Of borders, bubbles, and viruses

The pandemic unleashed in the early months of 2020 has affected border controls in Europe and beyond in ways that were until recently unimaginable. New territorial configurations regulating cross-border mobility have emerged, the most notorious being the “travel zone,” the “corridor,” and the “bubble”. These arrangements represent an instance of “excised territories” carved out of existing spatial configurations within or between jurisdictions – whether international (e.g., the corridor linking Spain’s Balearic Islands with selected European countries, or the “travel bubble” among Baltic states) or sub-national (e.g., the twinning of border regions within Europe with similar color codes, or outside Europe, Canada’s “Atlantic bubble,” which includes three contiguous provinces in the East of the country). While the reliance on “corridors” indicates the instrumental nature of these arrangements (as spaces connecting one location to another), the use of “bubbles” implies a more explicitly social dimension. As a sociological term, “bubble” describes the relationships between the outside world and an individual or group. “Social bubbles” evoke a sense of coziness, predictability, and protection, but also malleability and flexibility, as they can expand or shrink depending on the circumstances. When applied to a particular geographical area, this phenomenon is referred to as a “tourist bubble”: a site where tourists are shielded from the locals (completely or in part) to maintain a sense of homeliness or prevent them from disturbing the residents. In the case of the current pandemic, however, the bubble represents an uncanny reversal of its original meaning. Indeed, pandemic bubbles do not protect tourists from locals. Instead, these arrangements shield the locals from everybody else. They also evoke some of the negative connotations of social bubbles, specifically the insularity that the discouragement of interactions with people with different opinions and narrow mindedness entails—the type of dynamics encapsulated in the “echo chamber effect” on social media. They also evoke hostility against those who breach a bubble, as attested by the string of recent “license-shaming” incidents against non-local drivers in some of these bubbles. The tracking of incomers also creates a sense of siege mentality, even panic. The sense of lightness that should accompany the term “bubble” seems to be lost in the metaphor. Indeed, terms such as “perimeter” or “fence” might be more apt to describe these phenomena…

Europe’s borders in 2020: a visual review

The end of an extraordinary year, affecting every corner of the world, including European borders! But it has not been just about Covid. Brexit and the Mediterranean once again make it into the list, among other border-related events across the Old Continent. Below you will find a visual review of 12 months to remember…

January

The journeys through Europe’s southern border continue…

Photo: Migrants on an overcrowded wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea on January 10, 2020 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/Santi Palacios

February

Violence at Europe South-Eastern border

Photo: Signs of violence on an asylum seeker in northern Turkey at the Greek border.  Belal Khaled

March

Covid hits, and Europe’s internal borders shut down (the temporary barriers series)

A temporary border barrier between Belgium and the Netherlands. Nico Vereecken / Photonews via Getty

Another temporary border barrier between Belgium and the Netherlands. Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

A temporary border barrier in Poland. Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty

Check point at a Czech Republic border. Sebastian Kahnert/picture alliance via Getty

A temporary border check between Poland and Germany. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty

A makeshift border between Germany and the Czech Republic. Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty

A temporary border barrier between Denmark and Germany. Frank Molter/picture alliance via Getty

The Vatican City-Italy border. REMO CASILLI/Reuters

(Sources for Temporary barriers series: Thomas Pallini, “Photos show the emergency makeshift borders European countries have erected in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19”, Business Insider, 4 April 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-european-borders-closed-in-response-to-covid-19-2020-4)

April

‘Temporary’ shut down of Europe’s borders extended…

A makeshift border between Germany and Switzerland. ARND WIEGMANN/Reuters

May

Europe reopens (some of) its internal borders

Photo: Luxembourg and German Foreign Ministers stand on the bridge over the Moselle River at the reopened border between the two countries on Saturday 16 May 2020. Credit: Oliver Dietze/dpa/Alamy Live News June

June

Europe continues to reopen (some of) its internal borders

Swiss customs officials open a fence closing the Swiss-French border in Thonex near Ambilly, France AFP

July

Summer European travelling in times of Covid…

Checking for coronavirus symptoms, Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, June 3, 2020. /AP

August

Entry-Exit System Pilot Project to Be Launched at EU Land Borders

September

The Swiss say yes to (continued) free movement in the EU

Photo: A poster of the Action for an independent and neutral Switzerland (AUNS) reading: “It’s getting tight -Yes to the anti-immigration initiative”. Adliswil, Switzerland September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

October

The second wave hits European borders

Photo:  Checks at Hungary’s border. Gergely Besenyei/AFP/Getty Images

November

France calls for the reform of Schengen (again)

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to the border between France and Spain | Pool photo by Guillaume Horcajuelo/AFP via Getty Images

December

UK-EU deal and a new border in Gibraltar

Photo: Gibraltar. AP

A taste of Brexit’s Kent border?

