Notes on European political culture




Happy Birthday FRONTEX!

This week here in Warsaw, FRONTEX, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, celebrates its 5th birthday with a series of high-visibility conferences and events.

The events revolve around the solemn proclamation of today, 25 May, as the European Day for Border Guards. The day’s star-studded program includes no less than Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, Interior Minister of Spain, Cecilia Malmström, Commission for Home Affairs, Juan Lopez Aguilar, Chairman of the Committe on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Ilkka Laitinen, Executive Director of Frontex and Baroness Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

FRONTEX is quickly and quietly evolving into a kind of moral testing ground for Europe. It is here that the airy principles of European construction meet the pavement, where decisions are made about the role of rights and responsibilities in the management of Europe’s most dilemma-ridden challenge: the management of its external borders.

Border control is the operational theater where Europe meets its others: other worlds, other human beings, other values. It is here where the aspirations of those who long to embrace Europe, to be European, live under the protection of Europe’s social and economic well-being are confronted with European ideals of tolerance and universal rights. Its also the place where Europe meets its ‘other’ other: trafficking, smuggling and other forms of cross-border criminality. The coherence with which Europe manages its others in both these forms is one measure of the success of the European project.

For better or worse, these challenges are gathered under the banner of security. Both undocumented migration–which accounts for the large majority of unwanted flow toward the EU–and illegal and illicit cross-border activities are conceptualized according to the traditional vocabulary of security and managed with tools traditionally reserved for security threats.

Three considerations might invite us to look twice at this picture.

Firstly, European border management has come to understand and deal with non-nefarious border issues (undocumented immigration), with the same legal, ethical and operational toolbox as the nefarious ones (cross-border criminality). This practice undoubtedly has pragmatic grounds. Yet it is important to consider the costs of mixing together non-Europeans seeking well-being and people seeking to do ill.

Secondly, all undocumented people seeking to cross the European external borders are understood and dealt with as threats. Even a desperate boat-load of terrified Africans, fleeing to European shores is freely discussed in the para-military terminology of border management as a ‘target’. Yet there might be occasion to ask what in particular is threatened by whom, and how. What exactly is threatened when Europe is threatened? Sometimes the answer to this question is easy. Most often it is far from self-evident. Clearly, even if we take all cross-border movement to be a threat, then this threat is highly differentiated. In the name of both operational efficiency and ethical coherence a highly fine-tuned approach may be called for.

Thirdly, there is broad and earnest consensus in the field of border management that the solution to these security threats is technological. Vast resources are committed to the development of technologies of sensing, identifying, tracking and intercepting potential cross-border migrants most often before they have reached European territory. In the name of efficient use of resources, Europe might be better served by considering more fully the human sides of all migration stories, for example, the desperation that would lead any person to pay a large sum of money to board a rickety open boat in the dark of night on an African beach for a perilous journey to an undocumented future in Europe

The challenge of managing the borders of the birthplace universal rights is a humbling one indeed. Unfortunately, its dilemmas and operational challenges are not diminished by ethical reflexion. On the contrary, the ethical challenges rival the technological challenges that Europe has given itself in the name of managing its borders. Are we up to the task?

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