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24th Mar 2019

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Frontex puts down roots in Poland

  • Frontex has rapidly outgrown its home in Warsaw's Spire complex. A new location, next to an old abandoned sports stadium, is underway. (Photo: European Commission)

When entering the Frontex office, it feels like going into any multinational company's building, like Google, for instance.

On an outdoor patio and inside the ultra modern building, groups of people from different European countries are conversing in English, in their different native accents. To enter, however, you have to pass through a security gate, which looks more restrictive than what you see at the airport - a reminder that it is a law enforcement agency.

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The Frontex offices are currently located in the new Warsaw Spire office complex in the city's Wola district. There, you can see some of the most original new buildings in Poland's capital, and some of the most chic and prestigious office spaces in the city.

Inside the building, the corridors are modern and bright, with white walls and a grey carpet-like floor-covering. It feels cosier and more comfortable than the European Commission's Berlaymont building in Brussels.

More people, less space

The migration crisis forced the EU to strengthen its border guards. A regulation adopted in September 2016 gave Frontex new powers, with a significant increase in budget and staffing.

The agency is hiring new people, which means squeezing more staff into less space.

"They are taking away the space we used to have for meetings, as well as putting new desks into the old rooms," says one of the Frontex employees. The agency is planning to rent some additional space in the coming months.

In 2015, Frontex employed 320 people, but now it employs 460. Nearly 170 people are involved in operations, 150 work as analysts, and 80 work on operational logistics. By 2020, the number of staff is expected to increase to 1,000.

The Frontex offices now occupy the 6th to 13th floor of the building and the lower levels are occupied by a bank. "Maybe we will have to take their space?" said a Frontex officer.

The budget of the agency will grow from €143 million in 2015 to €322 million in 2020. Frontex is currently running 12 operations in cooperation with EU states. The largest of them are sea operations – "Triton," off the coast of Italy and Malta (with more than 400 officers and 14 ships), and "Poseidon," in Greece and the Aegean Sea (with nearly 900 border guards and 14 ships). Maritime operations are the most expensive part of the agency's budget.

The agency also helps Bulgarian, Hungarian and Croatian guards in patrolling the borders with Serbia, and the Bulgarian authorities in monitoring the Turkish border – Frontex has 270 border guards deployed at these crossing points.

Political decision

Currently, Frontex operates mainly in southern Europe and the Mediterranean, but its headquarters are based in Poland. Does that make sense?

"Warsaw is a significant European city with good access to a big airport," said Ewa Moncure, a Frontex spokeswoman.

"Our operations take place at the external borders of the EU with the strongest migration pressure. Now it is mainly the Greek, Italian and Spanish maritime border, but what if migration pressure moves to Finland or to the Ukrainian border?"

The coordination of the current operations takes place on the spot anyway, in regional offices in Catania, Italy, or in Greece.

"The location of the headquarters does not play a crucial role. Analysts, the situation centre, finance section, administration, public procurement can work from anywhere in Europe," Moncure added. The situation centre is where Frontex officers monitor the situation in regions where the agency runs operations. Many people travel between Warsaw and the agency's operational sites.

'Warsaw is a significant European city', says a spokeswoman for Frontex. (Photo: Alexey Topolyanskiy)

The location of an EU agency is a political decision, which is usually made around the time it is created.

Poland joined the EU in 2004, together with nine other nations, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe. A year before, the EU had decided that, when establishing new agencies, "priority" should be given to locations in the new member states. Frontex was one of the first to be created after that decision.

Polish compromises

Frontex is the only EU agency in Poland. It opened its office in Warsaw in 2005, but a dispute over its legal status has lasted for over a decade.

Frontex demanded that the Polish government partly finance the cost of building the new headquarters, open a European school in Warsaw for the children of the agency's foreign workers, and provide the Polish employees with diplomatic protection.

The Polish government considered these claims to be excessive, but eventually gave in and agreed to most of the demands. It granted enhanced diplomatic protection, but only to Frontex management staff and agreed to build a school. In the interim, children of foreign employers are attending various international schools in Warsaw.

Whether Poland will fund part of the construction costs of Frontex' headquarters has yet to be announced.

Last year, Warsaw was pressured to sign the agreement when the EU was reinforcing Frontex. Brussels gave the government a short deadline to close the negotiations – otherwise Poland risked losing the agency's headquarters.

The issue was settled by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government, which is in conflict with Brussels over migration policy. Poland had refused to accommodate any migrants in the EU relocation scheme, even though the former centre-right government agreed to take 7,000 of them.

In March 2017, the Polish minister of internal affairs, Mariusz Blaszczak, and the head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, signed an agreement ascertaining the seat of the agency's headquarters in Poland. The agreement is now pending ratification by the Polish parliament.

The agreement with the Polish government enables Frontex to build a new office, large enough to house its growing staff, from the ground up. The likely location, currently covered in tall grass behind a locked gate, is next to an old abandoned sports stadium.

It is also next to the headquarters of the Polish Intelligence Agency and is not in the immediate centre of the city. There are not very many bars and cafes there, especially compared to the current one. On the other hand, it will be much closer to Warsaw's Chopin Airport, which is practical because the agency sees many foreign visitors.

Frontex will be responsible for construction and funding. The agency has five years to undertake the investment, but wants to start sooner, alongside plans to hire new staff. But there is no architectural plan or budget yet.

66% of Brussels wages

Building the new headquarters will be a logistical challenge, but Frontex has to hire staff regardless.

For Western Europeans, Warsaw is not a particularly attractive place to work, especially because of the so-called correction coefficient – an indicator that adjusts the wages of EU workers to the local cost of living, which, in Poland, is around 66 percent of what EU employees earn in Brussels. This means that a person coming from the West can expect to earn around two-thirds of a Brussels wage for his or her position.

According to EU law and the agreement with the Polish government, non-Polish workers will be granted exemptions from the obligation to pay taxes in Poland. They will also benefit from a VAT exemption when making large purchases, such as a car.

"The agency is expanding in different fields, so we can be an interesting place to work," said Moncure. "We are becoming one of the central EU agencies."

At present, 182 out of 460 people working in Frontex are Polish. 30 are Spanish, 29 Romanian and 28 Italian. There are also between 10 and 20 Greeks and between 10 and 20 Portuguese officers. This year, a hundred new people have been employed.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Regions & Cities Magazine.

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