Written by Felipe Repetto
The terror attacks of 9/11 brought about a paradigm of mass securitisation of borders, which not only affected the United States, but also many of its close allies in the European Union (EU). In the aftermath of 2001, a significant international campaign to counter surging global terrorism began, commonly known there-after as the War on Terror. In an effort to address the issue of border protection, in 2004 the European bloc founded Frontex as the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders. After the 2015 European migrant crisis, its mandate was expanded and it was renamed as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex, 2021). Being part of the bigger European integration project, the agency primarily functions as a coordinating body, regulating and fostering a common approach of the EU member states to the issue of border security (Frontex, 2021). Its official mission is defined through the safety and functioning of the EU’s external borders by providing security and guaranteeing the European Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (Frontex, 2021). In this sense, the agency’s operation is fundamentally linked to a diversity of stakeholders, including but not limited to the European Union and its member states.
The organisation has been in constant growth since its inception , both in terms of budget and personnel. While it held a ‘modest’ budget of €72 million in 2008, it rose to €330 million in 2019, and again to €543 million in 2021 (Frontex, 2021). In terms of staffing, while it currently stands at over 1,400 employees (Frontex, 2021), in his 2018 State of the Union Address, President Juncker announced the European Commission’s plan of stronger EU borders with a new standing corps of 10,000 border guards by 2027 (European Commission, 2019). This agenda, formally adopted by the European Council in 2019, is intended to help countries which have been most affected by irregular migration, such as Greece, and to send a political message to all member states that the EU’s external borders will no longer be neglected (Bossong, 2019).
In order to address its mandate of protecting EU borders, Frontex operates as a multidisciplinary security organisation. Its tasks, in cooperation with Member States, consist in the set up of joint operations, technical support, and the coordination with third countries and international organisations. Beyond this coordination character, the agency is also active in the fields of capacity building, research, and development. Frontex actively aids Member States in the training of national border guards, fostering the establishment of common training standards for a matter of practicability (Léonard et Kaunert, 2020, p.6).
Having said this, this paper will analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Frontex by focusing on a variety of factors. The approach intends to analyse the agency’s internal environment concerning its operationalisation vis-à-vis Member States. opportunities, and challenges.
This section will address the internal environment of Frontex. Factors to be taken into account include the “hows, whys, whens, and wheres” of the organisation. It should not only include a description of the organisation’s values and mission, but also on the process it conducts to fulfil its mandate. In other words, it is crucial to analyse its structure, tasks, and strategic approach to its mission. Having said this, the analysis of the agency’s internal environment will focus on (i) determining what kind of organisation it is, (ii) outlining how it is structured in terms of its operationalisation, and (iii) identifying its strengths and weaknesses.
(i) Type of Organisation
Established by the European Union, Frontex consists of a public security organisation. The totality of its funds, as shown in its 2021 budget, are derived from a contribution of the European Union for a sum of €505 million (93%), and from Schengen Associated Countries with a sum of €37 million (7%) (Frontex, 2021). Being directly related to a political bloc as the EU, Frontex is therefore an organisation that operates alongside governments. While its personnel is composed primarily of law enforcement officers, it includes a variety of actors, from the police and military sector personnel, to civilians.
