3rd Dec 2023


Why Leggeri's resignation won't change Frontex

  • Frontex's annual budget has soared in recent years, ballooning to over €750m for 2022 (Photo: European Union, 2019)
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The problems facing the EU's border force, Frontex, remain despite the resignation of its chief, Fabrice Leggeri, last week.

Aija Kalnaja, the most senior executive deputy executive director in the agency, will take on the role until someone more permanent is found.

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But even under a longer-term replacement, the agency will still be confronted with the rights violations that Leggeri oversaw.

Those are intricately linked to the political and operational marching orders given by the member states, as well as the signals coming out of the European Commission.

"The political landscape will not make it easy for that person [a new Frontex director] to navigate because of this drastic shift towards a kind of almost normalisation of pushbacks," said Hanne Beirens, the director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe.

Some EU states want the external EU borders sealed, at the expense of rights enshrined in both EU and international law. In Poland, border police are forcing back people from Afghanistan or Senegal into Belarus.

Such moves, known as pushbacks, are illegal under EU law, but have since been circumvented by national emergency rules and implicitly condoned.

The European Commission will not challenge Poland on it. It may issue statements of concern and make policy proposals. But with no legal action, it effectively condones national rules out of fear member states will clamp down on the EU's border-free Schengen area.

Preserving the Schengen zone is sacrosanct to the European Commission, but it also allowed EU states to impose internal checks without question over the years.

Other signals stretch back to early 2020, when thousands of people crossed in from Turkey's land border to Greece.

Frontex at the time had deployed two rapid border forces to Greece, one on the land border along the Evros with Turkey, and another in the Aegean sea.

The maritime deployment was under the tactical command of Greece — allowing the agency to forgo direct responsibility for pushbacks. Evidence collected by civil advocacy groups and investigative journalists showed that Frontex was complicit in those pushbacks.

The Greek state denied any wrongdoing and, for Leggeri, that meant the case was closed.

When Greece suspended asylum claims for a month over its clash with Turkey, the commission did not react. Instead, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen praised Athens for being a "shield" for the rest of the EU.

Support also came from EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas, himself Greek.

"As we proved in Evros at the beginning of March, Europe can now effectively ensure border management," Schinas said at the time.

Leggeri would later argue with European lawmakers, telling them that EU regulations allowed the agency to carry out "interceptions" in the Aegean. This included apprehending boats of people, who were then "invited to change course" back to Turkey, he said.

When thousands crossed from Belarus into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania late last year, the commission rolled back asylum rights to counteract the regime in Minsk.

Double task

It is within this mix that the Warsaw-based agency operates, while at the same time expected to uphold fundamental rights.

Leggeri, who had taken on the role of Frontex executive director in 2015, told reporters that all its operations would "be fully in line with fundamental rights."

He made the statement in July 2016, around a week after the European Parliament had signed off on reinforcing its mandate.

Frontex would become the European Border and Coast Guard Agency with additional tasks to rapidly deploy agents and step up returns of rejected asylum seekers.

The new rules had also laid out an "integrated border management", building blocks of Leggeri's grand vision to turn Frontex into a law-enforcement agency.

By early 2018, the vision became a reality and was further reinforced with a new mandate a year later to have some 10,000 armed border guards under its command.

Policing focus

With the focus shifting onto policing, Leggeri largely ignored the issue of rights, while also making the agency less transparent.

It took him five years after being alerted of rights violations before the agency finally pulled operations from Hungary. And the decision was made only after the EU court ruled against Hungary for pushing people into Serbia.

An internal system of checks, where people could issue complaints, was also largely glossed over. So was a deadline to hire 40 fundamental rights monitors in the agency.

Marie De Somer, migration expert from the Brussels-based think tank, the European Policy Centre, says that too has to change.

"Given the systemic nature of Frontex's involvement in fundamental rights violating practices, its general institutional culture and operational practices will have to be modified as well," she said.

Similar comments were made by Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the Brussels-based NGO European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

"In the future, accountability mechanisms need to function better to ensure that problems are addressed at an earlier stage," she said.

New Frontex leadership may help change the culture. But it will also be up to EU states to change the operations to respect rights.

Frontex chief tenders resignation

Fabrice Leggeri took on the role of the executive director of #Frontex in 2015. He posted a resignation letter earlier this week. Another senior official, Thibauld de la Haye Jousselin, may also have resigned.


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.

Frontex left 'traumatised' says caretaking leadership

Aija Kalnaja took over Frontex as a caretaker after its executive director Fabrice Leggeri resigned last month. On Monday, she promised more transparency and better management of the Warsaw-based agency.

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