Drones controlled by the EU will soon be flying across the continent under a European Commission plan to keep track of migrants arriving on Mediterranean shores.
The Commission says it needs its own fleet of remotely piloted aircraft systems to spot small refugee boats, as well as to enforce emissions standards and monitor ship safety elsewhere in Europe.
Advanced discussions in the Council of Ministers have centered on a request for an annual budget of €22 million to help set up the EU fleet. The plan is to fit drones with video, infrared sensors and chemical “sniffers” for detecting ships that pollute, according to a Commission official.
Europe’s existing satellite and transponder-based technology is useless for tracking the flood of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, said Christine Berg, head of unit in the Commission’s directorate-general for mobility and transport.
Satellite images can take minutes or hours to update, making the technology too slow. Commercial vessels are fitted with transponders, but the smaller, makeshift craft favored by migrants and asylum-seekers and the people-smugglers who often transport them are not. Europe’s drone-mounted cameras will monitor migrant movement during daylight hours, while infrared sensors will help track them at night, Berg told an industry gathering in Brussels.
Pilots will be located in Lisbon, at the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), according to the Commission plan — though a number of EU countries are not happy with the details.
Negotiating documents show Germany believes it is “highly doubtful” that EMSA is the right body to operate the fleet because the agency has until now focused on ship safety, not migration. Germany is pushing for the fleet to be headed by EU border agency Frontex.
Berlin is also unconvinced by the proposed budget. The usefulness of drones “is in no way proportionate to the expected additional budgetary resources and posts,” German diplomats said during Council talks.
While there has been no outright government opposition to the creation of an EU drone fleet, there have been concerns, in Malta in particular, that the Commission is seeking to use Europe’s migrant crisis as an excuse for pushing ahead with the creation of an EU coast guard, a longstanding dream of European federalists.
Malta pointed out that the legislative proposals refer not only to drones but also to maritime safety, security, search and rescue, border control, fisheries control, customs, general law enforcement and environmental protection — meaning Brussels regulators will be given powers to meddle in all “coast guard functions.”
The proposal would give the Commission “unlimited discretion” to adopt recommendations that “may prove to be quasi-binding,” according to a summary of Malta’s position recorded in a Council document.
After encouragement from the European Parliament, the Commission agreed a decade ago in principle to the creation of a European coast guard. In practice, however, progress towards this goal has been slow because coast guard functions vary considerably from country to country.
With the EU institutions ostensibly practicing austerity and cutting administrative budgets, drones are one of the few growth areas in Brussels. The proposal has therefore created excitement among Commission officials, who see the fleet as a path to promotion.
The planned upgrade of EMSA is taking place in parallel to an upgrade of both the European Fisheries Control Agency and Frontex – all triggered by the migration crisis. The three agencies are supposed to cooperate closely, though there is no plan to merge them.
Confusingly, the Commission would like to enhance EMSA’s Europe-wide coast guard capacity while at the same time renaming Frontex the “European Border and Coast Guard Agency.” This renaming exercise has also met with opposition from a number of EU governments who believe the name Frontex is sufficient, and should stay.
Justin Stares is editor of maritimewatch.eu.