Thank you very much and nice to be here with the Members of this Group and the European Parliament. The European Border and Coast Guard’s first core task is to ensure European integrated border management at the external borders with a view to managing those borders efficiently and in full compliance with fundamental rights. Its second core task is increase the efficiency of the Union return policy.
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency has to detect, prevent and address actual and future challenges and threats at the external borders of the Union. In particular, Frontex must help to combat cross-border crime at the external borders and address migratory challenges.
Frontex is really needed as well as the European Border and Coast Guard whole system. There are high expectations on Frontex and rightly so but also hugely increased resources.
According to the Regulation, the Executive Director of Frontex is obliged to propose actions at EU external borders when vulnerability assessment or risk analysis shows weaknesses of border controls or threats. I think this is a very important part of security our external borders. So far this has not been proposed by the Executive Director. But I think this is an important task.
It is clear that Frontex operates at the heart of European Home Affairs and it is crucial for many reasons. So the European Union really needs Frontex.
Frontex is an independent decentralised Agency of the Union, managed by an Executive Director who – according to the Regulation – “shall be completely independent in the performance of his or her duties” and who “shall neither seek nor take instructions from any government or from any other body”.
But Frontex nor its Executive Director operate in a legal or political vacuum.
First, the Regulation sets out the ground rules and the governance structures. That includes a management board; three deputy executive directors; a fundamental rights officer; and a consultative forum, assisting the Agency as an advisory body. The Regulation also provides that the fundamental rights office shall be assisted by 40 fundamental rights monitors. And today, in June 2021, for reasons I cannot accept, this fundamental governance structure is still incomplete.
Second, the Regulation provides that the Agency is accountable to the European Parliament and to the Council.
I therefore warmly welcome the establishment of this Scrutiny Group. Together with all the other important audits, scrutiny and controls that are being made now, I think this is very important to achieve our common goal, to achieve a robust, well-functioning and well-governed Agency, that can professionally implement its mandate and do its tasks.
Over the past months significant progress has been made, but there is a lot more work ahead.
The Regulation has made the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, the largest Union Agency both in terms of staff and financial resources. As you all know the Agency shall include a standing corps with a capacity of up to 10 000 operational and armed staff.
This entails a huge responsibility for compliance with the applicable regulatory framework governing the Agency’s operational activities, its overall management as well as sound financial management.
To assume these responsibilities, we need a robust and well-managed agency, with a strong governance system.
Over the last months, tangible progress has been made with the appointment of the new Fundamental Rights Officer – who has taken up his job on 1 June – and the recruitment of the first 20 Fundamental Rights monitors, 6 of whom have taken up their job last week.
However, a lot remains to be done. Although we have been discussing for 9 months last year on the new organisational structure of the Agency and the portfolios of the Deputy Executive Directors, today my services are still in discussions with the Agency about the reporting lines of the soon to be selected and appointed Deputy Executive Directors. I encourage the Executive Director to comply with the Regulation and the decisions made by the Management Board so that the Deputies can take up their tasks swiftly, and that they can play a meaningful and effective role.
In the letters and timelines that I have provided to the Parliament and to this Group, you will have seen that my services and I have always been actively committed to making this Agency a strong and robust one.
But I have also listened to you, Honourable Members of the European Parliament and of this Group, and I have instructed my services to set up a horizontal Frontex Support Group within DG HOME, headed by a Deputy Director-General, to ensure that the support the Commission gives to Frontex is coordinated, efficient and effective. I realise that we also need to step up from our side.
The Regulation sets outs very clearly that the Agency’s Management Board is the main body to exercise permanent control and scrutiny on the Agency’s activities and to ensure the accountability of its Executive Director.
And this is why the Commission has pushed to establish a working group on governance, fundamental rights and operations to prepare the work of the Management Board. In its meeting of last week, the Board agreed instead to reinforce the Executive Board to fulfil this role. I trust that this will enable the Management Board to provide the necessary strategic guidance and to take on a more active role on governance matters.
Finally on governance, I should mention that on several occasions Ministers have raised concerns to me, directly and in the Council. The Portuguese Presidency also put the issue of the implementation of the 2019 Frontex Regulation on the agenda of the last JHA Council. Several Member States are also reviewing their level of engagement and participation in the Management Board and this is of critical importance.
On the progress achieved and work to be done
The timely and full rollout of the Agency’s new mandate is a key priority for the Commission and I welcome the progress made recently.
The appointment of a new Fundamental Rights Officer that has just taken up his duties is an important step. It is now important to build up his office in order to allow him to carry out his tasks effectively.
There are still some key areas to be addressed:
- the most urgent measure is the recruitment of the remaining 20 fundamental rights monitors. Six months after expiry of the legal deadline, only half of the monitors provided for in the Regulation have been recruited;
- the roll-out of the standing corps needs to be accelerated, including the recruitment and training of all the Agency’s 700 own border guards before the end of this year.
- the Agency’s new administrative structure needs to be implemented, guaranteeing the effective integration of three new Deputy Executive Directors expected to be appointed after the Summer and the finalisation of the implementing rules for the Agency’s data protection framework.
On the investigations of alleged pushbacks
The Commission has expressed its concerns on the numerous allegations of systematic pushbacks.
At the first meeting in November 2020, the Management Board established a working group which delivered its final report on this matter in March.
On the basis of this report, the Management Board adopted in March, conclusions including a set of measures to be implemented by the Agency, notably the revision of the serious incident reporting system of the Agency, stronger and more transparent procedures and the appointment of the necessary independent staff.
Since then I understand that the Executive Director reports to his Board which follows closely the progress made on the implementation of the different measures.
The Executive Director must ensure full compliance of the Frontex operational activities with the legal framework, not only in the Eastern Mediterranean, but anywhere where the European Border and Coast Guard carries out European integrated border management at the external borders. Efficient border management goes hand in hand with full compliance with fundamental rights. Compliance with fundamental rights is not only an afterthought or a marginal task: it is set out in Article 1 of the Regulation.
There is a close and constant dialogue with the national authorities to address the shortcomings in external border management, and I am working closely with Member States for example Greece and Croatia to set up independent border monitoring mechanisms to ensure full compliance with the legal framework and fundamental rights at our external borders.
Frontex’s role is to support the national authorities in their efforts to protect and manage the borders of the Schengen area in a manner which is compliant with fundamental rights.
Thank you very much and I am ready to answer your questions.
I would like to thank you for a good and constructive discussion.
The Commission will continue to work closely with the Agency and the Member States to follow up on allegations regarding any kind of non-compliance of Frontex’s operational activities with Union law.
Clearly, there is a lot to be done by Frontex to address the various shortcomings identified through the work of the Management Board’s Working Group on Fundamental Rights, by the European Court of Auditors and by the EU Ombudsman on the Agency’s complaints mechanism. I am satisfied that the Agency has started to address some of these issues. More findings and recommendations will still come, including from OLAF and from the Internal Audit Service which is conducting a governance audit.
In this context, I welcome in particular the good work of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group and its upcoming report with the recommendations. This group’s work will be an essential reference framework to steer and reinforce the process to improve the Agency’s governance in the coming weeks and months.
The Commission proposes that these reports and recommendations should be on the agenda of the next Management Board meeting in September.
The Commission is fully committed to play its role, alongside and in support of the Parliament and the Council, to ensure oversight and the effective and democratic accountability of the Agency.