Notes on European political culture




Rapid reactions in Greece

European history was made on Thursday as the EU Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT) was deployed for the first time every in its history. The team, one of several operated by Frontex, the European Border Management Agency, created in 2007, was deployed on the request of the Greek government in order to help to stop the increasingly high numbers of irregular immigrants crossing into Greece–and the EU–from Turkey. (Reports by EU Observer and European Voice). As Frontex Exective Director said, ‘Frontex stands ready to assist Greece by activating the RABIT mechanism in this urgent and exceptional situation’ (Frontex announcement).

The move seems in part provoked by the release of a UN report only a few days before describing the conditions of undocumented detainees in Greece as ‘catastrophic’ and documenting episodes of torture and ill-treatment by police.

According to Frontex, more than three-quarters of the 40,977 people intercepted while trying to enter into without proper documents into the EU in the first half of 2010 entered across the Greece-Turkey border.

If the very poor humanitarian conditions in Greek detainment and interrogation facilities are provoked by an inability to deal with the shear numbers of immigrants, then there is good reason to suspect that assistance from the Rapid Border Intervention Team will provide true value-added.

In a number of ways the mission is a positive contribution and has the potential to stand as model for future operations under similar circumstances. At the same time the novelty alone of the instrument should not justify its deployment. Several considerations come to mind.

Irregular migration is not a military problem, it is a humanitarian one. The UN report clearly shows that the RABIT is being deployed to a region with severe humanitarian problems. Yet, on the one hand, the humanitarian crisis is not caused by some unforeseen natural crisis, but by a deficiency in preparation for undocument immigration. On the other, hand the logic and language of the deployment is borrowed from discourse of military operation, its tactical savvy and strategic insight. It could quickly lead us to forgetting that migration is not a military attack in need of a military response. It is, in Greece more than anywhere, a humanitarian one.

Irregular migration is not an emergency, it is the normal state of affairs. Irregular migration is not an emergency for Europe, though, to be sure, it is almost always an emergency for the immigrants. Categorizing migration as an emergency in need of paramilitary emergency response forces serves no one. Migration fluxes can be studied, prognosticated and planned for. They are not surprises, not unforeseeable. And they become emergencies only as a consequence of the way we Europeans regard them.

Frontex is a political agency and needs political steering. The big message in the story is that the RAPITs make more visible and down-to-earth than ever before the highly political nature of Frontex’s work. While Frontex itself insists that it is a coordination and operational organization, the activities it undertakes and the way it undertakes them are saturated with value choices and statements about what Europe is, what Europe wants and the ends Europe is prepared to go in order to achieve them. Frontex lacks for little in its operational prowess. What it does not possess is the vocabulary necessary to engage in discussions required of any institution charged with such highly political activities.

In favour of a Frontex slow reaction force. Thus a word needs to be said in favour of slowness. Sure, rapid reaction forces have their place. But what Frontex needs more than anything is a Slow Reaction Force. The processes that provoke and shape irregular migration are gradual, long, structural and predictable. Reacting to them appropriately requires knowledge, experience, familiarity with social, cultural and political conditions, contact with local populations, understanding of trends, economic needs and security concerns. None of this can be accomplished through rapid reaction at whatever level. Moreover, acquiring such knowledge is far less expensive than acquiring the technical equipment necessary for para-military ‘forces’ and rapid ‘interventions’.

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