27 / 01 / 2023

Exclusive: ‘Whistleblowers’ Pile Pressure on EU Asylum Agency Chief After Dramatic Reshuffle

Malta-based agency rejects claims that it gave inaccurate information when questioned about recruitment practices.





Anonymous employees from the EU’s Asylum Agency (EUAA) have accused the agency’s Executive Director, Nina Gregori, of giving “misleading” information to a committee of the European Parliament, days after she announced a sweeping reshuffle that left a swathe of top managerial posts vacant.

The anonymous complaint, seen by Solomon, disputed statements given by Gregori when she was questioned last November about recruitment practices at the EUAA.

The complaint alleged Gregori had downplayed the extent to which senior managers, appointed on an interim basis, had stayed in their roles for longer than was allowed. Under EU rules, interim appointments circumventing the standard recruitment procedure are not meant to last longer than a year.

The EUAA has rejected that it misled the parliamentary committee last November, emphasising that the information provided by Gregori “was absolutely and completely accurate”. In an e-mailed response to Solomon, the EUAA said “nothing was done with the intent to misuse or mismanage EU or [the] Agency’s legal frameworks” or to cover up any irregularities.

The statement of the Executive Director to the Budgetary Committee, both in session and in writing (publicly available on the European Parliament website), was absolutely and completely accurate.

The date of the hearing in the European Parliament’s Budgetary Committee (30/11/2022), the EUAA had 7 managers appointed ad interim. Of those 7, only 2 had been ad interim for more than 1 year in their function at the time, and even for those 2 posts vacancy notices had already been published and the recruitment procedures were ongoing.

Appointments ad interim for more than one year have been publicly declared as an internal control deficiency by the Agency itself, already in 2021 in the Agency’s publicly available Central Register of Deficiencies and Corrective Action Plan that is an annex to the Consolidated Annual Activity Report published on EUAA ‘s website.

The European Parliament also had this information as the part of the discharge procedure, and all of this has also been reported to the Management Board, including the European Commission, regularly. Thus, nothing was done with the intent to misuse or mismanage EU or Agency’s legal frameworks and budget or even to cover up any kind of irregularities, as all is – and always was – publicly available information.

The agency has been dogged by allegations of high-level misconduct for several months. It is already under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, on the basis of an earlier, anonymous complaint, as revealed by Solomon last November.

As well as alleging that HR rules had been circumvented by extending interim appointments, the previous complaint accused the agency of nepotistic practices and the mishandling of harassment claims. This complaint was also filed to the European Commission, triggering an inquiry by its accountability watchdog, the Internal Audit Service (IAS). The results of the OLAF and IAS inquiries are not yet known. The EUAA has rejected all the allegations.

Both complaints appear to be from the same set of employees, a group calling itself Renew EUAA. The latest complaint was filed to OLAF, the European Commission, and European Parliament Committees including the Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs (LIBE).

Ramona Strugariu, a member of the pro-European liberal parliamentary group, Renew, told Solomon that MEPs were fully aware of the allegations and will refer to the issue in a forthcoming report. “The problem is in our attention. We take every piece of information very seriously, we analyse it and protect the whistleblowers. If the situation is as described then it is very serious. Nevertheless, since OLAF has started an investigation, there is a standard procedure that we follow and we shall wait until this examination concludes”.

In an e-mailed response to Solomon, the Commission has reiterated that it trusts “the Agency and its Executive Director to continue delivering on its support to Member States, providing legal, technical and operational assistance”.

This story by Solomon examines the events leading up to this complaint, including the announcement of a dramatic reshuffle last week that left several top management posts formally un-staffed. In addition, this story reveals that EUAA employees raised the alarm internally about recruitment practices back in 2020. And finally, this story shows how lax recruitment procedures could be affecting the EUAA’s operations on the ground, in its duty to help member states that are processing asylum claims.

The Malta-headquartered EUAA was re-branded in January and given a reinforced mandate to support its core mission of helping member states manage asylum claims. It employs some 2,000 people, and has satellite offices in Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Lithuania and Latvia. With an annual budget of around 180 million euros, it is also ballooning into one of the larger EU agencies. Gregori, a former interior ministry official from Slovenia, was appointed in 2019 with the expectation that she would overhaul the agency’s reputation after a previous director resigned amid harassment claims and an OLAF investigation.

