Bad omens, good omens: how does a restored Schengen look like?

Ouch! Schengen is in trouble…

On May 10, 2016, the museum created to celebrate the Schengen regime—evocatively located in the eponymous Luxemburg town by the river Moselle—was damaged by the collapse of one of its ceilings. Happening in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, it was an eerie omen of the regime’s current predicament. Indeed, an increasing number of cracks have begun to appear in what is still considered a central pillar of European integration. The breakdown of the Dublin Convention arrangement brought about by the sudden flow of Europe-bound migrants and the ensuing squabbles over the EU-led redistribution of asylum seekers across the continent, together with the reintroduction of internal controls, have rattled the regime’s foundations. A rising populist backlash against the idea of a “border-free Europe” has also brought into question the regime’s raison d’être and challenged its legitimacy.  In this context, it is not surprising that references to “the end of Schengen” have become ubiquitous.

Schengen restored…for now

In all this doom and gloom, finally some good news. After a year long hiatus, the Schengen museum has just reopened, and patrons are once again able to marvel at the regime’s accomplishments. Can the (real) Schengen follow the same path and return to its original shine? Well, maybe it can. After all, it is not the first time the Schengen regime has experienced periods of turmoil. In the early 1990s, for instance, the French government’s recalcitrance to fully lift internal controls at its borders stalled the regime’s  launch. While the possibility exists that the reinstatement of internal border controls within the Schengen area may become permanent, the European Commission and all member states have confirmed their commitment to lift these checks once the emergency period is over. Moreover, there are signs that the current crisis might actually lead to the regime’s further integration, as the recent upgrading of EU border agency Frontex suggests.

The strongest argument in support of the Schengen regime, however, is that even if it were to collapse, the need for European governments to address migratory pressures on Europe would not disappear. Unilateral actions such as the permanent reinstatement of national border controls might replicate the phenomenon of The Jungle, the notorious makeshift camp erected—and disbanded in October 2016—in the Northern French city of Calais. A Europe-wide “Jungle effect” would be politically untenable. It is therefore difficult to foresee a solution that does not involve at least a modicum of cooperation among European governments and some level of coordination from EU institutions. In other words, the most likely scenario in the case of the regime’s collapse is a Schengen redux. Such an arrangement would resemble the current one, but with its priorities reversed. The strengthening of external borders, hitherto considered a compensatory measure to balance the lifting of internal ones, would become the primary objective. A border-free Europe would remain a desirable outcome worth pursuing, but not if this meant compromising security. This shift of priorities is already apparent in the current post-crisis context; yet it is, at least on paper, only temporary and ad hoc. In the Schengen redux scenario outlined here, it would be become official and permanent.  This new arrangement would also be less institutionalised, with more emphasis on enhanced cooperation. One of this scenario’s downsides is that, since the lifting of internal borders is dependent on the strengthening of external ones, Schengen would compromise its primary source of legitimacy, namely its close connection with the European integration project. By diluting this historical tie, the political will to keep Schengen alive, even in the form of “Schengen-light,” would be seriously reduced.

European policymakers would certainly welcome a Schengen’s ‘restoration’ along the lines of the real-life entity the museum celebrates. They would also be pleased if the “renovations” they are currently considering work out well, and if they do not turn out to be mere temporary patches. If the latter turns out to be the case, another serious incident affecting the Schengen regime might offer them no choice but to demolish its entire structure[i].

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[i] This post is a (revised and updated) excerpt from a chapter on EU border management that I wrote for  Routledge’s Handbook of Justice and Home Affairs Research (edited by Ariadna Ripoll Servent and Florian Trauner)

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Out now: Externalizing Migration Management in Europe and North America

A bit of self promotion here: Schengenizer has just published an edited volume on borders (what else?).  It’s about Europe of course, but North America as well (the two regions share a lot in terms of border policies). It focuses on a topic that I have often covered in this blog, namely the practice of ‘externalizing’ migration management  beyond a country’s borders. Surely to become a bedside reading fave… More details below.

Zaiotti externalizing book

EXTERNALIZING MIGRATION MANAGEMENT:EUROPE, NORTH AMERICA AND THE SPREAD OF ‘REMOTE CONTROL’ PRACTICES

(Routledge, 2016)

The extension of border controls beyond a country’s territory to regulate the flows of migrants before they arrive has become a popular and highly controversial policy practice. Today, remote control policies are more visible, complex and widespread than ever before, raising various ethical, political and legal issues for the governments promoting them.

The book examines the externalization of migration control from an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective, focusing on ‘remote control’ initiatives in Europe and North America, with contributions from the fields of politics, sociology, law, geography, anthropology, and history. This book uses empirically rich analyses and compelling theoretical insights to trace the evolution of ‘remote control’ initiatives and assesses their impact and policy implications. It also explores competing theoretical models that might explain their emergence and diffusion. Individual chapters tackle some of the most puzzling questions underlying remote control policies, such as the reasons why governments adopt these policies and what might be their impact on migrants and other actors involved.

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.

 

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.

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)?

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