Frontex — ‘Instead of a supplier of resources, a real partner for member states!’

Interview with Hans Leijtens, Executive Director of Frontex

European Court of Auditors
#ECAjournal

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Intensified migrant flows are most evident at EU’s external borders, which are managed by EU member states with increasing support from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency — Frontex. Frontex has grown exponentially over the last five years and has been visible in the news in terms of managing migration at EU borders. Atessa Duman, a recent intern in the Directorate of the Presidency, and Gaston Moonen interviewed Hans Leijtens, Executive Director of Frontex since March 2023. Frontex contributes to key aspects of European integrated border management, and Hans Leijtens aims to gear its activities more towards the needs and effects envisioned by the member states as they manage the EU’s external borders.

By Atessa Duman and Gaston Moonen, Directorate of the Presidency

Hans Leijtens. Source: Frontex.

An increasingly operational Agency

Migration and border control are very topical issues. At the same time, Hans Leijtens puts this into perspective: ‘Migration has been there always. We have to divide the factual changes on the one hand and the political narratives in countries on the other hand, they are sometimes not completely aligned.’ He sees it as part of his professional role to voice what an organisation like Frontex is seeing all over Europe. ‘We are in a unique position in that we can interact with member states, Schengen states and all third countries we are working with. So we can aggregate the information and provide intelligence for decision-making on all three levels — tactical, operational and strategic. And really support member states, which is our main objective. However, this changed with the new 2019 Regulation, which sort of re-tasked Frontex. Before we were more of an information hub, doing coordination and having some deployments coordinated along the way. Now we are increasingly becoming a fully-fledged operational Agency, although we are not there yet.’

The growing importance of migration as an issue for a common EU policy is also reflected in the fact that Frontex has become the biggest EU agency. ‘This reflects that both the member states and the Commission agree that we should address border and migration issues at the EU level.’ A development which was in the making after the 2015/16 migration crisis, leading to the 2019 Frontex Regulation. For Hans Leijtens, the new Pact on Migration and Asylum focuses more on asylum than on border management. ‘Often it is said that migration starts at the borders, but that is not true. We try to reach out to third countries, countries of origin, to transit countries…Not because we think we can stop migration but at least we can see how we can manage migration. And that is also along the lines that a part of our job is also to facilitate legal migration, authorised migration.’

Box 1 — Frontex — European Border and Coast Guard Agency

Frontex supports EU Member States and Schengen associated countries in the management of the EU’s external borders, sharing intelligence and expertise in EU and non-EU countries affected by migratory trends and cross-border crime. It has a standing corps, EU’s uniformed law enforcement service, being an operational arm of the EU. Established in 2004, Frontex had initially a facilitating and coordinating role. In 2019 EU Regulation 2019/1896 increased Frontex’s powers towards also an operational role. This involved an exponential increase in resources, introducing a standing corps of 10.000 operational staff by 2027 and a budget of €754 million for 2022.

The stated aim of the Frontex Regulation is to support the member states. ‘Meaning that we cannot just go and do things. With the member states we have already a legal basis, so we can agree on an operational plan.’ Hans Leijtens defines three different types of support. The first is through joint operations, using aerial, maritime or landbased equipment and resources. The second relates to return operations. And the third is what he calls multi-purpose aerial surveillance. ‘That we have been doing now for quite a while but it is becoming more important. We deploy it mainly in the central Mediterranean. It means that member states can ask us to provide them with situation awareness. And pre-frontier, so not deploying in the area they already cover, but in this case, for example, the region of the central Mediterranean Sea between Libya, Tunisia, Italy and Greece, so international waters.’ In this surveillance work, Frontex uses planes, drones, helicopters, and satellite images. ‘What we deliver to member states is close to real-time monitoring.’ The area Frontex covers is substantial. ‘The size of France or Spain, and we just fly patterns, and whenever we see something — either in terms of law enforcement, such as possible unauthorised water crossings, but also with search and rescue — we can provide the same situation awareness.’

