Madrid/Brussels, 19 March 2021 – Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in the Budget Control Committee will vote on Monday 22 March 2021 on whether or not Frontex was right to claim €23,700.81 from two transparency activists after they lost an access to documents case at the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Access Info Europe has written to the MEPs in the Budget Committee urging them to support an amendment that calls on the Agency to withdraw its demand for the costs, and to refrain from seeking to recover the costs of external lawyers from applicants in access to documents court cases in the future.
The MEPs will also vote on a series of other amendments which aim to suspend approval of the Frontex budget report on grounds of human rights concerns – one amendment references an OLAF investigation into allegations of harassment, misconduct, and migrant pushbacks, and another references a European Ombudsman inquiry into Frontex’s complaints mechanism for breaches of human rights, along with transparency concerns.
Access Info has previously expressed serious disquiet about the massive legal bill, and on 2 March 2020 joined 40 organisations from around Europe in signing a letter calling on Frontex not to collect these legal fees. An online petition calling for the payment to be dropped was signed by 87,338 people.
Rather than desisting, in December 2020, Frontex took the two activists to Court to reclaim the costs, a new case which could end up with them having to pay an even higher legal bill.
Access Info has reminded MEPs that the right of European citizens to access EU documents is a fundamental right, and that it should be possible to defend this right without risking massive legal bills.
“There is a grave risk of cases like this having a chilling effect: high legal fees deny access to justice and so stop civil society working to ensure the openness of EU bodies,” said Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info.
“Frontex has an annual budget of billions. This is about intimidating citizens, silencing activists, and dissuading people from requesting information, which is inadmissible for a European Union agency,” concluded Darbishire.
In 2013, Access Info Europe won an important case that contributed to increased transparency of the Council of the EU in the early phases of legislative processes. If we had had to risk such high legal costs, we would have been dissuaded from even launching the case.