On 18 October, the European Parliament voted to refuse the approval of the 2020 Frontex budget. Home Affairs Commissioner, Johansson expresses “shock” over findings in the leaked report by EU watch-dog OLAF but has confidence in the Management Board. Frontex states that the misconduct revealed in the report are “Practices of the Past” but NGOs finds no difference urging EU action against Greece and suspension of the agency’s operations.

In line with the European Parliament’s Budget Control Committee’s recommendations from 6 October, the European Parliament on 18 October refused to approve the 2020 budget of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex in a 354 to 284 vote. The Left in the European Parliament commented, stating: “MEPs refuse to endorse the use of public money for fundamental rights abuses, illegal pushbacks, and horrific violence at EU borders”. Greens/EFA MEP and member of the Committee of Budgetary Control stated: “To this date, Frontex has still not carried out the structural reforms called for by the European Parliament in our 2019 discharge report or remedied the human rights violations identified by OLAF. With a budget of 900 million euros in 2022, Frontex is the most well-funded European agency. We can no longer tolerate public money being used to violate European legislation and international law”. Not all MEPs were satisfied with the result and reportedly Jeroen Lenaers from the European People’s Party (EPP), stated: “to refuse discharge to Frontex is a political game played by those that do not like Frontex and who are allergic to border management because they believe Europe should roll out the red carpet to each and every person that wants to come here”.

The vote came amid the ongoing controversy over a report by EUs over a damning report by the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF leaked over the summer and published in full by Der Spiegel on 13 October. In advance of an EP plenary debate on 17 October MEPs from the left and green groups ventilated their frustration with the agency. Left MEP Cornelia Ernst urged the EU to “take human rights seriously & not be an accomplice in covering up illegal pushbacks, the consequence of which is often death” and Green MEP, Tineke Strik stated: “Tonight, the Parliament will hold a plenary debate about the findings of OLAF on Frontex’ cover-up of fundamental rights violations by Greece, and its general culture of disregarding human rights. Thanks to the revelation of the report by journalists, we can now speak publicly”.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson stated: “I am aware reading the report will have shocked many of you. Just as it shocked me” but also emphasized that she is: “convinced that the Management Board of Frontex has assumed its responsibility fully”. The commissioner found that despite “extremely serious” and “severe misconduct” by former Frontex director, Leggeri and two other staff members, thousands of border guards are protecting EU borders in compliance with fundamental rights. The organisation front-LEX recently announced another lawsuit against Frontex before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on behalf of a young man pushed back from Greece to Turkey, stated: “The only thing that has changed since OLAF is the name of the Executive Perpetrator. Nothing has changed in Greece: New victims are abducted and abandoned to drown as before. Nothing has changed in Brussels Ylva Johansson backs Aija Kalnaja (Frontex Executive Director ad interim), just as she backed Leggeri (former Frontex Executive Director)”. The same position is reflected in a statement from Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled ‘The EU Continues to Acquiesce to Greece Border Abuses’. The organisation’s Western Europe researcher, Eva Cossé notes that: “Frontex continues to operate in Greece as before, and Greek authorities still push people back to Turkey, as evidenced by Human Rights Watch’s most recent report, published just six months ago”. Cossé urges the Commission to: “open legal proceedings against the Greek government for violating EU laws prohibiting collective expulsions, or forcing back whole groups. It should also press authorities to establish an effective, independent border monitor to investigate and deter violence, and the commission should ensure that its funding for border management does not contribute to violations of fundamental rights and EU laws”. In conclusion she states: “It is now high time for Frontex to suspend or terminate operations. The EU’s acquiescence in Greece’s border abuses must end”.

In its response to the leaked report revealing severe human rights violations including violent pushbacks by Greek authorities covered up by Frontex, the agency stated “These were practices of the past”. Further, Frontex partly acknowledged the findings stating that aside from serious misbehavior of individuals: “the report identifies three key issues. Firstly, the Fundamental Rights Officer was prevented from accessing operational information, which is contrary to the provisions of the 2019 Regulation of the European Border and Coast Guard. Secondly, the Fundamental Rights Officer was not assigned as a case-handler for reports on serious incidents with alleged violations of Fundamental Rights. Thirdly, staff doing their job, assuming responsibility, following procedure and reporting these types of serious incidents to the hierarchy, were blatantly ignored by individuals who have been investigated by OLAF”. WhatsApp exchanges between senior Frontex officials illustrate the approach to the agency’s compliance with fundamental rights and the Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO) of whom a message cited in the report says: “And all we have to do is confirm that [redacted] is the first Frontex [redacted] that reports everything to NGOs and causes Khmer Rouge terror to reign in the agency”.

The Frontex consultative forum of fundamental rights published its ninth annual report for the year 2021 on 17 October. “It will be important for accountability and transparency that external oversight mechanisms including the European Commission, the European Parliament, the ECA and the European Ombudsperson continue observing the implementation of their recommendations and that impact assessment and evaluations of the Agency’s activities include fundamental rights”, the form stated in the executive summary.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.