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A Brief History of Fortress Europe

[Image of European Union flag. Image by Rock Cohen/Flickr] [Image of European Union flag. Image by Rock Cohen/Flickr]

Three days into 2016, the European border crisis claimed its first victim: a two-year-old boy who drowned off the coast of the Greek island of Agathonisi. Compared with the public outcry that the photos of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach provoked the previous August, the reaction to the fact that European border policies had killed another innocent toddler was tepid to say the least. While it may be the case that the lack of a tragic image attesting to the fact served to insulate many from the visceral reaction that such stark visual realities often stimulate, it is also true that a broader shift had occurred across Europe in the interim. While there was—and still is—an outpouring of independent civil society initiatives in support of refugees across the continent, the xenophobic far-right perspective on the "refugee crisis" has ultimately proven significantly more influential in the policy and electoral arenas. This influence can perhaps best be seen in the manner in which Germany’s initial open door policy as a model of response eventually gave way to a cynical deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey. This deal shifted the task of upholding the 1951 Refugee Convention to the unlikely candidate of President Erdogan’s despotic authoritarian regime. Another illustration can be found in the British referendum decision to leave the EU, the outcome of a campaign whose most vocal right wing elements sought to conflate widespread societal grievances and popular political disillusionment with the distinct issues of EU migration and the influx of refugees to Europe.

Meanwhile, however, the European border crisis has anything but dissipated, with the number of those having lost their lives at sea this year now standing at 2,868, meaning that the total number of people that have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 has reached above 10,000. The unprecedented scale and urgency of this manufactured human catastrophe stands in stark contrast to the inertia that characterizes the collective European response. This situation reveals that any remaining claims of the universal founding ideals of the European project are now nothing more than a morbidly ironic façade. That the favored approach of restriction and deterrence represents a perversion of these founding ideals is oft pointed out, as is the fact that this approach is demonstrably counter-productive. Yet, it remains the only option that has thus far entered the realm of serious policy consideration. While a lack of consensus across EU member states is the clear surface explanation for this situation, could the present static juncture also have deeper historical and structural roots?

What follows is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of any of the time periods discussed, but rather, a broad analytical overview of how the relationship between the European continent and human mobility has evolved over time, with a view to tracing the continuities and divergences between Europe’s migratory past and present.

Colonial Endeavor, Nationalist Conflict, and Human Mobility

It may be useful to start with a decentering of sorts, by recalling that for the vast majority of its history, Europe has been a continent of emigration rather than immigration. Much of this outward mobility occurred during the colonial period, from the centers of different European empires to their respective colonies. All of the phases of European colonialism entailed significant degrees of human mobility, with the line between voluntary and forced movement often dovetailing with the division between citizens and colonial subjects. The indentured servitude of poor white European immigrants in the Americas and the Caribbean colonies may be viewed with a degree of nuance in this regard. Nevertheless, this cannot be seen as parallel to the absolute coercion involved in the enforced mobility of enslaved black Africans and of violently displaced indigenous populations. The most numerically significant and societally consequential form of European migration during this period was that of settler-colonialism. This involved large-scale population settlement, typically in order to secure access to land, such as that which occurred in Dutch South Africa, French Algeria, and British Rhodesia. Smaller scale migration, however, also occurred from colonial metropoles in order to staff colonies that consisted of thinner administrative and military layers as opposed to large-scale settler-colonial migrant populations.

As part of a broader program of political and military domination, economic exploitation, and cultural subjugation, the British Empire actively encouraged and facilitated colonial settlement in its overseas territories, a project that comprised both of the aforementioned forms of colonial migration. Thus between 1815 and 1914, around nine million people emigrated from Britain to the overseas Empire. Much of the same was true with French and Italian North Africa, where, by the early twentieth century, ten percent of the population was European—a figure that rose to around fifty percent in the rich coastal cities of Casablanca, Oran, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Having also arrived for the most part within a settler-colonial context, these European migrants held a large degree of control over finance, industry, foreign trade, and land, placing them in positions of cultural and socioeconomic dominance which would have lasting implications for the region.[1] It would be a euphemistic understatement to say that these colonial migrations altered the receiving societies in a far more deep-seated and irrevocable manner than any level of migration into the European continent that we have thus far witnessed. And we may safely assume that this asymmetry will not be altered any time in the foreseeable future, notwithstanding hyperbolic debates about alleged threats to Western values.

