The EU’s border and coast agency, Frontex, holds a one-day event annually every May to celebrate itself, often attracting several hundred participants.
And almost every year, expenses soar to ever greater heights.
In 2015, it spent just over €94,000 for a dinner at the swanky Belvedere restaurant in Warsaw, according to documents released by a freedom-of-information request to EUobserver.
The feast was the finale of the so-called European Border and Coast Guard Day, a celebration Frontex says gives border guards around Europe an “opportunity to share experiences and best practice.”
The event includes representatives from the industry, national border guard authorities, and policy experts. The 2015 edition had some 800 guests. It is unclear how many of those attended the dinner.
Prizes for the best ’work’ photo, movies, football and volley ball matches between Frontex and national border guards, shooting competitions and exercises to detect smugglers are also part of the festivities.
It billed the EU taxpayer €360,499.45 for the day.
Those expenses include renting out a conference space (€91,818) and reimbursing participants (€56,118), most likely for hotel and transport.
But the biggest bill remains the Belvedere gala dinner, where people dined on fine cuisine inside the 150-year old New Orangery at the Royal Łazienki Park.
The example is not isolated.
Documents reveal that the costs linked to the agency’s one-day annual celebration of itself have grown over the years.
In 2018, European taxpayers paid €580,152.22 for the event held in Sopot, a Polish seaside resort city on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.
“Following the official conference, participants witnessed a spectacular maritime exercise conducted by the Polish border guard,” said Frontex, in a report.
The figures for 2015 was €360,499.45, 2016 (€371,063.31), 2017 (€341,324.58), 2018 (€580,152.22) and 2019 (€494,542.46) - a total of €2.1m.
It is unclear if Frontex held extravagant dinners for each of the years as the agency provided only limited and partial breakdown of the costs. The most complete breakdown was given for 2015, with details diminishing for each consecutive year.
But it did release a 2019 survey, where most respondents rated the food and “evening dinner” as excellent. Others also rated as “excellent” an exercise to detect smugglers.
Respondents, in the same questionnaire, were somewhat less enthusiastic about their interest in the policy presentations, with most ranking them below the top score of “strongly agree”.
The 2019 celebration was held in Arłamów, a Polish village near Ukraine.
“Even before the appearance of Covid, Frontex had decided to stop holding the event,” said a Frontex spokesperson, noting that it did not take place last year and won’t this year either.
Frontex now ranks as among the most well-funded of EU agencies. In 2005, it had an annual budget of €6m, which has since ballooned to almost €500m.
The budget is set to increase further as some €11bn has been earmarked for the agency between this year and 2027.
Frontex is required to ensure sound financial management of its EU budget.
In an email last year, its spokesperson said that the agency is obliged “to responsibly implement its budget.”
The comment was made after it decided to sue pro-transparency campaigners, who, after losing an EU court case, refused to reimburse the agency’s €24,000 legal fees.
“As a public institution relying on the funds that ultimately come from European taxpayers, we cannot refuse a court ruling that asks the parties that sued us to pay the legal costs,” said a Frontex spokesperson, at the time.
He then added that Frontex is tasked to “ensure sound financial management” and “to protect the financial interests of the EU.”
Although the case against the transparency campaigners has yet to be resolved, Frontex has since been pressured into being more open on how it handles freedom-of-information requests.
When EUobserver filed for the documents to release expenditures for European Border and Coast Guard Day, it came with a warning.
“Kindly be reminded that the copyrights of the documents rest with Frontex and making these works, available to third parties in this or another form without prior authorisation of Frontex is prohibited,” stated a letter from Frontex.
Such threats don’t make any sense, says Chris Jones from Statewatch, a civil liberties charity based in the UK.
“It’s public money, how can they copyright it? I don’t think that copyright argument can stand up to any meaningful scrutiny to be honest,” he said.