing of his or her personal data for one or more specific purposes", which until now is not possible since international passengers are not able (or do not have a clear manner) to give consent to the respective EU authorities to collect this information.
  • "Processing of genetic data, biometric data for the purpose of uniquely identifying a natural person, data concerning health or data concerning a natural person’s sex life or sexual orientation shall be prohibited". This, however, is one of the main purposes of facial recognition and smart borders altogether.

This is not the first setback EU smart borders have had to face — since its proposal, in February 2013, this technology solution for external borders of the Schengen Member States created certain apprehension in terms of the "overall feasibility of the proposed new system", as stated in the Technical Study on Smart Borders published on 2014.

It is expected the European Union announces more details about the way their Member States will face the challenge of activating facial recognition systems and smart borders and, at the same time, allow data protection for all citizens, including the ones coming from outside the Schengen borders.