27th Sep 2021

Socialists demand resignation of EU border-agency chief

  • Romanian Border Guard Neustadt class vessel MAI 1103 under Frontex filmed blocking migrants from reaching Greece (Photo: Turkish Coast Guard) (Photo: Turkish Coast Gaurd)

The socialist camp in the European Parliament is demanding the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency Frontex.

The demand follows reported allegations of Frontex complicity over the past year in pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers heading across the Aegean sea from Turkey towards Greece.

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It also follows a hearing at the European Parliament on Tuesday (1 December), where Leggeri denied any wrongdoing.

He explained he was hamstrung by EU legislation, political clashes between Turkey and Greece, and internal wrangling over a stalled hiring spree of fundamental-rights monitors.

He also revealed a never-before-reported incident where a Danish-piloted helicopter on 27 July witnessed an alleged pushback off the Greek coast.

But in a statement after the hearing, the vice-president of the Socialists group Kati Piri still insisted it was time for Leggeri to go.

"In his handling of these allegations, executive director Fabrice Leggeri has completely lost our trust and it is time for him to resign," she said in a statement.

The allegations, detailed in late October by German media outlet Der Spiegel, as well as ARD along with Bellingcat and others, has rattled the Warsaw-based agency.

Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, has also been pressing for responses as scrutiny of the allegations intensifies while internal inquiries continue.

In his defence, Leggeri argued the EU's 2014 regulation on border surveillance was legally vague.

"Things should be clarified," he said, demanding additional guidance.

He said the regulation sets out the rules for search and rescue but gets murky when Turkey, for instance, sent F-16 jets to harass a Frontex plane operated by the Danes.

The same regulation also lays out rules on interception, where Leggeri says a boat can then be told to change course and not enter Greek territorial waters.

The six cases reported by the media outlets fall under this category and were further complicated by the Turkish harassment and its territorial disputes with Greece, he said.

"According to Turkey, Lesbos and all the islands we are deployed to are completely in the search and rescue of Turkey, while Greece says this is in the Greek search and rescue zone," he said.

But Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik disputed that argument, noting you cannot force people back to a country like Turkey without first assessing its safety.

"A return without such a check is a pushback," she said, in a Tweet after the hearing.

She had earlier floated the idea of setting up a formal inquiry committee to investigate Frontex.

Dutch Renew Europe MEP Sophie in 't Veld made other critical remarks.

"We would like to know we can trust you and I am beginning to wonder," she said of Leggeri.

She said the Turkish aggression cited by Leggeri does not absolve him of responsibilities.

Fundamental rights

Leggeri had also been pressed about the lack of fundamental-right monitors, noting the agency was supposed to have hired 40 before the end of the week.

But he said he had been forced to withdraw the vacancy notice last year over a dispute with the European Commission.

"I was forced to withdraw it because it was said it was not a managerial post," he said.

Leggeri said he wanted the post to be a management position, given that it entails handling some 50 people and a €2 million budget.

He then said the commission services took months "to understand the situation" followed by further delays linked to how to make the monitors independent.

He also said that he had acted proactively after a Frontex surveillance flight on the night of the 18 to 19 April had live streamed a possible pushback in the Aegean.

"I reported this because there was a serious incident report," he said.

He said letters had been sent to the Greek authorities but he was unable to act when they claimed no rules had been broken.

"I am sorry but in the system of the European Union, if a national government, if a minister sends a letter to the director of an EU agency and says everything was according to the law, I cannot say I don't trust you," he said.

"Perhaps there are other mechanisms to investigate and I am not sure that the fundamental rights officer is sufficient," he added.


EU anti-fraud office launches probe into Frontex

EUobserver was tipped off about the investigation by an anonymous source, who said Olaf had raided the offices of Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri and his chef de cabinet in early December given alleged misconduct.

MEPs seek parliament inquiry into Frontex

Some MEPs now want a formal inquiry into Frontex, plus member states, and the European Commission over allegations of illegal pushbacks. Dutch MEP Tineke Strik says she has so far received backing from the Greens, liberals and far-left GUE.

Romania denies forcing migrant-boat back to Turkish waters

Romania's ministry of internal affairs wrote to Frontex claiming it did not engage in any illegal pushbacks of people on rubber boats into Turkish territorial waters. The country says it followed EU engagement rules and Greek orders.

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