EU should have fired Frontex head, not let him resign
The resignation of the head of the EU’s border management agency Frontex last week looked like an admission of guilt that risks making European governments accomplices in illegal practices such as leaving people adrift at sea and other violations of human rights.
Fabrice Leggeri, a 54-year old Frenchman, had headed the agency since 2015, just a few months before Europe’s worst post-war refugee crisis, which saw over a million people fleeing the war and Syria and violence elsewhere, crossing the borders into Europe without heeding the rules.
It was perhaps a bureaucrat’s dream: the crisis gave Frontex access to ever more staff, resources and power. Yet while that happened, Leggeri came increasingly under pressure over allegations of malpractice.
In July last year, the EU’s anti-fraud office (OLAF) launched an investigation into Frontex, in particular its determination to keep Europe’s external borders shut at all costs – even if that meant putting lives at risk. When OLAF confronted Leggeri with early findings, he quit, fearing disciplinary measures.
“I give my mandate back to the management board as it seems that the Frontex mandate on which I have been elected and renewed in June 2019 has silently but effectively been changed,” Leggeri said in a letter, according to UK newspaper The Guardian, which quoted from it.
The quote (which the Eurocrat could not herself confirm) shows Leggeri felt he was well within his mandate to act as he did. In that view, EU governments – who are all represented in the managing board of Frontext – would be accomplices if OLAF found that Frontext agents violated human rights.
This should not come as a surprise. OLAF is keeping its findings under wraps, as the inquiry – which could have legal ramifications – is ongoing. But the accusations against Frontex are far from new. The EU ombudsman, the European Parliament, and even the European Commission have all looked into Frontext after repeated allegations in international media of illegal behaviour.
Leggeri’s letter was dated on the same day that media published new evidence of wrongdoing by the agency, alleging Frontex was involved in illegal pushbacks of at least 957 asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021. In at least 22 cases, people were left adrift at sea.
Too little, too late
Others looking into Frontex has also consistently found evidence of wrongdoing with the agency. The UN has heavily criticized pushbacks, while the Commission accused Leggeri of lying to the European Parliament when it confronted him with the findings of another investigation.
The Commission also said he had not done enough to internally investigate the allegations of violations of human rights. And yet, nothing happened. The EU should never have allowed Leggeri to resign, but should have fired him. Instead, anti-migration hardliners supported him.
The only thing all EU countries seem to agree on when it comes to dealing with migration is to keep the external borders shut - whatever that takes. A reform of the EU’s migration policy is long overdue. At the moment, it comes at the expense of a respect for human rights and intentional law.
The fact that people have consistently been abused on the EU’s watch is a disgrace, especially in a continent that praises itself as a leader in humanitarian values. Human beings should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of where they come from. Especially when fleeing war or persecution.
Leggeri’s resignation is a blow for the EU’s migration policy, but it is also an opportunity. The EU must be transparent and accountable when it comes to Frontext. Whoever takes over the job needs to guarantee that the EU is not willing to violate basic human rights when protecting its borders.
What the Eurocrat will also be watching:
Energy will be the key issue on the agenda of the EU this week. On Monday, ministers will discuss whether to ban oil imports from Russia. Germany, long considered close to Russia, is drifting towards supporting the bid, but unanimity is needed and Hungary is already flirting with a blocking vote.