Row Row Row your boat (people): what the France-Italy squabble means for the future of Schengen

No real silver lining at Ventimiglia

No real silver lining at Ventimiglia

Here we go again! These days France and Italy are at loggerheads over migrants trying to cross the two countries’ shared borders. Not that long ago (2011) Paris and Rome clashed over the very same issue. Back then it was North African migrants moving north in the wake of the ‘jasmine revolutions’. Today it is Libya’s implosion and the record number of ‘boat people’ who made it through the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year. Then, like today, France (temporarily) shut its borders with Italy. With panic engulfing the continent, then, like today, gloomy predictions about the end of the Schengen, the policy regime that guarantees the free movement of people across Europe, started to swirl around. So, are we there now? Does the latest intra-European brouhaha really represent the soon-to-be death of Schengen?

My answer is the same that I gave in response to the 2011 row, namely, NO! Despite these ominous signs (the tone of the discussion, for instance, is getting nastier by the day, with reciprocal accusations of breaching the ‘Schengen spirit’), this crisis might not prove to be as fatal as some doom-sayers suggest. On the contrary, Schengen might actually emerge from the present turmoil stronger than before. Indeed, if we look at the history of the regime (which, by the way, has just turned 30 this week) we can notice other examples of ‘crises’ whose features in terms of cast of characters, content and dynamics bear striking similarities with the present predicament. Then, as today, France (the ‘sceptical yet loyal member’), Italy (the ‘recalcitrant victim’) debated the effectiveness of existing border controls in the face of (perceived and actual) growth in illegal cross border activities, traded reciprocal accusations of either laxness or lack of trust and good faith, re-imposed – or threatened to re-impose – internal border controls, and evoked the possible end of the regime. In the end, however, Schengen not only weathered the gathering storm and survived the threat of a possible demise, but came out even stronger from these challenges. Indeed, the regime, which started as an intergovernmental initiative developed by a group of European governments in the mid 1980s, by the end of the 1990s had doubled in membership and, with its incorporation in the EU’s institutional architecture, became one of the central pillars of the European integration project.

From an institutional perspective, these recurrent crises can therefore be understood as cyclical adjustment mechanisms that have helped the regime withstand new challenges and consolidate its institutional presence in Europe. The current crisis’ patterns and dynamics are consistent with the trajectory that Schengen has followed in the past. It might be overly optimistic, but my guess is that last chapter of the chronicle of a death foretold (Schengen’s)  might have a different ending after all…

Mediterranean nightmares and Freudian ships: how Europe externalizes its migration anxiety

schengenizer:

Written some months ago, but sadly still relevant these days…

Originally posted on Schengen-alia:

EU interdiction

These days news outlets around the world are plastered with images of Southern European countries’ coastguard vessels intercepting rickety dinghies trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. This practice is one of the most notable instances of what Aristide Zolberg calls ‘remote control’, or the array of policies and practices aimed at managing migratory flows before they reach a country’s territory. The externalization of migration management is not a new phenomenon, and not unique to Europe. The Unites States, after all, ‘invented’ the concept of interdiction in the high seas as way to stem the flow of Haitians, Cubans and other undesired migrants heading to El Norte. Yet there is something new about recent developments, both in terms of breath and scope. More problematically, these policies remain highly controversial, raising various ethical and legal issues for the governments that implement them.

All this raises the question: why are these policies so popular?…

View original 513 more words

Europe’s borders in 2014: a visual review

It’s been an eventful year for border-related matters in Europe. Here are some visual highlights of the last 12 months…

February 2014

EUhh! The Swiss vote no to more European migrants

Eu Swiss referendum

March 2014

Crime(a) and punishment: Russian crimeans can’t apply for Schengen visas

Crimea Schengen 2

May 2014

All’s quiet on the Eastern front: Polish-German border 10 years after enlargement

Polish-German border

October 2014

Surreal Melilla: Golfers vs migrants in the Spanish enclave

Melilla vs golfers

October 2014

Parking Lot Desperation: Syrian cars at Turkish border near Kobani

Kobani cars

November 2014 

The new marshmallows: ISIS fighters burn French passports

french-passports-isis-fighters.si

December 2014

The answer my friend…: anti-migrant Calais fence blown by the wind

Calais fence

January-December 2014

Mediterranean Blues: more boats, rescues and drownings…

Mediterranean rescue

See you all in 2015!!!