Sweeping reshuffle

Last week, on Tuesday, 17 January 2023, EUAA staff received an e-mail from Gregori, announcing that seven senior managers, appointed on an interim basis, would be stepping back and returning to their previous roles. The reshuffle was billed as a routine move, the natural expiry of a series of temporary contracts.

Six of the seven managers named in Gregori’s email would leave their posts within 24 hours. These include three of the four Heads of Center, a top managerial role that sits directly below the executive director. “Such postings come to an end one year after the appointment, unless the post is filled before that date,” Gregori wrote, referring to the HR guidelines governing the maximum length of an interim appointment.

However, an EUAA senior staff member told Solomon that the move represented nothing short of “a severe managerial failure”. The agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, it was “a disaster when, after three-and-a-half years in the job, you come to the point where the backbone of your management evaporates all of a sudden.”

An MEP also expressed scepticism about the official explanation. The vacancy of six management positions that are “crucial for the functioning of the EUAA raises serious questions about the agency’s ability to carry out its critical mandate,” the Dutch Greens MEP, Tineke Strik, told Solomon by e-mail. “This change leaves a huge and unprecedented vacuum in the management structure of the Agency. I would find such a significant management gap highly questionable in normal circumstances, but this is even more disconcerting in light of the ongoing OLAF investigation.”

In response to the criticism, the EUAA said: “What the Agency has accomplished – even in the last year – is a source of incredible pride […] Managing 2000 personnel and staff in 13+1 different countries – all with different legal systems, implementing a new mandate with very important and labour-intensive new duties, immediately responding to the fallout of the invasion of Ukraine, activating numerous new operations and supporting the EU in managing a dramatic increase in asylum seekers in the past month, is not the sign of a managerial disaster.”

The management reshuffle occurred some days after a meeting in Brussels between Gregori and Beate Gminder, the deputy director-general at the European Commission body responsible for managing the bloc’s asylum, border and law enforcement agencies.

The European Commission has confirmed to Solomon that this meeting took place.

An EUAA spokesperson said the decision to carry out the reshuffle “was taken far previously and is, in fact, exactly what the rules prescribe. The Agency is simply ensuring compliance with the applicable legal framework and implementing the corrective actions”.

The Agency also said it is committed to filling these management positions as soon as possible. “Five of these positions have already been published and are under recruitment, while the other two will be published soon. The heavy recruitment of the past year also ensures that the Agency is now in a position where there are established managers in place to ensure seamless business continuity”.

Meanwhile, unless Gregori appoints other acting staff to cover the gap, she would become directly responsible for the day-to-day management of three-quarters of her organisation, according to experienced staff at the agency. EUAA staff members described this as an impossible situation, and suggested that Gregori would seek another ad hoc arrangement until the roles had been filled through proper recruitment procedures, which could take many months.

Ensuring ‘business continuity’

On 30 November last year, Gregori was questioned about the anonymous allegations and the OLAF investigation at the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Controls.

Gregori said the appointment of interim managers had been established policy at the agency before she joined it, and that she was “the first to take corrective actions”. She told the committee that out of the seven managers serving on an interim basis at the time, only two remained in post for longer than a year.

She justified the decision to prolong these two appointments, saying it had been taken “to ensure business continuity” at a challenging time for the agency. “I had to balance the risks and could not stop those two ad interim appointments from one day to the next,” she said, “as they were in the time of crisis critical for the functioning of the agency.”

Gregori dismissed the allegations of mismanagement, insisting that the agency had been fully transparent. She also took aim at the anonymous complainants, saying they had made their allegations public in order to create the perception that the agency was “in crisis”, thereby attacking the “good reputation” of its leadership.

However, the latest anonymous complaint disputes Gregori’s claim before the parliamentary committee that only two acting managers had exceeded the one-year time limit. At the time of her statement last November, the complaint argues that the true number of temporary appointees who had served “ad interim, in various modalities, for well over one year”, was greater than two.

“A fact is that over 3.5 years, Ms. Nina Gregori has failed to recruit any of the missing senior managers (Heads of Centre) from an external recruitment procedure” the complaint said.

‘Is it a joke?’

The agency has been receiving warnings about its recruitment practices since 2020, just a year after Gregori was appointed to lead it. Back then, the EU institution responsible for fiscal compliance, the European Court of Auditors, highlighted that 10 posts in management had been occupied on an interim basis for more than a year. “This precarity at the level of managerial positions may impair EASO’s leadership and its strategic continuity,” the auditors said. The EUAA was known as the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) before its rebranding in January last year.