Photo: Lorries line up on the way to Dover; PA

HAPPY 2021!!!

Europe’s borders in 2018: a visual review

The Brexit saga, the Mediterranean tragedy, the Schengen pantomime, the asylum redistribution farce… These are some of the ‘performances’ that defined European borders in 2018. Below you will find a visual review of the year that has just passed.

 

January

Living in a post-Brexit world…France and UK fight over the ‘new’ Channel border 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February

Living in a post-Brexit world 2: Irish passports quite popular these days …

 

 

 

 

 

 

March

Plus ça change…: Germany Interior minister calls for suspension of Schengen Agreement

 

 

 

 

 

 

April

Oh well, post-Brexit UK ‘blue passports’ will be printed in the EU after all…

 

 

 

 

 

 

May

Give me more…European Commission wants 10,000 border guards

 

 

June

Closed ports: The Aquarius saga in the Mediterranean

 

 

 

 

 

 

July

Breaking taboos: Serbia proposes a territorial swap with Kosovo…

 

 

 

 

 

 

August

…and the EU commission gives the go-ahead to the swap!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September

Tightening the screw: Germany and Austria back tougher EU external border

 

 

 

 

 

 

October

High alert at the border! Italian police blow up a bag of…coconuts!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

November

EU backs (once again) plans for migrant centres in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

December

Here we go again…EU leaders stuck on asylum reform

 

 

 

 

 

 

Europe’s borders in 2017: a visual review

Trumpean walls, Libya’s new slaves, Frontex vs NGOs, the Irish/Brexit border conundrum, the permanence of temporary checks at internal frontiers… These are some of the themes that defined European borders in 2017. Here is a visual review of the year that has just passed.

 

January

Not just a US thing: poll finds European support for Trump-like refugee ban

 

 

 

 

 

 

February

The time is not ripe: Schengen temporary border controls extended

 

 

 

 

 

 

March

Slave trade at Europe’s outskirts

 

 

 

 

 

 

April

Drama! Frontex vs NGOs, or who is making Europe’s migration crisis worse?

 

 

 

 

 

 

May

Rebel rebel…Denmark says no to lift temporary border controls

 

 

 

 

 

 

June

At last! Visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU

 

 

 

 

 

 

July

EU naval mission in Med: really helpful?

 

 

 

 

 

 

August

They did it at last… Austria starts checks at Italian border (or did they)?

 

 

 

 

 

 

September

“Temporary”? EU to allow Schengen border controls for up to three years

 

 

 

 

 

 

October

Romania’s (ruined) Schengen Plans: again, not the right time

 

 

 

 

 

 

November

 Celebrating 10 years of Schengen in Eastern Europe

 

 

 

 

 

 

December

May the force be with you: Brexit and the Irish border crucible

 

 

 

 

 

 

***

Europe’s borders in 2015: a visual review

Undoubtedly this has been an annus horribilis for European borders. Here are some visual highlights of the last 12 months…

 

February 2015

The Other Exodus: Kosovars heading North

The other exodus - Kosovar heading north - February Getty

April 2015

Sunk: the deadliest drowning in the Mediterranean (so far)

Sinking off Malata -April Reuters

April 2015

Calais’ waves: migrants try to enter the Eurotunnel

Eurotunnel April

April 2015

All along the watchtower: Poland proposes border posts around Kalingrad 

Poalnd-Kalingrad watchtower proposal April- Reuters

April 2015

Born to be wild: Pro-Putin bikers stopped at Polish border

Pro puting bikers

June 2015

Terra nullius: migrants stranded at Italy-France border

migrants stranded -italy france border June Reuters

August 2015

Greek tragedies: migrants landing in Lesbos

To Lesbos  oct 2 2015 - Reuters

September 2015

Aylan

Aylan september 2

September 2015

No (Of)fence: migrants making their way trough Serbia-Hungary border

Hungary border fence september

September 2015

Tripping: foul play at the Hungarian border

Trippincamerwona sept Getti image

September 2015

The long march: migrants heading to Austria

HUngarain -Austrian border

 

September 2015

Guardian Angel(a): Germany opens the doors to migrants

 

Merl

November 2015

Suspended! Schengen area under pressure after Paris attacks

French italian border after Paris Nov

 

December 2015
Øresund blues: Sweden closes its border with Denmark

Sweden closes Oresund bridge with Denmark Dec- Getty

 

 

European borders in 2016?

