Waging the Euro-Russian ‘visa war’

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It would be a bit of an understatement to say that relations between Russia and European governments have recently turned rather frosty. Indeed, we now typically hear references to a new ‘Cold War’, with Ukraine acting as battleground in this revamped East-West rivalry. Despite the militaristic undertones that characterise their relationship, the growing tensions between the two sides have not led to open conflict. Both, after all, would have a lot to lose from this confrontation. This state of affairs, however, does not mean that another type of war, one not involving tanks and missiles, is being waged. It is a war over mobility of people, fought through an unlikely weapon of mass disruption, namely visas.

European governments have in fact created a ‘black list’ of Russian public officials who are deemed personae non gratae and banned from entering the EU. European officials present this move as an initial warning shot before harsher measures (i.e. economic sanctions) are introduced as a means to put pressure on their Russian counterparts. Whether these threats of escalation will materialise is a matter of debate. It is no secret that Europeans are divided on what to do with Russia, and it is unlikely that they would irreparably antagonise their bilateral relations with Moscow. There is a good chance then that visas will remain Europe’s sole offensive instrument deployed in this conflict. Europe’s mighty arsenal may therefore largely consist of nothing more than a piece of paper.

Still, we should be careful not to underestimate the power of this ‘soft’ weapon. For the Russian elites (be they tycoons or well-connected public officials) access to Europe is a sensitive issue, given their enduring fascination and extensive (and often murky) economic dealings with the Old Continent. Europeans are well aware of this soft spot, and it is therefore not surprising that they are trying to take advantage of it as much they can.

There is another aspect of this conflict that often goes unnoticed, however. The visa issue is not a matter of concern only for Russian elites. The most recent statistics published by Frontex, the EU border agency, are revealing in this regard. As shown in Chart 1 below, by far the largest percentage of short-term uniform visas issued for Schengen countries are for individuals who are based in Russia, at 41.7 per cent of the total in 2012. The country with the next largest percentage of visas issued is Ukraine, at only 9 per cent of the total.

Chart 1: Percentage of short-term uniform visas issued for Schengen countries by country of issue/application (2012)

Visa 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: European Commission Directorate-General Home Affairs

In turn, as Chart 2 shows, the rejection rate for Russian applicants is among the smallest of the top 20 countries where visas are issued. Of those applications for a Schengen visa made in Russia in 2012, only 0.9 per cent were refused. For comparison, the country with the largest refusal rate, Algeria, had 26.7 per cent of applications being refused.

Chart 2: Visa refusal rate for top 20 countries where Schengen visas were issued in 2012

Visa refusals 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: European Commission Directorate-General Home Affairs

This being the case, a cynic might argue that an appealing alternative avenue to intensify the pressure on the Kremlin could well be making it harder for ordinary Russians to obtain the sought-after pass to Europe. And yet banning a rich source of income for a continent still recovering from a devastating crisis does not seem be such a smart move. The potential for such a move to backfire is undoubtedly high.

This route should not be completely dismissed, however. European officials could use the visa issue as a bargaining chip in their dealings with Russia. Indeed, something along these lines is already happening. One example of this is that the EU has refused to allow residents of Crimea to apply for visas via Russian institutions and instead will only provide visas to these citizens if they apply in Ukraine – despite the annexation of the peninsula by Russia. The Commission has justified this by stating that it will issue visas via Ukraine because “Crimea is a part of this country”.

European officials could also include in the mix a possible revival of the longstanding discussion over the lifting of visa requirements for Russian nationals, which even before the latest events in Ukraine had hit some road blocks. The EU suspended negotiations over a visa-free arrangement with Russia in March, after the Crimean crisis began. All things considered, the story of the EU-Russian visa war may just be getting under way.

Mapping Schengen Art – Part IV

Here is the fourth instalment of Schengen border artan ongoing project in which I try to map the multifarious ways in which the Old Continent’s (real and imaginary) frontiers have been represented/performed/subverted.

