Reviving or Overcoming Borders: A Choice for Europe
Over the past year, Europe, besides the economic crisis, has had to face another big challenge: the largest refugee flow since the Second World War. As a result, the concept of borders has been revived across Europe. Displacement on this scale, cannot simply be stopped at the borders. In this interview, Antonis Galanopoulos asks Anna Triandafyllidou about the crisis and how the EU can find solutions.
Recently there has been great debate about the Schengen Treaty all over Europe. What does it represent? What does it tell us about borders and about Europe?
Schengen is very important from a symbolic perspective. The right to freely move and establish oneself in other European countries is the main positive point associated with the European Union that remains in the minds of European citizens. Of course, we should not confuse Schengen with the right to freely circulate within the EU and live or work in another Member State. But the mere fact of not having to go through passport controls is important, both practically and symbolically. In continental Europe, you can travel as if you moved inside the borders of a single country. Restarting border controls in some countries, in some cases, is not terrible, but starting generalised controls will be very bad. And I do not believe that this will solve anything.
Do you believe that we can have a truly ‘European’ system of borders or borders or are they inherently national features? How can we achieve a European border system if this Union is not really a Union at this stage?
We are clearly heading towards a European border system. As far as the international geopolitical crisis is concerned, it is clearly in the interest of all countries to have common European borders. We already have common borders in the EU: our external borders. But of course, these are guarded and managed by national forces. Again, they are important both politically and symbolically. But since these borders are not fully Europeanised, there is a political game there as to ‘whose border is it anyway’. There is currently a dangerous temptation for countries in the north and east who are furthest from the conflict regions to seek to isolate Greece geographically and use it as a buffer zone, since Turkey does not seem to fulfil this function.
During the current refugee crisis, many countries have decided to close their borders, reintroduce border controls and even construct fences. Can such measures be effective for the management of migration and refugee flows?
The fences and closing of borders are not effective practices to address such phenomena. Currently a very big reshuffle is taking place in the Middle East and North Africa and it does not depend on us, or Greece, Bulgaria, FYROM… not even Germany or the EU. It is not possible to stop such large socioeconomic changes at the borders. We try, of course, to influence and manage the flows but to say that we can stop them is simply demagogic. We cannot see ourselves and our borders isolated from the international environment. This will lead nowhere. We will spend all our money and all our energy trying to guard the borders, more people will get killed, the amounts that the smugglers are asking will increase. Several years later, we will realise that too many people have come to Europe in order to find protection, but without having the papers necessary, and that pockets of misery and terrible exploitation have been created.
Why are we seeing a return to borders nowadays?
For many politicians, it is easier to say that we will close our borders and we will protect ourselves. In addition, when you announce ‘the end of the world’, you hit the headlines of newspapers. If you say that this crisis is difficult, but we are trying and it takes efforts on behalf of everyone, you would be at page 10. We usually see that there may be a significant gap between the rhetoric that is for domestic consumption in each country, and the actual policy and practice.
If countries were exiting the EU, would that stop refugees from coming? No. That is not the case. In other words, if the EU were to isolate Greece geographically, seeking to contain the refugee flows going further north, this would not work as the asylum seekers and the smugglers would just find different routes. There is no easy solution. It is necessary to work on many parallel solutions; better management of reception, distribution and integration of refugees, cooperation with Turkey, an effort for peace in Middle East, which of course is not easy.
Right-wing populist politicians, like Viktor Orbán, insist on the idea that the closing of borders will preserve the national identity of a population. Why is this symbolic aspect of borders so important?
Borders are related to sovereignty, which is the essence of national self-determination. So it seems that if we manage to control the borders we can re-establish social order, public order, security… indeed, our high level of technological development and our affluence makes us think that we could isolate ourselves and thereby ensure our security, but this is a fallacy. It is precisely our technological progress and our affluence that make us so open and interdependent.
In my opinion, we are already moving towards a decline of the importance of borders because of regional groupings such as the EU. I think borders are very permeable today – by economy and trade, by cultural flows. They are open for those who are highly skilled or affluent. Borders are closed mostly for the poor and the less skilled, those with the ‘wrong’ passports. But overall we witness multi-polarity in international relations and growing interdependence. This is why borders are increasingly less important.
