Welcome to EU Politics Decoded where Benjamin Fox and Eleonora Vasques bring you a round-up of the latest political news in Europe and beyond every Thursday. In this edition, we look at the latest evidence of the accountability gap created by EU institutions and member states regarding the EU’s border agency Frontex.
Editor’s Take: The grey area in Frontex’s accountability
Where is the dividing line between transparency and public security? It is a question that starts in the university classroom and remains in our work as journalists reporting on migration, on the ground and in Brussels.
It is a huge problem when journalists need information to report on potential abuses of people at EU borders and when investigating the extent of accountability of member states and EU institutions.
EURACTIV made a series of freedom for information requests (FOIA) to the EU border agency Frontex to access all communications between the Italian authorities and the EU border agency Frontex between the 25 and 26 February, to better understand what exactly happened in relation to the shipwreck near the coast of Cutro, southern Italy, killing close to 100 people.
Frontex replied to EURACTIV providing just one document – an email sent after the vessel sank.
The refusal to disclose a further 65 related documents, Frontex said, was because there is a wide range of information, such as equipment, methods, or operational areas, that cannot be disclosed since it can “jeopardise ongoing and future operations”.
Frontex’s core argument is that disclosing such information could give traffickers and smugglers information that could be used to improve their criminal activities, such as human trafficking.
An official source from the EU agency told EURACTIV that Frontex is in co-ownership with the member state authorities when it comes to interception data. If a member state refuses to disclose a document, Frontex cannot provide it.
“We have nothing to hide, except very technical information,” Frontex Executive Director Hans Leijtens told MEPs during a hearing at the European Parliament on Thursday (7 September), inviting EU lawmakers to visit Frontex headquarters in Warsaw.
It is well known by many following migration policy that most of the vessels or planes in the Mediterranean are publicly tracked.
And it was proved by data, research and investigation that human traffickers do not base their departures on who is in the area, but rather on weather reports and other environmental elements, for instance, whether there is a full moon – to make it easier to hide from the Libyan or Tunisian coast guards.
In the meantime, many shadows remain regarding the causes and the responsibilities around this tragedy and the Italian district attorney of Cutro is investigating.
EURACTIV has previously written about how hard it is for journalists to investigate what really is going on in the Mediterranean Sea without information provided by those who actually are there.
Therefore, many questions remain. If Frontex witnesses an illegal act by a member state, what is the procedure the EU institutions have to follow?
On Wednesday (6 September), the EU Court of Justice rejected the appeal of some Syrian refugees against Frontex following their pushback from Greece to Turkey.
According to the judges, Frontex is not competent to assess the merits of the return decisions or the applications for international protection and cannot be held liable for any damages related to the refoulement to Turkey.
That does not change the fact that Frontex witnessed what was essentially an illegal act.
As an EU agency, Frontex is accountable to the EU institutions. But what happens when Frontex sees something that is in violation of EU law?
On Thursday, EURACTIV put this question to the European Commission, which confirmed that Frontex is accountable to the EU institutions while working on the soil of member states, who are, themselves, making such decisions.
However, it did not clarify what the EU institutions should do if Frontex witnesses a violation, leaving a huge legal and moral grey area.
Who is electioneering?
Sanchez won his bet. Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez is likely to lead another government in Spain, after having reached the numbers to form a government.
Months ago, when the socialist leader called anticipated elections, nobody would have spent a euro on his success. Even though the centre-right Partito Popular got the majority of the votes, its leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo did not manage to reach the necessary number of 176 seats.
For this reason, he prepared a legislative plan to govern the country, asking support from the socialists to form a coalition. However, Sanchez looked at the left and at the separatist movement to continue to lead his country.
Rules of Catalan engagement. An amnesty law, recognition and respect for the “democratic legitimacy” of Catalonia’s independence movement and the creation of a mechanism to verify future political agreements with Madrid are the red lines set out by separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to start formal negotiations to reinstate Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Aubry gets job of agreeing a single election list for the French left. The leftist left-wing La France insoumise has appointed MEP Manon Aubry to ‘coordinate’ its European election campaign for 2024, with the hope of agreeing a single leftist list with other parties.
Austria plans to outsource asylum claims to Africa. The Austrian government wants to outsource applications for asylum procedures to third states such as Rwanda, Chancellor Karl Nehammer told die Welt on Monday, as part of its attempts to cut migrant numbers. The move follows similar attempts by the UK and Denmark.
Berlin goes back to budget cuts. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner has introduced new spending cuts worth €30 billion in the budget for 2024, with cuts planned in all areas except defence in anticipation of a growing debt burden.
Le Pen’s popularity on the rise. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s popularity continues to grow. She is now the country’s second most popular political figure according to new surveys, second only to Edouard Philippe, Emmanuel Macron’s former prime minister and potential candidate for the 2027 presidential elections.
Inside the institutions
LEAK: European Parliament wants ‘celebrities’ to promote June EU elections. The European Parliament has identified ‘celebrities’ across Europe as being key to promoting the next EU elections, EURACTIV has learned from a note the Parliament’s bureau is set to approve next Monday (11 September).
Reynders takes over competition portfolio. EU justice chief Didier Reynders said on Tuesday (5 September) he had been assigned the European Commission’s competition portfolio following Margrethe Vestager’s confirmation that she is a candidate for the presidency of the European Investment Bank.
EU Commission proposes ‘one-stop shop’ for civil society groups. Non-profit and civil society groups will have a ‘one-stop shop‘ to allow them to operate in EU countries where they are not registered, under a new proposal tabled by the European Commission on Tuesday (5 September).
Russia encourages migrants to cross Belarus to the EU, Baltic States warn. Russia organises flights from the Middle East to Moscow, giving migrants access to the Belarusian and then EU borders, ministers from the Baltic region said during a hearing with MEPs on Monday (4 September).
UK gets its Horizon deal, finally. After months of negotiations over London’s annual contributions, EU and UK negotiators have agreed a deal under which the United Kingdom will join the European Union’s satellite programme for Earth observation and Horizon Europe with a rebate of its financial contribution to compensate for the years it has missed, according to an annoucement on Thursday (7 September).
Latvian MEPs say Riga bribery case is politically motivated. Following allegations of bribery and fraud in a €10 million scandal from their time in Riga’s mayoral office, two socialist (S&D) MEPs may see their parliamentary immunity lifted by request of the Latvian General Prosecutor. But Nils Ušakovs, former mayor of Riga, and Andris Ameriks – Ušakovs’ deputy mayor between 2010 and 2018, claim the situation is orchestrated by the prime minister’s office, held by an EPP-affiliated party.
What we are reading
Joining Horizon Europe is the first step towards the UK’s recovery from the self-harm of Brexit, argues Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.
The EU is poised to make its next push towards deeper integration, writes Martin Sandhu in the Financial Times.
The next week in politics
Migration and the European Green Deal are likely to dominate Ursula von der Leyen’s last State of the Union annual address before next June’s European elections, which the Commission boss will deliver to MEPs in Strasbourg next Wednesday.
MEPs are also expected to agree on an overhaul of the European Parliament’s internal rulebook on transparency and integrity provisions, with tighter rules on conflicts of interest and financial disclosure.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]
Read more with EURACTIV
UK joins EU Copernicus, Horizon research programmes after agreeing rebateThe United Kingdom will join the European Union’s satellite programme for Earth observation and Horizon Europe research scheme with a rebate in its financial contribution to compensate for the years it has missed, it announced on Thursday (7 September).