 

Blue in Morocco – Blue (2012, wall art)

Blue artist

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.madnesswall.com/2012/04/blu-in-morocco-new-wall-near-spanish.html

 

Caution border – AA.VV. (2009, installation)

Brussels - art 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.cultura21.net/karamoja/html/art/index.php

 

Without borders? – Kontekst and h.arta (2009, exhibition)

main-julius1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://workshopwithoutborders.wordpress.com/exhibition/

 

Undocumented Apparel – Julio Salgado (2012, illustrations)

uni_salgadoundocumentedapparel_wmain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://juliosalgadoart.bigcartel.com/

 

Schengen-Funk – Sprutbass (2013, music)

Sprutbass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.nofearofpop.net/blog/sprutbass-schengen-funk-melkeveien-remix

 

 

 

Mapping Europe’s border art – Part III

Here is the third instalment of Schengen border art, an ongoing project in which I try to map the multifarious ways in which the Old Continent’s (real and imaginary) frontiers have been represented/performed/subverted.

 

Schengen – Helmy Nouh (2013, film)

 

Schengen film

 

 

 

 

 

http://schengenfilm.com/

 

 

Migrants moving history: Narratives of diversity in Europe (2007, documentary)

 

Migrant Moving history

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.migrants-moving-history.org/documentary.htm

 

 

The list – Banu Cennetoglu (2006, installation)

 

banu_cennetoglu_listamsterdam

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://edno.bg/en/sofia-contemporary-2013/program/759

 

Permanent Waiting Room (2008, Installation)

 

Container

 

 

 

http://www.kitch.si/livingonaborder/node/7

 

Melilla – Flo Razowsky (2007, photos)

 

detentionyard_spain_border_ceti_melilla_1207_BW_small

 

 

http://www.lightstalkers.org/galleries/contact_sheet/9398

 

New Voices from Europe and Beyond’ – ARC Publications/ Literature Across Frontiers (Poetry Anthology Series)

 

Catalan-Poets-front-cover-cropped-493x273

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.lit-across-frontiers.org/activities-and-projects/project/new-voices-from-europe-and-beyond/

 

Mapping Europe’s border art – part II

In my previous post I presented the project Schengen border art. What follows are some more examples of creative representations and performances of/about European frontiers. Enjoy!

 

There is no place – Lisl Ponger (2007, photographs)

There is no place

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.grenzlinien.com/lisl-ponger.htm

 

Foreigners registration office – Ximena Aburto Felis (2007, video)

Foreign registration

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.endloop.org/videos.html

 

Blue Wall of Silence – Vibeke Jensen (2007, installation)

BWStuesday3s

 

 

 

http://www.thing.net/~vibekeie/bluewall_index.htm

 

Frontiers – You’ve reached Fortress Europe (2008, videogame)

Fortress Europe game

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.frontiers-game.com/

 

Schengen - Raphael Haroche (2006, song)

Rafael Schengen

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9UG-ejy6g8

Mapping Europe’s border art – a project

Art and other creative expressions about European borders have been a recurrent theme in this blog. So much so that I have decided to launch a new side project specifically dealing with this topic. After all, isn’t the end of the year a time for new resolutions? The tentative title of this endeveour is ‘Schengen border art’, and I am planning to develop it in the upcoming months. The goal is to map contemporary artistic performances whose main subject is the Old Continent’s frontiers, be it the ‘real’ boundary demarcations in the political, social, economic realms or their imagined projections, and in the people who cross, build or challenge them on a daily basis. These artistic performances can take different forms: from novels, poems and paintings to photographs, videos, sculptures, land art, simulations, installations, theatrical and other types of  ‘live’ performances. The number of these artistic expressions has mushroomed in recent years as a result of the growing interest in (and controversy over) Europe’s borders and their management. Below you will find a preview of this body of work. And stay tuned for updates on this project!

After Schengen – Ignacio Evangelista (2013)

th-17_pl-cz

http://ignacioevangelista.com/index.php?/seleccion-natural/work-in-progres-after-schengen/

 

Maritime Incidents – Heiko Schäfer (2008).

schaefer04-k

http://www.heikoschaefer.de/projects/start/maritime_incidents.html

 

Migration, Installation – Raul Gschrey (2010)

gschrey02

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.grenzlinien.com/raul-gschrey.htm

 

Memorabilia – Sabina Shikhlinskaya (2012)

IMG_4967-n_small-200x300

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://transkaukazja.de/?p=333&lang=en

 

Contained Mobility - Ursula Biemann (2004)

Capture

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.geobodies.org/art-and-videos/contained-mobility

 

Fortress Europe – Asia dub foundation (2003)

Asia Dub foundation

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMXKt99W61A

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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!

