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21st May 2022

Analysis

Brussels in push for more oversight over troubled EU border agency

  • Johansson (l) "We should at least once a year have a political management board for Frontex with ministers." (Photo: European Union, 2022)
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The European Commission is mulling additional oversight of the EU's powerful border and coast guard agency, Frontex.

The suggestion amounts to an admission that accountability over the agency, which is the EU's most well funded but also its most contested, is falling short.

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But it may also be a way for Brussels to deflect criticism of an agency that could soon take on heavier duties if there's a conflict over Ukraine and a resurgence of pressure on EU borders from people seeking safety.

Frontex has been the subject of allegations of involvement in the migrant pushbacks from Europe and has also faced criticism for lavish expenditures.

The idea was most recently floated by the EU's home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson at an interior ministerial meeting in France late last week.

"We should at least once a year have a political management board for Frontex with ministers," said Johansson. The new board would be used "to gather and take some political steering and make policies for the development of Frontex," she said.

The European Commission said it was open to new ideas for ways in which the agency can carry out its mandate.

"Indeed the commissioner raised the possibility of more political governance and oversight," said an EU spokesperson, noting that talks on the idea were ongoing.

Frontex has its own management board but that is composed of national police authorities plus two members of the European Commission. This board is tasked to "control the functions of the agency."

The current chair of the board is a senior officer from Slovenia's interior ministry.

Hanne Beirens, the director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe, said the European Commission's influence over the board was an issue.

There was "limited power in terms of how the group can steer both the work programme but also if there are problems with any of the operations," she said.

Beirens said Frontex is dealing with highly sensitive issues in the fields of migration and security while being under the line of fire over allegations of breaching fundamental rights — and that such allegations pose a reputational risk for the European Union.

"I think that it is within that framework that you have to see a kind of push forward on greater influence on the operations," she said.

Both the European Parliament and Council have some political oversight over Frontex.

The European Parliament has also set up a scrutiny group to probe allegations the agency had been involved in illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers off the Greek islands.

But last year, Johansson also pointed out that the EU executive, the commission, was in "no position to give instructions or guidance to the agency or to the executive director".

She said a new management board was needed given Frontex's leading role in managing migration and in other areas.

The extent to which a new Frontex board would control and scrutinise an agency that the French, in particular, appear to want to give more power, still is an open question.

French-led plans also involve creating a so-called mechanism of solidarity and rapid intervention.

The idea is to coordinate all responses whenever a flash point arises at the external border, similar to the skirmishes seen last year between Poland and Belarus.

France's interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said the mechanism "is about providing something that is in addition to Frontex."

"It does not replace Frontex at all, we want more human resources, material resources for Frontex," said Darmanin.

The ideas also come at a time when Frontex is set to have some 10,000 armed border guards under its command, known as a standing corps.

Recently, it signed a €3.76m four-year contract with Austrian manufacturer Glock to procure 2,500 9×19 mm semi-automatic pistols.

Analysis

Frontex scrutiny on rights violations is a PR stunt

Greece denies any illegal pushbacks at sea. The EU takes their version of events as face value, in a system unable and unwilling to shed doubt on Greek authorities - posing accountability questions on the EU's border guard agency Frontex.

EU Commission cannot hold Frontex to account

MEPs probing the EU's border agency Frontex cross-examined the agency's director. They also spoke to EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, who made it clear she had little sway over the agency.

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