Scotland’s independence, Schengen, and today’s border reivers

border_reiversWith this week’s issuing of the white paper ‘Scotland’s Future’,  the Scottish government  has officially launched its campaign for the September 2014 referendum on independence. If successful, Scotland would (re)gain full sovereignty and thus control over its destiny. What that means in practice is that Edinburgh, among other things, would be able to exert control over its newly independent territory, including its borders. The Scottish-English frontier would then become Europe’s latest “t

errible reality” (as Dion back in the 1940s referred to Europe’s post WW2 frontiers). Yet, politicians in the Scottish government have quickly dismissed the claims (rumors?) that a modern day Adrian’s wall would be erected  between modern day Caledonia and Britannia – rumors that originate, not surprisingly, mostly from south of the future border). No new fortifications, no customs and passport checks.  And above all – vade retro satana! – Scotland will be not forced by some nasty (continental) Europeans to join the Schengen regime. Scotland will therefore be free to reclaim its land border. Or maybe not. It would take it back, but just symbolically. The UK (or what would be left without the Scots) will not be compelled to open a northern flank in its battle against the masses of (Continental) Europeans yearning to breathe free (and  work) in modern day Albion. Or maybe they will. After all, an independent Scotland, even if outside Schengen, might still feel like inviting those  irritating (Continental) Europeans. And then who would check whether they’ll be sneaking down south? The twisted nature of this debate (and of the motivations of those behind it), then, seems to conjure the re-appearance in modern  guise of an epic and controversial figure that characterized the lawless territory constituting the pre-Union Anglo-Scottish borderland, namely that of the border reiver. Border reivers were individuals (both of Scottish and English descent) who raided the areas around the Anglo-Scottish frontier and robbed their victims of their belongings with no regards to the victims’ nationality. Crucially, governments on both sides of the border were either turning a blind eye or even actually encouraging their actions, because reivers would do the dirty work against the other side that governments were either unwilling or unable of carrying out. What modern day rulers should keep in mind, however, is that border reivers were notoriously unreliable, switching side when convenient and even plundering those who ostensibly they had vowed their allegiance to.  From wherever side of the Anglo-Scottish fence you might sitting today, a sound piece of advice would be: behold all these novel border reivers!

 

Much ado about nothing..new? On the latest ‘Schengen governance package’

Any surprise in the Schengen package

Any surprise in the Schengen package?

Finally! After a tortuous two year gestation, Europe’s triumvirate – pardon, Troika (European Parliament/Council/Commission) -has agreed upon a package of proposals aimed at rendering Europe’s border control regime more effective and predictable. The push for reform came in the aftermath of the spat between France and Italy over the handling of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the wake of the 2011 Arab spring.  The main issue arising from this affair was the need to clarify (and possibly expand) the nebulous rules about the re-imposition of national border controls in cases of “serious threat to public policy or internal security”. At first sight, this seems to be just a technical issue. Only boring policy wonks (like me) could consider interesting (exciting?) questions such as ‘How many days can a member state re-impose border controls?’, ‘Under what conditions?’, ‘How and when should EU institutions be informed?’. What a snooze! Well, maybe not so much. These questions are actually more intriguing than they might seem at first sight. Forget for a moment the technocratic language in which the current public debate about the Schengen governance package has been couched (an art the EU is very good at). If we scratch the surface we can see that at the core this matter is eminently political. And with politics, comes drama! The issue here is the ongoing power struggle among the EU triumvirate over the distribution of competences within the Schengen regime. In other words: who is in charge? How else should we read then the posturing, maneuvering, arm twisting that has characterized the Schengen reform saga in the last two years? (Emblematic here is the EP’s ‘nuclear option’ of boycotting the negotiations over the justice and home affairs agenda if the Council did not withdraw the ‘outrageous’ decision to purge the parliament from the Schengen evaluation process)

This is Schengen politics at its best (or worst, depending on the perspective). Pragmatism, especially the reliance on ad hoc and flexible institutional arrangements and procedures, is in Schengen’s DNA, a trait which Europe’s border control regime acquired in its early intergovernmental days outside the EU and that it has not completely got rid of after its communitarization in the late 1990s. Indeed, I would go a step further and argue that its incorporation in the EU has not really de-Schengenized Schengen; looking at the EU today I see the ongoing Schengenization of the EU, not the other way round…. This pragmatism is only superficially a-political. Political is in fact the move of depoliticizing highly contentious issues by repackaging them as merely technical matters and by sheltering the policy-making process from the public eye.