 

Jurmala’s ghosts and the Haunted Houses of Schengen

imagesHalloween. The time when the undead come to town. And when boarded up haunted houses start making eerie sounds and come alive. This year, however, not all of them seem that decrepit and spirited. Some in fact remain relatively quiet. These are the haunted houses of Schengen. Haunted, yet  alluring. Indeed, they can be quite luxurious.  They also do not appear in creepy places (So no Castles in Transylvania – not yet. at least, for Romania is still waiting to join Schengen…). On the contrary, they rise along swanky neighborhoods or exclusive beach resorts. Who lives there? Hmmm, good question. If we had an answer, these houses would not be haunted… A more pertinent question is: why would anybody in their sane mind be so foolish as to own such as a ghostly abode?  Wait a minute: it’s Schengen, stupid! Yes, what makes these architectural ghosts so attractive is that they happen to be in the most sought-after place on earth, namely Europe (Yes, some find the decadent Old Continent still attractive!). And if you are not a European citizen and require a visa to enter Eurodreamland, then why not buy your way into paradise by claiming a fictitious residence there? And here enters Jurmala, the Latvian resort city by the Baltic Sea. In 2010, the Latvian government introduced a program that allows foreign citizens to acquire residency in the country if they are willing to invest at least 71,000 euros. Minimum requirement to maintain residency: have a local address (an apartment in Jurmala sounds good!) and be there one day per year (yeah, the day the haunted houses of Schengen come alive!). And who cares about the sandy beaches (The Baltic sea is not the Caribbean after all). With a local residency in your pocket, the doors of Europe are open to you! No more hassle at EU embassies! No more dealing with these callous and ungrateful European officials! To good to be true. Indeed, in three years, around 7,000 ‘zombies’, mostly well-healed Russians, Chinese and Kazakhs, have taken advantage of this unique opportunity. But like everything else, good things are bound to come to an end. Latvia is now feeling a bit of pressure from its EU partners (should we blame them?) to close this loophole. And they might have another reason to do so. Purportedly, the rationale for this program is to encourage money flows into the country. Yet this money is often laundered and sent back to the ghost’s (ehmm, resident’s) country of origin. So much for Latvia’s gains! None should that surprised then if this year’s Halloween might seal the program’s fate: R.I.P the Haunted Houses of Schengen!

What’s on the menu? Schengen as geo-culinary topos

A truly European flavour...

A truly European flavour…

Since last May, Russia has its own ‘Schengen’. It’s a place where you can go for pleasure or business. It’s a restaurant in Saint Petersburg. The restaurant is located not far from the Finnish Consulate, where the owner goes to get “the cherished Schengen visa.” Hence the name. But there is more to it than pure happenstance. The reference to ‘Schengen’ is meant to evoke the cosmopolitan aura that Europe’s area of free movement is supposed to project, together with other related ‘progressive’ notions such as open-mindedness, sophistication, and freedom. This spin is not that surprising. After all, the purpose of any act of ‘branding’ is to sell a product to a customer, and thus the product should be associated with something positive. In the eyes of the management, ‘Schengen’ is supposed to do the trick.

And the trick seems to work. According to one reviewer, Schengen is “a new location for smart people.”. In terms of menu, another reviewer notices how “at first (it) seemed concise to the point of being a bit parsimonious” (these stingy Europeans!), although the overall experience is one of “visa-free satisfaction”. Schengen’s design as well is quintessential European. It has in fact a “slightly Germanic feel” but it “bring(s) together influences from different parts of Europe into an effortlessly harmonious whole”. (Well, “slightly Germanic feel” might be a bit of understatement when we look at Europe today; in turn, the Old Continent is all but “effortless” and “harmonious” these days, but you get the picture…)

From its clientele to its look, Schengen (the restaurant) thus seems to uncannily represent a microcosm of Europe’s border free area, or at least what European policy-makers would like to present outside the region. In this sense, Schengen (the restaurant) is not unique. There are other examples of businesses with topographical names reminiscent of a location that is different from the one where that business actually lies. It is arguably one of the most common practices in the hospitality industry. After all, almost all respectable cities around the world have a ‘London’ or ‘Paris’ restaurant, even if these establishments are located neither in England nor in France. The Schengen restaurant is also not the only bearing a name of topographical entity that does not actually exist. (We should keep in mind that formally ‘Schengenland’ is not a political entity that we can find on a map; in EU legal documents, the reference is still to the territory of member states). Cities are replete with hotels bearing the names of fictional locations, including mythical ones (for example, ‘Paradise’, ‘El Dorado’).