Schengen future

The elephant in Europe’s living room: or how (not to) tackle the current migration crisis

EU

It has become a well-established European ritual. What to do when facing a major crisis? Call a special summit! Then talk, and talk again, well into the night. Disagree on pretty much everything, until you get a ‘breakthrough’ — i.e., a list of generic commitments dressed up in the language of the mythical “European common spirit”. Wait a few months, and, if the plan does not work — because it surely won’t work — call another summit!

The latest instalment of this ongoing European political saga is centered on the issue of migration.  Hot topic of late, and for good (or, I should say, bad) reasons. Europe has become the backdrop for harrowing, and often tragic, stories of thousands of individuals who are fleeing conflict and misery and trying to reach the Old Continent. Some of these stories, such as that of Alan Kurdi, the Europe-bound three old Syrian who drowned just before reaching the Turkish coast, are so shocking as to shake, at least temporarily, the conscience of an otherwise anesthetized European public. At the same time, a collective anti-immigrant hysteria has spread throughout the Old Continent like wildfire, pushing migration at the top of the political agenda. What to do in these circumstances? European leaders have an answer. Yes, you guessed it: a special summit.

I am not holding my breath that something revolutionary will come out of the latest gathering of European grandees. Most likely, the summit will result in a declaration acknowledging the plight of European-bound migrants and a call for action. My sense is that, in practice, the planned response will be filled with a new batch of security-oriented measures aimed at strengthening the continent’s external borders and at expanding controls on movement within Europe. And the plight of would be migrants, who will still do whatever it takes to look for a better future? Well, we’ll figure that out later. Remember Lampedusa? The infamous October 2013 migrant shipwreck led to alarmed calls for action similar the ones we hear today.  Cecilia Malmström, then European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said: “Let’s make sure that what happened in Lampedusa will be a wakeup call to increase solidarity and mutual support and to prevent similar tragedies in the future”. We all know how things turned out…

It is, of course, easy to target elected officials. They are the ones who must make the difficult decisions, and feel the wrath of an angry and disillusioned electorate. And the internally-focused policy responses European leaders will likely propose to address the current crisis – a greater burden sharing of refugees among European countries and a more flexible approach to the refugee determination process are indeed necessary. They are, however, also a patchwork of short term solutions that will do little to prevent other crises from popping up again in the near future.

The alternative? I have one. Go to the source of the problem! In other words, try to make sure migrants either do not leave their country of origin, or, if they do leave, they do so in a regulated manner. Easier said than done, you might say. You can add naïve. And haven’t Europeans already tried this route before? These are valid points. Solving the complex economic, social and political problems that encourage emigration in faraway places, not to mention ending protracted conflicts such as the one in Syria, is not something Europeans (or anybody else for that matter) can — and should — do by themselves, nor something that can happen in the short term.

Talks about creating a more ‘progressive’ migration policy that includes not only sticks but also carrots —  fostering economic development, opening up of legal migration channels — have been going since the late 1990s, when Europe was facing another major refugee crisis originating from the conflict in the Balkans. These themes, for instance, are a central component of the EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility, since the mid-2000s the main policy framework of EU external migration and asylum policy. The problem is, European policy-makers have not seriously tried to put into practice the progressive vision that this approach entails. When it comes to its implementation, the emphasis has systematically turned to the negative aspects of the plan — how to prevent migrants from arriving –, not the more positive ones — how to create incentives to either stay or move through official channels. This is apparent if we look at European attempts to ‘externalize’ migration management to the continent’s neighbors or further afield.  These ‘remote control’ policies include the ‘offshoring’ of border checks beyond Europe, the imposition of stricter visa requirements, the processing of asylum claims in neighboring countries, the interdictions of migrants on the high seas, and migrant detention in transit countries outside the region. The externalization of border management is not a new phenomenon.  Some of these practices (e.g. the imposition of visas) date back to the origins of immigration policy at the turn of the 20th century. Other initiatives (e.g. the interdictions on the high seas and migrant detention) were introduced in the post cold war era. Since the millennium, however, these practices, and the context in which they unfold, have experienced significant transformations. As a result, remote control policies have become more complex, widespread and prominent in migration strategies around the world than ever before. These practices, for example, are at the core of current migration policies in the United States and Australia.