It is in this pragmatist light that we should read the latest announcement about the Schengen ‘package’. The fact that a compromise was reached (the establishment of an evaluation and monitoring mechanism  jointly managed by the European Commission and member states; changes to the Schengen border code to include new circumstances in which border controls can be re-instated) despite the tensions and reciprocal threats and vetoes from the major actors involved in this saga, is not such a miracle after all. That’s how Schengen ‘normally’ works. In the past, bouts of what seem existential ‘crises’ that periodically hit the regime, have been solved (at least temporarily, until a new crisis erupts) with the proverbial political pat on the back. What this solution  – political one, since political crises cannot be solved if not through political solutions – comes down to is a revamping of old tacit rules, vague enough so that everybody can see what one likes. This sleight of hand, however, might not overcome the very problems it sought to address, possibly creating new ones. Are we sure member states are going to allow EU institutions (the Commission, Frontex) to assess their ability to manage their borders and accept their suggestions?  Will member states really wait for the Commission’s evaluation (which could take up months) before re-imposing internal border controls in the case of another member neglecting to fulfill its duties at the common external border?  If the past experience is of any indication, I would not be so optimistic… Indeed, even if the rules of the game have now been more clearly spelt out, it is obvious that they can be interpreted with substantial latitude. With Schengen, the main culprits are typically member states, but EU institutions are quite apt in the art of liberal (i.e. expansive) reading of agreed upon rules. What do we make of all that? Well, the same old story. Schengen has a capacity to withstand phases of internal turmoil, such as the one that followed the Italo-French spat. The way it manages these recurrent crises is as we humans do when under stress (NB: for those who from time to time stumble upon my blog, you’ve probably noticed my penchant for medical metaphors…). What do we do? Typically, we switch to an ‘emergency mode’. We’re ready for the worst, and act as if the worst can happen. We question our routines, and, if needed, we try to tweak them. We make new resolutions to avoid problems in the future. But this is just a temporary coping strategy. Once we are persuaded that everything is OK, we switch off the emergency mode. And then we return to our previous routine. The Schengen triumvirate seems to be following this path, shaking hands and congratulating themselves for the new deal. Until, of course, a new crisis disrupts the newly achieved consensus and we start hearing calls for ‘clearer rules’… The latest Schengen package reform? Much ado about nothing new…

The Iron Lady’s Schengen legacy: of commonsense, border fixations and Jacobin hubris

And the Schengen flag too?

And the Schengen flag too?

It is a bit of understatement to say that Margaret Thatcher was no Schengen fan. In her vitriolic  attacks on ‘Europe’ as a political project, she did not spare what she believed was an unnerving and ultimately quixotic quest to dilute, and ultimately dissolve, British sovereignty, a quest concocted by naive continentals, or worse still, by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.  As she put it in the notorious ‘Bruges Speech’, the political manifesto of British Euro-scepticism, “it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.” Commonsensical are also the reasons why national borders should  persist: “I did not join Europe to have free movement of terrorists, criminals, drugs, plant and animal diseases and rabies, and illegal migrants”. (Certainly not the Europe of peace and goodwill that Jean Monnet envisioned…) In Thatcher’s ‘commonsensical world’,  the triad borders/security/state is so ingrained in our collective understanding of what border control means as to not require further explanation. Borders and security are indissolubly linked, and national governments (as opposed to supra-national institutions) should be in charge of this issue. From this perspective, Schengen can only be an aberration.

And yet, despite her visceral opposition to continental Europe’s experimentation with territoriality, Margaret Thatcher has played a fundamental role in the making of Schengen as we know it today. The Iron Lady’s trenchant critiques have set the terms – and the tone – of the debate about this eminently political project. Schengen supporters (be it in Brussels or in European capitals) have had to come to terms, adapt and respond to the ‘nationalist backlash’ that she so powerfully and persuasively unleashed. The former British prime minister also embodied one of the major obstacles (yet to be fully overcome) hindering the full realization of a post-national vision of territoriality in Europe, namely the persistence among European policy-makers and the population at large of what I call ‘border fixation’. Despite claims that traditional territorial boundaries are ‘passé’, borders have not lost their appeal. For some commentators, this fixation is baseless. First of all, advocates of hard borders tend to exaggerate the demand for them. Uncontrollable mass movements of population across frontiers are, after all, rare events. Moreover, borders cannot (and arguably never did) effectively achieve one of the main goals they were established for, namely, preventing unwanted entries into a territory. These arguments are well founded, but they do not take into consideration that the appeal of borders does not stem (or at least not solely) from their ‘material’ functions; instead, it is based on the powerful psychological need for order and stability in a community. The leap required to go beyond this border fixation would therefore entail the embracing of a new type of post-territorial governance where this need is addressed in a different fashion. Europe is not new to far-reaching and ‘unimaginable’ transformations. The Old Continent is a constant work in progress, an open-ended experiment that has been re-adjusted in light of new events or circumstances in the past. Yet, given the current gloomy and inward looking political climate, the conditions to overcome the long-lasting fascination with borders do not seem ripe. And even if they were, we should nonetheless heed to Margaret Thatcher’s admonition about the Jacobin tendencies (viz. radical and hyper-rationalist) that she so strongly despised in the European project:

