Madrid, 19 April 2021 – Access Info Europe today gave a cautious welcome to the ruling of the General Court of the European Union that Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, had overcharged when it issued a legal bill of €23,700 to two transparency activists after they lost a court case, and that this amount should be reduced to €10,520.
The legal bill arose after Luisa Izuzquiza and Arne Semsrott of FragDenStaat had gone to the General Court in Luxembourg to obtain documents relating to Frontex’s 2017 migrant control operations in the Mediterranean. After losing the case they were faced with the massive lawyer’s fee.
Access Info had expressed concern about the chilling effect of this legal bill on a number of occasions, including by joining 40 organisations from around Europe in signing a letter calling on Frontex not to collect this fee. An online petition calling for the payment to be dropped was signed by more than 87,000 people.
The General Court has now ruled that the time billed for a private lawyer was excessive – the “hours put forward do not appear to be objectively necessary” – and that Frontex had charged travel expenses to Brussels “without providing the slightest explanation as to its purpose or why it was necessary.”
“It is very concerning that an EU body would, in effect, intimidate two members of European civil society in this way. While it is positive that the amount of the fees has been reduced, €10,000 is still a lot of money, and the chilling effect is still there,” said Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info.
Access Info recently urged MEPs in the European Parliament’s Budget Committee to support an amendment that calls on the Agency to withdraw its demand for the costs and refrain from seeking to recover similar costs from applicants in future access to documents court cases. The amendment was narrowly defeated by 15 votes to 14, and will be discussed again in the plenary session of the European Parliament in April. Meanwhile, the Budget Committee did not approve the Frontex budget report over human rights concerns.
“Intimidations towards activists and civil society are unacceptable and undemocratic. They are particularly so when they come from a border police force that’s currently undergoing three different investigations for, among other things, human rights violations, harassment and misconduct, and for having lied to the European Parliament. Frontex’s attempt to silence its critics through costly lawsuits should sound all sorts of alarms,” said the activists, Arne Semsrott and Luisa Izuzquiza.
Access Info is calling for a reform the EU’s access to documents rules (Regulation 1049/2001) to introduce limits on the costs of challenging refusals to provide information, so that civil society watchdogs and the public can continue to press for greater transparency of the EU.
Picture: European Border and Coast Agency, via Twitter