Radical views, internal resistance, merciless investigators: Why Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri had to go – and what his resignation means for the future of the EU border agency.
In the end, once it was all over, it looked as though Fabrice Leggeri wanted to sneak out through the back door. Close advisers urged the Frontex chief to address his staff one last time after his resignation. “You were these people’s boss for many years. They’ve earned the right to know what is going on,” his advisers argued. But Leggeri refused to budge. It was a sad thing to watch, says one of those who had worked with Leggeri for many years.
On Friday afternoon, at 3:22 p.m., once everybody had learned of his resignation, Leggeri did ultimately send a farewell message to his staff. In the email, the outgoing Frontex chief thanked the employees for their efforts – and fired a last parting shot at his critics. Frontex, Leggeri wrote, has been accused of either being involved in pushbacks or of having covered them up. He, too, was personally targeted by such accusations, he wrote, claiming that such allegations were unjust. There is still, he claimed, no proof. “I could rebuke all of them,” he wrote. Just that, in the end, nobody believed him any longer.
Fabrice Leggeri was the head of Frontex for seven years. During his tenure, he was able to transform a meaningless EU authority into one of the bloc’s largest agencies, with an annual budget of 750 million euros. Leggeri created a cabinet suited to his tastes, concentrating almost all the power in his own hands. In the end, he ran the agency like a monarch – until he was pushed off the throne.
Leggeri’s resignation was not widely expected. Even many Frontex staff members didn’t think they would be getting a new boss any time soon. To be sure, he was faced with an entire catalogue of accusations: DER SPIEGEL, Lighthouse Reports and several other media outlets had clearly demonstrated
over the past 18 months that Frontex was involved in legal violations committed by Greece. Frontex units would intercept rickety refugee vessels on the Aegean and turn the asylum-seekers over to the Greek coast guard, which would then abandon the men, women and children at sea – frequently on life rafts with no motor.
Human rights activists call such operations “pushbacks,” and they are not legal under European law. According to its own codex, Frontex should have been doing all it could to stop such pushbacks. But instead, the agency helped out: It was involved in illegal pushbacks affecting hundreds of asylum-seekers.
Leggeri, though, has consistently rejected all such accusations. And for quite some time, it looked as though EU member states were wiling to simply accept the situation, as though the assistance Frontex provided to the pushbacks was actually in their interest. There were demands that he resign, but they mostly came from left-wing and center-left European parliamentarians – and not from EU heads of state and government, who control Frontex via the Management Board.
What, then, led to Leggeri’s resignation? What happened behind closed doors in those decisive moments? And what does it mean for the future of the border protection agency?
A team of reporters from DER SPIEGEL, Lighthouse Reports and the French daily Le Monde spoke with more than a dozen Frontex employees and European officials for this article. Some of them worked closely with Leggeri, while others were responsible for oversight of his agency. Leggeri himself declined to be interviewed.
Taken together, the comments from confidants and employees produce the image of a man whose views grew increasingly radical as time passed, and whose shortcomings ultimately became so conspicuous that EU member states no longer had much of an option other than pushing him out of office. Fabrice Leggeri didn’t lose his job because of pushbacks as such, but more because he had become a PR problem for the EU.
The Oracle of Delphi
When seeking to understand Leggeri’s downfall, Delphi is a good place to start. On a warm day in April, Leggeri found himself in a stuffy conference center in the small Greek town, which takes its name from the Oracle of Delphi, who once predicted the future for petitioners. “Know thyself” was thought to have been inscribed at the entrance to the temple.
The trip to Delphi was to become one of Leggeri’s final official journeys. Next to him on the stage of the Delphi Economic Forum was Greek Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi. A noted hardliner, nobody defends the Greek approach to cross-Aegean migration as passionately as he does. Indeed, between the lines, it frequently sounds as though he finds pushbacks to be not such a bad idea.
Leggeri gets along well with Mitarachi, and recently even received a medal from the Greek minister for his service on the EU external border. For Frontex, Greece is more important than any other European country. One of the most important migration routes to Europe leads from Turkey to the Greek islands across the Aegean Sea, and nowhere does Frontex have as many agents stationed. Leggeri dreamed of an even larger agency, and without a significant presence in Greece, such a vision would have been impossible.
On stage in Delphi, Leggeri said that he was proud that Frontex under his leadership had always stood at Greece’s side. Not everybody can be allowed in, he said, that’s just a fact. Rather astounding sentences coming from somebody accused of covering up for Greek legal violations.
A close parsing of Leggeri’s comments in Delphi reveals the broader motifs with which he would seek to defend himself from his critics a short time later. Frontex, he said, is a law enforcement authority and not an immigration agency, not showing much empathy for the women and children that had been abandoned at sea in the Aegean. He wrote something similar in his email to Frontex staff following his resignation. Frontex, Leggeri contended, is to be transformed into a sort of fundamental rights body, with a narrative to that effect spreading “discretely, but efficiently.” Such sentiments make it sound as though Leggeri believes in some kind of large-scale conspiracy. Even in Delphi, many listeners found themselves wondering how long Leggeri would be able to last with his impertinent bluster.
Leggeri didn’t always sound so extreme. When he took over the position of Frontex director in 2015, he was considered to be an able technocrat. The Frenchman’s fluent command of German and excellent English were the qualities that initially stuck out for many. He was reputed to be consistently meticulously prepared for his meetings.
In 2016, shortly after the apex of the refugee crisis, Leggeri emphasized in an interview with the influential German weekly Die Zeit that Europe had the obligation to provide protection to asylum-seekers. “We don’t reject anybody and we aren’t allowed to do so,” he said.
