[Introduction during online workshop ‘Security and the Left in Europe’ of the Rosa Luxemburg Stifting Brussels, 21 November 2020]
During the last decades we’ve seen an increase in border security and control measures in the EU, including the gradual militarisation of borders: the use of military personnel and equipment to stop migration. This goes back a long time, but the introduction of the Schengen Agreement and the Schengen Area in the second half of the eighties and early nineties of last century was a defining point. This coupled the opening up of the internal EU borders with robust control at the external borders. Subsequent events, such as the war in former Yugoslavia, but especially the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 and ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, have fueled politicized fears of waves of refugees coming to Europe and, in turn, have accelarated the process of border militarisation. EU border and migration policies are aimed primarily at keeping or getting migrants out of the territory.
Underpinning these policies is a narrative framing migration as a security problem, refugees and migrants as threats to Europe. Migrants are commonly painted in terms of crime, terrorism, stealing jobs and houses, perceived unwanted religious and cultural practices and ideas and other xenophobic and racist caricatures, making them the scapegoats to blame for and deflect from the disastrous effects of capitalism within Europe. This framing does not come out of the blue, it is fueled by rightwing politicians and organisations, and by the military and security industry, as I will come back to later.
In general, securitisation can be described as framing societal problems, for example with a political or humanitarian origin, in terms of threats, dangers and risks. Migration is one example of this, but it has also been applied to a range of other issues, including climate change and pandemics. In response to these perceived threats, governments look to military and security equipment, personnel and services to deal with them. Of course, this is sold as working for the safety of Europe as a whole, but it comes down to securing the interests of the rich against and at the expense of the rest of the world.
What has become clear, especially during the last five years, is that Europe is firmly entrenched in this security narrative and the militarisation of borders as a result of it. This is backed up by alarmist language and military style rhetoric. In policy documents you can read about the ‘fighting’ or ‘combating’ irregular migration’ and about displaced people as a ‘threat to peace and security’. And their is an absolute tunnel vision going on: the only ‘solution’ for migration that is presented again and again is more border security, more border control, more walls and fences, more cooperation with third countries to stop migration, more deportations and so on.
There has been talk about addressing the root causes of migration, for example through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, but most of the money spend under that instrument also is aimed at stopping migration, with some halfhearted attempts at humanitarian support and job creation in countries of origin on the side. What is never spoken about though, are the real reasons people are forced to flee, let alone the role the EU and other western countries play in fueling those reasons. So, no words or actions to address unfair trade relations, about arms exports, military interventions and support to authoritarian regimes, about western responsibility for climate change or about land grabbing.
No, some of these reasons people are forced to flee are actually reinforced by EU border politics. Through a process of so-called border externalisation the EU has exported its policies, and the underlying security narrative, to neighbouring countries. They are blackmailed and bribed, by promising for example better trade agreements or threatening to withold development cooperation money, into acting as outpost border guards for the EU, trying to stop refugees from even reaching the European borders, so that the EU doesn’t have to deal with asylum applications and so on. Part of this externalisation consists of strengthening security infrastructures in third countries, of which many are ruled by authoritarian regimes with a large role for police and security and armed forces in repression and human rights violations. Countries like Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Morocco, but also further south for example Mali, Sudan and Niger, and to the east Ukraine, Belarus and Azerbaidzjan have received European money, training, arms, biometric identification tools and security equipment to increase border security. But these same donations can be, and are, also used for internal repression. Moreover, externalisation efforts put third countries under pressure to spend their own money on border security, taking away from much needed social and sustainability spending, and have ruined migration based economies, such as in the Agadez region in Niger, already one of the poorest countries in the world.
These externalisation efforts come in many shapes and forms, to many to sum up now. But did you know, for example, that the EU paid French company Civipol over €50 million to set up fingerprint databases of the complete populations of Senegal and Mali, mainly to be able to identify and immediately deport refugees from those countries at the EU borders? Civipol is owned jointly by large French arms companies and the French government.
