29 July 2021
EU border agency Frontex spends a significant amount of time and money on its public image, and insists that its activities are fully transparent. However, that public image is - unsurprisingly - heavy on spin, and panders to far-right narratives. Meanwhile, its commitment to transparency is questionable - to say the least.
This is the third instalment of a four-part series examining some under-reported and under-examined issues concerning Frontex. The first two parts of the series, looking at the history and evolution of the agency's search and rescue obligations, can be found here and here.
Last December, a report by the New York Times (NYT) revealed that Frontex officials were preventing information on pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border reaching the agency’s headquarters in Warsaw. The story noted that all the sources consulted “spoke on condition of anonymity because they were concerned about losing their jobs, or were not authorised to brief the press”.
Alongside this internal obscuring of events, Frontex tries to maintain tight control of its external image and has also long held a reputation as unwilling to share basic information about its activities. This reticence extends to the European Parliament, journalists, and civil society, despite the role that these groups are theoretically assigned in accountability structures and the broader liberal democratic system of checks and balances. Frontex answers to its management board, but is also accountable to both the European Parliament and the Commission. However, despite what is a “strong role on paper”, MEPs have found themselves “pretty much side-lined”, facing many difficulties in getting access to the information needed to perform their task.
Not only does the agency pick and choose which elements of its activities are allowed in the spotlight, it actively and aggressively discourages attempts to improve transparency. The agency pursued activists Luisa Izuzquiza and Arne Semsrott in court to recover €23,700 in legal fees in 2020. The demand to pay the costs is in line with the General Court’s ruling in a transparency case lost by Izuzquiza and Semsrott that year, but it is uncommon for large, publicly funded agencies to actually pursue such costs. In March this year, the Court itself reduced the amount that Frontex could demand to €10,520, noting that the number of hours Frontex’s private lawyers claimed for work on the case “appears to be more than what may be regarded as necessary”, and rejecting the inclusion in the bill of items that would “not normally be considered as reimbursable fees”, such as the presence of a technical expert for an issue “which could not be characterised as requiring technical expertise”, excessive hours taken by a private lawyer to prepare the case, and travel expenses for which “there is no evidence in the file as to the prupose of the alleged mission or why it was necessary”.
In a decision of April 2021 not to discharge Frontex’s budget for the year 2019, the Parliament reiterated “its call on the Agency to ensure full transparency in all its activity; more particularly, given the expected further significant overall increase of the Agency’s budget in the coming years and its enhanced responsibilities”.
This opacity sits uncomfortably alongside the steadily increasing financial and human resources being deployed to fulfil the agency’s extended mandate. As Izuzquiza told Statewatch in January, transparency “is a fundamental right that all EU bodies should, at the very least, respect and guarantee. Imposing a five-figure price tag on transparency litigation against Frontex will essentially deter people from exercising their fundamental right of access to information”.
The European Parliament agrees, stating:
“charging civil society with excessively high legal fees has a chilling effect on civil society’s access to justice in the field of access to documents which is a fundamental right”.
Not only is it a fundamental right in and of itself, access to documents is essential to ensuring that other rights are upheld through meaningful accountability of any agency.
On the other side of the coin, whilst it hides important elements of its activities and culture, Frontex is very forthcoming about others. Described by former deputy director Gil Arias as “vulnerable to the ‘alarming’ rise of populism across the continent’, and as unable to “stop the far-right infiltrating its ranks amid anti-migrant movements across Europe”, the agency courts a fan-base of anti-migration hardliners through its media and social media engagement, while its press office issues speedy statements affirming its commitment to fundamental rights when its actions are criticised.
This confused picture presents several questions:
The type of requests for information that can be made to Frontex vary depending on who is asking, as well as what is being sought. Regular proactive and responsive sharing of information with the Commission and the Parliament, to which Frontex is accountable, is an obligation under the agency’s Regulation. In the first session of the LIBE scrutiny group in February this year, Leggeri insisted:
“I am personally committed to cooperating with the Scrutiny Group. You will be granted access to the documents that you need and I offer the possibility for the members of the Scrutiny Group to visit the headquarters”.