Colonial migration also went in the direction of the colonies to the metropolis during this period, albeit on a much smaller scale. In an effort to reconcile the French colonial project with Republican values, Algerian migrants were offered pathways to French citizenship. For Muslims, however, this was done on the condition that they renounce Islam first. The British East Indies Company employed South Asian laborers in its ranks, often facilitating their settlement in Britain for this purpose. In both of these cases, the labor conditions and class position of these colonial migrant subjects were the exact inverse of those of their European settler-colonial counterparts, another asymmetry that would survive the process of decolonization.

The net trend prior to the latter half of the twentieth century was firmly one of European outward migration. This was also due to the fact that workers migrated in large numbers from the peripheral nations of Poland, Spain, and Italy to France, Germany, and Switzerland during the industrial revolution. People also left Europe for America in increasing numbers over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the Irish Famine alone, around 1.5 million people left the country for America between 1845 and 1855. In all, around forty-eight million Europeans emigrated from their home country between 1846 and 1924, a figure that translates to twelve percent of the population of the continent in 1900.[2] This sustained outward mobility resulted in a situation in which, at the outbreak of the First World War, around thirty-eight percent of the world population was of European ancestry.

The imperial expansionism and national chauvinism that underpinned the aforementioned colonial endeavors would eventually descend into a prolonged period of internecine conflict in the heart of the European continent. This development would have lasting implications for European borders and mobility patterns. While the solution at the end of the First World War was largely to rearrange borders in accordance with new demographic realities, the approach to the roughly sixty million Europeans displaced by the Second World War was one of repatriation and resettlement.[3] This was a task of unprecedented scale that would ultimately give birth to a new legal and institutional framework of international scope pertaining to the care and shelter of displaced persons, as well as to their repatriation and resettlement. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees would assemble what were as yet disparate legal elements of the right to claim asylum and the obligations of asylum-granting states. This also provided a mandate to the newly established United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Just six years after the end of the conflict, all but a handful of Europe’s displaced had been repatriated or resettled. This achievement renders all the more unjustifiable the contemporary incapacity of this bloc of states, whose levels of affluence and political cohesion are far greater now than they were in the wake of the war.

Post-War Immigration and the Iron Law of Economic Necessity

Europe’s gradual shift from being a continent of emigration to one of immigration took place during the post-war period, which was characterized in economic terms by drastic labor shortages in a range of key industries. This demand was satisfied by means of strategic labour recruitment from the nations of the European periphery and the Third World to the states of post-war Western Europe, either in the form of post-colonial migration or through so-called guest worker programs. Thus, over the course of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, people arrived in Europe to work within a wide range of low-skilled manufacturing jobs. By 1972, there were eleven million immigrants on the continent, ninety percent of whom resided in Britain, France, West Germany, and Switzerland.[4] In the latter two countries, foreign residents originated primarily from Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, and Spain. The receding empires of France and Britain also saw high levels of immigration from Southern European states as well from their former colonies. In the case of France, the newly independent states of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were the principal former colonies of origin, while Ireland, the British Caribbean Islands, India, and Pakistan were those of Britain. 

Although there was now a wide range of non-European nationalities represented on the continent, there was rather less variety in their housing and work conditions. Due to the nature of their labor function and its class connotations, migrants were highly concentrated in both geographical and industrial terms. They, for the most part, occupied low-paid and low-skilled manual labor jobs, such as within the textile, steel, and construction industries. They were also housed on the peripheries of large urban centers, such as Greater London in Britain, the Paris and Lyon regions of France, and Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Substandard conditions and overcrowding were pervasive in British slums and lodging houses, hotels, and apartments in the French banlieus, and employer-owned accommodation camps comprised of huts and hostels in West Germany and Switzerland. These accommodation arrangements and labor conditions would generate legacies of economic inequality and deprivation. Moreover, the broader societal implications are being felt acutely as radical Islamist ideology has, for a small minority, given strong currency to people’s social alienation and resentment.

