18 November 2020
Frontex has issued 21 calls for tender with an estimated value of over €210 million since the entry into force of its new Regulation in December 2019.
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A 34% increase in the agency's budget in 2020, designed to back up its new powers, has stimulated a spending spree on contracts throughout the year. The agency is obliged to introduce a lobbying transparency register, but this is not expected to come into use until early 2021.
Recent tenders issued by Frontex include a range of projects and experiments with new and potentially controversial technologies. A document (pdf) explaining the requirements for a 'Research Study on Technology Foresight on Biometrics for the Future of Travel' cites an expected cost of €500,000. The aim of the study is to provide a methodology that will allow the agency to identify promising new biometric technologies that could be deployed for EU border controls.
Meanwhile, Frontex expects to award €3 million for a pilot project on 'Maritime Surveillance Aerostats' (an aerostat is essentially a hot air balloon tethered to the ground). This is the latest in a long line of experiments with this technology, with which the agency aims to increase what it refers to as its “situational awareness” (surveillance) capabilities.
A further €5 million has been earmarked for a year-long project on satellite radio frequency detection technology. The aim (pdf) is to "increase Frontex’ situational awareness primarily in the maritime domain and also over the land areas," as part of the ongoing expansion of the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR).
Not all the services and equipment sought by Frontex are so costly or high-tech, but they give a further indication of the agency’s current planning and practice – for example, “middle to low value contracts”, worth between €15,000 and €139,000, have recently been signed for tear gas, batons and bulletproof vests.
Big money, new register
With this much at stake, there is a clearly a need for measures to ensure that undue influence cannot be exerted on the agency by private interests – and for this reason, Frontex is now obliged to introduce a lobbying transparency register.
“The Agency shall ensure that there is transparency as regards lobbying by means of a transparency register and by disclosing all its meetings with third-party stakeholders. The transparency register shall include all meetings and contacts between third-party stakeholders and the executive director, deputy executive directors and heads of division in matters concerning procurements and tenders for services, equipment or outsourced projects and studies. The Agency shall keep a record of all meetings of its staff with third-party stakeholders in matters concerning procurements and tenders for services, equipment or outsourced projects and studies.”
Frontex’s press office did not respond to questions from Statewatch on how many meetings between third-party stakeholders and the executive director, deputy executive directors and heads of division have been held since the new Regulation came into force.
However, they did say that the transparency register is “currently under preparation,” and the intention is “to develop the policy and a fully-fledged system by beginning of 2021 the latest.”
In order to prevent conflicts of interest, all Frontex staff are obliged to abstain from “further action in any situation that compromises their independence (objectivity) or that can be reasonably perceived as compromising their independence,” said the press office. “In such situation the staff member has to inform and declare a conflict of interests,” they added.
The McKinsey scandal, revealed earlier this year by Der Spiegel and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, highlights exactly why such transparency procedures are necessary.
Suggestions on how to implement the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal, made as part of supposedly "pro bono" work undertaken by McKinsey for the European Commission, were then reproduced in EU policy implemented in Greece, including the increased use of detention. The management consultancy subsequently signed a €1 million contract with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), without competition, to assist in enacting the policy.
Some of Frontex’s own contracting appears to have been quite extravagant. In January 2019, the agency concluded a two-year contract amounting to €30 million with Polish company eTravel, for assistance with deportation operations. eTravel is to provide “high quality travel desk services,” such as “booking and ticketing services for the EU Member States who will organize return operations by scheduled flights with Frontex support”.
As detailed in a Statewatch report published earlier this year, eTravel was the only company to bid for the contract, which cost three times the amount projected by Frontex in its 2019 programming document (pdf). According to Frontex, the projected cost “took into consideration only the first tranche of the contract with eTravel,” but the €30 million figure is “intended to cover the return activities from 2019 to 2023.”
This significant amount of money is required because of “the rising volume of Frontex activities in the field of returns, and the new mandate of the Agency, which also allows Frontex to support and finance voluntary returns,” said the press office via email.
Highs and lows
Calls for tender by any public institution in the EU with a value over €139,000 have to be advertised via the TED website, in accordance with EU public procurement rules.
Tenders worth between €15,000 and €139,000 must be advertised on Frontex’s website; there have been been 30 such calls so far in 2020. These include a framework contract for purchase of tear gas (“lachrymatory agents”), batons, bulletproof vests and first aid sterile spray solution, amongst other things.
Calls to tender with a value under €15,000 are not advertised and are typically negotiated with one contractor. A Frontex spokesperson explained:
“The contracts worth less than €15 000 are not advertised, neither in its planned stage, nor after award of the contract, due to the protection of personal data of natural persons that are very often contracted as contractors below this amount”
The details of these “low and middle value negotiated procedures”, including their estimated value, are not made public. However, Frontex did confirm that one such procedure, for “Human Intelligence Training”, was finalised with Chenega Europe, a subsidiary of a US private intelligence, security and military corporation. The European operation is headed by an array of British ex-military personnel who seem to have particular experience of operations in Northern Ireland.
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