December 17, 2015 / 3:47 PM / 2 years ago

INTERVIEW-Europe's Frontex to spend more in 2016 on border protection

BRUSSELS, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The European Union’s border agency Frontex will use its higher 2016 budget to deploy more border guards, buy equipment for registering refugees and lease planes and cars for patrols to help protect the bloc’s external borders, its head said.

Boosting Frontex is a key element in the EU’s response to the flood of refugees from the Middle East and Asia which have grown into Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War Two.

But some of its new powers face stiff opposition from several EU members, especially the right to send Frontex border guards to a country deemed to be persistently failing to protect the bloc’s external border, even without being invited.

Speaking as EU leaders arrived in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the crisis, Fabrice Leggeri praised a proposal by the bloc’s executive European Commission this week to boost the powers of Frontex.

“For me it’s a very positive proposal because it’s in line with the needs we have and it’s also in line with the reality,” Leggeri told Reuters in an interview.

Under the plan, Frontex would be turned into the European Border and Coast Guard, with a two-fold increase in staff and funding worth 322 million euros by 2020, compared to 143 millions this year and 238 million due in 2016.

But border protection would remain chiefly a national responsibility. The new agency would still rely on EU capitals for contributions to a proposed pool of 1,500 border guards ready for quick deployment in any crisis spot.

Defending Frontex’s new powers to send border guards to a country even without invitation, he said Frontex would not decide on such action by itself but have to get the green light from the European Commission

Highlighting difficulties in receiving resources from the 28 EU countries, Frenchman Leggeri said that out of the 775 additional border guards he called for in early October, he had so far got around 450.

“I don’t want to blame member states because most of them just reached their limits... That’s why this marks a big change - more border guards and more equipment available for crisis management would give the agency more operational autonomy.”

Frontex may use aerial surveillance for the first time in its operations in 2016, Leggeri said, adding Frontex would buy plane services and lease patrol cars rather than purchase its own fleet.

Leggeri added that Frontex spent 67 million euros on maritime operations this year as many migrants get to Europe from Turkey through the Mediterranean. The EU sealed a deal with Ankara in mid-October under which Turkey is to curb the flows to Greece.

Frontex said arrivals to the Greek islands halved in November from the month before but mainly because of harsher weather conditions, and a new policy by Macedonia, which does not let through migrants of certain nationalities.

He said Frontex would deploy a liaison officer in Ankara for the first time early next year to enhance cooperation with Turkey under its agreement with the EU.

In all of 2015, Frontex so far recorded more than 1.5 million irregular border crossings into Europe, he said. (Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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