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13th Apr 2024

Frontex to far-right, Leggeri epitomises EU contradictions

  • While head of Frontex, Leggeri took a private €8,500 flight to attend a meeting in Brussels (Photo: European Parliament)
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Almost 10 years ago, Fabrice Leggeri, the disgraced former head of the EU's border agency Frontex, parroted the technocratic language of human rights.

"Those people [migrants] are not criminals. It is not a criminal offense to cross the border illegally," he said at a press briefing in Brussels in May 2015.

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  • In 2005, Frontex's annual budget was €6m. Under Leggeri's watch, its annual budget rose until it is now €850m. (Photo: European Union, 2019)

He had just taken up the role of Frontex chief in January of that year. And he would go on to describe migrants as victims of a system of criminal exploitation.

The debate at the time largely mirrored the ones happening today.

EU officials denounced tragedies of people drowning at sea and washing up on European shores, followed by alarm at the number of boats crossing primarily from the north African coast.

In early 2015, senior European Commissioner Frans Timmermans deplored the deaths of some 300 people off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

And in the same breath, he warned that the EU has never before been confronted with such high number of arrivals since the 1990s. "All EU member states are affected," said Timmermans, in comments meant to alarm the wider public.

A few months later, a special EU summit was convened. Their first "immediate priority" was to save lives at sea, they said. Instead, people would keep dying, while people-smugglers earned record profits.

Double speak

It is within this context that Leggeri took up his role as the helm of Frontex in January of 2015.

And it charted a collision course between EU political demands to curtail arrivals with their vacuous declarations on saving lives and respecting rights.

Leggeri is largely a product of the internal contractions at the EU level, the pull-and-tug of competing interests among EU states and a European Commission too weak and complacent to manage their demands.

"Frontex is multi-operational at the service of the political public of the European Union when it comes to the borders and migration," he said in 2021.

His vision of the agency was law enforcement, an operational arm of EU states to prevent irregular crossings, amid wider plans to have some 10,000 armed border guards under his remit.

The vision was matched with funding. In 2005, the agency's annual budget was €6m. Under Leggeri's watch, it once spent €94,000 on a dinner in Warsaw. Today, its annual budget is over €850m.

It was also a vision defended by Margaritis Schinas, the vice-president of the European Commission amid tensions with his socialist Swedish counterpart, Ylva Johansson, the commissioner for home affairs.

"I reiterate all our institutional support for the agency," said Schinas, at an event with Leggeri in early 2021 only days after Johansson scolded Leggeri.

The agency had come under intense scrutiny following reports it was complicit in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey.

The reports launched a probe by the EU's anti-fraud office Olaf, which had also uncovered a toxic and entitled management culture led by Leggeri and his inner circle.

Schinas, whose job title is "promoting our European way of life", would come to Leggeri's defence.

The Greek commissioner stood by the agency, saying it was up to Leggeri to resolve any issues.

"I don't accept some attempts by some to mix all this up to build a narrative that weakens the agency at a moment we need it the most. That I will never accept," Schinas said.

Far-right in sheep's clothing

By then Leggeri had become well versed in the EU's language of double speak, welcoming the Olaf probe.

"Thanks to these investigations and responses that we will give, we will able to be show that the work was not done in a way contrary to rights," he said.

A year later in early 2022, Athens handed him an award for having helped lower the number of arrivals on the Greek islands. A political objective had been met. A few months later, he resigned from the head of the agency in disgrace after Olaf confirmed abuses.

Now, Leggeri is back.

Over the weekend, he announced he had joined France's far-right National Rally ahead of the European elections in June.

"Our objective is clear: to regain control of the borders of the European Union and France," he said, on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

Leggeri evoked his seven years as executive-director of the Warsaw-based agency, as well as experience working for the French state.

He blasted his former paymasters at the European Commission for encouraging mass migration, blaming them for turning Frontex into a "super NGO managed by fundamental right monitors and officers."

This comes despite him claiming, while still head of the agency, that he was spearheading efforts to ensure fundamental rights within Frontex.

"We are developing and improving, of course, the monitoring of the fundamental rights," he had said in December of 2020.

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