Since then, the use of force on the EU’s external borders has escalated. Some EU member states, with Greece leading the way, are now in favor of turning pushbacks into standard practice. Leggeri put himself at the front of that movement, becoming a mouthpiece of the most radical camp within the EU in the process – and assumed that the other member states would tolerate it.
Leggeri’s transformation didn’t go unnoticed within Frontex. One staff member who worked with him for several years says that his boss became more and more uncompromising over time. He increasingly adopted a black-and-white view of the world with no gray areas apparent, the staff member says, adding that Leggeri completely lost any kind of balance. At some point, says an additional staff member, Leggeri would only speak to members of his innermost circle.
Towards the end of his tenure, there was a significant amount of grumbling at Frontex. Support for Leggeri within the agency began eroding while leaks to the outside world increased. Staffers at the Frontex Situation Center, who saw on their computer screens what was going on in the Aegean every day, grew defiant. In at least one case in which a Frontex aircraft recorded video of a pushback from above, a staff member explicitly wrote of a suspected human rights violation. Leggeri, though, ignored it.
Leggeri’s Final Battle
When EU anti-corruption officials get involved, the situation for those concerned tends to grow serious. Investigators from the European Anti-Fraud Office, known as OLAF for short, operate independently and are charged with uncovering rules violations committed by EU officials. Very little about their investigations tends to make it into the press.
On Dec. 7, 2020, a few weeks after DER SPIEGEL published the initial revelations, investigators searched Leggeri’s office in Warsaw along with that of his then chief-of-staff, Thibauld de la Haye Jousselin. The investigators apparently also confiscated their mobile phones. In early March 2022, they presented a more than 200-page investigative report, which still hasn’t been made available to the public.
Essentially, the report works through what DER SPIEGEL and its media partners have already reported: Leggeri covered up the Greek pushbacks and thus violated the regulations of his own agency. He then lied to the European Parliament when confronted with specific questions. Furthermore, according to a summary of the OLAF report compiled by French officials, which DER SPIEGEL has acquired, he coordinated with the Greek government before responding to growing questions.
The investigators documented each lapse. And they recommended that disciplinary measures be taken against Leggeri and two additional senior Frontex leaders. The report essentially forced the overseers of Frontex to take a stand. And with that, Leggeri was never able to shake the detailed accusations documented in the OLAF report.
The Management Board of Frontex is primarily made up of representatives from Schengen member states. Border protection agents and senior officials from European interior ministries supervise the Frontex chief. Their meetings take place behind closed doors and leaks are rare. Even the brief meeting summaries are classified.
On the morning of April 28, members came together virtually for the decisive meeting. The German Management Board chair Alexander Fritsch led the proceedings. Leggeri joined from France – together with his lawyer.
It immediately became apparent that Leggeri had no intention of giving up. The Frontex chief had had two months to prepare his defense, and according to sources who took part in the meeting, he repeated what he had said in Delphi and what he would later write in his final email to staff: namely that he sees Frontex as a law enforcement agency and not as a pro-migration NGO. It’s not his fault, he says, that the agency’s mandate had been changed.
Later in the meeting, the Management Board considered the situation without Leggeri’s participation. And it quickly became clear that there was a majority against the Frontex chief, with many apparently concerned that Leggeri could pull the agency into the abyss along with him. “Because of the OLAF report, we wanted to do something,” says one meeting participant. Now that EU investigators had also leveled accusations against Leggeri, says the participant, the situation had simply become untenable.
Leggeri had long since lost the trust of European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johannson. Now, Leggeri’s supporters also realized that he had to go. Even the French government, shortly after the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron, distanced itself from the Frontex chief. The Greek representative on the Board was one of the few who continued to support Leggeri.
That same evening, Leggeri gave in. He contacted Alexander Fritsch, the German chairman of the Management Board, and announced he was stepping down. The next day, a broad majority of the board voted to accept Leggeri’s resignation. The board decided not to implement disciplinary measures as OLAF had recommended, but only because Leggeri was no longer a Frontex employee. It is ultimately a compromise that allowed Leggeri to save face, but nothing more.
In a press released, the Management Board made clear that border control and the protection of human rights are not mutually exclusive. The press release also clarified that the agency’s mandate, which Leggeri had claimed was being changed “discretely and efficiently,” is clearly described in Frontex documents. The statement essentially amounted to a final slap in the face for Leggeri, and the beginning of the effort to limit the amount of damage to the agency’s reputation.
A New Beginning?
The woman who is now to take over from Leggeri is named Aija Kalnaja. The Management Board installed the Latvian as interim chief on the day of Leggeri’s resignation. A career police officer, she had been deputy executive director of Frontex. In her very first email to agency staff, Kalnaja distanced herself from Leggeri. The rights of asylum-seekers, she wrote, must be protected, and Frontex must set an example.
It is going to be a long road to becoming an exemplary EU agency. Leggeri left behind a fair amount of chaos, and Kalnaja, as deputy director, wasn’t entirely uninvolved. Currently, for example, Frontex officials must pay for their lodgings at the EU’s external border out of their own pockets because the agency isn’t able to arrange official trips. Frontex cancelled its contract with a travel agency because costs were skyrocketing, and a replacement hasn’t yet been found.
Many in the agency believe that Kalnaja would like to remain in the top spot. In contrast to Leggeri, she is thought to have good relations with the European Commission. The final decision on her status will be made in early June, which is when the Management Board will gather to elect a new director.
The German government is now stressing that Leggeri’s departure presents an opportunity for a new beginning. That, though, wouldn’t just require a new Frontex chief, but also a policy shift in the EU member states that Leggeri spent so long protecting. A first test is on the horizon: The Frontex Fundamental Rights Officer could soon recommend that the agency withdraw from the Aegean. And then, nobody could hide behind Fabrice Leggeri any longer.