The oil shock of 1973 that provoked the economic crisis would instigate a shift in the approach to migration management in Europe. Gradually, the nations that had instigated recruitment programs put a stop to labor migration into their territories. Immigration to Europe nonetheless persisted on a smaller scale via family reunification policies (initially introduced in a context of competitive recruitment between European receiving states), as well as through the expansion of the pool of countries of destination to include southern Europe and Scandinavia. Migration, however, was no longer to be perceived in the utilitarian manner in which it had previously been. The contextual combination of economic crisis and festering social problems within the socially neglected migrant ghettoes gave rise to a consensus across much of Western Europe that immigration constituted a problem that should be limited and restricted insofar as possible. Burgeoning far-right parties were extremely effective in harnessing this perception, capitalizing upon its presence in certain contexts while actively manufacturing and disseminating it in others.  Shortly after turning immigration into a primary campaign issue, the French Front National (FN) had its first major electoral breakthrough in 1983. The far-right British National Party (BNP) was founded the previous year and developed a racist programe based largely around opposition to immigration. Over the following years, mainstream political parties failed to develop a coherent counter-narrative to those of the far-right with regard to immigration. This resulted in a situation in which, in many European contexts, established parties adopted and absorbed their assumptions in a bid to retain electoral ground—a phenomenon that has been replicated repeatedly in the decades since.

The introduction of immigration restrictions and limits to family reunification in the 1980’s also had the effect of producing a new form of illegal or "irregular" migration into Western Europe, a development that would both contribute to and feed off of the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment on the continent. Two factors that served to sustain this new form of migration may be highlighted. The first stems from the self-evident observation that restricting the legal avenues of potential migrants does nothing to curtail the fundamental human impulses that drive migration. These desires are particularly acute when one already has family and social networks based in the destination country. In other words, a dynamic had been created that could not simply be switched off according to the political and economic whims of the receiving societies. The second factor relates to structural changes that took place in Western Europe over the course of the 1970’s and 80’s—in particular a new economic climate that favored deregulation and flexible labor markets.  Such policies create a systemic demand for cheap exploitable labor, which "illegal" immigrants provide in abundance. So while there was undoubtedly a strong rhetorical commitment at the government level to opposing and limiting immigration—supplemented by an increase in nationalist sentiment among general publics—this was tempered in practice by sustained business demand for cheap, disposable labor within an expanding number of economic sectors, such as domestic care and agriculture.[5]  

In essence then, economic imperatives still corresponded to the favored approach to migration management. But the context had shifted from one of organized recruitment to satisfy post-war industrial capitalism, toward one of irregular migration, which fit neatly within a broader neoliberal culture of labor market flexibility and deregulation.

Constructing Fortress Europe

Another parallel process was picking up pace at this time that would have equally important ramifications for migration in Europe, namely that of European integration. The categorically negative conception of immigration that was gaining ground in various European national contexts toward the end of the 1980’s would serve as an insidious foundation, upon which the collective European approach to migration policy would be constructed. The elaborate preventive apparatus that emerged within the European Union as a result would eventually lead many academics, NGO’s and activists to adopt the critical label of "Fortress Europe." This label would subsequently characterize the EU’s approach to migration management. The story of how and why this label came to be such a fitting description of EU migration policy illuminates the broader context of the contemporary European border crisis. Its effective telling, however, first necessitates an examination of how the principle of free movement has played out within the process of European integration.

Also initially a fundamentally economic initiative, the goal of European integration in the minds of its architects was always the establishment of an area in which capital, goods, services, and labor could circulate freely. This latter element was first given legislative expression in 1985 in the form of the Schengen Agreement, which committed its signatories to work toward the gradual abolition of checks at their common borders. A territory-wide Schengen visa system was also introduced, supplementing pre-existing national visa systems. Although at the outset an intergovernmental initiative, the Schengen Agreement and the 1990 Convention which set out a framework for its implementation were incorporated into the European Union with the signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997.  An area of free movement for European citizens had now been established and integrated into the body of European law. 

A significant offshoot of this dismantling of internal European borders was the creation of a new single external EU border, stretching from the Western Mediterranean coasts of the Iberian Peninsula all the way up to the Baltic States and Finland. The provisions of the Schengen system dictated that the removal of internal barriers to free movement be accompanied with a tightening of controls at this new shared external border. In practice, this effectively meant that freedom of movement beyond the EU would need to be restricted as a condition of its enhancement for EU citizens. An incentive among EU policy-makers was thus created to pool and strengthen resources devoted to the task of tackling irregular migration, a task given high priority due to the negative perception of immigration that had come to predominate within a majority of Member States. Its intellectual elite is often wont to theorize the EU as a bulwark against what it views as petty retrograde nationalisms. In reality, however, the structure of the EU, and in particular that of the Justice and Home Affairs pillar established following the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, provided a channel through which already heightened national concerns around immigration would filter upward and inform policy formation at the European level.[6] 

