Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones: The Empowerment of EU Agencies in EU Border Management

  • Yichen Zhong

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The phrase “Crossing the river by feeling the stones” is a proverbial expression that originally refers to the experimental and programmatic approach towards China’s economic reform in the 1980s and 1990s. This thesis employs the metaphor to signify the empowerment of EU agencies in the management of the EU’s external borders. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought the issue of external border control to the forefront of EU political and bureaucratic practice. As a result, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, was established in October 2004 and became operational at an unprecedentedly rapid pace for Union bodies. Within the policy framework of European integrated border management, further EU agencies that were created to address different policy needs have increasingly collaborated with Frontex and become involved in border controls and surveillance. This thesis interrogates the empowerment of these agencies in EU border management and their political implications for the EU's approach to external borders.

This thesis employs a principal-agent historical institutionalist approach to provide a theoretical foundation for analysing the EU border regime and identifying the mechanisms through which the relevant agencies have exerted influence over the regime. By examining Frontex’s joint sea operations, Frontex’s access to information, three flagship projects of inter-agency cooperation, and the agencies’ international action, this research finds that the initial delegation to Frontex has led to a self-reinforcing border control coordination approach and gaps in Member States’ control over subsequent institutional adjustments. The findings of this thesis demonstrate that the empowerment of the relevant agencies has contributed to diminishing Member States’ policy autonomy, enhancing EU oversight over border management, institutionalising common administrative capacity at the EU level, and bolstering EU actorness in the external dimension of border controls.

The findings of this research lead to the conclusion that, while EU Member States retain ultimate authority over their external borders, the empowerment of EU agencies has led to a shift in the EU’s approach to border management towards integration. This thesis has contributed to the understanding of the gradual institutional change in EU border controls and the impact that EU agencies can have on this process.
Date of AwardJan 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPatrycja Rozbicka (Supervisor), Helena Farrand Carrapico (Supervisor) & Ed Turner (Supervisor)


  • EU Agencies
  • Border Management
  • Principal-Agency
  • Historical Institutionalism
  • Frontex
  • Migration Crisis

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