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EU immigration: Frontex faces scrutiny over its growing role

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The camera lingers first on the EU’s circle of stars insignia and then shifts to a close-up of the officer’s side cap, styled similarly to those used in the US military and French police. The man salutes in front of a logo for the armed force he represents: the Frontex European Border and Coast Guard.

Set to stirring music, the promo video to celebrate the launch last week of Frontex’s first uniform is a 77-second microcosm of a profound change in EU migration policy. The 27-member European bloc may not have the army that some cherish, but in order to protect its borders it now has its first weaponised corps, which is due to swell to 10,000.

To its supporters, Frontex — a once-obscure agency based in Warsaw — has become key to the EU’s strategy of controlling entry to its territory. It is an important milestone in the bloc’s efforts to create functioning institutions that can implement its security and foreign policy objectives. The US, some European officials like to point out, had a coastguard before it had its own navy.

Critics, by contrast, see Frontex as the spearhead of a militaristic “Fortress Europe” strategy that has been plagued by allegations of abuses and lacks sufficient accountability. Giulia Laganà, a migration specialist at the Open Society European Policy Institute, brands the Frontex video a “ludicrous” example of the “utter hypocrisy” of the EU’s “failed migration policy”.

The Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, Poland. The once obscure agency has become a key part of the EU’s strategy of controlling entry to its territory © Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty
Frontex officers deal with Iranian and Iraqi Kurdish migrants who have just arrived by boat in Calabria, southern Italy © Alfonso Di Vincenzo/LightRocket/Getty

“Frontex want to make themselves look like the equivalent of homeland security or ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] in the US,” she says. “The objective is keeping as many people out of Europe as possible, by any means possible.”

As it gains a higher profile, Frontex is facing a growing docket of concerns. On the same day the new uniform was unveiled, reports revealed that its headquarters had been raided in December by investigators from Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud office. The agency has also come under increasing pressure from the European Commission over its alleged failures to implement human rights safeguards and write crucial rules including on how its agents should use firearms.

Most pressingly, Frontex faces an inquiry into multiple claims that it has been complicit in illegal “pushbacks” of refugees trying to enter the EU on foot or in flimsy boats. This can endanger migrants’ lives at sea or leave them stranded in countries such as Bosnia, sometimes in makeshift camps. Such actions also deny people the right to apply for asylum, even though some may be fleeing conflict zones or seeking refuge from persecution. Initial results of the review, set up by Frontex’s own management board, which comprises representatives of EU member states and the commission, are due to be discussed on Thursday. The report is likely to fuel the already intense battles over the agency’s activities and future.

Irregular migration to the EU is way down on its 2015 peak

1,032,408

Mediterranean land and sea arrivals to the EU in 2015

373,652

Mediterranean land and sea arrivals to the EU in 2016

94,950

Mediterranean land and sea arrivals to the EU in 2020 (Source: UNHCR)

Frontex defends its record in response to questions by the FT. It says it is co-operating with the Olaf probe, adding that raids like last month’s “do not necessarily imply any malpractice”. It says an internal inquiry had made a preliminary finding that there was no evidence of involvement in pushbacks by Frontex staff, or officers deployed in Frontex operations.

It also points to the scale of its transformation and its landmark status in the 70-year history of the EU and its forebears. “The creation of the EU’s first uniformed law enforcement service is a Herculean task,” it says.

Money and mandate

The story of Frontex is also the tale of how migration has become a dominant theme in EU politics since it sparked a crisis in 2015. In that year, more than 1m people arrived in the bloc, many from civil war-racked Syria, triggering border closures by some EU states and bitter arguments about where the refugees would go. The policy debate since then has revolved around how to prevent a repeat. This has stoked deep divisions between Mediterranean nations that want to redistribute arriving asylum seekers around Europe, and states such as Hungary that refuse to take any.

One of the few big policies member states have managed to agree on is the need to beef up Frontex. The 15-year-old agency was given the task in 2019 of building a standing cadre of 10,000 officers by 2027. It says it will have hired 1,000 of those by the end of this year, with the remainder to be made up of secondees from national authorities. The agency’s budget has grown from €142m in 2015 to €460m last year.