This cooperation with member states is also visible in the set-up of the Frontex workforce and its cooperation modes. The Frontex workforce has three categories: Frontex employees, including its own uniformed staff, officers from member states seconded to Frontex, and member state resources deployed for specific operations as needed. ‘The moment that category two or three officers are deployed, the local commander is responsible for that deployment. But I remain responsible for their professional and personal behaviour while deployed through Frontex. I am responsible for enforcing the standards, including when it comes to human rights provisions.’ He is fully aware of this responsibility for armed officers with possibly lethal consequences in certain situations, which is, however, not new to him, considering his previous responsibilities as Commander of the Dutch national military police force, the Marechaussee.

I am responsible for enforcing the standards, including when it comes to human rights provisions.

Transparency and accountability — conditions for becoming a trusted Agency

For his daily work, the Frontex Director considers it essential to keep in touch with operational activities. ‘But I am not the type of leader who wants to have all kinds of reports on his desk every morning. However, I am in a line of business where small mistakes can have huge impacts. Both for migrants, for human lives, but also for credibility, for legality, for trust. You have to develop an understanding of issues which sound like something minor, but might just be very important. So I talk a lot with people, to understand what is really happening.’ He gives an example relating to a recent ruling of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg regarding Frontex’s responsibilities for the relocation of a Syrian family to Türkiye in 2016. ‘Apart from the briefing note, I also wanted to talk with the lawyer, hear about the atmosphere in the courtroom. In this case, legally we were proven right. But that is only legal. It does not mean that there is a different impact on society. Politically even it might just erupt like a volcano.’

His approach of talking with people also involves a lot of travelling, holding discussions both with border guard management and with ministers. ‘Trying to understand and be understood on what we are, what we can deliver. To avoid any expectation gaps there.’ He also spends a lot of time in Brussels talking openly with the Commission, Council members and European Parliament about the many Frontex activities. ‘For us it is very important to change the focus towards the effects and impact of Frontex. A lot of talk about Frontex is about our size — 10 000 officers, our budget moving towards 1 billion euros, about fundamental rights. But not about what you expect us to do, about the end result, the effect you want us to deliver. I am increasingly asking this, and not only at an organisational level. I want the member states to be vocal about what they expect us to do. Also, because if you, the ECA, audit us, you will ask “You spent money, used resources, but does it really deliver something tangible?”’

I want the member states to be vocal about what they expect us to do.

According to the Frontex Director, the success of Frontex should not be defined in terms of how big it is but in terms of what it delivers. ‘Is that in accordance with the needs of member states? Is it up to the standards of effectiveness, and also regarding human rights, for example? That is still rather implicit. Also from a process model, if you are not aware of the output and the outcomes, how can you evaluate, improve, and actually learn what you do with the input?’

Hans Leijtens admits that his interest in this goes well beyond audit and ties directly into the issue of trust. In many public statements he has highlighted that he wants to be open, transparent and accountable on what he does and what Frontex wants to deliver. ‘And how we do it. On very technical operations we perhaps cannot give every detail. We should inform civilians, travellers, migrants on what we do, why we do it. It might even have a preventive effect if you do so.’ Likewise for checking borders. ‘There should be no secrets on where and how we check. Migrants should assume that they will be checked somewhere somehow.’ Regarding cross-border crime, he explains that he has to be more prudent in sharing information. ‘Although I think it is also good.’ He has noticed that media interest goes beyond numbers to talk about certain phenomena and share specific Frontex knowledge. ‘So not just the figures but also the type of criminals we are talking about. And without being alarmist, just being factual on what we see: this type of criminal does it this way, in these numbers and with that effect. I think there is not that much I cannot share.’

Regarding trust, Hans Leijtens explains that in his line of business there are three aspects that are very important and are too often neglected in the dialogue with both politicians and the media. ‘To start with: we need to be effective, do we really add something in managing EU borders, both in facilitating and securing borders?’ The second issue for him is legality. ‘Of course, you should expect from a law enforcement agency that it obeys the law. If there are wrongdoings, you have to react, it should have consequences, for me, for every one of my people. We should also be accountable for that, ultimately including for court. What is there above that in terms of accountability?’ His third element relates to legitimacy and trust. ‘Legitimacy is not just following the law. It is more than that. On top of that it is working according to standards, in how you engage, in what you do. It relates to authority, built up also by how transparent you are, how open you are, whether people can know you or not.’