Having said this, while Frontex maintains the autonomy to allocate its resources as it deems fit, it is unequivocally economically dependent on the European Union’s contributions, which could be interpreted as a weakness. This dependency implies that the agency is subject to the EU’s supervision and therefore owes it a certain degree of success in order to prove its effectiveness. The organisation’s approach to security is deeply based on a combination of the securitisation of borders and migration, and the assessment of risk and vulnerability. By applying the security framework of Baldwin (1997), Frontex’s interpretation of the factor of risk is not only focused on the perception of irregular migration flows as threats, but also on the vulnerability derived from the Member States’ border management capacities, or lack of them for that matter (Neal, 2009, p.333)
(ii) Structure, Strategy & Operation
The agency’s organisational structure is hierarchical. It is managed by the Executive Director, whose role is determined by EU regulations. Under his supervision, three Deputy Executive Directors oversee operations carried out by nine divisions: Situational Awareness and Monitoring, International and European Cooperation, Operational Response Division, and Capacity Building Division, among others. In addition, a Cabinet covers the media and coordination with Brussels, and the offices operate in the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw (Frontex, 2021). Frontex’s vision, as officially stated, consists of a “smooth and lawful transit of persons and goods across safe, secure, and well-functioning external borders of the EU” (Frontex, 2021). Its mission consists of establishing an integrated control of external borders, and it strives to follow values such as professionalism, respect and transparency, among others. In this sense, the agency outlined three primary objectives regarding the EU’s external borders: (i) reducing their vulnerability, (ii) maintaining them safe, secure, and well-functioning, and (iii) improving European Border and Coast Guard Capabilities (Frontex, 2021).
The structure of the agency operates at a multidisciplinary level to work towards its mission. Frontex’s tasks can be divided threefold: the promotion, coordination, and development of European border management. In order to do so, it operates simultaneously in many different fields. Its main operational characteristics include the identification and analysis of data concerning the European Union’s external borders, the coordination and organisation of joint operations with EU Member States including training and technical support, among others. Its operational scheme, divided in four main domains, are depicted in Figure 1.
As shown above, many of its tasks are of a coordinating character with Member States. The main issue here in terms of the role of Frontex is that it is ultimately subjected to the will of EU Member states. While it is a prestigious and recognised international organisation, the sovereignty of member states over their own borders prevails.
The agency’s hierarchical framework and dynamic of action makes it most relatable to the military-bureaucratic policing model, as it not only operates in the military sector but it also functions based on ranks. Such a model includes factors like strong internal rules and hierarchy, internal supervision, no external accountability, distance from the public, and a focus on reactive actions (Frontex, 2021). However, while Frontex does indeed relate to many of these factors, it cannot be fully linked to this model, as it indeed has external accountability derived from its reliance on the EU and its Commission.
After introducing the internal dynamics of Frontex, the agency’s main strengths and weaknesses are fundamentally linked to the issues of autonomy and its reliance on the European Union and ultimately on Member States’ will. While its operation is indeed highly restricted, there is still room for optimism.
The most general weakness to be identified lies in a picture that goes far beyond Frontex. The agency operates in a multilevel governance setting that is affected by a weak European Union integration. This context means that Frontex is often caught between conflicts of interest derived from issues of intergovernmentalism and supranationalism that fundamentally affect its capacity to operate effectively (Perkowski, 2019, p.3). This lack of integration further exacerbates another weakness: the lack of binding character towards Member States. There is no legal obligation for EU states to participate in joint operations, as the agency’s operations are fully run on a voluntary basis (Laitinen, 2008, p.1).
These weaknesses and their real impact on the agency’s effectiveness can be identified early on after its foundations, with the examples of missions Hera I, Hera II, and Hera III—joint operations with the Spanish government to tackle the migration crisis in the Canary Islands in 2006. All three missions were crippled to a certain extent by the Member States’ delays or an overall lack of follow-up on their commitment, as only three of those who showed interest in the joint operations actually ended up participating. Moreover, the conflict of political interests became evident when some governments, including the Netherlands and Germany, opposed Spain’s cry for help, accusing it of encouraging migration flows after its 2005 mass amnesty of irregular migrants (Léonard et Kaunert, 2020, p.7).
Nonetheless, the agency also accounts for its strengths. These mainly lay on the factor of close involvement of member states’ officers and overall potential, which will also be linked to the factor of opportunities. The fact that Frontex’s institutional structure and its personnel are composed of national border control officers enhances trust building and the exchange of information with EU Member States. In other words, as the agency itself is operated by officers from their respective countries, it has a unique structure which fosters close cooperation and coordination with each country’s government. Moreover, while it is reliant on the EU for funding, Frontex has the autonomy to allocate the resources as it wishes, having the freedom to use them as positive incentives for participating countries, giving it a powerful tool for coordination.