The three candidates seeking the leadership position at the EU’s border police agency Frontex were grilled by MEPs on Wednesday (30 November).
Terezija Gras from Croatia, Dutchman Hans Leijtens, and Frontex’s current interim executive director, Aija Kalnaja, are all competing for the job left vacant by the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri.
Gras highlighted her five years experience in Croatia’s ministry of interior, where she is currently state secretary.
And she touted her work on Schengen, the EU’s border-free zone, and for having set up a monitoring system to protect the rights of asylum seekers entering the country.
She promised to create a strict code of conduct for the upcoming 10,000 armed Frontex borders guards under her command.
And she listed three operational priorities; the creation of those 10,000 guards by 2027, stepping up returns of unwanted migrants, and getting the digital border systems up and running.
But liberal and left-wing MEPs posed tricky questions about her past comments accusing NGOs of impersonating and threatening police officers, as well as her refusal to allow the publication of a critical report from the Council of Europe’s committee for the prevention of torture (CPT).
“I myself have never accused any of the NGOs for anything,” she said, in response.
As for the CPT report, which detailed Croatian police border violence against migrants crossing from Bosnia, she said they had fulfilled all its recommendations.
“You’ve actively hindered the work of civil societies in many ways, like SLAPP suits, smear campaigns, threats,” said Dutch Green MEP, Tineke Strik.
But Gras declined to respond directly to the Strik, noting only that “it’s one word against the other.”
Dutch liberal Sophie In’t Veld also questioned whether Gras had the necessary experience to lead an organisation as large as Frontex.
“I have very good organisational and analytical skills,” countered Gras.
Article 46 of the agency’s rule book says it must withdraw operations if a host member states violates the fundamental rights of migrants.
Gras said she would be more keen to trigger this article, compared to Leggeri.
Aija Kalnaja has been at the agency since 2018 and took over as interim director after Leggeri’s departure in April.
Seen as an insider, Kalnaja is on a public crusade to restore trust in an agency, whose annual budget is over €750m.
She also announced plans for Frontex to procure its own boats by 2025 or 2027.
But she said the first area of concern for the agency is geopolitical.
“We are having a horrific war waged on our doorstep, where Frontex had to step up from the day one,” she said.
Second, she said there is growing violence along the borders, in reference to a Bulgarian border guard who was recently shot dead.
“This year we saw 300,000 irregular border crossings. We are back to numbers of 2016,” she said.
She proposed the need for more legal pathways to counter smugglers.
But she also said EU rules, whereby states like Belarus “instrumentalise” migrants, need to be at the core of strategy that merges border and security management.
And she said returns need to be stepped up, noting only around 20 percent of those rejected are sent home.
She also promised more transparency in the agency, following Leggeri’s departure amid revelations of abuse by the EU’s anti-fraud office, Olaf.
“We have lost trust in the agency,” she said, in similar comments she also made over the summer.
She wants a more decentralised agency, she said, and a departure away from the top-down management style left behind by Leggeri.
Pressed on article 46, Kalnaja maintains that the agency’s presence in Greece is needed to ensure rights are respected.
“We are increasingly on the front line of the activities in Evros region,” she said, in reference to the shared land border between Greece and Turkey.
Leijtens was the least grilled of the three candidates. But his cross-examination also came last.
The Dutchman sits on the agency’s management board and currently commands the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, a national gendarmerie force.
He said he wants the job because the agency is underperforming when it comes to operations and fundamental rights.
“Most of all, [I am] worried because of the lack of trust and legitimacy,” he said.
He said his priorities would be to first make the agency more effective, second, assure legality of its operations, and third, restore the agency’s trust and legitimacy.
He described his management style as “open, transparent and respectful”.
Leijtens said he wants a Frontex whose officers are well educated and well trained.
“I think there can be no case in which push backs are legal,” he said, when pressed.
He said Frontex officers operating outside Europe also need to adhere to professional and legal standards.
“Transparency should be at the core of Frontex,” he said.
He was also open to triggering article 46, if needed, he said.
“I have absolutely no constraints in applying article 46 if we arrive at that point,” he said.