Despite this, Frontex missed deadlines to pass information to the group, and limited access to what it has sent, creating a huge administrtative burden for the small number of people left to read hundreds of documents by a strict deadline.
Meanwhile, beyond any privileged access they may have to inside sources, individuals, journalists and activists rely on questions to the Frontex press office and access to documents requests. The right of public access to documents is codified by Regulation (EC) 1049/2001, which outlines the rights of citizens or residents of the EU to access to documents of the institutions, and grants the option to provide access to documents to people residing outside the EU. In its 2016 decision adopting practical arrangements regarding public access to documents, Frontex’s management board refers to a “Transparency Office” within the agency.
In 2020, a year which saw the agency attempt to recruit 700 border guards, an agency spokesperson later confirmed that the Transparency Office “has no budget allocation as it is made up of existing staff and relies on the entire agency to contribute.” They later clarified that the Office relies on the part of the budget allocated to the Legal and Procurement Unit. Ironically, this is presumably the same unit that outsourced its legal expertise to expensive private lawyers, a bill it is now trying to foist onto transparency activists themselves.
To make a request, Frontex obliges applicants to surrender significant personal data. In 2014, the Ombudsman found that such a blanket requirement for the provision of identity documents was “disrespectful of citizens and their fundamental rights under the EU charter”. However, disappointingly, when this same issue was raised in Statewatch’s 2019 complaint, the Ombudsman did not push Frontex for any explanation or change.
Despite the introduction of a significantly increased mandate, resources and staff base in 2019, the agency is not prioritising transparency at the same rate. Responses to requests for access to documents routinely exceed the initial 15-day deadline, and responses from the nebulous Transparency Office are inconsistent. They are becoming increasingly obstructive in a seemingly-systematically manner (Frontex has claimed that it works proactively with applicants to facilitate requests – we can attest that this is not true).
In 2020, both Statewatch and Mobile Info Team submitted requests for documents, including the risk analysis preceding the deployment of rapid border intervention teams to Greece in March of that year. Frontex denied access to Statewatch, who made the request in May, on the grounds of protecting the privacy and integrity of individuals, alongside the risk of undermining the protection of the public interest as regards public security.
Mobile Info Team, who made their request in July, were granted access to five relevant documents with redactions. To Statewatch, Frontex insisted that a partial release of the documents, such as that afforded to Mobile Info Team, “could not be undertaken, as their redaction would be disproportionate in relation to the parts that are eligible for disclosure”.
Statewatch has submitted numerous complaints to the European Ombudsman regarding Frontex’s reluctance to share information, and the watchdog has opened three further inquiries into the agency’s administration of access to documents since the end of 2019.
Pending investigations by the Ombudsman include complaints regarding the agency’s inaccessible and temperamental access to documents portal. Statewatch has also recorded increasingly systematic attempts to mislead applicants over the admissibility of their requests or confirmatory applications.
Additionally, on several occasions, and to multiple organisations, replies to requests have stated that documents do not exist. When challenged by a confirmatory application or other consultation, the press office will dutifully step in to apologise for the error.
The agency’s ongoing failure to implement a public register of documents and a lobbying transparency register may be its most eye-catching administrative scandal, particularly given that the agency’s ongoing insistence that it “does not meet with lobbyists” turned out to be false. The documents released by the Frontex Files detailed extensive contact between the agency and private lobbyists from military, surveillance and biometrics industries, most of whom are not on the EU’s own transparency register. Frontex also failed to provide Parliament with accurate information about these meetings.
A blind spot where it really counts
A key component of Statewatch’s 2019 complaint was Frontex’s refusal to grant access to documents for requests from outside the EU. According to Regulation 1049, the agency may grant access to people not resident in the Union, but are not obliged to. On this technicality, the Ombudsman found no maladministration by Frontex.
