Frontex and the Complicated Path to EU Sovereignty

Control and security of borders is an essential aspect of modern statecraft. For the European Union, this requires the balancing of unparalleled commitments as a leader in human rights with practical realities about human movement and the rule of law. It is a pursuit that can and must be achieved if EU sovereignty is to remain intact. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, represents an emergent, evolving, and technologically capable answer to this demand.

In today’s globalised world, the challenge of border security is impacted by all manner of events outside the control of European leaders, as the refugee crisis so poignantly demonstrates.

Adding to the intricacies of the just and responsible management of such episodes, there are foreign powers who would exploit human suffering and leverage it as coercive capital in negotiations with the EU. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is just such an opportunist, having threatened unabashedly to weaponise the flow of Syrian refugees in a bid to undermine European stability.

Pressures like this are precisely why Frontex is such an important link in the European defence and security architecture. At the same time, it is an organisation still in its adolescence, with a persistent need to quantify its strengths and acknowledge its weaknesses.

Crucial and expanding powers

The ideas underpinning Frontex sit at the core of the European project. The free movement of goods, services, and people is among the EU founding principles, set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Such concepts later matured into the Schengen Agreement, which saw EU members abolish checks at internal borders, with this development brought fully into force in 1995.

The consequent need to oversee and enforce European border management saw Frontex emerge in 2004 through a series of regulations, with an ever-expanding remit and scope. During the agency’s early years, it had a staff of 70 and a budget of roughly €6 million. By 2018, around 700 people worked for Frontex and the budget had grown to €320 million. These numbers are only increasing, with plans for a standing force of 10,000 Frontex border guards by 2027.

In its most recent operations, the agency has demonstrated fledgling joint capabilities, aiding individual EU member states with the security of their borders and coasts. In our digital age, Frontex has become integral to European territorial sovereignty and security, as well as a focal point for innovative European security and surveillance technology companies.

Courting controversy

The picture is made more complicated in what has become a turbulent media landscape. Approaches taken by Greek authorities last year in repelling migrants, in a manner deviating from EU (though not domestic) law, brought Frontex once again under the spotlight.

Journalists have not only charged the agency with having witnessed and permitted illegal migrant expulsions by Greece’s coast guard, but suspicion has also stretched to suggestions of an explicit cover-up on the part of Frontex personnel.

Factions within the European parliament have decried the situation on the ground in locations such as Lesvos, and the MEP Cornelia Ernst went as far as to criticise Frontex for being “complicit in such breaches of European and international law.”

The MEP was not alone in the sombre claim that Fabrice Leggeri, the director of Frontex, had lied to the EU parliament’s civil liberties committee when in maintaining that there had been no pushbacks. There are a number of MEP’s who have even called for Leggeri’s resignation.

Another area of contention is the proximity of the border agency with the industrialists necessary to its development and functions. The need for Frontex to upgrade its technological and strategic capabilities is self-evident, but there are critical voices claiming that the agency’s closeness with lobbyists from the defence and security sectors has become problematic.

To his credit, Mr. Leggeri has persevered despite the criticism. Unfortunately, the hostile environment has created a situation in which every action he takes is likely to receive manifold scrutiny.

Considerations in relation to Frontex calls for tender are increasingly charged topics. An example that could have incendiary ramifications is a research project and tender that Frontex recently closed.

Steinbeis 2i, a network of companies and experts, together with three subcontracted partners, is to conduct a research study on the “future opportunities that biometric technologies and biometric-enabled border control systems could provide to Frontex and the European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) community.”

The notion of biometrics is already fuel for polemic on a continent that prides itself on the protection of individual rights and privacy. But despite being included in Frontex’s duties, the very idea of a secure border “community” is ripe for attack by the agency’s detractors.

Critics have at times denounced Frontex’s wide freedom of operation and limited oversight. At the same time, there are voices that claim the agency is influenced excessively by lobbyists who are intent on generating a European border-industrial complex: so-called “Fortress Europe.”

Another Frontex tender with the potential to cause reputational damage is the procurement of airborne surveillance, and supporting data, by fixed or rotary-wing. What is troublesome in this case is that, while the project will necessitate handling of EU data and networks, the United Kingdom has been included amongst nations whose legal entities can participate.

While it would be surprising to see non-EU service providers being given preference over European ones, the details of this procurement process suggest that it might, in fact, have been drafted with UK companies specifically in mind. Choices like this have the potential to expose the agency’s directors to difficult questions, at a time when Europe needs clarity and reassurance.

With parliamentarians establishing a Frontex Scrutiny Working Group in February aimed at investigating the migrant pushback allegations, further controversies around lobbying influences could be crippling for Frontex.

Additionally, these dramas play out at a time in which 3 out of every 4 EU citizens wish to see a more sovereign Europe in response to global issues.

It is fair to say that Mr. Leggeri faces a challenging environment, likely being under substantial pressure from stakeholders. Border security decisions offer a chance to achieve much sought-after autonomy in defence and integrity, and also an opportunity to foster European harmony at the level of industry. But the last thing Frontex needs right now are decisions made with clouded judgment.