Re-conceptualising Fortress Europe

Posted on 29. September 2015

by Elias Vartio

elias-vartio-modifiedFor a long time, ‘Fortress Europe’ has been a well-deserved pejorative term for the hard-line migration policies of the EU and the European countries. The recipe has been simple: keep the world outside and the wealth inside. Even the much-talked about globalisation and freedom of movement has been largely unilateral – with a western passport you can get anywhere, with a southern one you get nowhere.

While migration policies have had clear flaws and are deserving of criticism for many of their questionable peculiarities (e.g. collaboration with Gaddafi in order to keep undesired migrants in Africa, just to name one), there is also a bright side to it. Europe is still a fortress. The EU can, without much argument, be called the most successful peace project in modern history. While the world is going crazy, the European Union is still relatively calm and stable. Our crisis is not war and destruction; our crisis is the need to protect a few million displaced people and find more durable solutions for how we run our economies and societies. In any case, at the moment the road to hell from Europe is still very, very long and the fortress very, very peaceful.

If Europe then needs to reinvent its Fortress, what are its most obvious flaws and how could these be addressed? Well, for one, in the last few decades Europe has appeared to mostly build higher walls and eliminate as many ways into the Fort as possible – this way it has presumably been easier to defend. Regardless of the intentions, we are now in a situation where there is enormous pressure due to war, poverty and persecution for people to find a safer and better life in Europe, and yet most of the legal pathways – such as study permits, residence permits, working visas and the like – have been made unavailable. The contrast of this reality to that of the situation during the Cold War is stark. At that time, Sweden argued that the best cooperation support they could give a third world country was offering their young students jobs.

Now, as the legal paths to Europe have been largely blocked, the markets are ripe with opportunities for smugglers and organised crime. According to a report by the German paper Der Spiegel (5.9.2015) a ride on a rubber duck (i.e. inflatable boat) across the perilous sea costs 1.000 USD; a yacht trip 3.000 USD and if you’re loaded with cash, then you might afford a flight to Frankfurt with false papers for the bargain price of 15.000 dollars. Meanwhile, our fellow Europeans can buy a round trip to Ethiopia, Egypt or Lebanon for only some 300 – 400 euros. Ironic, huh? – Definitely. Fair? – Not so much. Lucrative? Absolutely, if you’re into the profitable business of human trafficking and smuggling. And much of this is thanks to European policies and regulations, such as the European Council Directive 2001/51/EC concerning the combating of illegal immigration on commercial carriers.

The above mentioned Directive lays the framework for sanctions for commercial carriers, in case they are found to transport persons lacking the sufficient paperwork – i.e. travelling documents and visas for entry to the Schengen area. The Directive does contain a paragraph stating that it is without prejudice to the obligations of the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951. However, in practice airlines have been in no position to evaluate such claims and are unlikely to be willing to take such economic risks, including inter alia the duty to transport the person back to the starting point. Ironically, this has just removed most of the refugees from the pool of potential customers for commercial airlines and into the hands of human smugglers. (Hans Rosling analysed the effects of this Directive in this video.)

There is some change occurring though. A Swedish initiative named Refugee Air aims to underwrite the risks concerning transportation of refugees to Europe with the aim of avoiding perilous sea journeys. . In Finland, Amnesty International among others is lobbying for the introduction – or rather the greater use of – humanitarian visas. Even if EU member states place a hefty fee on the visas needed by these vulnerable people, it’d still be intellectually more fair and sensible to do so, rather than just play into the hands of organised crime as is currently happening. Another proposal demands that the EU set up a centre on the border of Turkey and Syria, where asylum applications could be processed on the spot, hence facilitating another more lawful and safe entry to Europe. In other words, much could be done in order to ease the journey of those needing the protection inside the safe haven of Fortress Europe.

This safe haven, our beloved bubble, was created largely through a system where economic incentives fostered peaceful relations and cooperation across the borders. It appears strikingly odd that the EU now seems to fail to use these very same strengths in its migration and refugee policies. Professor Paul Coller has criticised the European system of international protection and closing of legal pathways to Europe as being highly immoral. He argues that Europe has previously been responsible for saving drowning migrants, then it should also be held equally responsible for creating and maintaining the current system where desperate individuals are lured to the perilous sea in hope of better lives. As a solution to this, he suggests improvements and investments to the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon that are currently bearing the lion’s share of the Syrian refugee crisis. Additionally, if there were less destitution and more hope and prospects of a better future in the refugee camps, then less people would be inclined to seek better futures in Europe. One way of achieving this would be by building up light industries next to the refugee camps and then including this in the sphere of European free trade, thus promoting at least a bit of prosperity and stability in Middle-East.

All in all, Europe can’t be directly blamed for the ongoing devastating civil war in Syria. (Or perhaps it can, but that’s another story). However, just locking oneself in the bastion is not very suitable for someone desiring to be the champion of peace, justice and what-not. The Europe that the world wishes to see is still that which is peaceful, stable and prosperous. However, there is still plenty of room for newcomers even inside these trenches and walls. And the political decision makers of Europe need to make it clear – not only in words but first and foremost in concrete deeds – that there is hope beyond the wall, even now when the winter is clearly coming.