The EU’s beefed-up version of its struggling border force goes into operation Thursday, as the squabbling bloc struggles to find a unified strategy to tackle its worst migration crisis since World War II.
European Union officials are due to inaugurate the new task force at the Kapitan-Andreevo checkpoint on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the main land frontier via which migrants try to enter the bloc to avoid the dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing.
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG) will have at the ready some 1,500 officers from 19 member states who can be swiftly mobilised in case of emergency such as a sudden rush of migrants.
Brussels hopes the revamped agency will not just increase security, but also help heal the huge rifts that have emerged between western and eastern member states clashing over the EU’s refugee policies.
The long-term goal is to lift the border controls inside the bloc and restore the passport-free Schengen Zone.
A day before attending the launch, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos hailed the inauguration as a “historic moment” for Europe.
The boosted force is an expansion of Frontex, founded in 2004 to help coordinate Europe-wide efforts to combat people smuggling and illegal migration.
The agency, based in Warsaw, proved inefficient last year when it was caught off guard by the hundreds of thousands of people that began trekking up from Greece along the so-called western Balkan route towards northern Europe.
With limited staffing levels and powers, Frontex was unable to effectively patrol the EU’s external borders, including of frontline countries Greece and Italy where most migrants enter.
The uncontrolled arrival of well over a million people, many fleeing war in Syria, triggered chaos on the continent, prompting key transit nations along the migrant trail to seal their borders with fences.
The flow also sparked fierce tensions inside the bloc, with eastern and central European nations lambasting Germany’s “open door” policy which they say allowed Islamist radicals to pose as refugees and help carry out attacks inside Europe.