Is it getting time to abolish Frontex?

Image: Frontex

The last few months have been rather tough for Frontex, the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, established in 2004 and headquartered in Warsaw.

Earlier this month, the European Court of Auditors came out with a damning report assessing “Frontex’s support to external border management”. According to lead auditor Leo Brincat, Frontex’s support to EU member countries is “not adequate to combat illegal immigration and cross-border crime”, adding that “Frontex is presently not discharging their duty effectively, and we found that this is even more worrying at a time when Frontex is being given added responsibility.”

This comes on top of separate allegations that Frontex guards would be involving in illegal pushbacks of migrants on the Greek-Turkish border. The head of the agency, Fabrice Leggeri, is facing calls to quit over accusations that he has been misleading the European Commission.

An expanding force

Frontex only started with 45 officers. It was greatly expanded following the 2015 migration crisis. As a result, it now counts almost 10,000 officers, as its budget is set to increase to around 900 million euro by 2027, up from only 19 million euro in 2006.

According to Court of Auditors, there are gaps in information exchange between Frontex and national border agencies, which prevents its border monitoring from being effective, as it also accuses Frontex of a lack of transparency on the real cost of the joint operations.

A lack of border guards is not to blame for the inability to tackle human smuggling

Fundamentally, it was a big mistake to dramatically expand the responsibilities and financial firepower of this EU agency, because a lack of border guards is not the reason for the problematic levels of illegal migration into the EU – and even if it were, it’s much better to simply support more national capacity.

As I have been detailing before, it’s kind of hard to miss great numbers of desperate migrants trying to cross illegally into the EU. The problem is that once these people are caught, there is no place where they can safely await their asylum request. The EU’s “hot spots” were an attempt to mend this, but whenever people reach EU territory, it is very hard to send them back in case they are denied asylum. In turn, this attracts more to try their luck.

Denmark’s new policy to try to negotiate a location outside of the EU where people request asylum may be a solution here, even if the possibility to ultimately gain asylum in the EU and not only in the country offering to host this external asyulm processing centre should still be preserved, in my view. In any case, one does not need an EU agency or Frontex to implement this.

Joint EU action can still be useful though, for example to leverage the EU’s development aid spending or visa arrangements in negotiations with countries that are currently unwilling to welcome back their own nationals that have been denied asylum, but EU politicians have so far preferred simply throwing money at the problem, for example by boosting Frontex.

Smuggling of goods

Apart from failing to tackle illegal migration, Frontex’s added value in dealing with cross-border crime is also being questioned by the EU’s auditing body. Here, the pandemic has made matters a lot worse.

According to another EU agency, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, there was an increase in maritime seizures of illegal narcotics last year, as crime groups proved “remarkably resilient” to the disruption caused by the pandemic, simply altering their smuggling routes.

A similar thing could be witnessed for tobacco smuggling, with the pandemic sparking more illicit trade in cigarettes. Combined with higher taxes in some countries, this resulted in more smokers switching to illegally produced cigarettes. This is not only a problem for governments missing out on tax revenue, it also creates health hazards, given that illegal products aren’t subject to the same kind of quality controls.

Following a successful seizure of millions of illicit cigarettes at the end of 2020, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri stated that “the EU’s eastern land borders have been used by organised criminal groups for smuggling excise fraud into the European Union for years”. The report by the European Court of Auditors however suggests that Frontex is doing a poor job to counter such trade flows.

As a result, illicit products become cheaper, unfairly grabbing market share from legitimate businesses. On top of that, tobacco and alcohol producers are being plagued by politicians jacking up taxes, something which makes illicit trade even more profitable. According to one estimate, average illegal trade grows by 7% when cigarettes become 10% more expensive relative to incomes.

Frontex is being provided with new weaponry

The report by the European Court of Auditors truly raises some pressing questions for Frontex. Recently, The Daily Express also revealed that 2,500 compact 9 x 19 mm semi-automatic pistols, three million full metal jacket rounds of ammunition and 630,000 “deformation” rounds would be provided to Frontex’s “Standing Corps”, in order to patrol the EU’s external border, at a cost of 5 million euro. An extra 2 million euro would be spent on high-tech drones, equipped with high definition and thermal imaging cameras, as well as spotlights, to counter boats used for human smuggling.

Given the critical report of the ECA, some more supervision of Frontex seems like a good idea now, and mere supervision by the European Parliament – which does not have a great track record when it comes to scrutinizing the EU’s machinery – is definitely not enough. That is also the opinion of Boris Pistorius, the social democratic Interior Minister of the German state of Lower Saxony, who has called for “strong and robust parliamentary control of Frontex”, not just by MEPs, but also by members of national parliaments.  

Scrap Frontex?

While presenting the critical report, lead ECA auditor Leo Brincat also commented: “We are not saying ‘scrap Frontex’ but definitely Frontex is often its own worst enemy.”

Some prefer to draw a different conclusion, however.

In a parliamentary question to European Commissioner Ylva Johansson, Dutch centre-right MEP Rob Rooken (JA21-ECR) questioned the extra responsibilities awarded to Frontex in 2019 to protect the EU’s external borders, even raising the question: “Would it not make more sense to abolish Frontex without delay and leave the surveillance of the EU’s external borders to the Member States themselves?” Interestingly, a leftwing campaign is underway to campaign for the same cause: “Abolish Frontex”.

This should not undermine the important task to protect the EU’s external border. EU Member states failing to guard their border or refusing “Dublin” repatriations could be faced with reduced EU transfer payments or even temporary suspension from Schengen, something which already happened during the migration crisis when Schengen countries introduced checks on fellow Schengen states.

In any case, taboos have been broken and if Frontex does not step up its game, its survival as an institution is not guaranteed.