External borders for Europe

Michel FOUCHER

Geographer and diplomat, holder of the chair of applied geopolitics at the Collège d’études mondiales (World Studies College) in Paris

Portraying Europe as having no borders is both dangerous and misguided, and makes it impossible to meet the security and immigration challenges Europe currently faces. The Schengen Convention does not abolish borders, it only abolishes systematic border controls. Genuine cooperation at both the national and European levels is needed to address these border issues.

On the world stage, the European Union is unique geopolitically in that it combines four completely different border realities. With the Schengen Agreement, it has set up the most advanced internal free movement system. It is challenged with deciding on a strategy for managing its southern boundary limits because of structural migration pressures. It needs to deal with the boundary disputes raised by the 1989-1992 geopolitical transition, particularly in the western Balkans. As well as the territorial effects of the national restoration of Great Russia in 2013-2016, involving the Crimea and Ukraine and the various conflicts “on hold” in an area extending from Moldavia to Azerbaijan. And it needs to do all this without having reached a decision on the ultimate borders of Europe as established under its legal status of European Union.

The abrupt return of border issues in the European Union echoes both the new security challenges from the east and south that needs to be faced, and the power of an imagined inevitable disappearance of borders to which people have been wedded for several decades. I have always maintained that this idea of a “no borders” Europe is as misguided as it is dangerous (1).

Dangerous because it was underpinned by a vision underplaying the central role of nation states, both throughout the continent’s long history and in the construction of an established Europe. At a time when well-publicised terrorist attacks are casting a pall over the citizens of European states, the responses needed are obviously of a sovereign nature, in other words delivered initially at the national level (2). The “no borders” mantra and its corollary of the compulsory transfer of sovereignty have contributed to a sort of collective security disarmament. It is easy to understand why Europe wanted to exorcise borders from its DNA, given their connotation with frontiers and front lines symbolising national confrontations. And why free movement is now seen as the everyday symbol of restored peace. But by seeking only to distance ourselves from the past when building the future, we are in danger of taking the real world into account only in so far as it matches our idealistic aspirations for a cooperative European utopia: we fall into the trap of oversimplifying history.

Misguided, because the “no borders” rhetoric was and still is the corollary of a continuing expansion of the European Union, aimed at exporting the European model, and therefore necessitating a strict refusal to fix ultimate boundaries. It is true that “EU prospects” (membership commitments) can help defuse tensions and frictions, as we saw in the Balkans. But the weight of numbers complicates Community decision-making and spurs some states to take the initiative themselves. And, when it comes to the crunch, how can you feel you are a member of a political community capable of an “external” policy when there is never any clear demarcation of who is inside and who is outside? This geopolitical black hole reinforces the simplistic approach to our history and, in this respect, the supposed “return of borders” is merely the symptom of our growing awareness of the sovereign responsibilities that the European states system will have to shoulder in the real world as we unfortunately find it.

If we want to avoid seeing a further widening in the gulf between public opinion and the heads of European states and Community institutions in a period of severe crises, the Member States will have to show that they are able to come together to take action jointly in the 2016 geopolitical environment – a real world environment completely different to that prevailing when the European Union was founded. The machinery of state in democratic countries has become less effective for various reasons, such as globalisation, the disruptive effects of technology and individualisation, and we face the threat described by Pierre Manent: “Everyone is staring at another gathering, one with a blurred form and status – “Europe”, whose main achievement has been to make each nation feel sorry for being only a nation” (3).

On a more practical note, we should remember that the Schengen Agreement (1985) and the Schengen Convention (1990) established a single free movement area for the citizens of the 26 signatory states, affecting over 400 million people in 4,300,000 km². Legal external movements also involve over 400 million people, half of them European citizens, and 1,700 points of entry. The Schengen Convention was never intended to “abolish” borders, but to do away with systematic border controls hindering the flow of goods and people. Moreover, European Court of Justice case law allows targeted border controls within a 20 km strip, based on a customs radius, a practice that customs officers confirm is effective for control purposes.

But the Convention has seen major changes in the area covered and in the boundaries to which it applies as the European Union has expanded and as its Member States have signed up to the Convention. Since seven Member States (the five founder states plus Spain and Portugal) signed it in 1995, the Schengen area has been expanded in six successive steps: Italy and Austria became signatories in 1997; Greece in 2000; Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden in 2001; the six new European Union members from 2004 to 2007 plus Malta; then Switzerland in 2008 and Lichtenstein in 2011. The plan is for Croatia to join in 2016, and Romania and Bulgaria in 2017.

National and European co-management

That being the case, why bother to invest in temporary boundaries, and how would that even be possible? Furthermore, there are no Schengen borders as such, in the sense of the effective exercising of sovereignty, since they are no more than the sum of national segments. And if national border control capabilities prove inadequate, as in Greece, the Union is powerless.

Introducing a mechanism for imposing effective controls on the external borders of the political entity that is Europe has therefore become a matter of urgency. The idea would be both to boost national capabilities, for example in Italy and Greece, and to set up special units acting under a European Union mandate, in the manner of mandates issued under the United Nation’s resolutions with a “lead country” – which needs to be the relevant state so as to respect its sovereignty – managing the problem jointly both nationally and at the European level. We must not wait for Greece’s neighbour, Turkey, to become more cooperative in the future; the Greek section of the external border, both on land and in the sea, therefore requires substantial numbers of people to be deployed rapidly, as has been done in the case of Italy. Yet, the disputes between Greece and Turkey on their sea and air boundaries are not settled. Furthermore, it would be a good idea to transfer the Frontex head office to Thessalonica, nearer to the critical areas, or at least to locate the head office of the new European border guard agency there.

There is concrete interaction between free movement and the single market (4), and this is also the case between Europe’s management of external borders faced with crises and with unstoppable migration pressures (5) and the laying down of official external European boundaries. Here, once again, we run into the stumbling block of Turkey, a country whose ambivalence to the Middle East is not unconnected with the current crises. It is realistic to negotiate with Ankara on the status of European Union associate, but it must remain outside Schengen (6). If these scenarios cannot be applied, we will have to fall back on the option of a smaller Schengen area, and on national borders that can be controlled effectively.

The time has come, for the first time in its history, for the European Union to leave behind its geopolitical uncertainties, which henceforth will have more disadvantages than advantages, and to lay down its boundaries clearly, since borders not only define the limits within which sovereign authority is exercised, but also help to forge an identity. Laying down boundaries is not the same thing as closing them; it is more about establishing the geographical extent of the political edifice.

1 L’Obsession des frontières, Pub. Perrin 2007 and Perrin Tempus 2012.

2 And it is not by delegating security responsibilities to other people that two ministers of the interior well-versed in bilateral cooperation will see their efforts suddenly become more effective.

3 Situation de la France, Desclée de Brouwer, 2015.

4 The German Chancellor argues that the Eurozone and open borders were directly linked, to guard against the risks that “closures” of various types would pose to the workings of the single market (11 January 2016).

5 Michel Foucher, Les Migrations sont irrépressibles, Le Monde, 6 August 2015.

6 Ankara should also be made to put an end to the “Shamgen” area, which carved out a no-visa area running from North Africa to the Middle East, facilitating illegal immigration under the cover of movements of refugees.