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8th May 2021

Analysis

Frontex is its own worst enemy

  • Frontex held its final European Border and Coast Guard Day in 2019 (Photo: Frontex)

The EU border agency Frontex has taken 105 days to respond to a question from EUobserver.

How much taxpayer money did you spend on a one-off annual dinner in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019?

Read and decide

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  • Breakdown of dinner costs from executive director Fabrice Leggeri (Photo: Ozlem Demirel)

The question was asked because in 2015, it footed a €94,000 bill for a gala dinner in Warsaw at its European Border and Coast Guard Day.

For some, this came as a shock.

For others, this was a non-issue. After all, it was attended by 800 people.

But the question was also asked because the agency had taken pro-transparency activists to court over an outstanding €24,000 legal bill.

The activists refused to pay, saying it would create a chilling effect for civil society.

Frontex, in response, said the court had ordered them to pay their legal fee.

It then added it was also tasked to "ensure sound financial management" and "to protect the financial interests of the EU."

Some may wonder as to whether spending €94,000 on a dinner fits the scope of such tasks.

Altogether, Frontex spent over €2m to host its one-day annual events.

An EUobserver article on the topic was then published, gaining considerable traction.

With 2015 dinner costs sorted, EUobserver asked for a similar breakdown for 2016 to 2019 as a follow-up.

The response was a firm 'no'.

A freedom of information request filed last December was denied in January. An appeal filed in February was rejected last week.

This invariably creates suspicion. Why would they release the 2015 figures but not 2016 to 2019?

Furthermore, it redacted entire documents, claiming the information was commercially sensitive.

"The redactions were necessary as they contained detailed information on the negotiations of the prices," its spokesperson, said in an email.

It also said the Frontex press department would instead respond.

Which it did on 25 March after EUobserver published an article on the redactions.

The spokesperson took issue with the article. He said it "presented a false picture of the type of information Frontex" was providing.

He also complained that the agency was not given an "opportunity to provide additional information" to questions first asked in early December 2020.

He also noted, in a follow-up email, that the 2015 figures were released because they had directly organised the event, unlike in 2016 to 2019.

Follow the money

Most reporters are taught to follow the money. And Frontex is not just any agency.

Its annual budget has increased dramatically over the years. In 2006 it was €19m. Today it is €544m.

The EU has over 30 agencies.

Last week, MEPs overseeing budgets gave them all a clean bill of health. All except for Frontex.

Among other things, they faulted the agency for "meeting representatives of companies that are not listed in the [European] Union transparency register."

Yet the agency had previously claimed it only met companies in the register.

Some of those companies they met include the security and defence industry.

And some of those representatives were present at Frontex's annual celebrations, which ended with big dinners.

The disclosures were part of a wider investigation known as the Frontex Files.

So how much did Frontex spend on dinners in 2016 to 2019?

Relatively little. But it also depends who you ask.

The agency's press office provided the figures to this website on Thursday (25 March).

But they don't match those given to Ozlem Demirel, a German leftwing MEP.

She received a breakdown in a letter signed by Frontex's executive-director, Fabrice Leggeri.

In it, he reveals reimbursement, hotel and dinner costs for one day annual events held in 2015 to 2019.

The dinners were:

2015: €94,171.03

2016: €25,616.11

2017: €20,682.20

2018: €28,107.13

2019: €29,450.92

These figures are slightly higher than the ones shared by their press office, posing further questions on proper record keeping.

Leggeri's letter also does not offer the full breakdown, leaving the bulk of the costs hidden.

The agency spent, for example, over €580,000 for the event in 2018.

For some, this may be taxpayer money well spent, for others, not.

But denying people the knowledge to make up their own minds appears counter-intuitive.

Frontex is a public institution. Like any other other, it needs to be held to account.

Stirring suspicion only raises the scrutiny for an agency facing multiple other probes.

Frontex redacts its hospitality spending figures

The EU's border agency Frontex has blacked-out entire documents on how it spends EU taxpayer money on itself, including gala dinners and hotels. The agency, whose annual budget has soared to €544m, claims there is "no overriding public" interest.

Exclusive

Frontex spent €94,000 on a dinner in Warsaw

The European Border and Coast Guard Day is held every May. The event includes movies, football and volleyball matches between Frontex and national border guards, shooting competitions and exercises to detect smugglers.

Frontex takes transparency activists to EU court

The EU border agency Frontex's annual budget for 2020 is €460m. Now they are launching court proceedings against two pro-transparency campaigners for not paying them €24,000 in legal fees after losing a case last year.

Analysis

Why Frontex won't leave Greece, like it left Hungary

After five years and a European Court ruling against Hungary, Frontex finally decided to leave the country, given Budapest's rights violations. Such alleged violations are also taking place in Greece - but the prospect of Frontex leaving is low.

Frontex guilty of inflating legal fees against activists

A lawyer for Frontex billed too many hours in a case against transparency activists, the General Court of the European Union ruled. The agency had demanded a €23,700 legal bill from the activists - now reduced by over half.

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