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23rd May 2022

Frontex guilty of inflating legal fees against activists

  • Frontex itself revealed the name of this ship, part of its Triton mission, on Twitter. When activists demanded similar details of other vessels in the same operation, the agency refused - and took them to court (Photo: Frontex)

EU border agency Frontex overcharged its legal fees in a case it won against transparency activists by more than double the correct amount, an EU court has ruled.

The General Court of the EU on 26 March said the Warsaw-based agency had unjustifiably invoiced travel expenses and hours for a private lawyer totalling €23,700.

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"The intention behind the legal bill was clear: to prevent us - and anyone else - from taking them to court again," said the activists, Arne Semsrott and Luisa Izuzquiza, in an emailed statement.

The bill has now been reduced to €10,520, which the pair said will be paid to Frontex. There are no appeals.

For its part, Frontex said that it welcomed the decision, noting the release of the information the pair had requested could have potentially endangered personnel.

The case was several years in the making, stemming back to late 2017 when Semsrott and Izuzquiza filed access to documents request on an Frontex operation known as Triton.

They had sought information on the name, type and flag of every vessel which Frontex had deployed between 1 June and 30 August 2017 in the central Mediterranean.

Some of those had already been posted by the agency itself on Twitter - such as the image at the top of this article.

But Frontex still refused to release the documents, and the case went to the EU court in Luxembourg, where the activists ultimately lost and were told to reimburse the agency's €23,700 legal fees.

The pair declined, amid accusations that Frontex could easily absorb the fees given its annual budget, which is currently €544m.

They also accused the Warsaw-based agency of sending a chilling effect to civil society, calling the legal bill excessive.

Frontex countered by saying they were following court orders and needed to recuperate the money to protect the EU budget.

The agency then counter-sued last December to claw back the €23,700 bill.

But the EU general court faulted the agency for not being able to fully explain why it charged the amount that it did.

The Frontex lawyer had invoiced 85.25 hours at €230 an hour, later reduced to €161.

The court also cast doubt on the claimed workload, noting that the case was straightforward and simple.

"It follows that the case, in the main proceedings, does not appear to have generated a particularly large amount of work for Frontex's lawyer," it said.

Frontex had also billed travel expenses to Brussels to attend a hearing.

But the court said the agency had done so "without, however, providing the slightest explanation as to its purpose or why it was necessary."

The European Parliament earlier this year refused to sign off on Frontex's budget, the only EU agency out of dozens to have been politically shamed by the MEPs.

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.

Analysis

Frontex is its own worst enemy

The Warsaw-based agency held out 105 days, refusing freedom of information requests, before it finally revealed a partial breakdown of costs linked to its annual European Border and Coast Guard Day. Such delays, on spending, tend to arouse suspicions.

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.

Opinion

Frontex: An EU agency gone rogue?

In a Kafka-esque irony, Frontex is withholding public access to documents pertaining to the response of a public institution to a protest by members of the public on grounds that this would violate the "public interest".

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