For governments, externalizing migration policies represents a politically expedient way to circumvent domestic legal obligations that liberal democracies claim to uphold. As the adage goes, out of sight, out of mind… The upcoming European summit on migration will probably include a discussion on how to strengthen these ‘externalizing’ practices. This approach, however, is, to put it mildly, contentious. Besides the lack of accountability for governmental actions that occur beyond national borders, externalizing migration controls often have negative repercussions on migrants’ lives and their rights, as in the case for those kept in limbo in offshore detention centres. It is also questionable whether they are really effective. Yet, despite the mounting critiques and number of challenges governments are facing, these policies remain a popular approach to manage international migration in Europe.

Which leads me to the point about the elephant in Europe’s living room – namely, the root causes of migration. Certainly, some of the situations that lead to population movements (e.g. instability and conflict in the Middle East, authoritarianism and lawlessness in the Horn of Africa) are so intractable that even talking about ‘solutions’ seems out of the question at the present time. This state of affairs, however, should not be an excuse not to talk about what Europe can and should do to render less likely the re-occurrence of the current crisis, or at least mitigate its size and impact. The upcoming European summit should put the root causes of migration at the core of its plan of action. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Some of these ideas are already present in Europe’s existing policy frameworks. This is especially the case for plans targeting countries where migrants move primarily for economic reasons. Europe should be more actively foster local economic development, render its common market more accessible and offer more meaningful channels for legal migration. In the case of individuals fleeing conflict and political repression, Europe should offer greater economic support for transit countries, and expand its now limited commitment to resettle displaced people living in refugee camps. European leaders should also seek greater coordination and support to implement these policies not only within Europe, but also with other international partners, especially in North America.

Putting these ideas into practice requires not just time and money, but also a great dose of political will and courage, qualities that are currently in short supply around European capitals. Without them, however, I’m afraid the images of desperation and anger that we are witnessing today across Europe are likely to haunt us for a long time to come.

 

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…

Schengen blues: critical (musical) notes on Europe

Schengen bluesThere’s something about Schengen that makes it a favourite subject of creative types of all stripes.  What this ‘quid’ consists of may elude us non artistically inclined mortals. After all, what can be so exciting about an utterly dry catalogue of rules regulating travel in and about the Old Continent? Apparently, a lot. The reasons why Schengen has become a source of artistic inspiration, however, are not necessarily as benign as some European policy-makers (especially those who still hail this policy initiative as one of the finest achievements of European integration) would like us to believe. Indeed, Schengen is often the artistic target of trenchant criticism, especially because of its exclusionary practices vis a vis selected individuals (i.e. the unwanted non-Europeans). This critical streak permeates the entire spectrum of the performative art scene. Musicians play a big part in this anti-Schengen chorus. Europe’s free travel area seems to touch a (metaphorical) cord with this category of artists. After all, is there a better way to voice your opinion (and be heard from afar) than through your own voice, especially if screamed out of your lungs? The latest example of this increasingly popular musical genre (‘Schengen blues’?) that I have recently come across is from the Spanish crooner Raphael (by the way, why would the author of 60s’ hits such as “Cuando tú no estás”, “Mi gran noche”, “Tema de amor”, would pen a song – in French, alas! –  on a topic such as Europe’s border control regime is a question that definitely warrants further investigation…). The song, simply titled ‘Schengen’, poetically evokes the painful experience of the typical migrant living in the Old Continent. The result is a rather depressing portrayal of Europe…

(…)

Tellement de nuits sous la paupière
Tellement de forêts abattues
Même sous la mitraille et le fer
Moi je leur ai rien vendu
Et que même dans l’espace Shengen
Ils ont pas voulu de ma peau

Ce que j’ fais là moi
Je sais pas
Je voulais juste marcher tout droit
Ce que j’ fais là moi
Je sais pas
Je pense à toi depuis mille ans

(…)

(NB: full text and English translation are available here)

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)?

Making sense of Schengen’s contradictions

What a snub! Last June,  the European parliament (EP),

Twisted & thorny

in an unprecedented move, suspended cooperation with the EU’s other main legislative body, the European  Council, following the latter’s decision to exclude the EP from the supervision of the Schengen free travel zone. This is just the last of what is becoming a long series of bumps in an already troubled journey Schengen has faced in the last year. The attempt by member states to effectively ‘renationalize’ the regime has also revamped long standing criticisms levelled against Schengen, such as the fact that it is a top down system lacking democratic control and input, its flexible method has damaged the EU’s institutional coherence, it over-emphasizes security over freedom, it has a negative impact on Europe’s neighbours and non EU citizens, and its expansionary drive can lead to overstretching…  What a damning list! Bad as they might sound, in reality these are the very features that have rendered Schengen so successful in the first place…But they are also what might lead to its demise in the long run… What follows is my attempt to unpack this apparent contradiction.