Frontex also enjoys support at the top level of politics. In 2018 Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, which took in more than 1m refugees from the 2015-16 arrivals, backed Frontex in a speech to parliament. “The question of fighting illegal migration means we have to strengthen external border protection,” she said. “That means also that the countries with an external border must give up some of their national responsibilities.”

Frontex officials question migrants picked up in the Mediterranean in Malaga harbour © Guillaume Pinon/NurPhoto/Getty
A protest outside the regional EU office in Warsaw against the treatment of refugees stuck at the Turkish border with Greece © Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Getty

But the speed of Frontex’s growth in both money and mandate has fuelled questions about the agency’s governance. These are magnified because of its mandate to deploy in neighbouring countries such as those in the western Balkans and co-operate with still farther-flung nations.

“If you give an organisation a lot of money and you constantly reiterate that they are at the centre of migration policy, you get this inflated sense of importance,” says Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe think-tank. “Because of that there has been less emphasis on making sure there is a control mechanism on the activities of Frontex.”

As Frontex grows, the EU’s migration neuralgia has continued to flare, despite irregular arrival numbers falling to a fraction of 2015-16 highs. While national authorities and Frontex have faced questions over allegations of border violence in several countries including Croatia and Hungary, the Mediterranean and Greece in particular have become the centre of attention. Greece’s eastern neighbour Turkey is home to around 4m refugees and migrants, the vast majority of them Syrians, and also serves as an important transit point for people seeking to reach Europe from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and African nations.

Last March, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed through on a threat to “open the gates” to refugees. The move showed the fragility of a 2016 deal under which Turkey has received billions of euros in EU funding in exchange for taking back refugees who have travelled from its soil to Greek islands. Thousands travelled to the border with Greece, which Ursula von der Leyen, European commission president, then praised as the EU’s aspida, or shield. Media investigations later suggested two men may have been shot dead by Greek security forces — allegations Athens denies.

The burnt-out Moria refugee camp on Lesbos. Fires left thousands of migrants homeless © Dimitris Tosidis/EPA-EFE

In September, fires at the Greek island refugee camp of Moria left thousands homeless and exposed the squalor of the overcrowded facility. Ylva Johansson, EU home affairs commissioner, unveiled a proposed new migration “pact” the following month with the declaration that the bloc should have “no more Morias”. She acknowledged that the disaster and its aftermath showed the “failure” of the EU to agree needed migration and asylum reforms.

But critics of the bloc see the Greece-Turkey border troubles and the Moria conflagration as features of EU migration policy, not bugs. “Greece has followed hardline policies carried out in the UK and EU, with the protection of its partners, after Ursula von der Leyen called it the ‘shield’ of Europe,” says Epaminondas Farmakis, co-founder of HumanRights360, a Greek activist group.

Marine frontline

Frontex operates in the Aegean Sea under the banner of Operation Poseidon. It deploys vessels and aircraft mostly seconded from EU countries and co-operates closely with Greece’s small coastguard. Frontex says it supplies almost 600 “guest officers”, who perform border surveillance and assist in the identification and registration of incoming migrants, as well as debriefing and screening.

The Aegean has become a centre of allegations of pushbacks of migrants, in contravention of international law and what are supposed to be EU norms. Louay Alnassar, a 33-year-old Syrian IT specialist living in Turkey, claims he was the victim of a pushback in March 2020. He says he paid €2,500 to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Rhodes at night in a rubber dinghy with 17 other people. They landed on a deserted beach at 6am and were picked up shortly afterwards by a police patrol.

Frontex officers on a patrol vessel in Malaga after intercepting a dingy carrying migrants. In the Aegean Sea off Greece the border force has been accused of the pushback of migrants © Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty
One of the migrants in a thermal blanket after being rescued in the Mediterranean © Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

Mr Alnassar says he and his fellow travellers were locked up with very little food and water for two days, during which no one took down their details. On the second night, masked security force agents took them to a port and put them on a coastguard boat that sped out to sea for about an hour. “They took our phones and pushed us into orange life rafts, shouting at us the whole time,” he recalls. “We drifted in the dark for about two hours, then a Turkish coastguard boat picked us up.”

Greek authorities either deny that pushbacks occur or claim the country is protecting its national borders according to international law. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, prime minister, said in August that pushbacks “didn’t happen” and claimed his country was the victim of a “serious misinformation campaign”. In September, Giannis Plakiotakis, shipping minister, said Greece had “prevented the entry of more than 10,000 people since the start of the year”, while avoiding saying exactly how.

