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Frontex, the EU’s embattled border and coastguard agency, is on the back foot again after the release of a critical audit report yesterday. The Warsaw-based organisation is already fighting multiple allegations of complicity in the illegal pushback of dinghies carrying migrants to Europe’s shores. I will explore what the latest skirmish with the EU Court of Auditors is about — and why the European parliament is also getting involved in this latest episode in the bloc’s longstanding migration neuralgia.
Dutch pride in the country’s financial rectitude has meanwhile suffered a blow from a rather embarrassing scandal surrounding pandemic-mandated face masks. We will look at what this latest mishap means for Mark Rutte’s troubled caretaker government.
And we will unpack the political reasons behind a French decision to slap Google with a rather meagre competition fine.
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency — still known by its original name, Frontex — has faced growing questions over its conduct since an expansion of its powers in 2019. The latest have come not from rights activists, but EU financial monitors.
The bloc’s Court of Auditors said the expansion of Frontex’s powers and budget over the past decade has thrown up several problems. No impact assessments were carried out before any of these measures were taken, auditors said, nor were any Frontex operations evaluated after the agency gained more autonomy from national governments.
“Frontex is not discharging its duties effectively and this is worrying, particularly as it has taken on more responsibilities,” said Leo Brincat, the European Court of Auditors member in charge of the report.
The goal of hiring 10,000 border guards by 2027, set when Frontex’s powers were last extended, “was not the result of any impact study but a political decision in 2017”, Brincat said. He added that a separate audit into how Frontex was conducting returns of migrants to their origin countries will be published in September.
In response to the auditors’ report, Frontex said that it had undergone a “massive transformation that would have challenged any organisation, especially in the times of the Covid pandemic”. The agency admitted that “improvements are needed” but said that many of the shortcomings identified “are related to external factors outside of the agency’s control”.
The organisation also denied being involved in human rights violations alleged by migrants, human rights groups and media investigations.
As a result of the controversies, the European parliament in April postponed signing off on Frontex’s accounts for 2019, pending an inquiry into the allegations of abuses.
Tineke Strik, the Dutch Green MEP leading the probe, said the parliament was still investigating how Frontex has fulfilled its obligations when it comes to fundamental rights and if it adequately followed up on accusations of violations. “They had an immense growth in tasks and people,” she said. “This is the moment to correct their mechanisms if necessary and make sure fundamental rights are given the same value as guarding borders.”
More broadly, Strik decried that the only migration policy EU member states appeared able to agree on was that the bloc should make it as difficult as possible for irregular arrivals to enter.
“There’s an atmosphere of impunity at the external borders,” she said.
Strik also criticised a lack of response from the European Commission when nations sought to shirk their responsibilities. One such case was the move by Denmark’s parliament last week to outsource its asylum processing of migrants to countries outside the EU, she said. “What we criticised about Donald Trump and Australia, we risk to do now ourselves.”
The commission has said that processing claims in a third country raised “fundamental questions about both the access to asylum procedures and effective access to protection”. It is analysing the Danish law before deciding on further steps.
While most EU governments are openly or tacitly backing the concept of Fortress Europe, some cities and municipalities — concentrated in the continent’s north-west — have opened up to refugees on an ad hoc basis. The statistics track pledges and actual relocations over the past three years, though in some cases, such as the Netherlands, data are for 2020. (More here)
The Netherlands is facing another brewing scandal to add to its list of Covid-19 mishaps, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.
After being criticised for mixed messaging over lockdown measures and an initially sluggish vaccine rollout, the caretaker government of Mark Rutte is under fire over a bizarre face mask procurement case involving a millennial media celebrity.
In the past few weeks, it has emerged that the Dutch government struck a €100m deal last year for face masks from China via a private company whose founders netted around €20m in profit from the arrangement.
The catch? The company, set up by three Dutch entrepreneurs, had pitched itself as a non-profit organisation but charged above-market rates. What is more, the government was struggling at the time to procure enough personal protective equipment during the first wave of the pandemic.
One of the entrepreneurs is Sywert van Lienden, a 30-year-old political pundit and former civil servant with ties to the country’s conservative party, who netted €9m from the deal. He has apologised for misleading the public after the revelations were published in Dutch investigative media platform Follow the Money.
Dutch healthcare minister Tamara van Ark said yesterday that there would be an independent investigation into the deal. The probe will also scrutinise the government’s role in handing out the contract. It marked an embarrassing reversal from the minister, who only last week insisted the arrangement was all above board.
The episode has echoes of other recent procurement scandals in the EU, most recently the revelation that two members of Germany’s ruling conservatives received kickbacks from face mask supply deals. There is no evidence any Dutch politician profited personally from the €100m deal, but van Lienden’s connection with the centre-right junior coalition partner has come under scrutiny.
It was also another indignity for the caretaker government, in which senior figures have been attacked for lacking transparency and closing ranks when under fire — so much so it has spawned an unflattering new phrase in the Dutch political lexicon: the “Rutte Doctrine”.
France has gone after Google for alleged abuse of its dominant position in the online advertising market space, slapping it with a €220m fine yesterday.
But while some decried the penalty as a mere slap on the wrist against the US tech giant that could be chalked up to the cost of doing business, it was in fact a significant political statement, writes Javier Espinoza in Brussels.
The French are eager to show leadership in curbing the powers of Big Tech ahead of the bloc’s new rules for online platforms encoded in the Digital Markets Act. That should come into force next year, when Paris will take on the EU’s rotating presidency.
The rationale behind the Google fine, issued by the French competition authority, is already being perceived as a potential blueprint for others in the US, the UK and elsewhere to tackle similar alleged abuses of power by Google.
But France is not the only country keen to be seen as the regulatory leader.
Germany has also proactively gone after Big Tech in recent weeks, with its competition watchdog opening cases against Amazon and Google. Berlin and Paris (plus The Hague) also recently applied more pressure on the European Commission, arguing in a joint letter that the Digital Markets Act is too soft on Big Tech.
By moving against tech groups at the national level, France and Germany may gain a competitive advantage over Brussels. The results of haggling between MEPs and member states over the Digital Markets Act are also being awaited. Those could potentially even envisage the break-up of the likes of Google and Facebook.
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