Frontex and the use of force

With the „Standing Corps“, the EU has an armed police force for the first time. The use of guns and other means of coercion is to be monitored by a „Committee on the Use of Force“, whose members are selected by the Frontex director. This reinforces the control deficit at the biggest EU agency.

Until now, Frontex relied exclusively on personnel and equipment sent from EU member states in its operations. The border agency had its own staff of up to 1,500 officers, but they were only in civilian clothes and mainly deployed at the headquarters in Warsaw. In the meantime, Frontex has become the largest agency in the Union in terms of staff and budget. The budget for this year is 544 million Euros, for the next seven years Frontex will receive 5.6 billion Euros.

Most of the money is currently spent on a new border force to implement the strengthened mandate of the border agency. The Frontex Regulation, renewed two years ago, provides for the creation of a „Standing Corps“ of 10,000 officers, divided into four categories for short- and long-term missions. 3,000 „Category 1“ officers will be assigned directly to the headquarters in Warsaw as so-called statutory personnel. They wear Frontex uniforms and are allowed to use other means of coercion in addition to pistols. This is the first time the European Union has had an armed police force.

„New legal challenges and questions“

The EU Commission calls this „first European law enforcement uniformed service“ a „unique, pioneering opportunity to form part of the EU’s operational arm for European integrated border management“. However, the establishment of the “ Standing Corps“ and its operations thus also „raise various novel legal challenges and risks“.

Among other things, the 2019 regulation does not include a legal basis for the acquisition, storage and transport of weapons in Poland, where Frontex is based. Nor do Polish laws or the headquarters agreement Frontex concluded with the Polish government contain any such regulation. This was also pointed out by the Commission last year, and this assessment was confirmed in two external expert assessments. The arming of the „Category 1“ statutory personnel therefore did not take place on 1 January as planned.

Frontex has only recently closed the legal loophole in an additional agreement with Poland, where the weapons are now registered. The agency is keeping new expert opinions on the legal assessment of this agreement secret.

2,500 firearms and 3.6 million bullets

According to the „Frontex Files“, the agency has already held an „industry dialogue“ on weapons, ammunition and holsters with the companies Heckler & Koch, SigSaur, Glock and Grand Power in 2019. These were asked to stand by for possible award. It was not until two years later, on 15 February this year, that the border agency finally published the Europe-wide tender.

Supply of weapons and ammunition until 2024 (Frontex).

The first semi-automatic 9mm pistols are to be delivered this summer, and Frontex plans to procure a total of 2,500 firearms and 3.6 million cartridges by 2024. The total cost of the order is expected to be five million Euros. The delivery comes with holsters, pistol cases, spare parts kits, torches and a cleaning kit. Finally, the contract also includes the training of 15 firearms instructors.

The „Category 1“ gear also includes „non-lethal equipment“ for the use of force. According to its Director Fabrice Leggeri, Frontex is procuring 300 bullet-proof vests and almost 1,000 rubber batons, as well as another 700 telescopic batons in various sizes. The officers also carry a total of 3,800 cans of lachrymatory agents that can be used for short, medium and long distances. The commission does not say whether these are pepper spray or also tear gas.

Bridging solution from Greece

So far, Frontex has only 500 „Category 1“ officers, trained in Spain and Italy. By the end of the year, a total of 700 are to be available, and a second squadron of about 300 officers will be trained in 2022. The first deployment of the force has been since the end of January to support deportations by the Italian police at Fiumicino Airport in Rome. No armament is required for this task profile.

Tasks of the „Standing Corps“ (Frontex).

In order for the „Standing Corps“ to begin its first robust deployment at an EU external border as planned, Greece is temporarily equipping „Category 1“ at the Greek-Turkish border with weapons. This is what the German Federal Ministry of the Interior writes in its answer to a parliamentary question, confirming statements by the Frontex director who had reported on the plans to the European Parliament in mid-March.

Accordingly, the government in Athens has created „the national legal framework“ for such a bridging solution. The contract also includes firearms training, which has long since begun, according to a Frontex video. The loaned 9mm pistols are registered in Greece, and Frontex takes care of their proper storage. The border agency has launched a tender for metal cases for this purpose. They are to be delivered „to various locations in Greece“.

Weapons loan also planned by other host states

Director Leggeri is planning similar agreements with other host states. It is unclear whether these will also be third countries. Frontex began its first operation outside the European Union two years ago in Albania, a second followed last year at land and sea borders in Montenegro.

The use of force with weapons, ammunition and „non-lethal equipment“ is regulated in an annex to the Frontex regulation. According to this, they may only be carried during duty hours and used there as a last resort. Statutory personnel may resort to „physical means“ for the „purposes of performing their functions“. Self-defence is listed as a further use. Details are to be laid down in a deployment plan agreed between the Frontex Director and the deploying Member State.

The „Standing Corps“ will be led by a Deputy Director, whose post will be newly created and is currently being advertised. The skill profile of the person sought includes „excellent decision-making skills“, including a „strong sense of strategically and politically sensitive matters“.

No oversight

The „Category 1“ missions are sensitive not only because they are armed, but also because of Frontex’s general lack of oversight. There is no superior body that may issue instructions to the border agency or its director. It is true that the Frontex Management Board, in which the member states and the EU Commission are organised, can dismiss the director. The EU Parliament can also refuse to approve the agency’s budget. However, there is no functional oversight of the ongoing operations.

This is problematic not least because, according to the Frontex Regulation, the director is also responsible for monitoring the correct use of force by the permanent corps‘ statutory staff. Leggeri is assisted in this by an „Advisory Committee on the Use of Force“ (ACUF) under Article 8.

However, the committee, which was established at the last minute, has only an advisory function and is supposed to make „recommendations“. Moreover, the committee is anything but independent, as its members are appointed by Leggeri himself. A serious monitoring of the new armed EU border force is therefore not to be expected – as is the case with the now widely reported assistance with refoulement in violation of international law.

Image: Frontex.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.