Europe’s Borderless Dilemma

Those that write about Europe have convinced us that its borders are open to the world.  Phrases like “borderless Europe,” “free movement of people,” and “visa-free travel” dominate our perceptions of borders in contemporary Europe.  Where else, they tell us, can a person born in Madrid, study in Paris, intern in Berlin, and work in Rome? In this modern Europe of ours, space—and the rules that govern it—no longer seems to matter.

Certainly, blurred boundaries characterize European life like never before.  Just ask any businessperson or tourist who has traveled to Western Europe in the last fifteen years. Plus, programs like Erasmus and initiatives like the Bologna Process have given thousands of students from around the continent the chance to have an international university experience.  Yet this assessment of Europe, grounded in a view of politics from the perspective of the business, political, and academic classes of the Western world, overlooks power imbalances—in wealth, power, and space—still inhibiting mobility for large classes of Europeans.  Outside of Europe’s centers—the Brussels and Berlins of the continent—the space in which people reside still fundamentally matters.

Unsurprisingly, the refugee crisis has driven the question of who gets the benefits of free-movement back into the headlines.  Once a taboo subject, politicians now openly discuss whether a “mini-Schengen zone,” encompassing wealthy, Western European countries should replace the general Schengen Agreement, effectively limiting the benefits of easy travel to the richest countries in Europe.  And we’ve all seen the images of border fences being resurrected all across the continent.

But this is not a new development.  At least since 1945, we have divided Europe into two parts: the good part and the bad part.  For fifty years, it was the West versus the East.  Now, the good part equals Western Europe while the bad part is the rest of Europe, that scary part of the continent where nationalism, ethnicity, and religion still dominate people’s lives.  Separating Europe into two Europes—those that live on the continent, but not in Europe as Slavenka Drakulić puts it— needs to be seen as a fundamental part of European Union policy from its beginning.

These two spheres—the Us versus the Other—take on competing characteristics.  Among other attributes, wealth, light skin, and enlightenment characterize the Us, while poverty, dark skin, and backwardness characterize the Other.

For Europeans, this Other has changed its meaning over the decades.  Initially, it was the threat of the Soviet Union that helped solidify, if not a common identity, at least a common way of life.  When the Cold War ended and the EU expanded, it became Eastern Europeans heading west to steal jobs and smuggle goods.  Now, it is predominately people who identify as Muslim—not just current refugees, but citizens of European countries who have lived in Europe their entire lives. This new Other refuses to integrate, rejects “European values,” and is seen as dangerous because of its different religion and darker skin color.  Even with all of the talk of Europe entering a post-national stage, Europeans still see those from outside their community as synonymous with chaos, disorder, and backwardness.

Some argue this is the natural consequence of living in a community.  Those that have not long been apart of it are simply not yet seen as members.  But because of what this new Other symbolizes in our imagination, we continually increase security at our gates to protect our freedoms that languish behind them.  We equate freedom with security and further restrict the movement of certain classes of people.

The EU welcomes Americans, for example, as tourists who spend money in their cities.  But they see the poor and the marginalized—obviously current refugees, but also their fellow Europeans from outside the center of Europe—as a threat against the established order.  This is not only the view of the Orbans and Le-Pens of the continent, but also from mainstream, Western parties currently in government not usually depicted as hostile to outsiders.

The current British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, for example, sees those not lucky enough to be born in a rich country more as a pest than as a person, “marauding around the area” and profiting from British social programs. Or as Horst Seehofer, the Minister-President of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, so eloquently described people from the former Yugoslavia who immigrated to Germany in search of work: We are not the social security office for the Balkans.”

Freedom, and the Europe it symbolizes, is now a place that must be protected at all costs from the Other.  Because leaders have, again and again, successfully linked “fear” and “threat” to those not from the community, borders in Europe have reacquired their historic meaning—to keep people out. This discomfort with Others, though, only intensifies when governments cannot offer solutions to collective problems.  What kind of solution, for example, can a local government offer to tackle structural unemployment, wage stagnation, and the growth of the service industry and dead end jobs?  It can tighten asylum lawsarrest and deport unwelcome aliens,  seize newcomers’ belongings, or simply close it borders to migrants.

In the wake of the refugee crisis, border protection has become a central tenant of Europeanization.  In the past, Europeanization focused on promoting democracy, purging corruption from political systems, and institutionalizing free-market dynamics. However, today, and in the future, the EU places more and more weight on country’s ability to protect its borders.  Amazingly—and with little press coverage—twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has more fences than it did during the Cold War.

These fences and controls have one goal: to keep certain people from enjoying the benefits of Europe.  While we always acknowledge the fact that yes, the EU does allow for the free movement of people within its borders, we rarely discuss its systematic exclusion of people from beyond them.

Author: Robert Grey

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