However, the agency is increasingly active, in some cases with executive powers and the mandate to use force, in non-EU territory. It is almost exclusively citizens of non-EU states who will be effected by Frontex’s actions. The agency’s work in and with third countries have an impact on the migration and border policies and practices of those states, yet those seeking information about such work are denied even the possibility of requesting access to documents on the agency’s work. This significantly impedes efforts to bridge the gap between PR about Frontex’s activities in non-EU states, and their day-to-day reality.
Frontex has explained this failure with the following statement:
“Frontex hardly received any such requests from third countries (on average, one such request annually). In these cases, Frontex analyses the merits of all public access to document applications…”
However, this statement does not match the experience of those who have made such requests. According to Lydie Arbogast of La Cimade, in June 2014 a mission hosted by Senegalese organisation La Plateforme des acteurs de la société civile sénégalaise pour le drout des migrants et personnes déplacées (PACS-DM/PD), requested information on the activities, means and objectives of the Atlantic-based Operation Hera between 2006 and 2013. She explains that alongside concerns about “sensitive” border management and law enforcement information, Frontex justified its refusal to grant access to the documents by pointing to the fact that:
“Public access to Frontex documents is guaranteed to EU citizens by Regulation (EC) No 1049/2011. The National Platform of Senegalese civil society actors could not therefore claim this right.”
Arbogast then explains:
“We therefore repeated the same request for access to operational documents on behalf of Migreurop (which is headquartered in Paris and therefore a European legal and moral entity) and Frontex transmitted the operational plans, [though] largely censored…"
The agency’s early branding was very much about representing the military force that member states wanted at the external borders. Frontex’s ‘official’ language “melds the terminologies of war with those of business”, combining “military jargon” with “the language of business enterprise, even describing the EU’s external borders as the “operational theatre”, a notion also reminiscent of military language.
More recently, the personality presented by the agency has alternatively embraced humanitarian rescuer (as explored by Marie Martin in the first instalments of this series), animal saviour, thrilling high speed chaser, and even health protector. Such themes can be, and have been, seized on by politicians and the public, creating a strange mixture of pride in the agency’s actions and what it symbolises, and vilification of the same (either for creating an impenetrable border or for not making it impenetrable enough, depending on the viewer’s perspective).
Next to this, Frontex uses its press office to share statements that deliberately distort reality – as was the case in its response to the European Parliament’s Scrutiny Group report on 15 July. Its press release, entitled ‘Frontex welcomes report by the Scrutiny Working Group’, presents the group’s conclusions as “reaffirm[ing] that there is no evidence of the Agency’s involvement in any violation of human rights”. In fact, the report is careful to specify that it found no “direct” involvement with fundamental rights violations; it did find severe failings by the agency in upholding fundamental rights.
Frontex’s spending on media and public relations appears as a specific category in the agency’s budget in 2018 (though the 2018 budget report does record a budget for this from 2016 and 2017). Spending on this function more than doubled from 2018 to 2020, by which year the agency approved €1,326,000.
Protection narrative: The Covid pivot for Parliament
At a LIBE Committee hearing discussing the ongoing loss of lives in the Mediterranean on 15 June 2020, a representative of the International Organization for Migration noted his concern about increasing xenophobia and discrimination linked to Covid-19: “The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to keep people at sea”, he warned.
That same meeting saw a good example of just such pandemic-legitimised xenophobia, as Tom Vandendriessche, a Belgian member of the far-right Identity and Democracy group, commented that there are “no health checks at the border”, and that the situation is thus “importing corona as well as other exotic diseases eradicated in Europe”.
Thankfully, Frontex is there to reassure anyone as concerned as Vandendriessche that it, at least, will protect Europe against Covid. “If we cannot control the external borders, we cannot control the spread of pandemics in Europe”, declared the Frontex PR team in May 2020.
Had the agency ever been particularly concerned with health before now? “Health” first appears in Frontex annual risk assessments in 2012, returning for a few years in a footnote noting that “threat for public policy, internal security, public health or the international relations of one or more member states of the European Union” are reasons set out in the Schengen Borders Code that make it possible to refuse entry at a border.
The 2015 risk assessment reminded readers that “the health risks posed by migrants are often overestimated by the receiving communities”, and acknowledges that it is the EU’s reception centres that actually increase vulnerability to communicable diseases.
