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17th Jan 2022

Opinion

Frontex: An EU agency gone rogue?

  • Frontex's HQ in Warsaw. It was the Brussels office that saw a direct-action protest by citizens concerned at its operations in the Mediterranean and elsewhere (Photo: European Union, 2019)
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Earlier this month, transparency activists from the German NGO FragdenStaat brought a suitcase containing €10,520.76 to Frontex - the sum of legal fees claimed by the EU border agency over a lost court case.

Despite calls from the EU Parliament, human rights NGOs and more than 80,000 petition signatories to drop its demand, Frontex insisted on the payment, threatening forceful recovery.

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This was not the first time civil society groups directly challenged the agency at its premises.

Nor was it the first time that the agency opted for a strategy of intimidation when confronted with citizens' discontent.

In early June, a group of activists covered the façade of the Frontex office in Brussels with fake blood and posters. With parallel direct actions staged in seven other countries, they demanded the "abolition" of Frontex and "demilitarisation" of Europe's borders.

Internal email

An internal email sent to Frontex staff just hours after that protest took place, reveals how the #AbolishFrontex campaign, a coalition of more than 70 European NGOs, was labelled by Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of the agency, as a "hate campaign".

The protest, he wrote, was an act of "violence" that "is the result of several months of hate speech against Frontex".

Reminiscent of language used by public officials in times of terrorist attacks, Leggeri informed his staff how "deeply shocked" he was "by these incidents and the upsetting situation that our colleagues in Brussels had to face today".

In a separate email, Leggeri called upon Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner, to express "any form of solidarity towards Frontex and its staff". He urged his colleagues to "stay strong" and vowed not to "not let such situations happen again".

This much the agency has been willing to reveal in response to an access to documents request.

Thanks to a leak of the complete email obtained by Lighthouse Reports, we now also know what Frontex chose to redact: namely, Leggeri's pledge to "not let the attackers get away with such behaviour" and to "lodge a complaint so that the perpetrators of the attack are prosecuted in Belgium."

Citing the need to protect "ongoing investigations" and "internal decision-making", the agency's transparency office deems these phrases not to be fit for public consumption. In a Kafka-esque irony, then, 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".

A question of democracy

Labelling classic direct-action tactics as an "attack" could be dismissed as mere hyperbole. After all, the stained façade of the Brussels office, another internal email concedes, was left "spotless" just hours after the activists left.

But the language used by senior public officials to frame such acts of protest matters. Indeed, the emails offer a rare insight into how citizens' growing engagement with EU border control policies are perceived at the highest echelons of the agency.

The June protest came at the peak of months of unprecedented public scrutiny of Frontex - an in-depth inquiry by the European Parliament into the agency's complicity in human rights violations, multiple media exposes of systematic violence in the Aegean Sea, along the 'Balkan Route', and other areas where Frontex operates, investigations by the EU Ombudsman and Olaf, legal actions at the ICC and ECJ, along with repeated calls for Leggeri's resignation.

Throughout, civil society organisations - from Amnesty International to AbolishFrontex - have shone the spotlight not only on on the rule of law crisis at the EU's external borders but, crucially, the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding Frontex's role.

Taken together, all of these developments amount to a profound challenge, unprecedented for an EU body, to the agency's legitimacy.

Presumably, this is what Leggeri had in mind when he referred to "several months of hate speech against Frontex" that resulted in the June "attack". Frontex's response to the "hate campaign" has been a determined attempt to police the bounds of permissible public speech.

Leggeri makes this point explicit in his emails: "Actions like the one that happened in Brussels today are not in line with the EU values or the rule of law and cannot be considered as a contribution to a democratic debate about policy making."

When Frontex chose to disregard the European parliament to desist from actions that have "a chilling effect on civil society's access to justice in the field of access to documents which is a fundamental right", it was merely turning Leggeri's words into public policy.

And when its own 'transparency office' systematically obstructs transparency to pre-empt negative publicity, it shows how deeply normalised this anti-democratic ethos is within the agency.

At stake here is the question of citizens' involvement in public-political deliberation concerning EU border control policies. Ultimately, it's a question of democracy.

Set against the everyday brutalities facing those who cross Europe's borders, the response to these protests raises important questions about the agency's increasingly rogue status.

For when a public institution effectively resorts to coercion - fining citizens who are demanding greater transparency and criminalising peaceful protest - it begins to resemble something akin to a private fiefdom.

Author bio

Dr Ludek Stavinoha is a lecturer in media and international development at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. His research focuses on the politics of EU border control and migrant solidarity in Greece.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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