The fact that Schengen is an elite-driven and undemocratic enterprise has prevented an open discussion about the actual meaning of ‘European border’ from taking place. In a national context, the legitimacy of the state as main provider of security  is based on the protection of citizens qua nationals. With Schengen, it should be based on shared protection, but the current arrangement lacks a genuine sense of solidarity and shared identity of the protected. This shared identity must emerge for the peoples of Europe to fully accept a common external frontier and the abolition of police controls on frontiers between them. Since the regime’s inception, Schengen’s popular support has been mainly passive, and based on practical results of the policies introduced. Its relative shallowness is reflected in the fact that popular opinion has fluctuated depending on the issue at stake and the mood of the moment. This condition seriously weakens Schengen’s legitimacy, and it could hurt the long-term success of the initiative.

If the lack of popular support has prevented Schengen from gaining greater legitimacy, its reliance on flexible methods has created political and legal fragmentation in the policy-making process. The result has been increased complexity and diminished transparency. These issues were a source of concern before Schengen was incorporated in the EU, and they remain so today, given the undiminished appeal of ‘enhanced co-operation’ arrangements in the area of justice, security and freedom.

Even more worrying is the potentially self-destructive dynamic stemming from Schengen’s ‘internal security dilemma’. According to this logic, security is a necessary precondition for the establishment and expansion of freedom in a given community. The quest for security, however, can never be completely fulfilled, since this is an inherently subjective and unstable condition. As a result, security feeds more security, and the process can potentially go on ad infinitum. One of the side effects of this ‘hyper-securitization’ is that the policies it entails become almost exclusively repressive, since they are aimed at sealing off Europe from potential threats. This explains why Schengen has been opposed by civil libertarian groups in current member states and it has created widespread suspicion and resistance among Europe’s neighbours. It also explain why it has been fiercely contested by critically oriented scholars and activists who consider Schengen a vehicle for the imposition of a particular gendered, raced and classed vision of reality.

The prospect of new states – even current EU members states such Romania and Bulgaria –becoming fully integrated into the Schengen space represents another serious challenge to the regime’s future viability. The quest for expansion was part of this project since the very beginnings, and this feature was maintained with its incorporation in the EU. A potential implication of this ‘bigger is better’ logic is that the system may become overstretched and eventually lose momentum and effectiveness (not to mention its function as laboratory for the EU). Arguably, the EU’s main post-enlargement challenges stem from the increased political, structural and implementation capability diversity that the new members will bring. All these differences will remain after enlargement (if it ever occurs), rendering common decision-making in border control matters more problematic.

Steps have indeed been taken, or at least discussion is ongoing, to address some of these shortcomings. So far there have been proposals to make the policy-making process in justice and home affairs more transparent. These discussions have focused on increasing transparency through better information on objectives and progress to parliaments, the media and the citizens, as well as more effective parliamentary control. Ideas to expand and render more meaningful EU citizenship are going in the direction of creating a sense of solidarity and shared identity among Europeans. The European Commission has been the most vocal in ensuring that concerns over security do not overshadow the ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ objectives of the EU, thus guaranteeing a better balance in the delivering of these public goods.

Despite these attempts, addressing Schengen’s shortcomings will be difficult. The main reason is that these elements in the Schengen experiment are, ironically, also some of its major assets. These features were instrumental in allowing the border control policy community to go beyond the nationalist commonsense. In terms of participation and democratic control, opening up the debate over Schengen would have weakened the community’s effort in pursuing it. Flexibility was one of Schengen’s major strengths, since it allowed European policy-makers to avoid getting bogged down in legal and bureaucratic wrangles or the vetoing by individual countries, as often occurred in the EU. The emphasis on security, especially at Europe’s external borders, was aimed at soothing popular anxieties that the lifting of internal frontiers was believed to create. Limiting the rights of neighbours and non-EU citizens has become the price paid in order to expand the rights of EU citizens, and more generally a way to externalize the negative implications of the newly created area of free movement. Finally, the continuing expansion of the regime, now including the new EU members, represents a politically expedient means to solidify the regime and to guarantee its survival.

            The tensions within Schengen have so far been contained, because of the political support it has among most existing members. This support, however, has been seriously tested recently (see, for example, the recent brouhaha over the right of individual member states to re-instate borders in cases of emergency ) and that might create problems in the long term, and even lead to the unthinkable, that is a Europe without Schengen.

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