Beyond the German need for migratory input and the lesson learnt from fascism and from the Cold War, this reality only alludes to an issue which has now become impossible to ignore: namely, the relationship between European construction (or de-construction) and the new reality of human migration engendered by underlying catastrophes such as sweeping terrorism (including state terrorism) and unfettered globalisation in the circum Mediterranean region. Today, we need to measure the changes that have since occurred and to ask once again what politics can contribute in this context.

We tend to think that the external limits of the European Union define the ‘real’ borders of Europe, which is a mistake.

Robbed, deported, tucked into transit camps or left in the no man’s land of harbour or railway areas, sometimes strafed or sunk with their makeshift vessels, tens of thousands of ‘migrants’ – men, women and children – from Africa and the Middle East die or fail in front of such or such barrier, but they persist and are now in Europe. What will we do about them? What are the governments doing, now that not only militant human rights associations and people in charge of registration or emergency relief operations, but even European officials are speaking of the biggest wave of refugees and the biggest sum of misfortune on the continent since World War II?

Well, they unroll several kilometres of barbed wire. They send the army or the police to push back these scraps of humanity which no one wants to keep while at the same time announcing ‘deliberations’ and calling for ‘pragmatic’ solutions [1].

A European problem, old national solutions

The problem, they say, is ‘European’. But when the President of the European Commission asks for the member states to agree on the distribution quotas of refugees on the basis of each country’s population and resources, all or almost all eschew this proposal with various arguments. Europe thereby uncovers what it has turned into by approbation or under the pressure of some of its citizens, but against the deep sense of many others: a coalition of selfishness rivalling for the trophy of xenophobia.

It is therefore no overstatement to speak of disgrace [2]. 500 million ‘rich’ Europeans (very unequally, it is true) are not able and not willing to accommodate 500,000 refugees (or even ten times their number) knocking on their doors. What is more, these unfortunates are fleeing massacres, civil wars, lethal dictatorships or famines, which certainly have very diverse and multiple causes and responsibilities: but no one could dare to claim Europe is guilt-free, in the long term as well as in its more recent policies, be it through cynical alliances, incautious interventions, or a continuous flux of arm sales.

However, collective humiliation is a form of auto-destruction. To repeat that the moral foundation of the European construction – its distinctive character (take a look at the East, take a look at the South…) – resides in promoting human rights and constantly denying any sense of obligation is one of the surest ways for a political institution to lose its legitimation. And, as often happens, this disgrace is not even counterbalanced by profits in security or in the economy.

Rather, it is slowly but steadily pushing the European Union towards the collapse of one of the ‘pillars’ of its communitarian edifice: the mutualisation of its borders and the unified control of entries into and departures from the European zone through the Schengen system.

None of this was unforeseeable. In fact, the ‘tragedy’ and the ‘challenge’ took months, even years, to evolve. During this time witnesses and analysts were decrying the aggravation caused by the voluntary self-deception of the politicians or their complaisance towards a public opinion which they deemed universally hostile to the reception of the ‘world’s misery’. The very name Lampedusa says it all.

But an effect of exorbitance has just taken place which makes us realise that we have now entered a new era and that terms such as ‘migrations’, ‘borders’, ‘population’ along with the political categories built upon them have changed their meanings. Hence, we cannot use them as we have so far. On this as on some other points (such as currency, citizenship, labour) we can say that Europe will either be realised by revolutionising its vision of the world and its societal choices or it will be destroyed by denying realities and by holding onto the fetishes of the past.

Europe conceived itself as developing borders of its own, but in reality it has no borders – rather it is itself a complex ‘border’: at once one and many, fixed and mobile, internal and external. To say it in plainer English, Europe is a Borderland [3]. This implies, I believe, two things of fundamental importance despite their paradox; two things whose consequences may remain out of reach if we continue to think in pure terms of national sovereignty and of police:

Firstly, that Europe is not a space where borders exist alongside one another but rather on top of one another without really being able to merge into one another.

Secondly, that Europe forms a space within which borders multiply and move incessantly, ‘chased’ from one spot to the other by an unreachable imperative of closure, which leads to its ‘governance’, resembling a permanent state of emergency.

Europe beyond territoriality

Regarding the first point, it is worth remembering a fact which we fail to draw a lesson from: even if we merely keep to current realities and decide to leave out traces of the cultural and institutional past, Europe does not have a unique identification when it comes to its ‘territory’.

