Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Divided Loyalties: Frontex and Police Culture at EU’s External Borders



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Post by Katja Franko and Helene O.I. Gundhus. Katja is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oslo. She is currently heading a five-year project on Crime Control in the Borderlands of Europe funded by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. Helene is Professor of Police Science at the Norwegian Police University College and, concurrently, from May 2016, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Oslo. She is currently heading a four-year project on New Trends in Modern Policing funded by the Research Council of Norway. This post is second instalment of Border Criminologies themed week on Immigration Control: Staff Perspectives organised by Thomas Ugelvik.

Frontex, the EU’s external border control agency, is tasked with management of the EU’s external borders, most visibly through expansive joint operations at the Mediterranean. Frontex has received considerable critique from various human rights organisations and has faced high public and political expectations to contribute towards improving policing standards at the border. However, Frontex is also a central element in the European Commission’s ambitious recent plans to bolster border security. One of the Commission’s plans is to establish European Border and Coast Guard teams and to give them extensive resources and powers to intervene in individual Member States in times of crisis. How such teams may operate in practice is far from clear. Based on extensive interviews with Frontex officials and Norwegian police officers participating in Frontex joint operations, this blog post offers insight into the nature of the emerging transnational border police culture and examine its implications for our understanding of police loyalty and accountability.

Transnational policing demands a set of social skills for navigating and addressing cultural and social differences. These differences exist not only between the diverse police cultures within Frontex, but also between the international officers and the local officers of a host country. The former have the role of guest officers, which implies both a certain level of distance and a lack of knowledge about local conditions as well as a particular obligation of loyalty to the hosts. Several of our interviewees mentioned the importance of humility towards their hosts and their ways of solving tasks. As one officer remarked: ‘I think that humility is the clue here. You have to be aware of that you are a guest, and if you do not behave properly, you can be sent home.’

Disagreements with hosts can be difficult to handle for guest officers particularly if they concern serious irregularities. Some officers we talked to expressed awareness of breaches of the Frontex Code of Conduct but were also relieved for not having witnessed them directly. Others wrote formal reports and were skeptical of their colleagues who chose not to do so. Conversely, several officers expressed ambivalence about mechanisms of formal control and voiced a preference for taking up issues informally and at the lowest level. This may not be surprising. Numerous sociological accounts of the police ‘code of silence’ describe precisely the reluctance or resistance to inform on colleagues when witnessing misconduct. However, our findings also reveal that in the context of transnational policing, loyalty becomes a far more complex phenomenon. Even though ‘not running to the boss’ is still considered to be an important value, we’ve also witnessed examples of open endorsement of whistleblowing which are seldom seen in traditional accounts of police culture. Particularly due to the intricate balance between hosts and guests, officers experience divided loyalties between their colleagues and the professional standards promoted by Frontex and their home country. Moreover, our findings reveal that the divided loyalties are also essentially connected to general cultural differences. The usual divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are, within Frontex, not just divisions between the police and the general public but also internal divisions between different police cultures: Western/Northern and Eastern/Southern. Several of our interviewees expressed feeling different from their colleagues and disapproved of their professional habits and their ethical standards. They in fact had to be reminded by leadership to ‘talk nicely about colleagues.’

These tensions may produce a divided sense of loyalty among officers. Although seemingly highly aware of the need to be diplomatic towards their hosts and fellow officers on international missions and to display some of the usual ‘easing techniques’ when faced with the latter’s misconduct, several of our interviewees also officially reported such incidents or expressed a clear willingness to do so if faced with them. This indicates that pressures of in-group solidarity and processes of cultural closure may be less pronounced within the international context than on the national level. Moreover, Frontex seems to systematically encourage and monitor officers’ reporting of breaches of Code of Conduct and generally aims to develop a more ‘legally minded’ culture of border policing. It awaits further empirical studies whether these efforts will simply be experienced as bureaucratic interference and produce internal resistance or whether they may in fact lead towards the agency’s greater internal accountability.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Franko, K. and Gundhus, H.O.I. (2016) Divided Loyalties: Frontex and Police Culture at EU’s External Borders. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/divided-loyalties (Accessed [date]).

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