The investigative report of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) into allegations of serious misconduct within the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) is the latest in a series of damning evidence against the agency. Yet, for the past six months, we could not speak openly about this.
The European Union must be transparent about serious allegations against EU agencies acting on our collective behalf. The restricted access temporarily granted to members of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) was insufficient for the true exercise of democratic control, which requires public scrutiny and debate. I insisted on public access to the report but was given the run around for several months. It ended up taking six formal requests and a complaint before the EU ombudsman before OLAF gave a positive reply to my request and made its report publicly available (and only after Der Spiegel published it).
OLAF’s findings are shocking to say the least, but they are no surprise. NGOs, international organisations and media have systematically reported a pattern of fundamental rights violations and pushbacks at the EU’s external borders. This raised critical questions about the role and potential complicity of Frontex. With LIBE’s Frontex Scrutiny Working Group (FSWG), I conducted a fact-finding investigation into fundamental rights allegations and found numerous deficiencies that led to Frontex structurally failing its fundamental rights responsibilities.
The OLAF investigation is the latest in an ever-growing series of incriminations. It uncovered serious misconduct, mismanagement and other irregularities within Frontex. This ranges from the deliberate sidelining of the fundamental rights officer and intimidation and harassment, to the deliberate relocating of Frontex border guards away from locations where they could witness illegal pushbacks. Many of OLAF’s findings confirmed the shortcomings identified in the FSWG’s investigation.
The sheer breadth, volume and seriousness of these findings go far beyond the specific individuals concerned. The fact that high-ranking officials managed to bend the organisation to their will and created such a toxic environment raises serious questions about the checks and balances within the organisation. It also shows a worrisome lack of oversight by the Member States and the Commission, which together comprise Frontex’s management board and are thus ultimately responsible. These issues call for fundamental reforms within the agency, including a stronger role of the management board, for which the FSWG report has given numerous recommendations.
The sheer breadth, volume and seriousness of these findings go far beyond the specific individuals concerned
Simultaneously, we need to take a critical look at the command and control structures between Frontex and host Member States to prevent the agency from becoming a pawn. The OLAF report revealed how the Greek government aimed to hide pushbacks from Frontex guards. This finding also points to the need for the European Commission to enforce Member States’ compliance with fundamental rights. If Frontex cannot fulfil its fundamental rights obligations, it must suspend its operations in accordance with the Frontex Regulation. I therefore reiterate the FSWG’s calls to Frontex to suspend its activities in Hungary and evaluate its operations in Greece.
While the recruitment process of the next executive director is ongoing, Frontex is keen to move on. But we cannot close this dark chapter without structural reforms that ensure the agency takes human rights as seriously as border control. Ultimately, we cannot close it until the shores of Europe become a safe, non-violent space where those arriving are treated with human dignity.