“Greece neither orchestrates nor encourages the so-called pushbacks,” the migration ministry in Athens told the FT.

Frontex has faced allegations of complicity in these illegal pushbacks, from human rights groups, media reports and other sources. A joint probe published by international journalistic outlets and investigative groups in October found six incidents in which the agency was allegedly either directly involved in, or near to, a pushback. In a separate October incident, Swedish coastguards said a Frontex co-ordinating officer discouraged them from filing a so-called “serious incident report” after they saw a pushback into Turkish waters by Greek authorities off the island of Chios, according to a written exchange between Frontex and its management board seen by the FT.

Frontex declines to respond specifically to alleged incidents, citing ongoing inquiries into them. It says it is co-operating closely with the working group review of the allegations set up by Frontex’s management board. If necessary, it would upgrade its reporting mechanism to “make sure no possible violation of fundamental rights goes unreported,” it adds.

Human rights concerns

The pushback allegations play into wider claims that Frontex pays insufficient attention to oversight of human rights. Far from forcing member state authorities to do better, its critics say, it has failed to hold them to account.

“It’s a very closed agency, I must say,” says Tineke Strik, a Dutch Green politician, who has examined Frontex as a member of the EU parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs. “It’s very difficult to find out if the procedures that are in place, such as for serious incident reports and complaints, are effective enough.”

The European Commission is also scrutinising Frontex’s performance. It says it is “deeply concerned” about reports of pushbacks and non-compliance with EU laws on human rights and the right to access to asylum procedures.

Monique Pariat, the commission’s director-general for migration and home affairs, raised a series of problems in a letter sent last month to Fabrice Leggeri, Frontex’s executive director, and seen by the FT. Ms Pariat attacked Mr Leggeri over the way he had presented “a number of important points” to the commission and EU legislators.

Monique Pariat, left, the European Commission’s director-general for migration and home affairs raised a series of problems in a letter sent last month to Fabrice Leggeri, right, Frontex’s executive director © frontex.eu
The new Frontex uniform was launched last week © frontex.eu

Ms Pariat alleged Frontex acted unlawfully by publishing job vacancies for a fundamental rights monitoring officer and deputy without management board approval. She also pointed to unjustified delays in Frontex recruitment, including of 40 fundamental rights monitors. She added that the agency had made inadequate preparations for its standing corps, including a delay in drawing up draft rules on the carriage and use of weapons.

Frontex says it fully respects human rights and points to the difficulties of its task, particularly during the global health crisis. It regrets any miscommunications that might have occurred in its work with EU member states and institutions. “Unfortunately, some misunderstandings in such demanding times and online discussions are unavoidable,” it says, adding that it looks forward to “continued collaboration to together keep our borders safe”.

The Frontex promo video encapsulates wider questions about the agency’s commitment to transparency. Frontex would not confirm the identity of the model — whose name tag read “Mihail Gan” — or whether he even worked for the agency. It denies that his garb was the “militaristic uniform of the armed forces”, adding that it has been endorsed by the commission and member states.

Frontex officers will become ever more visible as the first public face of the EU seen by many arrivals. Even as controversy over its activities grows, its influence continues to expand. As the agency itself puts it, the European bloc’s unprecedented border force is already “becoming a reality”.





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UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy

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UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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France threatens to cut power to Jersey as fishing tensions rise

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France has threatened to cut off its power supply to Jersey in the Channel Islands, as tensions rise with the UK over the post-Brexit fishing regime.

Following the UK’s full departure from the bloc in January, French fishermen have expressed concerns at difficulties in receiving the necessary licences to fish in British waters.

The dispute also comes at a time when UK and EU negotiators are in discussions over the 2021 catch quota for shared fishing stocks.

Jersey, the largest channel island and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.

Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, told France’s National Assembly she was “revolted” that Jersey had granted 41 fishing licences that included conditions and specific criteria that were “decided unilaterally and without explanation”.

“It’s unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures . . . concerning Jersey, I’ll remind you of the transport of electricity via submarine cables.” Girardin added she would “regret” any action but “we’ll do it if we have to”.

French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.

