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25th Feb 2024

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Frontex chief took €8,500 private flight to Brussels meeting

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The EU's border agency Frontex spent €8,500 to send its executive director Fabrice Leggeri on a private jet to attend a meeting in Brussels.

The expense poses new questions about operations at the EU's most well-funded agency, which has in the past billed the EU taxpayer €94,000 for a gala dinner at the Belvedere restaurant in Warsaw.

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With a half-billion euro annual budget, Frontex, based in Warsaw, is the largest and most powerful of EU agencies - with an annual budget that has ballooned in recent years, as the bloc prioritises the security of its external borders.

Leggeri, the head of the border and coast guard agency, has long been under fire from MEPs and human rights groups for alleged illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers off the Greek islands. The agency has denied any wrong-doing.

Frontex is also being investigated by the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, over allegations linked to mismanagement, harassment and pushbacks.

The revelation about his private flight is unlikely to improve Leggieri's profile with his critics.

The flight dates back to 4 March, 2020, when Leggieri flew from Warsaw to Brussels to meet with EU justice and home affairs ministers to discuss a border emergency following attempts by thousands of asylum seekers and refugees to cross by land between Turkey and Greece.

Leggeri caught the flight in the early afternoon, after receiving an invitation to join the ministers a day prior.

But flight information shows commercial alternatives at a fraction of the cost would have been available. Polish airlines LOT had also flown three flights from Warsaw to Brussels on that same day, according to UK-based OAG Aviation.

"Please be informed that some seats on the mentioned flights remained available," said LOT airlines, in an email, when queried about flight numbers 231, 233, and 235.

A typical fare costs several hundred euros or less. The flights took place prior to any Covid-related restrictions or impact on the airlines.

Figures from Eurocontrol, a pan-European organisation on aviation, shows no anomaly of flight traffic from Warsaw to Brussels on 4 March 2020.

In its defence, Frontex says the private jet was the only option because of a scheduling conflict.

In a letter of reply to an access to documents request filed by EUobserver, the agency said the Brussels council had coincided with a management board meeting in Warsaw, which ended at 1PM.

Leggeri's attendance was needed at both, said Frontex's press office, noting that no other commercial flights were available at the time.

"In order to take part in both meetings, the executive director was forced to charter a flight from Warsaw to Brussels as there were no other connections in the early afternoon of that day," Frontex's press office said in an email.

"The executive director's presence was required in two different cities 1,300km apart, on the same day with no commercial flights available," it added.

Yet that statement appears to contradict LOT airlines, which said some seats had "remained available" on the flights to Brussels.

The Frontex press office also said there were no teleconference/virtual systems available at the time.

Leggeri returned to Warsaw from Brussels on a LOT flight on 5 March for the far less princely sum of €445.

Frontex was asked on Wednesday for Leggeri's personal comment on the matter but his office did not send any further responses.

The 4 March meeting in Brussels was attended by executive directors from the EU agencies at The Hague-based Europol and the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office (Easo).

Europol billed the taxpayer €135 to send its executive Catherine De Bolle to Brussels, who used a train and car given the relatively short distance. Easo charged €950 to send its executive director, Nina Gregori.

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