United Kingdom – LONDON – Europe and the US have been facing fundamental changes in their political structures in the last couple of years, a fact that has been made more obvious with seismic events like Brexit and the election of Trump. Political uncertainty has almost become synonymous with Europe and the western world in general. For a while now, electorates have been expressing their dissatisfaction with a democratic deficit and an economy that does not work for them any longer. A key narrative from analysts, politicians and the media has focussed mainly on the effect of populism but fails to accept the underlying failures of the political and the neoliberal economic system. Populism is the effect of these failures and not the cause. This populism has had direct effects on wider and interconnected issues, namely migration; nevertheless if the West had effectively managed migration flows, the rising tide of populism may not have had so much leverage. A recurring theme across the world is the disregard for history and denial of responsibility. In this case, the continuous instability in the Middle East has not happened in isolation. The West with its economic and strategic interests in the region has played a crucial role, would ideally close the door and turn a blind eye.
Against this backdrop, there is an observable destabilisation of the EU system. The gap between the core and periphery EU countries is widening, the political divisions within the European continent seem more prominent than ever and national interests are more important than the common European polity. ‘Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union’, Jean-Claude Juncker said in his State of the Union Address in Bratislava in September 2016. In this summit, EU leaders did not come to any conclusions on serious issues such as migration, the unstable economic situation and the common defence policy. The EU cannot claim anymore to be the normative model of cooperation and democratic values. Europe’s unease with the continent-wide, democratic deficit has resulted in punitive votes like Brexit, which did not only happen because of populism and demagoguery.
The biggest disgrace of recent years is the shambolic way that migration and asylum has been handled by the EU. Political and media elites, or at least a sizeable portion of them, have managed to shift the dialogue from ‘how to handle the refugee flows into Europe’ into a question of ‘how to keep people out’. The word ‘security’ permeates migration discussions. There is a continuous securitisation of migration (i.e. addressing migration as a security threat) and militarisation of the borders. The security anxiety is clearly prevailing over humanitarian concerns. There is no burden-sharing and there is no evident will for burden-sharing in the future. For example, Visegrad countries have reacted fiercely against compulsory quotas for asylum seekers. Germany has obviously committed to the acceptance of a large number of refugees. However the Mediterranean countries have shouldered much of the weight, especially Italy and Greece. In the context of Greece’s economic woes, the decision to gradually resume Dublin transfers to Greece and the cumbersome EU-Turkey deal will make things even more difficult for Greece in particular. Frontex has received astringent criticism from NGOs for not acting against human rights violations by border police. The European border regime has resulted in mortally dangerous routes and risks for refugees and asylum seekers, i.e. people already escaping conflict and violation of their human rights.
Last year, the EU threatened Greece with suspension from the Schengen system because of alleged neglect of its obligations to address migration and refugee flows at its borders. Scapegoating Greece and striking an ineffective deal with Turkey to receive the refugees that Europe does not want, are signs of the EU’s lost integrity.
The EU has shown an inability to balance its security doctrine with its principles of defending human rights. Securitised migration discourses and practices are in contradiction with the EU’s humanistic ideals and its treaties. The Lisbon Treaty states that ‘the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities’. When we look at the Europe of today, how much of this still rings true?
Looking forward, 2017 bears only challenges for the European and Western world’s societies in general. The economic and political model needs a progressive shift that does not promise unrealistic paths like Trump’s protectionism or suggest failed recipes like European countries’ nationalism.
The coming year will bring further securitisation and criminalisation of migration and this will be amplified even further with the ascending powers of the extreme right throughout Europe and the recent terrorist incidents seen in European cities. The continent that has served as an exemplar of democracy, human rights and cooperation is showing an objective decay in its main beliefs and principles. Security will undoubtedly continue to be at the core of European discussions and policies.
The apparent growing reliance on risk management policies with regards to border security, biometric controls and the overall technologisation of security will be the accepted norm and solution to migration and refugee flows. Even if we accept that these systems are effective against the central fear of terrorism, there is no substantial dialogue in society about these tremendous changes to methods of border control and data collection. The human body has become a source of information, whose data is easily stored and subject to investigation at any time by Europol, Eurojust and local authorities in European countries, which have the ability to exchange information based on the Schengen system and the ‘principle of availability’. Benjamin Franklin once said ‘those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety’.