We tend to think that the external limits of the European Union define the ‘real’ borders of Europe, which is a mistake. These limits do not coincide with those of the Council of Europe (which include Russia and determine the area of competence of the European Court of Human Rights), nor with those of NATO, which includes the US, Norway, Turkey, etc. and is in charge of protecting the European territory (especially against Eastern enemies) and engineering some of the military operations on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, nor with the Schengen zone (which includes Switzerland but excludes the UK), nor with the Eurozone which shares the common currency controlled by the ECB (and which still includes Greece today but not the UK, Sweden or Poland). In the light of recent developments, we should – I think – admit that these delimitations will never merge. And that, therefore, Europe cannot be defined on the basis of a territory, except in a reductionist and contradictory way.

But what is the historical meaning of this fact? A long retrospective would be necessary in order to understand why the apparently univocal national borders which serve as the ‘absolute’ model of the border institution actually only constitute part of it. In fact, they could never exist independent of other alignments that allow them to function on a local as well as on a global level, thereby delineating more or less sovereign territories while regulating the global flux of populations by guiding them (for instance from metropolises to colonies, from North to South or the other way round) and by distinguishing between them. For example, during the age of colonial empires a country like France always had double borders, the limits of the ‘French nation’ and the totality of its ‘outremer possessions’. Since this disposition was also applied to other empires, an implicit opposition between Europe and the rest of the world, between the natural residence of the ‘Europeans’ and that of the ‘non-Europeans’) was drawn.

Europe conceived itself as developing borders of its own, but in reality it has no borders – rather it is itself a complex ‘border’: at once one and many, fixed and mobile, internal and external.

It would be rather careless to believe that this grand distribution has stopped haunting our understanding of the relationship between the interior and the exterior which commands our perception and our ways of administering the ‘newcomers’ on European soil. But even though the current system is based (as it has been at each stage of global history) on the principle of a double level, allowing for each ‘local’ border to function as a projection of the order of the world (and of its often prevalent other side, namely disorder), it is evidently much more complex than the old one.

Nation-states have stopped being the initiators and have become receivers, or at best regulators, of the world’s population distribution. Thus, a border is not what a state ‘decides’ it is in terms of power relations and negotiations with other states, but what the global context dictates. No gesticulation (from politicians), no coastal guards (Frontex) and no barbed wire (at the Hungarian border) will change this.

Border governance

The second point regards the confrontation by Europe of its ‘challenge of migration’ and the multiplications and displacements of borders. Let us examine two emblematic case examples.

Firstly France, in Ventimiglia, reacts condescendingly to Italy’s requests and applies without scruples the rules of repudiation, while police forces are cleaning up the beaches. In Calais, France combines negotiation with repression in order to lighten the burden the UK has, in a certain way, subcontracted by keeping out of the Schengen zone. Are we dealing with two unrelated situations or rather with one single ‘border’, represented by the French state?

Secondly, in the Danube region between Germany and the Balkans, walls are rising, not in order to halt the increasing flux of migrants that are coming mainly from Greece and Macedonia, but to send them to other transit points. It is Germany, the terminal stop of the exodus, which provides the main humanitarian effort (though accompanied by violent internal controversies and racism) while it simultaneously deploys politico-juridical argumentations that favour a distinction between ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘economic migrants’, and most importantly favours the review of the list of ‘safe countries’ which do not pose an immediate ‘lethal’ threat to their nationals.

Together, these situations draw a clear but rather unconventional picture. On the one hand, formal membership of the EU has become a second-rank criterion: historically and geographically all the Balkan states belong to Europe, which implies for instance that the Hungarian ‘wall’ today cuts through Europe - thus reproducing a kind of segregation which Europe pretended to have consigned to history.

On the other hand, some European countries are tentatively perceived by others not to be fully European, or to merely belong to ‘buffer zones’. But this ascription is relative rather than absolute. It follows a North-South ‘gradient’, as physicists would say, of political, sociological, ideological, and even anthropological meaning. The ‘South’, the other Europe, isn’t fully European as it still stands with one foot in the Third-world or at any rate serves as an entry gate for the latter. For France, this ‘South’ is Italy, but for the UK it’s France. For Germany it’s Hungary and beyond, but for Hungary, it’s Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, etc. This raises the question: who stops whom? Who serves as border control to the neighbouring state? The answer is: the southernmost (or rather South-Easternmost) state [4].

An inescapable conclusion follows: as a matter of fact, the ‘external borders’ of Europe cut right throughit and fragment it into several superimposed slices. In consequence, Europe, though officially belonging to the ‘North’, eventually turns into nothing more than another field to enact the division of the world into a ‘North’ and a ‘South’. But this delineation is not really definable anymore. It becomes clear why some member states are tempted to ‘amputate’ other states from the European Union so as to better protect themselves from what these represent or give way to.

And it becomes all the clearer taking into account the economic delineations (often even described as ‘cultural’ ones) which have widened the gap caused by unfettered liberalism between North and South within Europe itself. This makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, except for the fact that, however, ‘pragmatically’ speaking, it makes no sense at all. For where would this supra-border be drawn and what would be its legal definition?

