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

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

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?…

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

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? The typical answer offered, the one favoured by politicians – is that it is a very efficient way to address the challenge of unwanted migration. If migrants cannot be managed after they reach their destination, why not contain them before they get there? These policies have also the great advantage of taking place outside the legal boundaries that constrain liberal democracies, thus relieving receiving countries from potential liabilities. They also allow to shift the burden to countries of origin and transit, which are invested with the sole responsibility (with only limited financial and logistical support) of dealing with unwanted migrants.

It is a very simple and appealing logic. It also seems very rational. In this sense it echoes what economists would call ‘externalization’, the idea that in order to maximize profits a business may  off load indirect costs to a third party. Whether this strategy is really effective when applied to the migration realm is, however, debatable. The cost of setting up remote control operations and supporting them with all the latest technological gizmos is ballooning. There is also no easy way to measure success. (More detections on the high sea? Or less?). Certainly, it raises serious issues of fairness. While they do receive some (meagre) compensation, sending and transit countries often do not really have a choice when confronted with their powerful counterparts’ requests. And opposition from various quarters (not just the usual suspects, such as the NGOs galaxy, but also greater sections of the European population) is mounting as well. I wonder, however, if the answer to the question of why these policies are so popular among policy-makers has not much to do with rational calculations, but something more subtle and thus less apparent. After all, economists are not the only ones talking about ‘externalization’. This concept has been famously explored by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. From a Freudian perspective, externalization is an unconscious copying mechanism aimed at soothing the anxieties that engulf our daily lives. This process occurs when we find a target – be it a person or an object – in which we project our own characteristics, often negative ones. This mechanism has an important ‘positive’ function. Without the relief that it offers, we would soon reach a state of chronic neurosis. Its sides effects are equally nasty, however, since it can have deleterious consequences on the subjects of our projections, our relations with them and, more generally, on our public image. The silver lining in this phenomenon is that it is typically temporary and that it can be reversed when our level of anxiety gets under control. Whether this is possible when dealing with cases of collective externalization (that is, when it is not just an individual involved but an entire community) is another story. Envisioning Europe’s remote control saga through a psychoanalytic lens, however, points to the fact that politicians’ fascination with these highly toxic policies has more to do with ‘internal’ reasons than external ones. If Europe really wants to confront its uncomfortable relationship with migration, it might have to start by looking at itself in the mirror.

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

Schengen’s enlargement anxiety

The doom and gloom that currently pervades the Old (moribund?) Continent has rendered its citizens and politicians particularly jittery. It is not surprising, then, that even Schengen, often hailed as one of the most successful stories of European integration, is under strain. This tension has taken different forms. I have already discussed in this blog how of late some Schengen members (e.g. France) have repetedly moaned about the regime’s (alleged) shortcomings and called for its rehaul. This sense of unease has also affected the present debate about Schengen’s expansion. Romania and Bulgaria, who joined the EU in 2007, want to join Europe’s free travel area as well. Despite having met the necessary legal and technical requirements (at least according to the EU experts who have evaluated their bid), their membership is still pending. The main bone of contention is well known: the mistrust of some member states (the most vocal being the Netherlands) over the candidates’ capacity to uphold Schengen’s standards. Particularly problematic in their eyes is the persistent high levels of corruption and organized crime in the two South-Eastern European countries, phenomena which are believed to affect their ability to manage what would become de facto Europe’s borders.  The degree to which Romania and Bulgaria have made actual progress towards overcoming these problems is a matter of debate. Be it as it may, Bucharest and Sofia’s actual or perceived shortcomings regarding border control, coupled with a growing anti-EU and anti-freedom-of-movement sentiment in some Schengen members – have created an explosive mix that have rendered this crisis almost ‘inevitable’. The convergence of the two candidate countries’ reputation and Schengen members’ domestic politics is a plausible explanation for the current tensions in the Schengen regime, and one that it is shared by commentators and policy-makers alike. However, the bleak conclusion that that is typically inferred from this account, namely that the regime is entering into an inward looking phase of retrenchment, with limited prospects for future enlargements, is premature. The current dispute over the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, while certainly troublesome, is not unique in the history of the Schengen regime (Italy’s membership bid in the 1990s, for example, turned out to be a politically charged saga that lasted for almost a decade). On the contrary, this dispute can be considered as the latest symptomatic example of an enduring – and so far unsolved – tension within the regime between, on one hand, an in-built propensity to constantly expand in order to maintain the myth of Schengen as success story of European integration and, on the other, the fear of losing this very status because of overstretching, and, more generally, the fear of the unknown that the admission of new and untested members entails. This inherent tension is expressed in enlargement anxiety. As a psychological condition, anxiety is the result of high levels of uncertainty and overcommitment that an individual might face in his/her everyday life. One of the ways in which anxiety manifests itself is through resentment, which typically takes the form of overly critical language – including insults – and bullying against a designated scapegoat. From a psychological perspective, the function of resentment is to temporarily release in relatively controlled manner all, or part. of the tension affecting an individual. Seen in this light, the Romania and Bulgaria affairs is not just a cruel rite of passage, in which the two countries are enduring series of humiliating tests in order to become ‘proper’ members of the club, but also a sort of cathartic process in which current Schengen members, by vocally expressing their misgivings about the candidates, yet not rejecting their plight outright, assuage their fears and are persuaded to accept the new round of club’s expansion.  The Romanian and Bulgarian governments can only hope that this healing exercise quickly runs its course, so that Schengen’s chronic anxiety can be channeled against somebody else….

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