While all these aspects are very important, legitimacy and trust are top of his list. ‘Because if you are not trusted, you can still brandish the law, but people may say “You use it when you think it is appropriate, but you are not sort of accountable for it yourself”. If you talk about effectiveness, people may not trust the effect you’re engaging at.’ He points out that transparency is not just a slogan for him. ‘It is actually vital for a good law enforcement agency to invest in, but also to be very active, if not be proactive on this.’ He explains that after a number of discussions with the European Parliament, his reaction was: ‘Instead of asking for such information every time, we will give you a dashboard. What do you want to know? We owe it to the public to tell them what we are seeing and doing.’

We owe it to the public to tell them what we are seeing and doing.

He observes that this outreach should not stop at EU borders. ‘Actively providing information to third countries, whether transit or origin countries for migrants, is important so that potential migrants know more about what they can expect, what is required and what is not possible. Europe as a whole should invest more in informing people, without doing warfare stories, aimed at presenting terrifying stories and how they may be treated along the way by people smugglers and criminal gangs in the hope they won’t come.’

Nevertheless, he expects that there will always be a market for smugglers, and gives the following advice: ‘Don’t trust them, they are lying, trust me.’ He continues, ‘There will always be migration, and for us border management officials, the question is: how can we do this? Right now, the issue starts at the border. But of course, migration starts somewhere in the country of origin, with root causes. Because of poverty, insecurity, because of natural disasters or demography, and it is important to include that in the narrative regarding migration.’ In his view, the difficulty is that there is often a mismatch. ‘Both in terms of what we need on the EU labour market and the skills of migrants presenting themselves at EU borders. It is not in my remit and not my responsibility, but perhaps instead of just waiting for them we have to look for them and facilitate authorised, so wanted border crossings.

Aiming for dialogue — including on the new Pact While part of an executive agency, Hans Leijtens is convinced that his job includes clarity on what can and cannot be done. ‘Adding to the discussion the right information, but also managing expectations on what is feasible to do. Political decision-making also shapes our operational environment, and we need to talk to the decision-makers about that environment. Dialogue is particularly important on a topic like migration, where you risk losing each other halfway, including on the perspective of what can be delivered, with the risk that the political narrative overtakes the fact-based narrative.

Dialogue is particularly important on a topic like migration, where you (…) risk that the political narrative overtakes the fact-based narrative.

As to the Council’s 8 June agreement on its negotiation position regarding the new Pact for Migration and Asylum, the Executive Director expects this to influence Frontex operations as well, albeit to a lesser extent than, for example, the EU Agency for Asylum (EUAA). ‘We are not really in asylum procedures as such. However, new operational concepts influence decisions on whether people will receive our protection or not. For example, on the return of people who are not or will not be protected by the EU. We may be asked to beef up these return operations.’ He explains that returns are part of the migration cycle, including the integration of migrants in their home country. ‘For a long time, we have been ready to enhance our contribution to return operations in Europe. So far, one of the issues is that there are not enough returnees to really use that capability.’ He underlines that the largest proportion of migrants are economic migrants, while the percentage of genuine asylum seekers is much smaller. ‘But those who request asylum and are refused should be returned. Because in terms of both closing the circle and having a sustainable migration policy, we should do this. Otherwise, the irregular proportion becomes bigger and bigger.’

… those who request asylum and are refused should be returned. (…) Otherwise, the illegal proportion becomes bigger and bigger.

Such gaps are also known to asylum seekers. ‘We know that there are accounts on social media, where migrants can inform themselves on where to go, depending on their preferences. I think there is an important role for the EU institutions, and also the EUAA and Frontex, to be more than a supplier of resources, but also a partner, trying to establish standards. On operations but also on fundamental rights. And engage with member states to persuade and support them in trying to use different and hopefully better processes.’ He gives the example of registration of migrants. ‘Such registration is pivotal, because if you don’t and they are intercepted somewhere in the EU and there is no registration… they may tell us “I crossed that border, I asked for asylum.” Were fingerprints taken? And if not, why not? Such findings create distrust in the system. If the external borders do not work, then the rest of whatever migration is, is built on quicksand.’