“…look at the architecture of the last fifty years — look, in particular, at the architecture that went beyond the modern to the futuristic. It was certainly a very dramatic architecture but the one thing it no longer expresses is the Future. What it expresses is yesterday’s vision of the future. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la politique.”[1]

Schengen’s ‘architects’ seem to have listened to Thatcher’s warning about Europe’s institutional hubris. One of the policy regime’s signature traits is in fact its flexible and pragmatic design, which has allowed it to withstand turbulent times, wobbly political will and recurrent bouts of skepticism during its three decade long history. The Iron Lady would probably balk at the idea, but helping Schengen thrive might well be part of her vast political legacy…


[1] Margaret Thatcher, “Europe’s Political Architecture”, Speech in the Hague, May 15, 1992, Thatcher Archive

Is it just an illusion? On Europe’s ‘common’ migration policy

The question of the role and impact of the European Union and its institutions on European politics has been at the core of major political and academic debates since the project of regional integration was launched more than 60 years ago[i]. It may be a sign of the (troubled) times that the discussion now seems to be turning to the more ominous issue of whether the EU is relevant at all, or, in the most apocalyptic scenarios, whether it can survive its current state of economic and political turmoil. Until recently, few commentators would have explicitly pondered the ‘relevance question’ in such pessimistic terms.

Of late, however, EU-bashing is no longer the extremist activity it used to be in the (not so distant) past, with a few mainstream voices joining the chorus. As a result, ‘Brussels’ is being blamed for all kinds of ills affecting the continent. The response to the EU’s recent Nobel Prize award is revealing.  For some, it was well-deserved, given its important contribution in rendering the Old Continent a less belligerent place, although even the most ardent Europeanists would admit that the timing of the award was a bit awkward. For others – arguably the majority of commentators – this award bordered the blasphemous, given the Union’s current economic and political predicament.

Without doubt, opinions of the European Union are strong and polarized. These reactions, whether they are polemical or hagiographic, often share a lack of sound argumentation and solid empirical evidence to back up their claims. It is for these reasons that I have found Suzanne Mulcahy’s book Europe’s Migrant Policies a particularly welcome addition to the debate about the Union’s relevance in contemporary European politics. The book assesses the role that the EU is playing in the development of common migrant integration policies across the continent. The author focuses on three of the key components of this policy area (immigrant integration, civil integration, and migrant enfranchisement) and examines how their main principles have been elaborated, negotiated and implemented by EU institutions and member states. Since the 1990s the EU has been particularly active in fostering a common approach in this policy area. As Mulcahy argues, however, not only has actual convergence has been limited, but the EU has also not played a major role in this process – even when convergence around EU norms has indeed occurred. On one hand, member states have chosen different paths (some following EU standards, others their own ‘national’ approach). On the other, the convergence (or lack thereof) around common European principles and practices (such as the Common Basic Principles agreed in 2004) has had more to do with internal factors, such political culture and the containment of extreme right-wing parties, than EU institutions and their actions. Hence the claim that integration in this policy field is an illusion.

These findings are a cautionary tale for those who believe in the power and inevitability of European integration. They also challenge some of the Europeanization literature’s central claims, especially those of the so-called ‘downloading’ model (according to which policy convergence is mainly a EU-driven phenomenon), but also the more nuanced ‘Interactive Europeanization’ model in which policy convergence is the result of a sort of virtuous cycle involving both member states and EU institutions. The author does not find evidence of either of these dynamics affecting migrant policy in Europe. Mulcahy concludes that unless the EU backs up its ‘soft law’ approach with more legally binding instruments (as it has been the case for other policy areas such as discrimination) then the prospects of convergence in this policy realm will remain grim. The same dynamics affecting migration policies may also hold true in other areas of European integration, and thus a more sophisticated reading of their evolution which takes seriously the domestic politics dimension is required.