European Court of Auditors EASO report 2020.

Concerns over recruitment practices were also voiced internally at the time, in a report prepared by the Staff Committee, the body representing the agency’s rank and file workers. The November 2020 report, seen by Solomon, raised concerns that people who had been appointed on an interim basis could have an unfair advantage when applying for jobs through the standard recruitment procedure.

The report also warned of potential conflicts of interest in cases where “a line manager chairs or sits on a panel where subordinates are candidates” for a post. Such issues, the report said, could compromise the transparency and objectivity of the recruitment process.

The report was prompted by complaints from staff members highlighting problems with “transparency, impartiality and non-biased practices”. Their anonymised quotes offered a scathing assessment of the agency’s recruitment procedures. “Scams” was how one described them, while another spoke of a “jump in[to] the past”, and yet another asked, “is it a joke?”.

One staff member said it was a “great surprise” to find that problems with the recruitment process had yet to be addressed, despite having been flagged up for several years. Another said in reference to a specific job advertisement: “Allow me to doubt if this vacancy notice has being [sic] drafted to point” to specific candidates who were favoured by, or connected to, members of the selection panel.

Gregori’s office would respond to the Staff Committee’s report eight months after it was filed, in July 2021. The response, marked “confidential”, went through all the concerns raised in the report. It stressed that “the outcome of each selection procedure is determined solely by the merits, educational and professional background of the candidates. Care is also taken so that all candidates are treated in an equal and fair manner”.

The response from Gregori’s office also tackled warnings of possible conflicts of interest where the candidate for a role is vetted by a line manager or colleague with whom they have a close working relationship. Such situations do “not necessarily give rise to a situation of conflict of interest”, the response said, citing case law from the EU’s Court of Justice in its support.

Solomon has filed a request asking to see the exit interview forms filed by staff departing from the EUAA. The documents contain information such as the reasons for leaving, suggestions for improvements and impressions about supervisors. The agency responded that 49 forms have been filed since 2021, but refused to share them, saying this could compromise privacy and decision-making procedures.

‘Mandatory declaration of honour’

The alleged weakness of recruitment procedures is not confined to the upper reaches of the EUAA’s management. At the other end of the organisational hierarchy, contractors recruited by the agency to help process asylum claims are also not being vetted adequately, according to testimony gathered by Solomon.

The contractors, referred to as “external experts” by the EUAA, are tasked with assisting member states deal with spikes in asylum applications. As the agency’s mandate has expanded, it has created a roster of such experts who can be deployed quickly. Some 250 experts are currently deployed by the agency across Cyprus, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Several experts, speaking to Solomon on condition of anonymity, said they were never interviewed or asked to provide evidence of their qualifications when undergoing the recruitment procedure.

Experts are selected by filling in their information on a portal provided by the agency. Candidates are informed by email if they have been admitted to the roster. If they are available when a job offer is made, they receive a contract.

The experts who spoke to Solomon said they were concerned that the failure to verify their skills and credentials could affect the quality of the agency’s work.

A former expert deployed in Cyprus told Solomon that he had wondered how some of the people working on asylum cases had been selected for the job. “There were people of whom we wondered how they were selected to do the job. The quality of asylum interviews and decisions is often very poor,” he said. “Legal aid organisations should scrutinise what’s happening in Cyprus.”

Another expert currently working in Cyprus said “there are very good professionals deployed in the field but there are also people that lack the proper skills”. The expert said there was “a general sense that the agency prioritised smooth relations with member states over maintaining the quality of asylum procedures or honouring asylum seekers’ fundamental rights”.

All experts interviewed by Solomon asked to remain anonymous, fearing that going public would affect their job prospects.

Solomon asked the EUAA about the claims that it had not vetted experts adequately.

In response, the EUAA said that, based on current EU rules, it has “adopted an approach whereby particular responsibility is attributed to the individual applicants”. Anyone applying through the roster is required to submit a “mandatory declaration of honour” to certify “that all of the information given in [their] application is complete and correct to the best of [their] knowledge”.

As an additional safeguard, the EUAA said it reserved the right to request further supporting evidence and carry out an additional interview or test at a later stage of the selection process.

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