An EU that wages war on refugees did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize

Signing his will on 27 November 1895, Alfred Nobel must have imagined that the idea of leaving a large part of his fortune to deserving strangers would make many people unhappy. Yet his gesture horrified not only part of his family but also Sweden’s then King Oscar II, who called his ideas absurd and unpatriotic.

After a long legal battle, the disputants had to give in. The five Nobel Prizes were established, including the Peace Prize, to be awarded to the person who had most committed himself “to fraternity between nations, to the abolition or reduction of standing armies, to the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.

But Nobel’s will, after that initial victory, was nevertheless betrayed. According to Norwegian lawyer Fredrik S. Heffermehl, co-founder of the website The Nobel Peace Prize Watch, between 1946 and 2008 more than half of the Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded illegally, i.e. in violation of the provisions of the will. As he explained in a 2014 interview, the prize was not meant for those who promote “‘peace’ in general, but for those activists whose goal is to end militarism”.

The European Union was honoured exactly ten years ago, on 12 October 2012, “for contributing to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. Even then, there was no lack of controversy. The absence of a conflict between European states, many denounced, does not mean that the EU is a stranger to war.

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Several governments had taken part in NATO conflicts (in Libya and Afghanistan) or exported weapons. And they had all supported the use of force against what was presented as a dangerous invasion: men, women, children wanting to reach EU territory to seek refuge, find work, reunite with family, study – often for several intertwined reasons. In other words, the EU was not exactly working to combat militarism.

Europe’s first armed agents

In 2012 Frontex, the European agency in charge of coordinating and supporting the member states in the surveillance of the EU’s external borders, had already been operational for seven years. And, little known to the general public, it already had a bad reputation due to its opacity, the absence of supervision over its work and its role in helping to criminalise migration. The staff employed by the agency – whose headquarters are in Warsaw – were all civilians, while the armed personnel in the field (agents, coastguards and border guards) were seconded from the member states.

In 2019, an event confirmed that the EU should not have received the Nobel Peace Prize. With the reform of the Frontex regulation adopted that year, the EU entered a new chapter in its history: from being a body of civilian officials, Frontex also became an armed corps. In the history of the staff of European institutions, Frontex officials are the first to be authorised to carry arms. For the agency that is a source of pride, but this turn of events is extremely worrying.

By 2027, Frontex’s permanent corps is expected to number 10,000 people. This will include 3,000 European officials (belonging to the so-called category 1, or statutory staff) and 7,000 ‘agents seconded from EU member states’. In May 2022, as stated in an EU Council document published by Statewatch, the agency had recruited 835 category 1 agents. So far, due to an unforeseen legal obstacle, they seem to dispose only of borrowed weapons.

Since 2016, the year of an earlier reform of its regulation, Frontex can in fact acquire “technical equipment”. According to the agency, “this category also included firearms”, explains researcher Matthias Monroy, author of the blog Security Architectures in the EU. But Frontex’s interpretation was wrong, and the Commission was forced to intervene to clarify under which conditions the agency can acquire, transport and store weapons.

Meanwhile, Frontex reached an agreement with Greece and Lithuania to secure arms supplies, all without interrupting its “dialogues with industry”. And in October 2021 it awarded a €3.76 million contract to the Austrian company Glock for the supply of “semi-automatic pistols, ammunition and accessories”.

“Many of these things we only know because the right questions have been asked,” Monroy remarks, referring in particular to the parliamentary questions tabled by the German MEP Özlem Demirel (European United Left/Nordic Green Left), who comments: “We observe the same trend in European defence policy, with the plan to create a European army. This is not a permanent force that will be created tomorrow, but we must criticise developments towards this goal. The militarisation of the European Union has already begun with the militarisation of the borders.”

And this militarisation now extends far beyond the borders of the EU. As of 2019, Frontex can in fact also enter into cooperation agreements with third countries not bordering EU territory, granting enhanced immunity to its agents (researcher Martina Previatello has published a detailed analysis of this new type of agreement). Armed European officials can now be deployed, inside and outside EU territory, to ‘protect European borders’, using force to stop, intercept, reject or repatriate potential asylum seekers guilty of trying to reach the EU in an ‘irregular’ way – the only way available to them.

To whom will these agents be accountable? Solely to their superior, the executive director of Frontex, who enjoys absolute autonomy. “This person,” Monroy notes, “can be removed by the Frontex management board”, which includes representatives of the Commission and the member states, “but operationally, no one can tell Frontex what to do”. Moreover, in January 2021, the same management board approved the creation of a committee on the use of force by category 1 agents. This committee is not only advisory only, but is to be made up of people chosen by Frontex’s executive director.

Armed European officials can now be deployed, inside and outside EU territory, to ‘protect European borders’

“The main problem is that of democratic control,” Monroy emphasises. He points out that with the Lisbon Treaty, EU agencies, like the rest of the European institutions, gained more powers and more autonomy. “But when the decision was taken, nobody imagined that, ten years after the entry into force of the treaty, Frontex would be armed. There is no turning back now. The European Union decided to take this direction, and Frontex paved the way.”

In 1893 Alfred Nobel wrote to his friend Bertha Von Suttner, the Austrian writer and pacifist: “I would like to dispose of part of my fortune to establish a prize to be awarded every five years, let us say six times, because if in thirty years’ time they have not succeeded in reforming the present system, they will infallibly fall back into barbarism. The prize should be awarded to the man or woman who has made Europe take the longest steps towards a general pacification idea.”

Alfred Nobel died in 1896, Bertha von Suttner in 1914. Europe relapsed into barbarism earlier than Nobel predicted, and sank back into it yet again during the Second World War. That the European project arose from the desire to secure peace on the continent is beyond doubt. But at what price? In their book Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism (Bloomsbury 2014), historians Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson revisit the “past that Europe has forgotten”. This colonialist dimension of the European project explains so much of the brutality with which the EU has for decades refused to open up to a part of the world.

The EU did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. It deserves it less than ever now that it has started to arm some of its personnel to keep out civilians who should be welcomed.

A “ceremony of rescindment” has been announced for December, in Brussels, by the Belgian pacifist organisation Agir Pour la Paix and the cross-border Abolish Frontex campaign. Alfred and Bertha would appreciate it.

The Olaf report: How Frontex covered up illegal pushbacks

In a confidential report made public by the FragDenStaat platform, Der Spiegel and Lighthouse Reports, the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) accuses some Frontex executives of “serious misconduct” for failing to report illegal pushbacks of migrants by Greek border guards. The report led, among other things, to the resignation of the agency’s former director Fabrice Leggeri and confirms what has long been condemned by various NGOs.

According to the report, Frontex concealed some cases of possible human rights violations from its own officers responsible for fundamental rights. It also suspended certain aerial surveillance operations to avoid recording illegal activities; it co-financed Greek units that carried out rejections; and it deceived the authorities responsible for supervising the agency.

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