The argument presented in Europe’s Migrant Policies is nuanced, theoretically sophisticated and based on empirically rich material from a variety of country case studies. The bleak picture Mulcahy paints of Europe’s allegedly ‘Europeanized’ migrant policies is thus persuasive and consistent with the current generalized disillusionment with the European integration project. Yet, while understandable, the pessimism that transpires in the book may be overstated. By using the claims of the interactive Europeanization literature as a point of reference, the author has implicitly set the standards high. Indeed, compared to other policy fields, EU-led integration in migration matters has been disappointing. A different picture emerges, however, if we consider the specificities of the migration field in Europe and the political dynamics that underlie it. After all, migration has been, and to a large extent still is, the domain of member states. Despite the recent expansion of EU competences in Justice and Home Affairs (under which migration mostly falls), national capitals are still reluctant to delegate responsibilities in this policy area because of the sensitivity of the subject matters it deals with. As a result, the EU still lacks effective legal and political instruments to compel member states to establish and implement common European norms. Given this, it is surprising that any EU-led convergence – or, for that matter, convergence in general – is occurring at all.

While migrant policy in Europe may indeed be suffering from an ‘illusion of integration’, this state of affairs does not need to have the negative connotations typically associated with this term, namely that of distortion or misinterpretation of facts. Most European policy-makers (and pro-integrationist commentators) are well aware that greater integration is a not a straightforward, effortless endeavour, and that in order to overcome practical and political obstacles, pragmatism needs to be matched with a degree of long term visionary thinking. Migrant policy is not an exception to this rule. Despite its current foes, a degree of illusion is what this policy field might need after all.


[i] A version of this blog entry has appeared in the London Schools of Economics’ on line Review of Books.

Nobel vs. Schengen: reflections on the EU, the peace award ceremony… and John Terry

Awarding the most coveted peace prize to the European Union was no doubt a well-staged coup de théâtre. Not surprisingly, the decision has infuriated the (ever growing) battalion of Euro über-skeptics, who have cried foul. Crowning a freshly minted US president with little to show for as peace-maker (as the Nobel committee did in 2009), baffling as it might sound, can be written off as naive wishful thinking . But the EU? The new leviathan that is currently taking the continent down the drain? The Devil impersonated?  Come on!  The Nobel committee, however, has managed to achieve another, and arguably more difficult, feat, that is to embarrass the pro-EU crowd, especially those in the halls of power who still (claim to) support the European project. They might not dare to say it openly – after all, this prize is a recognition of the positive impact that the Union has had on putting the continent’s history of conflict and destruction behind. In normal circumstances, these kinds of awards are the best you might wish for. But these are not normal circumstances. It is an understatement to say that the EU has gone through better days. A prize now? Awkward…  Indeed, EU leaders might feel the same type of unease that surrounded (then) English football captain John Terry, who in 2009 won a prize as ‘dad of the year[i],  although he was cheating on his wife…[ii]. (In fairness, revelations about the footballer’s extra-curricular activities came ex post facto, unlike the EU case, where the award committee was well aware of the recipient’s current record…).  Intriguing as it might be, this story does not end with the controversial decision taken back in October in Oslo.  Even around the time of the actual award ceremony (known as ‘Nobel days’), the spectacle continues – now taking on the features of the comedie de l’absurd.  As a precautionary measure, Norway – the host country – has decided to reinstate controls at its frontiers to prevent possible troublemakers to ruin the event.  The irony is not lost in this move. Norway, a non EU member who is a member of Schengen – Europe’s border free regime – temporarily has suspended EU rules regarding freedom of movement to celebrate  the Union’s achievements, including – ehm – cross continent freedom of movement. So, while frontier controls are supposedly not an effective tool against cross border criminal activities – as the EU mantra goes –  they are indispensable to protect EU leaders attending a ceremony in which they hail themselves as beacons of freedom. Worth repeating: awkward!

Contradictions are an integral part of politics. After all, politics is the art of the possible,  of rendering the absurd normal and the unacceptable tolerable. Which makes me wonder: might be John Terry heading to Oslo next year (and not for a football game)?

On the quirks of Europe’s immigrant (dis)integration policy

Europe’s anxiety spreads…

The Old Continent’s anxiety is spreading around its fringes. Once again, Schengen docet.

http://www.ibanet.org/Article/Detail.aspx?ArticleUid=d4cfa9d3-7035-48be-8971-063c4c8fa657

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