The anger among French fishermen at the delays in receiving licences for fishing in UK has prompted barricades for lorries arriving in Europe with UK-landed fish.

Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, last week threatened to block regulations that would allow UK financial firms to do business in the EU if Britain does not respect its Brexit commitments on fishing.

Bertrand Sorre, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La République en Marche party, gave the example of a fisherman from Granville in Normandy who had previously fished for scallops and whelks for an average of 40 days a year off Jersey; he had been told he could fish for only 11 days this year, and only for scallops.

Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, said it had issued the licences in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU and the new regime would “take time for all to adjust”.

“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licences to reflect that evidence,” he said in a statement.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters.”

UK business minister Nadhim Zahawi urged both sides to “iron out” issues with fishing. “We’ve got to look at this urgently and the best way to fix this is to work together,” he told Sky News.

A senior UK official said the government had been taken aback by the strength of the French reaction, which was seen as an “aggressive escalation” given that the UK had been working together on the question of licensing. “It’s a strange way to behave, from what is meant to be a friendly country,” they added.



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Hello, Berlin? Germany’s future raises foreign policy concerns for allies

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The writer is Fritz Stern chair at the Brookings Institution

President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. Also, Moscow and Beijing are undeterred by US and EU sanctions over the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China.

They are dialling up the pressure on Europe with countersanctions, expulsions of diplomats and thuggish-sounding threats. But in Brussels, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is fighting with European Council president Charles Michel over charges of sexism and a Turkish sofa, instead of getting a grip on a double-dip recession and the pandemic.

British premier Boris Johnson is in trouble over costly wallpaper. French president Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election in 2022, is neck-and-neck in the polls with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, while retired and current military officers are warning of civil war.

This would seem to be the moment for Germany, as a responsible neighbour, to step up and help out. But Europe’s most powerful economy is going to the polls even sooner than France: on September 26. As the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to a close, the six parties scrambling to rule in the post-Merkel era are somewhat less than focused on goings-on beyond Germany’s borders.

The reason is the fragmentation of Germany’s colour-coded party landscape. In current polling, the Greens are fighting for first place with the CDU (black) at about 25 per cent, with the Social Democrats (red) far behind at 15 per cent, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Left party (dark red) at around 11 per cent each.

The far-right Alternative for Germany is so radical that Germany’s domestic intelligence service wants to place it under observation. No other party will work with it, but it still captures about a tenth of the vote. This increases the likelihood that Germany’s next government will be a three-way coalition, with a kaleidoscope of possible combinations: black-green (or the reverse, with the CDU as junior partner); “Jamaica” (CDU-Greens-liberals); “traffic light” (Greens-SPD-liberals); and finally, “R2G” (SPD-Left-Greens).

This is why the small parties’ ideas suddenly matter. But in terms of foreign and security policy, none of the five presents a fully reassuring image to a neighbour or ally of Germany.

The Left party’s only path to government is R2G, a goal the powerful leftwings in the Greens and the SPD have been actively pursuing. But the Left too has radicalised, shedding its once influential east German pragmatists. Its new top duo opposes military engagement abroad of any kind. But it is also apparently clueless about pensions, and that may alienate its base.

The FDP has cabinet-ready experts on finance, digital issues and foreign and security policy — and a liability in Christian Lindner, their leader. The CDU and Greens are still smarting because of his petulant walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017. Last year, he faced a revolt in his own party after supporting the decision of a regional liberal politician to let himself be elected state governor with the AfD’s help.

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is caught in a double bind. As Merkel’s finance minister, the opposition accuses him of oversight failures in a spate of financial scandals. As candidate for chancellor, he has seen the SPD leadership wrench the party to the left with anti-nuclear slogans reminiscent of the 1980s. Fritz Felgentreu, one of several seasoned legislators to resign in protest, calls his party’s security policy a “smouldering fire”.

Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, has come under fire for sounding soft on Syria, Russia and China. Yet his real problems are corruption scandals and circling party frenemies. His party may be dealt another blow in next month’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where some polls have the AfD in close pursuit.

All this does much to explain the rise of the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, their laser-focused candidate. Her criticism of China, the Kremlin and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is music to Washington’s ears. Yet the party’s feisty base has had ferocious fights over defence spending and nuclear deterrence. Its reliability as a partner is by no means guaranteed.

Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are.



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