Since the inception of the Schengen system then, restriction and deterrence have been the primary areas in which migration policy has been harmonized and resources pooled at EU level. On the other hand, areas such as family reunification, asylum policy, and labor market access have largely remained nationally disparate. Accordingly, a range of legal instruments, surveillance technologies, and military resources have been developed with a view to insulating Europe’s core and preventing unwanted migration into the EU. Perhaps most symbolically representative of this approach to migration among these is the European border agency, Frontex. Charged with “the integrated management of the external borders of the Member States of the European Union,” Frontex engages in a variety of activities to fulfil this mandate. Among these activities include naval and air operations aimed at intercepting migrant boats destined for Europe, producing classified intelligence-based "risk" and "threat" assessments, which monitor mobility trends beyond the external border of the EU, and providing technical and logistical support to EU Member States and countries beyond the EU’s external border.[7] This restrictive approach to migration also informs—or warps—asylum policy, as illustrated by the Dublin Convention, which stipulates that a person must apply for asylum in the first EU country in which they arrive. The Dublin system has been essential in creating the conditions for the impact of the European border crisis to take the lopsided form that it has, whereby peripheral EU states such as Greece and Italy have shouldered a greater burden in handling and processing asylum applications by virtue of their geographical location.

Outsourcing the Task and Precipitating the "Problem"

As migration began to feature as an agenda item within EU external relations over the course of the 1990’s, it was primarily this negative, "securitized" view, which was articulated and imported into the lexicon of negotiating partners. Within EU policy documents and frameworks governing relations with EU neighbors—such as the Barcelona Process, the European Neighbourhood Policy, and the Union for the Mediterranean—one consistently finds references to illegal immigration in the same breath as organized crime and terrorism:

Threats to mutual security, whether from the trans-border dimension of environmental and
nuclear hazards, communicable diseases, illegal immigration, trafficking, organised crime or
terrorist networks, will require joint approaches in order to be addressed comprehensively.[8]

This discreet framing of illegal immigration as a de facto threat of mutual concern serves to rationalize a strategy of using cooperation in the area of migration control as a bargaining chip in negotiations with countries bordering the EU. Such cooperation could entail, for example, a deepening of coordination between law enforcement and military bodies on either side of the EU’s external border. Or it may take the form of readmission agreements that oblige the signatory country to accept any "third country" national found to have transited through their territory in order to enter the EU, even if they are not a national of the signatory state. Cooperation in agreements such as these may result in more favorable trade terms or more generous development assistance. This has served as a model whose logic has been pushed to new dubious moral and legal extremes with the recent EU-Turkey deal, and the prospect of it being replicated with African states whose human rights records are lacking to say the least. So in effect, over the past twenty years, freedom of movement for those who reside beyond the external border of the EU has decreased in correlation with the enhancement of freedom of movement for EU citizens—a lamentable yet inevitable consequence of the logic of the Schengen system.[9]

While this observation shines a categorically negative spotlight on the EU’s role in maintaining global disparities in human mobility, one would be forgiven for assuming that migration policies of restriction and deterrence can be justified on their own cynical terms, namely preventing unwanted people from entering the EU. However this assumption is simply not borne out by experience. When the Schengen visa system was introduced by Spain and Italy in 1991, the effect was to turn what were seasonal migrants from North Africa into "illegal" immigrants. Just as the limiting of legal avenues to migration into various northern European nation-states in the 1980’s would produce the conditions for illegal immigration to take its place, the prioritization at EU level of restrictive external border control generated the same outcome. With legal avenues denied to them, some migrants from Morocco and Algeria would turn to informal means to continue to gain their livelihoods in Southern Europe in the manner in which they had pre-Schengen. However, as the EU increased the financial resources allocated to surveillance and deterrence technologies in response to this new "threat," the routes available to migrants and the smugglers transporting them to Europe would in turn become longer and more treacherous.

Herein lies the deadly paradox at the heart of EU border policies, namely that the routes and methods chosen to enter Europe are wholly determined by the policies designed to keep them where they are.  In other words, restrictive migration policies do virtually nothing to deter people from migrating; they simply render the voyage more costly, in both economic and human terms.  In this light, people smugglers should be viewed as nothing more than service-providers in a highly lucrative and all too often lethal market which is fundamentally created and sustained by European border policies. This market expanded significantly in the early 2000’s as people from Sub-Saharan Africa began transiting through North Africa in greater numbers in order to reach Europe. This resulted in bolstering the EU’s surveillance and security apparatus designed to prevent them from doing so. The result, however, has simply been needless loss of life, with at least 22,400 people estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean between 2000 and 2014. Such is the nature of the macabre dialectical relationship between people smugglers and the European border regime, whereby each profits financially from ordinary people’s reliably constant determination to improve their life prospects.[10] 

