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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

EU watchdog revelations mean Commissioners must resign

EU anti-fraud watchdog revelations made today about the activities of Frontex reveal the crisis goes far further than ‘just’ the border agency.

Frontex’ illegal acts, and the EU Commission’s response to them, means at the very least Margaritis Schinas must leave, or be fired. Anything less reduces the EU’s credibility to less than zero.

The report by OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, into the activities of Frontex, the bloc’s ‘border agency’ has finally been seen by someone outside the EU Commission – reporters from Der Spiegel (Germany), Le Monde (France) and Lighthouse Reports (Netherlands).

We knew – because OLAF’s own staff told us – that the report would be explosive, but what it has revealed should be devastating, and must be absolutely transformative, for Frontex, the EU Commission and the Greek government.

In some ways it is tempting simply to paste the entire article here, but we will not.

Instead, we will include selected comments from it (we would link to the report, or quote directly from it, but it has still not been issued to the public almost five months after being shared with the Commission’s members).

It opens:

The investigation report of the EU anti-fraud agency Olaf is secret. MEPs can only view it under strict security. Ordinary citizens are not allowed to read it. Margaritis Schinas, the Vice-President of the EU Commission, responsible, among other things, for migration, is likely to be able to. Maybe he even should. After all, this is a sensitive issue that is also within his area of responsibility.

The report, over 129 pages, details (and by all accounts it is detailed) irrefutably that not only did Frontex carry out illegal pushbacks of men, women and children from Greece in the Aegean Sea, but that it also deliberately misled the EU Parliament, and the general public, about pushbacks carried out by the Greek government, even going to the extent of removing hardware including drones supposed to be for saving lives, so that it would no longer ‘appear guilty of being a witness to’ the illegal activity.

Revelations from the three news sources about Frontex’activities already caused the agency’s executive director Fabrice Leggeri to resign in shame and we detailed the ways in which his several days of ‘self-justification’ appeared to directly implicate the EU Commission in his and the agency’s illegal, aggressive, violent, and unacceptable conduct, not least because he claimed that asking Frontex not to carry out or pretend not to see pushbacks constituted a ‘mandate change’ and that he had been told that Frontex was, rather than a border agency, a uniformed force with orders to prevent people entering the EU.

If either of these things is true, Leggeri is not the only person who should resign. Schinas, who has overall oversight of the agency and its activity, and Ursula von der Leyen, who has overall oversight of the entire Commission and its operations, must take the responsibility for which they are handsomely-paid and also step down from their posts, for overseeing – and very possibly ordering – the systematic and barbaric breaking of EU and international law by an agency in their control.

The news sources note:

Almost everything that the OLAF investigators accuse Frontex of can be told by means of a single pushback.

In the early morning hours of August 5, 2020, the Greek coast guard pulled an inflatable refugee boat behind them. About 30 refugees sat on it. The Greeks should have brought the asylum seekers safely ashore, given them the chance to apply for asylum. But instead, they dragged people towards Turkey.

At Frontex you could follow the pushback live. A Frontex plane streamed the situation to the headquarters in Warsaw. At that time, the Frontex people had long known what was going to happen. They knew the pictures of the abandoned refugees in the Aegean, an internal report had explicitly warned against the Greek pushbacks. ‘The Coast Guard puts the passengers in mortal danger’, noted an official.

Such events were repeated. ‘It's getting harder and harder to deal with,’ another official commented. ‘The incidents pose a huge reputational risk to the agency.

Frontex did not ‘save its reputation’ by doing what it must, by law. Instead, it withdrew its aircraft from the Aegean.

The Frontex bosses, according to the investigators, prevented the pushback from being properly investigated. Instead, they withdrew the planes patrolling the Aegean Sea on behalf of Frontex. Officially, it was said that they were needed in the central Mediterranean. In fact, Frontex obviously wanted to avoid recording further human rights violations.

The Olaf investigators have compiled numerous clues for this: They cite employees who testify against Leggeri. And they found a handwritten note from November 16, 2020. ‘We withdrew our FSA (Frontex Surveillance Aircraft) some time ago so as not to become witnesses...’. The EU agency, which is supposed to actively prevent violations of fundamental rights, deliberately looked the other way.

More than that, notes OLAF, the agency used EU funds to pay for Greek Coastguards to carry out pushbacks.

This happened in at least six cases. For example, the Greek coast guard ship CPB 137 was involved in the 5 August incident. The agency had co-financed the boat's mission. The authorities knew exactly how delicate this was – and concealed it in all subsequent inquiries by the EU Parliament and the Administrative Board.'

The report quotes a Frontex employee as saying:

Fundamental rights are seen as a gimmick, as a kind of gimmick with no real benefit.

And the report shows how the agency acted against its own human rights commissioner, Immaculada Arnaez, to prevent her carrying out detailed investigations, including by refusing to allow her to see documents and video footage.

The news report notes:

Anyone who reads the report must come to the conclusion that for years the EU has tolerated a man with right-wing populist tendencies at the head of its border protection agency. As early as 2018, he claimed in a Whatsapp exchange that Frontex would be transformed into ‘a taxi company for migrants’. Ylva Johansson, the EU’s Commisioner for Home Affairs, expressed concerns about Leggeri and his agency’s activities. He said: ‘She is on the side of the NGOs.

At this point we should note that the NGOs are on the side of common human decency, and the actual law. To not be on their side is to place oneself in company with criminals who not only break the law but also behave despicably.

And the leadership team did not stop there. When Johansson on another occasion spoke publicly of the importance of new arrivals being ‘properly integrated’ into the EU – not even a part of Frontex responsibility – the team called her ‘stupid’ and said ‘Now we have heard everything’.