I think a further step is necessary, despite the risk of seeming too speculative. What we are referring to here from a European point of view is part of a much broader field – namely the overthrow of the course of recent history (Europe is not the ‘capital of the world’ anymore, it has become a mere ‘province’ as Dipesh Chakrabarty has put it) and the economic and technological changes which transform the way humanity relates to itself and which bring about huge inequalities.

We can say that Europe will either be realised by revolutionising its vision of the world and its societal choices or it will be destroyed by denying realities.

On the one hand, there are those who practically ‘live’ on planes, airports, shopping centres, conference halls, and on the other hand those who travel by foot or on trucks on the roads of exile, carrying a child in their arms and a backpack on their shoulders – the only things that they still own. But between these two extremes are also masses of more or less ‘precarious’ migrants and non-migrants.

What has radically changed is the regime of the flow of things and people. War, terror, dictatorship, fanaticism reaching our very doors don’t simply follow such or such ‘logic’ but their consequences do fit into a certain frame and sharpen the contradictions. Maybe then, it is necessary to invert our understanding of the relation between ‘territories’ and ‘movements’ (or displacements) as some sociologists, jurists and philosophers have been suggesting for quite some time now.

For our understanding is still captive of schemes and norms that have shaped centuries of national sovereignty, which see the state as a subordinating power, assigning to each peoples a legally demarcated territory. In other words, states used to allocate citizenship in an exclusive manner in order to limit and control the freedom of movement, which in a certain way is ‘primary’. But increasingly states are losing this unrestricted power without exception or controls: the world is not ‘westphalian’ any more. The consequences regarding our ways of addressing human rights and political rights issues in the era we are chaotically but irreversibly about to enter, are radical.

This speculation hints at the new regime of movements and territories but here I shall return to the more immediate and more urgent question: what is the most effective and the most civil (not to say ‘civilised’) way to govern a permanent state of emergency in which borders that we inherited or added to are either beginning to collapse, unless they become continuously fortified and militarised?

Reinvigorating the Union project

I have to repeat what is practically at stake: human beings who are ‘in excess’ and their inalienable ‘right to have rights’ – not to the detriment of those who already have them, but next to them and together with them. No one can claim such a governance is easy, but it certainly should not be based on obsolete discriminations (‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’) or dangerous generalisations (‘refugees’ and ‘terrorists’) that nourish racist fantasies, prompt murderous acting out and disarrange the surveillance policies that the state needs to efficiently protect its citizens. Likewise, it will not be achieved if the ‘poor residents’ are pitted against the ‘poor nomads’ by social disqualification, precariousness, and forced relegation into dis-industrialised areas which are nothing but cultural and economic ghettos.

If we want hospitality to prevail over xenophobic sentiments – sentiments which eventually trap politicians to such a point that they will have no other ‘choice’ than finding new expiatory victims such as Roma or immigrants to nourish it – the social cleft needs to be confronted at the same time as the postcolonial resentments.

There is thus no way around these two alternatives: either social security for all or ‘insecurity of identity’ and thriving nationalism, which bring about the breakdown of the collective security system that has so long been sought and fought for as well as the destitution of the ‘European idea’ itself.

The irony of it all, however, is that part of the solution is within reach: this minimum would be achieved by 1) an official declaration on the ‘state of humanitarian urgency’ on the entire ‘territory’ under the auspices of the European Commission, 2) the binding commitment of all EU member states to treat refugees with dignity and equity from each, according to their objectively measurable ability.

It is true that the consequences of this minimum would potentially be considerable: re-valorisation of the powers of the European Commission, institutionalisation of humanitarian norms on a par with budgetary and commercial norms, liberation of resources for a politics of assistance and integration (which in turn would increase the necessity of democratic control at a ‘federal’ level), concerted educational programmes against racism… In short, a re-invigoration of the European union project, in opposition to current tendencies. Is it conceivable? Perhaps, if a common sense still exists among us.


This article was originally published on and in the French cultural and political review Vacarme. 



[1] Only the German chancellor has unilaterally announced on 25th August 2015 that Syrian refugees will not be sent back to their country of entry as intended by the Dublin Agreements.

[2] Angela Merkel has said during a meeting with the citizens of Duisburg transmitted over the internet: “Europe is in a situation which utterly dishonours it; it simply has to be said”.

[3] Etienne Balibar, “Europe as Borderland” in Society and Space, Volume 27, Number 2 April 2009

[4] In the Süddeutsche Zeitung (24 August 2015), former Foreign Affairs Minister (Green party), Joschka Fischer, has rightly pointed out, that a wave of refugees could also come from the East if the Ukrainian conflict worsens and spreads.

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