What distinguishes the case of the Schengen restaurant is that it refers to both a real and a fictional entity. The restaurant’s name in fact refers to something that simultaneously does and does not exist. In this context ‘Schengen’ is something real because, according to those who chose this name, its referent object is an existing political entity with defined ‘commonsensical’ features; however, it is also  fictional, because this political entity does not formally exist, or at least it does not necessarily exist in the way the management of the restaurant thinks it does. Ready to go to Schengen? Check its menu first, there might be surprises…

Saying ‘non’ to Schengen: or how a visa refusal can challenge the system

Image

A Non-Schengen ticket…

“Non, merci”. These simple words have caused a stir, embarrassing France and Europe as a whole in the process. What I am referring to is the symbolic gesture that a young Senegalese woman, Bousso Dramé, performed last week after the French consulate in Dakar had granted her a visa to travel to Europe. She really wanted to go to Paris. And she well deserved it (the trip was the prize for winning a French writing contest). Yet, she declined. We often hear stories about visa applicants, especially in developing countries, being turned down by callous European officials. Not this time. Drame turned them down. And she did not do it silently. She wanted to let the consulate officials know why she did it  – because of the way she was (mis)treated during the application process. She also wanted everybody else (in Africa and beyond) to know. And she wanted to make a statement about the humiliation that many people like her have to endure in order to get to Europe. That is why she put all her bitterness in writing, in a composed yet powerful j’accuse against a ‘system’ that she feels is profoundly unjust, which pretends to be objective but whose main raison d’être seems to be that of keeping unwanted people out of Europe.

Drame’s gesture has made me think about other symbolic performances that target Europe’s visa system, in this case using art as their main ‘weapon’. What I have in mind is what Milevska  calls ‘Non Schengen Art’[1]. The common theme addressed by non–Schengen artists is the impact of the Schengen border regime on the everyday life of Eastern European citizens (those holding passports of countries that are not yet Schengen members). In order to present their work in Western Europe, these artists (themselves citizens of ‘Non Schengen’ countries) need to obtain a visa. To challenge what they perceive as a clamp down on their freedom of expression, they conjure up performances, objects, installations, and video or photography projects that are clandestine attempts for finding a way to trick the political system and bureaucratic procedures. These performances are often based on illegal tactics that mirror the creative ways in which would-migrants try to sneak across Europe’s external borders, such as faking passports, bribing officials, avoiding surveillance cameras, overstaying visas, white weddings, etc. Their criticism of the Schengen regime, rather than overt and outspoken, is evoked by their actions. They are not just representing an illegal migrant in their art; they are performing it. Thanks to these performances, art becomes part of everyday life. But the artists’ objective is not to reify the ‘everydayness’ that Schengen represents, but to disrupt it from within.

The Serbian author Tanja Ostojić, for instance, in her performance Crossing Borders, realized in 2000, the author illegally crossed the border between Slovenia and Austria. When she crossed the border, Slovenia was still a non Schengen country, and its borders with the EU were heavily fortified. According to Ostojić, the journey was possible only because of the help she received from her Austrian friends who accompanied her in the treacherous trek across the Slovenian-Austrian border. The final objective of the work of Ostojić and other members of the Non Schengen Art movement is to unveil Schengen’s exclusionary underpinnings. Their artistic performances thus engage with ‘the system’, if only as a means to debunk it from within. This is precisely what Drame’s ‘spectacular’ gesture seems to be doing. The power of  a ‘non’…


[1]  Milevska, Suzana, “Non-Schengen art: the phantasm of belonging”, paper presented at the UCL school of Slavonic and East European studies 7th annual international postgraduate conference, Inclusion Exclusion, University College London 16-18th February 2006

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…

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