This position was consolidated in 2016:
“In spite of the popular perception that mass migration may pose a threat of the spread of infectious diseases, WHO ‘Public Health Aspects of Migration in Europe’ (PHAME) indicates that there is no evidence to suggest such connection. Refugees and migrants are mainly exposed to the infectious diseases that are common in Europe, independently of migration. The risk that exotic infectious disease will be brought to Europe is extremely low.”
In fact, the risk analysis clarifies, it is more often regular travellers, tourists or healthcare workers who import such “exotic infectious agents”, not refugees or migrants. The shift in tone from the more factual language of the risk assessments to the more curated messages of Frontex’s PR team shows not only a clear change in interpretation of health data, but suggests an intentional effort by the agency to use current affairs to insist on its own indispensability.
Protection narrative: placating the fans on social media
The agency’s own media output, and especially its social media engagement, imply that, in contrast to its state-focussed early branding, it is increasingly focussed on individuals’ perception. With social media providing new platforms to create news, as well as create a particular public perception and to fight over narratives, Frontex’s social media engagement deserves a closer look. Rather than focusing solely on security, from 2019 Frontex’s social media forays have seen the agency promote itself as a life-saver (whether of human or non—human animals) and a supposed defender of Europe’s external borders. The agency’s media strategy delivers a certain characterisation of Frontex to its ‘fans’, which in turn facilitates a particular narrative of migration policy and Frontex’s role in it.
Since 2019, the agency has begun to curate an impression of heroism through a particular kind of storytelling and dramatization of activities, as seen in the below screenshots.
The public responses to these posts range from the gung-ho encouraging – “Well done colleagues! Gotcha! Well done colleagues. Congratulations. I wish that the Germans would do more” – to the clearly critical – “and how about instead of (or even on top of this) you SAVE PEOPLE FROM DROWNING AT SEA?”.
As one commenter on Twitter put it:
“Wait. Wait. Why is a EU agency using Twitter like an attention-seeking yellow press paper??? Oh and wait, why does such an institution tolerate replies like "let it sink" on it's [sic] Twitter account?”.
On Facebook, as well, the management of external borders is spun as heroic protection. The responses to Frontex’s posts seem slightly less balanced, according to what is still public on the agency’s page. One follower with the status of “top fan” comments on a video posted by Frontex of “residents of Greek border town of Kastanies cheer and wave Greek flags as a Frontex patrol drives into town”, with “[i]t reminds me of when the Italians welcomed the Americans after World War II”.
On 29 April, Frontex invited its followers to “watch the chase”, as it posted a video, complete with music, from one of its planes which spotted “two speedboats packed with bags of marijuana and hashish [that] were on their way towards Italy. Maybe the smugglers thought the border authorities will be too busy dealing with the coronavirus. Little did they know…”.
Comments below the video discussing migrants arriving in Italy tend to be along the lines of one commenter’s contribution of: “send them back. Put Renzi on the boat to [sic].”
On Europe Day 2020, responses to Frontex’s post about the 1950 Schuman Declaration include “Thank you for your Service! You make us all Proud to be Europeans you are our Guardians!”. However, among the “God Bless Europe” comments, the timing of Europe Day, 9 May, shortly after a search and rescue disaster in the Maltese Search and Rescue Zone, also ushered in comments such as “Please act on the UN report on the Maltese SAR abuses which amount to nothing less than crimes against humanity. There is another ongoing incident today. Your silence is self-incriminating.”
The racism of some of Frontex’s fans becomes more explicit underneath earlier posts. A jolly photo of a “Polish-Spanish team patrolling the Greek land border wishes you a great weekend” by Frontex on 25 April is still adorned with the comments: “Greece protects Europe from Turks more than 5000 years,” and “Thank you. Send all illegals back the moment you spot them”. Further discussions descended into more overtly racist language, mixed with some nationalism and finally the exclamation of “fake news” thrown in for good measure.