Border control and fundamental rights — far from mutually exclusive

The new Executive Director has declared several times that pushbacks are not allowed and that his fundamental rights focus is really to prevent them. ‘This is not only our legal obligation but even more so related to the trust we spoke about. Without running away from my responsibilities, I also need to highlight that I can only be held responsible for the actions of my own people. Nevertheless, I can have a position on how our cooperation partner is doing their job and whether that is an environment that is fit for an organisation like ours, being European, being tasked with high standards for human rights, so the famous Article 46 of the Frontex Regulation.’

Hans Leijtens also underlines the organisational dimension of pushbacks. ‘They mean for me — I take this very seriously — first of all I have to talk with my own people. To tell them: this is the standard. So we brief, we explain. It has been in every operational plan since 2019. We have assessments from our fundamental rights officers, monitoring in the field, we have checks and balances — dating also from before I came. For me, the main point is not securing borders OR fundamental rights. No, it is securing borders AND fundamental rights. We all took the oath, saying “we promise to serve and protect”. It is not protecting the nation-state but also protecting the civilians. So it should be in our DNA. And the standard for that is it is also fundamental rights.’ For Hans Leijtens, the Frontex mandate starts with protecting borders. ‘And whilst doing that we have to live up to the standards which are there both in Europe and universally. You must be absolutely clear on this.’

… it is securing borders AND fundamental rights. (…) we have to live up to the standards which are there both in Europe and universally.

For him this means that his people have to behave within these boundaries. ‘But even — and that is of course more difficult — to report, to signal when others do not. As hierarchy we also need to empower our people, not only saying but living up to “I will support you if you report”. You should do if you see something which is not up to our standards.’ Arguably this may be difficult, certainly in the hierarchical structure many of his officers are used to. ‘Coming often from a police culture, which can be a rather closed culture. This requires a constructive attitude within our organisation, instead of a doubting one. We need to interact on this also with the host country, with the police force concerned.’ He adds that the latter means you have to rely on national institutions. ‘On an ombudsman, on judges, on prosecutors, on commanding generals, whether they really do something, or not. One of my tasks is also to tell the member states: it cannot be that this is not reported, and you tell me that this did not happen. That cannot be. No doubt we try to be the good guys, but we do make mistakes.’ In his view, this also requires politicians to really support their commanders in enforcing the standards. ‘Because if they convey a mentality that they will not accept mistakes, these commanders will not report.

Performance and trust — essential in transforming Frontex’s capacity to add value

With his focus on performance, it may be no surprise that Hans Leijtens is keen to see the ECA helping his organisation to enhance its performance. ‘Of course, we need to comply with every single regulation there is. I don’t want to play that down. But for the future of Frontex, what we do on top of that, how we really satisfy the needs of the member states, that is becoming increasingly important. So any help in terms of enhancing the understanding of how performance looks — in terms of how we agree on tangible objectives, on things we can measure, on improving understanding of how law enforcement performance works, is needed.’

He observes that if you can agree on the assumptions that define the relationship between outcome and output you are doing fine. ‘If there is no causality then impact is difficult to improve. That’s why I am looking for guidance and direction on the intended end results and effects.’ He points out that he has done some scientific work himself on this in the past. ‘The assumption that law enforcement is just like any other type of business — that does not fly. Nevertheless, how do you define success in terms of being effective? Even more important than efficiency. Because in the end you don’t want to have the cheapest police force, but you want to have the best police in terms of effectiveness.’ He also underlines that, as an EU law enforcement agency supporting the member states, anything to improve the understanding and working of that ecosystem would be helpful for him.

When Hans Leijtens started this job, he recognised the importance of bringing back trust in the ecosystem in which Frontex operates. ‘This remains essential, and I think we are gaining trust from different sides.’ Besides trust and becoming more effective, however, he has even higher aims for when he leaves his post as Executive Director of Frontex. ‘The most important would be that we have become, instead of a supplier of resources, a real partner for member states. This is not just a word. It means that we should have a different dialogue with member states in terms of not just doing what they want but trying to understand what they really need. That is perhaps the biggest challenge because that means we have to do our work, especially our work with the member states, and in combination with the Commission, differently from how we are doing it right now, and accommodate more proactively to their needs.

… we should have a different dialogue with member states in terms of not just doing what they want but trying to understand what they really need.

This article was first published on the 2/2023 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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