Frontex: Billion-euro border agency sues transparency activists


Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, has launched a case against independent activists Luisa Izuzquiza and Arne Semsrott, who last year lost a court case against the agency seeking greater transparency over its border control operations.

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The agency is demanding that the two activists cover the €24,000 it spent on private lawyers in a freedom of information case launched and lost by Izuzquiza and Semsrott last year. As well as refuting their demands for the agency to release information on the vessels deployed in Operation Triton, the court ruled that the activists should cover the additional costs incurred by Frontex after it hired private lawyers, despite having an extensive legal team of its own.

Frontex is chasing the costs in a new case before the EU court, which will decide how much money Frontex should reasonably demand. This process will probably take up most of the coming year; Izuzquiza and Semsrott are not allowed to comment on further details while it is ongoing.

In the first lawsuit against Frontex by civil society actors, the two activists sought to ensure basic transparency of Frontex operations, specifically demanding that the names, flags and types of vessels used in Operation Triton (active in the Mediterranean off the coasts of Italy and now replaced by Operation Themis) be made public.

Having won the case at the General Court of the EU, Frontex issued an invoice to the two activists to cover its legal costs. The agency currently employs 700 people and the recruitment of an additional 1,000 core staff is planned for 2021, when its budget is projected to increase to €1 billion. This is part of a potential increase to €11 billion overall for the 2021-27 period.

In a message to their supporters, Izuzquiza and Semsrott have promised, "we will now fight in court for the best possible outcome - one that guarantees that anyone willing to take legal action against Frontex can do so without fearing retaliation in the form of a five-figure legal invoice".

Since January, almost 90,000 people and 44 NGOs have joined a call demanding that Frontex drop its demands. The public can make donations, which will fund the activists’ upcoming fight in court. Any excess donations will fund future transparency investigations and actions into Frontex.

As Luisa Izuzquiza explained to El País, "with this decision, Frontex is sending a message of intimidation to civil society actors who want to bring them to justice in the future." She argues that:

“What is concerning is that these methods of dissuasion work. Anyone thinking of litigating against Frontex, who sees how they have reacted in our case, is going to think twice…

“What usually happens is that European institutions never reclaim costs if the person bringing them to court is a civil society actor or an NGO. It is a kind of democratic gesture. They just let it go.”

News of Frontex’s case against the two transparency activists breaks the day after MEPs in the European Parliament's civil liberties committee (LIBE) demanded greater transparency from Frontex. In a committee hearing, representatives expressed gratitude to journalists who last month uncovered illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea during Frontex joint operations.

Frontex has launched an internal inquiry, led by members of the Management Board. MEPs, meanwhile, have called for genuine independent monitoring and democratic accountability. Last month, the European Ombudsman launched its own investigation into the independence and effectiveness of Frontex’s fundamental rights office and complaints mechanism.

As the activists have previously explained: "It is precisely in these days that the importance of being able to publicly control powerful institutions is once again becoming clear." Today, they said:

“Confronted with such serious accusations, the EU border agency has now chosen to go after those who investigate them: they are taking us to court... If Frontex succeeds, in the future only corporations and the rich will be able to afford legal action against EU authorities. Activists, journalists, NGOs and individuals will not be able to defend human rights before the EU court.”

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