Executive director Leggeri has indicated that the “fake news” narrative is officially endorsed by him. He claimed to Greek newspaper Ta Nea that videos broadcast by media outlets last year, appearing to show illegal pushbacks of migrants with Frontex involvement or knowledge, were “provided by the Turkish news agency [Anadolu] and by Turkish Coast Guard sources”. The Turkish Coast Guard has actually published several hundred hours of surveillance footage which shows pushbacks by the Greek coast guard.
Frontex’s moderation policy prohibits “comments which are either offensive in themselves or to other users…discrimination or incitement”, stating that such posts may be removed. However, many violent and inciting comments from the public are left on its pages and posts, alongside its own extremely one-sided interpretation of official reports concerning its activities. The agency has invested significant public funds in its press and media presence, clearly seeing this as an important component of its legitimacy. By pandering to a particular interpretation of events at the EU’s borders (and, through its executive director, discrediting alternative – or one might say correct – interpretations) Frontex shows what sort of audience it thinks will support its work and continued growth.
Frontex takes its image very seriously. Though the former director, Gil, Arias, referred to his dismay at having the trustworthy reputation of Frontex’s early days eroded by its current management, that management seems to be more concerned with discrediting those who criticise it, than with repairing its practices or sharing factual information about its activities.
When the #AbolishFrontex campaign launched earlier this year, Leggeri referred to the accusations levelled by it as “hate speech”. Actual hate speech, in traditional and social media, is rightly (and in the case of social media, increasingly) regulated, but attempts to discredit critical sources of information on Frontex and EU migration policy as either hate speech or “fake news” is a deliberate and dangerous tactic. Interaction between political actors and extremists online is increasingly associated with anti-refugee hatred and disinformation. These online networks take real life action, as was the case at the Greece-Turkey land border in March 2020.
The contrast between the secrecy of the agency (supposedly in the name of EU citizens’ safety) and its engagement with far-right narratives (especially given concerns of far-right ideology within its staff) begs the question: in whose interests does Frontex really act?
 Regulation (EU) 2019/1896 on the European Border and Coast Guard and (Regulation 2019/1896), Article 6
 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2021-0191_EN.pdf; Article 24 of the Charter
 Regulation 2019/1896, Article 6
 Case 682/2014/JF
 Frontex press office spokesperson, 17 June 2021
 Accounts of this interaction can be found here: http://volontaires.echanges-partenariats.org/archives-ep/echanges-partenariats/index-p=4154.html, and here: https://vimeo.com/110762923
 Constructing the Real-Time Border: Frontex, Risk and Dark Imagination Author(s): Dean Wilson Source: Justice, Power and Resistance Volume 2, Number 1 (April 2018) pp. 45-65
 In the same hearing, Vandendriessche asked “why don’t we tell these migrants that they are coming to a continent that is racist – they don’t have that problem at home”. However, in a written comment submitted two days later, he insists: “We have no problem of structural racism, on the contrary! Nowhere in the world is there a place where people get so many opportunities. We are not privileged because of our fair complexion, on the contrary. Our society is the result of the hard work and genius of our ancestors.” He also asserts that Europe is in the grip of “anti-white racism”.
 Frontex, Annual Risk Analysis 2012, page 53
 Frontex, Annual Risk Analysis 2015, page 50
 Frontex, Annual Risk Assessment 2016, page 8
 Frontex, Annual Risk Assessment 2016, page 49
 Frontex’s Social Media Guidelines, made public this year by Fragdenstaat, outline the agency’s “target groups” as including: Groups indispensable to Frontex ,including Border Guards, Frontex staff, and the public; Groups with a steering role over Frontex, including the Commission, Parliament, and management board; Groups that influence groups A. and B., including press, Consultative Forum, NGOs, researchers, activists and national political parties; and Frontex critics, specifically naming campaigns and groups such as Frontexit, Migreurope, No Borders, the Greens, the Left, Panopticon and migrants’ associations.: https://fragdenstaat.de/en/request/frontex-social-media-guidelines/
 “No rest to protect EU’s borders!”, https://www.facebook.com/frontex/photos/a.449361672224673/832808660546637/?type=3&theater
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