Going back to the EU itself and its own external borders, there has been an enormous increase in border security measures and spending. To name a few things: the construction over 1000 kilometres of walls and fences at EU borders, deploying armed forces at borders, the introduction of and connecting of biometric databases, the increasing use of drones and other autonomous systems at borders, the plans to externalize asylum applications, the launch of EUROSUR, a system which connects surveillance systems of all member states to present a continuous live picture of the situation at the borders and so on. The result of all this, as has been predicted over and over again by experts from NGOs, humanitarian organisations and academic researchers, has not been and end to migration, because desperate people keep on looking for safer and better futures, but foremost refugees being left in dire circumstances in transit countries or at the borders of Europe, such as in the camps on the Greek islands, or being pushed to more dangerous migration routes and into the arms of criminal smuggling networks. In turn, this has resulted in more deaths in the Sahara and a higher mortality rate among migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.
There is also the expansion of Frontex into a European Border and Coast Guard, with more powers, including giving binding advice on strengthening border security to EU member states and the possibility of interventions in member states, even without their consent, as well as the possibility of operating in third countries, for which agreements have been or are about to be concluded with Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. Frontex will also play a stronger coordinating role in deportations and gets money to buy or lease its own equipment. For this some €2 billion has been earmarked under the new Multiannual Financial Framework, the EU budget for the next seven years. Just yesterday Frontex announced it will pay Airbus, Israeli Aerospace Industries and Elbit a total of €100 million for supplying drones surveillance services in the Mediterannean.
In total Frontex gets over €5 billion funding for these years, about double the amount it got in the last seven. Similarly, the Integrated Border Management Fund, which distributes money to member states for strengthening border security, with over €5.5 billion also has about double the amount its predecessor, the Internal Security Fund-Borders, had at its disposal. On top of this comes funding for third countries, for candidate and new member states, for detention and deportation measures, for research and development of new technologies and more, to a total of some €22.6 billion euros for the period 2021-2027.
These policies, measures and fundings don’t come out of the blue. One of the main drivers has been extensibe lobbying by the military and security industry. The big players in these efforts are large arms and security companies, such as Airbus, Indra, Leonardo and Thales, as well as lobby organisations such as the European Organisation for Security, the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe and the European Association for Biometrics. They have their own lobbyists in Brussels, have regular meetings with the European Commission, are presented in official advisory groups and bodies, meet policy makers and the military at arms and security fairs and conferences, organise roundtables with Commissioners, present their equipment and services at Frontex meetings and so on. Within this cycle of contacts they have been able to present themselves as the experts on issues like migration and border politics, pushing the security narrative as discussed and promote their own goods and services as the solution to deal with the perceived threat of migration.
It’s always difficult to get a good view of often quite secretive lobby efforts, but it is clear that industry proposals have been influential, to the extent of the European Commission sometimes almost literally copying them. We saw this for example with the expansion of Frontex into a European Border Guard, which has long been suggested by industry, and opening the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace, which was originally meant for conflict prevention and peace-building efforts, to fund the supply of non-lethal security equipment to non-EU-countries. This instrument was already used to pay for new vessels to strengthen the border patrol capacities of the Turkish Coast Guard.
In their lobbying such companies and lobby organisations aren’t afraid of using racist stereotypes to feed their security narrative. In a 2003 Civipol bluntly stated in an advisory report that “the minority of genuine refugees conceals “mass of economic migrants’ and that ‘clandestinely working […] [u] ndocumented people create a state in which employment law does not apply […], threatening industrial peace.” And earlier this year, the European Organisation for Security wrote in a briefing regarding COVID-19 that “[t]he EU will need to manage its external borders to prevent the uncontrolled entry of people infected by transmissible pathogens”. By the way, in the first weeks of April European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, immediately had two online meetings with large arms companies to discuss the consequences of the pandemic for them and possible ways to support them. Before becoming Commissioner, Breton was CEO of Atos, a large consultancy and IT company, which has many clients from the military and security industry.
There is a lot more to say about all this, but I’ll leave it at this now. Many more information, analysis and backgrounds can be found in the series of ‘Border Wars’-reports that the Transnational Institute published together with us at Stop Wapenhandel and others.