But the leadership team reserved most of its anger for its own human rights commissioner Arnaez. They compared her to Pol Pot, an unusual comparison as he was not famed for his efforts to ensure government agencies simply behaved acceptably and followed the law.

They said:

She runs a terror regime like the Khmer Rouge.

Because she wanted to check if they were carrying out or otherwise involved in pushbacks from the Greek islands.

But the enmity towards her was not limited to Leggeri and his immediate team. In one internal meeting, OLAF reports, a Frontex employee warned the fundamental rights officers were ‘not real Frontex colleagues.’

And this points to a very serious issue.

Because Leggeri resigned. His right-hand man, Thibauld de La Haye Jousselin, left the agency, and Dirk Van de Ryse, former head of the Situation Centre, has been ‘assigned other duties’.

But the problems with Frontex run far deeper than just Leggeri and his immediate team, and even beyond the agency itself. Him leaving, while welcome and positive, as well as absolutely necessary, does not ‘solve’ any of the agency and EU’s multiply proven problems and criminal activities.

Because the OLAF report, reveals a series of structural problems that have nothing to do with Leggeri, including that Greek border guards are putting pressure on and threatening Frontex officials who do express any desire to report violations of the law.

And it shows that over and over again, the Greek government has concealed arriving boats, calling them ‘ghost landings’. They do not appear in the corresponding Frontex database.

Which brings us back, again, to two fundamental points.

The first is that once again, not only Frontex but also the Greek government has been shown – despite the government’s howls of ‘conspiracy’ by a weird collection of the Turkish government, every major news provider from the EU, UK, US and Canada, NGOs, the governments of Germany, Iceland, Ireland and the Netherlands, the UK government, which publicly stated it had researched ‘Greece’s successful pushbacks policy’ and the United Nations – to have systematically, over the course of more than two years, broken international and EU law in a barbaric fashion.

There never was any doubt that this was what was being done, but there can no longer be any excuse for any journalist, MP, MEP or judge to simply listen and accept as fact the Greek government’s claims it does not push people back. It has, and it does.

It cannot simply be allowed to get away with this. The government of Kiriakos Mitsotakis does not have the professional decency or maturity to resign for this, and so the EU must act, immediately, to end this despicable, illegal, practice, as well as to take punitive measures against the Greek government. What other response is appropriate for criminals?

The second is, as we noted above, that the responsibility for this certainly extended as far as Leggeri, but also goes way beyond just him.

Not only is Frontex as an agency very seriously compromised by its and the Greek government’s activities, the EU is as well.

In direct oversight of Frontex is the EU’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson. It is impossible to argue that she has not shown extraordinary neglect of this responsibility, and it is hard to see how she can continue in her role without – at the very least – a full and frank public apology.

But Johansson has at least had the decency to speak against pushbacks, and on 30 June 2022 threatened the Greek government with fines if they continued to carry them out.

Above her, however, is Margaritis Schinas, the EU Commission’s Vice President for ‘Protecting our European Way of Life’.

Schinas has responsibility for Johansson’s portfolio, and so Frontex itself (as his quite sinister job title indicates).

We have noted previously that he is Greek, a member of Mitsotakis’ Nea Dimokratia party, and boasts that he ‘does not pay attention to’ NGOs regarding pushbacks (or anything else).

Of course, he should have done, as they are experts on the topic, and he might have been able to investigate Frontex’ actions avoiding both this catastrophe, and the thousands of catastrophes delivered upon innocent and vulnerable men women and children who travelled to Greece to find asylum.

It is undeniably also a catastrophe – for the human race and international law, as well as for the EU and every human being pushed back since 1 March 2020 – that the man with overall responsibility for the EU border agency at a time when it and the Greek government have been systematically breaking international and EU law with vicious and breath-taking brutality should be a man so closely tied to the Greek government as to have clear personal reasons to protect its activities.

But it is also undeniably the case that this is who Schinas is.

In the interview in which he boasted of not speaking to people who know better than him, he said:

There is no evidence of pushbacks from Greece’ and claimed ‘the accusations come only from NGOs, the press and Ankara.

He did not cite the OLAF report, which clearly and absolutely details evidence of pushbacks from Greece. The interview took place at the end of May. The report has been available to him since the end of February.

Even more recently, he was asked directly by an MEP if he had read the report, he changed the subject.

Instead of using the report to deal with the systematic illegal activity of Frontex and the Greek government, he instead chose to hide it and deliberately lie to the European public about what he knew to be shown within it.

This is a cover-up, at the very peak of the European political structure.

Even were he not in overall oversight of Frontex (which he is) and even were he not the person who ordered Frontex to break EU and international law (and it is difficult to see who else had the power to do so, if anyone did), this alone should see him resign, or be fired.

And this brings us to Ursula von der Leyen. We think it is unlikely that von der Leyen personally told Frontex to break the law: Schinas has the motive and ability to do so, and we cannot even be sure it was him.

But von der Leyen appointed Schinas. She also appointed Johansson. She has overall responsibility for the EU Commission, including the activities of every single one of its agencies, which of course means Frontex.

The buck stops with her. It is what she is paid for. And it is hard to see how the president of an EU body which has been shown to have systematically broken EU and international law, over a period of more than two years, can possibly pretend she has been ‘doing her job’.

We are very well aware that at present it is fashionable to laugh at the idea that politicians and leaders should behave with morality and common human decency: it is one of the worst manifestations of our position as a species in the 21st century, and will see us regarded with horror by our successive generations, should we be lucky to survive as a species so long.

But it must be unacceptable to break one’s own laws and those one has signed up to: this is what ‘the rule of law’ means.

Schinas and von der Leyen, if either did, as Leggeri’s testimony suggests, order and/or allow Frontex to break those laws, must go. Anything else will reduce the EU’s credibility as a body to less than zero.


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