Thursday

19th May 2022

Frontex chief tenders resignation

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Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency Frontex, appears to have resigned following years of intense public scrutiny on rights violations, and an internal probe by the EU's anti-fraud office Olaf.

With an annual budget that has ballooned over the years, reaching over €750m for 2022, the agency is by far the EU's most powerful and is set to have some 10,000 armed guards under its command.

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Leggeri, in a letter dated 28 April, blamed his resignation on apparently surreptitious rule changes in the agency's mandate, which was renewed in June 2019.

"I give my mandate back to the management board as it seems that the Frontex mandate on which I have been elected and renewed in June 2019 has silently but effectively been changed."

This contradicts the European Commission, which on Friday (29 April) told reporters in Brussels that the mandate has not been changed or modified.

"No, not in this sense," said an EU commission spokesperson, when asked. "Frontex's mission has always been to both protect the EU borders and uphold fundamental values," said the spokesperson.

Another ranking Frontex official, Thibauld de la Haye Jousselin, may also have resigned.

When pressed, the agency told EUobserver on Thursday that Jousselin had gone on annual leave and that "more information might be available after he is back."

Both, along with a third person in Frontex, are part of an Olaf investigation into rights violations of people seeking safety in the EU as well other issues dealing with staff harassment.

The resignation also comes after years of intense media reporting on violations on its alleged role in pushbacks in Greece and elsewhere.

This includes investigations coordinated by the Dutch-based LightHouse Reports, along with its media partners like Germany's Der Spiegel, that revealed Frontex complicity in pushbacks in the Aegean Sea.

The revelations, along with other problems, have been repeatedly highlighted in the media — but with little EU institutional blowback.

Aside from a European Parliament probe into the issue, the agency and its leadership has been sheltered from any fallout. The apparent impunity links back to the weakness of the EU's system of checks and balances, which relies heavily on articles of faith that others are saying and doing what they claim.

For instance, when Frontex asks the Greek authorities to look into a possible violation, Athens will respond that there was no violation. Despite evidence to the contrary, this will not be challenged.

"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'," Leggeri had said.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson has criticised the agency in the past for failing to hire fundamental rights monitors on time.

But her superior, EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas, has defended the agency time and again.

In early 2021, he described Frontex "as a central piece for the political success on migration in the years to come" despite numerous reports of rights abuse.

"I don't accept some attempts by some to mix all this up to build a narrative that weakens the agency at a moment we need it the most. That I will never accept," said Schinas at the time.

The European Commission now appears to be distancing itself from those comments, noting that Schinas was talking about the agency and not its leadership.

Leggeri took on the post of Frontex executive director in January 2015, after starting his career in the French interior ministry.

The large arrival of refugees, mostly from Syria in 2015 and 2016, helped cement the expanding powers of Frontex to shore up the external borders of the European Union.

Those powers were proposed by the European Commission, which at the same time, says it has no oversight of the agency.

In 2018, Leggeri announced his vision of framing Frontex as a law-enforcement agency. The commission then reinforced the agency's powers again in 2019 with a plan to roll out 10,000 armed border guards.

By 2020, Frontex had launched over 1,000 aerial surveillance flights to help intercept irregular migrants.

He has since described it as a multi-operational agency "at the service of the political public of the European Union when it comes to the borders and migration."

In a statement, the socialist group of the European Parliament welcomed Leggeri's departure.

But not everyone is happy. Some critics say he should have been sacked. Among them is front-LEX, a Dutch based NGO.

"Leggeri should not have resigned. He should have been fired," said front-LEX lawyers Omer Shatz and Iftach Cohen.

Both had last month demanded the European Commission, which sits on the Frontex management board, to table a proposal for Leggeri's resignation.

Analysis

Frontex: Europe's new law enforcement agency?

The past 18 months have seen the EU's border agency Frontex morph into a law enforcement as it steps up efforts to crack down on crime and terrorism.

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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