Another expression of how borders are permeable today is international terrorism. We can install as many controls as we want on our borders, but it is unlikely that this will be a good strategy to stop (prospective) terrorists.
Across Europe, approaches to integration vary as they are informed by different approaches of States towards their borders. Could asylum and integration ever be managed at a European level?
The border issue has evolved separately from the issue of integration. The different inclusion and integration systems are mainly related to the definition of national identity and the historical experiences that every country has had in terms of both emigration and migration. We need a common asylum status that would be valid throughout the EU. But we do not need a European integration system. Integration is a local process and we have enough top-down coordination and policy exchange so far.
As Europeans, can we be satisfied with the EU’s management of the refugee crisis?
On the EU’s response, I see the glass as half-full. The European Commission’s officials (Jean-Claude Juncker, Federica Mogherini and Dimitris Avramopoulos) have shown great political will for the enforcement and promotion of European solutions. It is the EU member states that have not done their share, and have been disappointing. The EU has played its part. The member states are blocking the decisions and developments. But I repeat that this crisis is big and cannot be solved so easily.
Could you tell us more specifically what the Commission has done so far? Why is the relation between the EU and its Member States so problematic in this area?
The Commission has put a lot of leadership in seeking the cooperation of source countries of migration and countries in the region1. It has put a lot of pressure on our fellow member states in the East to show solidarity and it has counteracted the easy demagogic pressures seeking to unload the burden and the blame to the peripheral countries. Naturally, the European Commission is not a national government in the way we understand it within a country, so it has limitations as to what it can and cannot do. The same is true for the European Parliament, which is consistently progressive and pro-European in its approach and tries to promote solidarity among Member States. It is perhaps the European Council (i.e. ultimately the Member States) that fail Europe and probably fail their citizens by repeating this claim that they could solve all problems effectively, if only they closed their borders.
There is a widespread belief that the key to the refugee crisis lies with Turkey. An initial agreement was reached recently but efforts are continuing…
It is essential to have better cooperation with Turkey. There are more than two million Syrian refugees, though, already in Turkey, 85% of whom live in cities and only 15% of whom are in accommodation centres. Until two years ago, Turkey was not even in the top 20 countries receiving refugees and now is in the top 3. What has happened in Turkey is huge. Currently, the EU is putting pressure on Turkey to act as a buffer zone in exchange for visa liberalisation. In addition, Turkey rightly also seeks more financial and operational assistance to deal with the 2.1 million Syrians that it hosts. This is a long term negotiation. I think Turks should be given visa liberalisation but should also be encouraged to manage better the migration and asylum flows through their country. Their practices only fuel the smuggling networks activities and profits.
What can we expect from the EU and its institutions such as Frontex in 2016 in order to improve the situation? What must be done?
So far, priority has been given to Frontex and border management, not asylum. Both in terms of financial resources and in terms of operational mandate. This could and should change in the current circumstances. We need a common European asylum system. There must be a fivefold increase of the power and budget of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). During 2013-2014, Frontex’s budget was 115 million euro per year and EASO’s was 15 million. It is also very important to create a European refugee status. We should give EASO such power and jurisdiction. That would allow us to strengthen the common European borders. We should focus mainly on EASO and not on Frontex. We also need an international plan for the resettlement of refugees in other countries, not only in Europe. Refugees should not only be distributed across Europe but in other countries as well, following Indochina’s example2.
What does the border crisis tell us about ourselves? Are migrants the new mirror in front of the European face, confronting it with its past, its incoherence?
I think the refugee crisis brings to the fore pre-existing tensions and dilemmas that have always been there. There is nothing qualitatively or politically new. The problem is that the crisis is of such large dimensions and that it comes after seven years of financial crisis and Eurozone crisis. So it is a difficult and delicate moment in Europe and for the EU. And then there is what we call in Greek “oi Kassandres” – that those that predict disasters are more easily heard than those who speak positively.