Now, within the context of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, those fleeing conflict and persecution and attempting to reach Europe have fallen victim to this toxic arrangement. The sheer unprecedented scale and intensity of the Syrian crisis alone merits a long overdue reevaluation of the structural refusal to grant legal avenues to claim asylum. Instead, however, we are witnessing a reinforcement and enhancement of the very same approach that laid the initial foundations for the crisis to take the lethal form that it has. Aside from the EU-Turkey deal, we may look to the European Commission’s announcement. In response to the "refugee crisis," it would be establishing a new European Border and Coast Guard to patrol the external border of the EU in order to ensure that it “will be constantly monitored with periodic risk analyses and mandatory vulnerability assessments to identify and address weak spots.” The rapidity with which the pattern of the European border crisis has repeated itself over the past two years should be indication enough that this approach is being overtaken by events and is now unsustainable even on its own terms. Yet, there is no indication that an alternative will even enter the realm of possibility any time soon.


There is surely something to be said about the collective psychology underlying attempts to wall ourselves off from people who originate from areas of the world that have historically been pried open and exposed to European settlement and colonial interests. While much has changed since this period, one recurrent trend has been a racialized disparity in human mobility prospects, which is grounded in economic subservience. Over the latter half of the twentieth century, an evolving economic context would see the mobility of former subjects of Empire transform from being viewed as a strategic asset to a threat that needed to be contained. And it was firmly within this latter conception that the emergence of the Schengen system of internal free movement would be located. Consequently, the erection and fortification of the EU external border created a sharp division between those afforded an unprecedented degree of free movement and those who would see this freedom diminished—a division that just so happened to fall along old colonial and racial lines. In order to uphold its commitment to maintaining this disparity, the EU has shed its post-war founding legacies in favor of an institutional belief that some lives are more expendable than others.

With the onset of the "refugee crisis," the European border regime has entered a phase of Gramscian interregnum. Its self-defeating restrictive approach to migration is paradoxically unravelling at the same time as it is being further refined. The external border has never been more heavily policed and yet has never been further from being "under control." This contradiction stems from a widespread false notion, which has essentially become axiomatic, of what it means to control a border. Granting people safe and legal channels to claim asylum would be far more congruent with the notion of the border being controlled than the contemporary militarized status quo, which is instead indicative of a deeply insecure and pathological siege mentality. The needless deaths will continue as long as Fortress Europe operates on the assumption that deepening limitations and restrictions on human mobility will result in anything other than more loss of life.

[1] Albert Hourani, 1991, A History of the Arab Peoples, London: Faber and Fabery

[2] Douglas S. Massey, 1988, "Economic Development and International Migration in Comparative Perspective," Population and Development Review, 14(3), p383-413.

[3] Tony Judt, 2005, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, London: Penguin.

[4] Stephen Castles, Godula Kosack, 1972, "The Function of Labour Immigration in Western European Capitalism," New Left Review, 73, p.21-44.

[5] For an example of how this intersection between undocumented status and precarious labor serves a neoliberal economic function, see Kitty Calavita, 1998, "Immigration, Law and Marginalization in a Global Economy: Notes from Spain," Law and Society Review, (32):3, p529-556. Or for an illustration of how political commitments to stemming migration conflict with structural demands for cheap migrant labor, see Hein de Haas, 2008, "The Myth of Invasion: the Inconvenient Realities of African Migration to Europe," Third World Quarterly, 29(7), p. 1305-1322.

[6]See Martin A. Schain, 2009, "The State Strikes Back: Immigration Policy in the European Union," European Journal of International Law, 20(1), p.93-109, for an illustration of the mechanisms by which this has occurred.

[7] Sergio Carrera, 2007 "The EU Border Management Strategy: Frontex and the challenge of irregular migration in the Canary Islands," Centre for European Policy Studies, 261.

[8] Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament - Wider Europe - Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours

[9] It has been argued that this effect extends beyond migration oriented towards Europe. For an analysis of the negative effects of EU external migration policy on the area of free movement within the Economic Community of West African States, see DIIS Policy Brief, 2011, "Europe Fighting Irregular Migration: Consequences for West African Mobility," Danish Institute for International Studies.

[10] For an in-depth ethnographic analysis of this self-reproducing interplay between the myriad actors involved in the European border regime in West and North Africa, see Ruben Andersson, 2014, Illegality Inc. Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe, Oakland: University of California Press.

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