The EUâ€™s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, ramped up criticism of the blocâ€™s under-fire border agency and its director, Fabrice Leggeri, at a closed-door European Parliament hearing on Monday.
Johansson said Frontexâ€™s dramatic expansion â€”Â including a program to create a 10,000-strong standing corps of border guardsÂ in the coming years â€” was no excuse for problems at the Warsaw-based agency, which stands accused of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers and mismanagement, and is also facing allegations of harassment and misconduct.
â€œRapid growth of Frontex is a challenge that is manageable and not the reason for the shortcomings,â€ the commissioner, a Swedish social democrat, told the Parliamentâ€™s Budgetary Control Committee, according to four people who followed the discussion.
She said Frontexâ€™s problem was a â€œreluctance of compliance.â€ Asked by MEPs for more detail, Johansson said that there has been â€œreluctance by the executive director to comply with the requirements of the regulationâ€Â that sets out the rules for the agency.
Johansson has previously signaled dissatisfaction with Frontex. In October, she called for an urgent board meeting following media reports alleging the agencyâ€™s involvement in pushbacks of asylum seekers at the Greek-Turkish maritime border.
But her direct criticism of Leggeriâ€™s performance as Frontex director in front of MEPs marks a significant escalation of her stance. It follows news in recent months that Frontex met with scores of unregistered lobbyists and that the EUâ€™s anti-fraud watchdog OLAF hasÂ openedÂ an investigation into the agency over allegations of harassment, misconduct and migrant pushbacks.
Leggeri and Frontex have denied many of the allegations against them and said they are cooperating with the OLAF investigation.
While Leggeriâ€™s future as Frontex chief may ultimately depend on the findings of the OLAF investigation, a Commission spokesperson said that Johanssonâ€™s criticism does not mean the Commission has lost trust in the French official. However, the spokespersonâ€™s comments made clear the Commission needs Leggeri to cooperate if it is to retain confidence in him.
â€œWe are confident that with the process set up by the Management Board, and with the cooperation of the Executive Director, the issues can be addressed constructively. The Commission is willing to work on this with the Management Board and the Executive Director,â€ the spokesperson said.
Johanssonâ€™s criticism of Leggeriâ€™s compliance with the Frontex regulation is linked above all to two specific items. First, the regulation says that Frontex should get three deputy executive directors to increase management oversight. Second, the regulation also says the agency should recruit at least 40 â€œfundamental rights monitorsâ€ to oversee the agencyâ€™s compliance with human and EU rights â€” a process that should have been completed by December 5 last year, according to the regulation.
During Mondayâ€™s hearing, Leggeri said the agency was still working on these issues, according to three people in the room.
A Frontex spokesperson played down tension between the Commission and the agency. The spokesperson also put the delays to recruiting the monitors and senior managers down to a need to make organizational changes prior to their hiring.
â€œWhile in these challenging times some disagreements with the Commission services have arisen, we look forward to fortifying our partnership on the path towards a safer, more secure Europe,â€ the spokesperson said in an email.
â€œRecruitment of the fundamental rights monitors is at full speed and first interviews will soon be conducted by the fundamental rights officer,â€ the spokesperson added. â€œThe hiring of three deputy directors could not happen until the Management Board approved a new organisational structure for the agency. This took place in December and vacancy notices will soon be published.â€
The spokesperson also said two stages of an inquiry into recent media allegations â€œhave not found any evidence of violations of human rights so far.â€
Problems in Parliament
The agencyâ€™s troubles are likely to have consequences in Parliament, which is supposed to sign off on Frontexâ€™s annual accounts next month. According to three MEPs, itâ€™s becoming increasingly likely that the decision on whether to sign off on the agencyâ€™s 2019 accounts will be postponed to September in order to wait for the findings of the OLAF investigation.
If MEPs decide not to sign off on the accounts â€” as they did last year in the case of another scandal-tainted EU body, the European Economic and Social Committee â€” this would contribute to the agencyâ€™s troubled reputation, although it would not have any immediate financial impact.
German Green MEP Daniel Freund said that during Mondayâ€™s closed-door meeting, Leggeri delivered a â€œvery weakâ€ defense when confronted with criticism. â€œHe said: â€˜We are looking at allegations of pushbacks, some are sorted outâ€™ â€¦ He said media reports were somewhere between exaggerated or fake news â€¦ I found that quite weird,â€ Freund said.
But lawmakers from the center-right European Peopleâ€™s Party (EPP), the largest group in Parliament, were more supportive of the Frontex chief.
TomÃ¡Å¡ ZdechovskÃ½, a Czech MEP from the EPP group, said OLAF and Parliament were now undertaking â€œdetailed scrutiny of the work of director Leggeriâ€ but praised the agency chiefâ€™s response, which he contrasted with the work of the home affairs commissioner.
â€œUnlike Commissioner Johansson, who was silent for weeks, Fabrice Leggeri has been open to a number of meetings in the Parliament where he presented us with clear answers to our questions,â€ said ZdechovskÃ½.
MEPs are aiming to increase their oversight of the agency via a newly founded Frontex Scrutiny Working Group, which includes 14 lawmakers â€” two per political group â€” and will hold its first meeting on Tuesday.
â€œWhat we want out of this process is to give clear answers to the questions that are being asked,â€ said Maltese EPP lawmaker Roberta Metsola. â€œI hope the process will lead to a series of recommendations that will give clarity and confidence to people looking at the EUâ€™s role in external border management.â€
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.