June 17, 2024

Column | Fixing Frontex: Possibilities for Reform

Frontex is an agency plagued by corruption and failing leadership—and it continues to interfere with the basic rights of migrants. Solving this starts with prioritizing reform and working to bring Frontex back to its founding principles of responsibly improving EU border management.

Demonstration against Frontex in Warsaw, Poland. Image Credit: Flickr.

In the summer of 2023, Frontex’s Fundamental Rights Officer Jonas Grimheden recommended the EU immediately suspend the agency’s activities in Greece. Grimheden saw this as an imperative action to prevent further abuses of migrant’s rights. Frontex’s Chief Hans Leijtens took the opposite stance, telling reporters that a suspension of Frontex activities in Greece “affects our capability to save lives.” So which is it? Is Frontex saving lives or destroying them? 

Frontex is stuck in a crisis of intense dichotomy between its goals and its actions. The original intention behind the now intensely scrutinized agency was to “ensure safe and well-functioning external borders providing security.” But 19 years after the EU created its mandate, Frontex continues to create “insecure and undignified conditions” at EU borders. This tragic collapse of the agency’s core mandate is well documented, but what is missing now is a plan of action to reverse damages and chart a new path for EU border management. 

Forced Transparency: The OLAF Report 

Attempts to reform Frontex were born out of an accident. A leaked report in late 2022 from the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF, which was only supposed to be read by a select few EU officials, set off a reckoning for the agency. A letter from an internal whistleblower, containing testimony from 20 witnesses gathered over 16 months, catalyzed the report’s initial investigation. The findings of the report confirm that Frontex is failing to abide by its own human rights regulations and encouraging practices that flagrantly violate human rights principles enshrined in foundational EU documents. In the direct aftermath of the leaked report, Frontex Chief Fabrice Leggeri immediately resigned. 

EU officials made many bold promises in the chaotic period following the leak, including the creation of a “‘new Action Plan’ for a Fundamental Rights Strategy” and hiring Fundamental Rights Monitors for Frontex. The latter has technically been the responsibility of Frontex since 2019 but was never realized under the organization’s leadership, proving the necessity for EU intervention. However, these reforms, which included Hans Leijtens’ appointment as the agency’s new Chief and increased verbal commitments to rights protection, still fall short. The leaked report was the beginning of a critical moment of vulnerability for Frontex. With all eyes on the organization, now is the time to act and reform the agency before it fades into the background of EU politics again.

Prioritizing Accountability

Efforts to reform Frontex vary across EU policy-making bodies and NGOs within the region. Some see Frontex as acceptable the way it is; others want it gone for good. One of the more popular NGO-led reform movements is aptly named Abolish Frontex. However, their goal of completely dissolving the agency is far too radical to be considered a possible avenue taken by the EU Commission. The agency’s reform will not be revolutionary and will likely have to work within the current bounds of its regulations. The bright side is that many regulations meant to keep the power of Frontex in check, specifically preexisting accountability measures, have never been fully utilized. The first such example is Article 46 of the Frontex Regulation which obliges the executive director of the agency to suspend any activities when fundamental rights are perceived as violated. In the history of Frontex’s operations, Article 46 was only triggered once in 2021 to abide by a ruling from the European Court of Justice surrounding border control in Hungary. To be most effective, Article 46 must be a tool that is utilized before courts step in, as this would show Frontex has improved its internal monitoring system.

 

Demonstration in Berlin in solidarity with refugees and against imposing barriers to immigration to Europe. Image Credit: Flickr.

Introducing accountability for Frontex must go beyond the agency’s internal monitoring system, which is where EU institutions come in. The EU Parliament holds immense power because of its ability to freeze funding for Frontex. The EU Parliament holds sole responsibility for implementing EU budgets and can temporarily suspend the dispersion of funds to agencies such as Frontex. In April of 2021, the EU Parliament delayed the discharge of funds to Frontex because there was reason to be concerned over the use of funding. While this only lasted until October of 2021, it proves the sheer power of budget-making authority within the EU. Frontex continues to receive more funding than any other EU agency, and therefore the EU Parliament should focus any budget approvals on the behavior of Frontex. The budgetary power to put Frontex funding into reserves exists but has yet to receive full EU approval. The goal of this policy would be to keep portions of the agency’s funding in a reserve that would require EU approval to be transferred to Frontex’s direct spending lines. This process would ensure that the EU checks the activities of Frontex before enabling full access to its entire set of annual funding. Unfortunately, EU efforts to initiate this process have been consistently stalled and, therefore, should be made a larger priority in 2024. 

Changing Frontex: What the Future Holds 

It is well established that Frontex is full of problems and is nowhere close to fulfilling its initial mandate from 2004. Despite the pessimism evident through most coverage of Frontex, there is hope for the future. To start, Hans Leijtens has vowed to introduce a more comprehensive transparency policy to address what he describes as a “toxic mixture of communication management style, procedures, [and]reporting” within the agency. 

It is a positive sign that the head of Frontex is recognizing faults within the agency, and what matters most is that this talk is backed up with tangible steps for reform. Leijtens has a lot of work to do, especially considering he is already standing in the way of internal monitoring systems attempting to halt rights violations. Frontex sits at a critical juncture, and EU intervention is the last resort for bringing the agency back to its founding principles. Strengthening EU border management does not need to violate human rights principles. Listening to NGOs and independent observers is where the EU should start, and rebuilding trust with Frontex leadership must come after punitive budget measures. Prioritizing reform of Frontex should be the EU’s top priority, considering that failure to do so will further jeopardize the bloc’s human rights record and threaten its legitimacy on the world stage. This is not just about a refugee crisis anymore, but a crisis of the global relevance of the European Union.  

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