‘Fortress Europe’: Where are we now?


Evidence presented to the London Hearing of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the violations with impunity on the rights of migrants and refugees.

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Building blocks in the construction of ‘Fortress Europe’ included the 1990 Dublin Convention (later a Regulation), under which asylum applications are considered as the first state of arrival, followed in 1992 by the Resolution on manifestly unfounded asylum claims, and in 1993 by the expulsion of non-EU (‘third country’) nationals with no work permit. 1996 saw the launch of the Schengen Information System (SIS). Later that decade came a Europe-wide database and data exchange system enabling the fingerprinting of asylum seekers (Eurodac) and the beginnings of the European border guard, Frontex.

Post-9/11, the ‘War on Terror’ led swathes of new measures affecting civil liberties and refugee and asylum rights, including the vetting of refugees via their home country’s security and law enforcement agencies. This era of enforcement saw an enhanced Schengen Information System (SIS II), the Visa Information System (VIS), Eurosur & Galileo (satellite surveillance of boats in the Mediterranean). In 2009 the Employer Sanctions Directive was adopted for the policing of ‘illegal’ workers, and the 2010 Returns Directive allowed up to 18 months in detention for refused asylum seekers awaiting ‘return’.

The current phase saw the ‘refugee crisis’ from 2015 onwards According to the Council of the European Union and its Court of Justice, no one was responsible for the 2016 EU-Turkey ‘deal’ to return/push back refugees. In forging this deal, the EU threw the rule of law out of the window including the 1951 Convention. Its ‘Big Brother’ database conflates the fight against ‘terrorism and migration’, and was justified to the European Parliament as only affecting “non-EU nationals (220 million plus people) – a classic instance of institutional state racism. Its 2015 relocation scheme to take asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to northern Europe was designed for nationalities with a 75% rate of successful asylum claims, an arbitrary threshold only applying to Syrians, Iraqis, and Eritreans, and excluding everyone else from Africa. Its failure – the target was 160,000 but only 35,000 were relocated – demonstrated the fault-lines in EU member states, signalling the rise in overt racism. On top of this we see the criminalisation of humanitarian help - in the Med the EU is responsible for many deaths through coastal states banning NGO rescue boats, with its encouragement, eg through assistance to Libya. Italy and Greece have become detention states – Greece alone has over 65,000 refugees including 23,000 on the Greek islands - a figure that is growing rather than, as promised, diminishing. And the EU has new proposals for returns, ‘legally non-binding arrangements for return and readmission coupled with drastically reducing all the stages of applying for asylum including  punishing “unauthorised secondary movements”’. This strategy  was adopted instead of formal readmission agreements, which require the agreement of the European Parliament.

Where now?

In 2016 the EU launched ‘Partnership framework’ agreements throughout Africa, essentially requiring partner states to accept returns or suffer the consequences. The Commission says, ‘The special relationships that Member States may have with third countries, reflecting political, historic and cultural ties fostered through decades of contacts, should … be exploited to the full for the benefit of the EU. At present, the opposite is often the case. Trust needs to be built up … rewarding those countries that fulfil their international obligation to readmit their own nationals, and those that cooperate in managing the flows of irregular migrants from third countries. Equally, there must be consequences for those who do not cooperate on readmission and return …’

This might be better phrased as asking EU Member States to use their histories of imperialism and exploitation to demand that African states sort out an EU problem.

Now the Commission has the formal role of monitoring failure to effect the return of arrivals and targeting countries who face the consequences of the loss of trade and aid.

The EU has for the past two years been enforcing its plans for Africa, much of it through the European External Action Service (EEAS) involving EU agencies acting ‘out of area’ (Europol, Frontex & Eurojust) and involving NATO in ‘Operation Sophia’.

So we can say there is an external cost to Africa, where the EU is chucking money and resources to keep refugees there – to contain them in appalling ‘reception’/detention centres, creating biometric civil registers, setting up intelligence centres (eg Frontex in ECOWAS) using historical colonial contacts in EU interests – even threatening governments with the refusal of visas.

At the same time there has been an internal cost, inside the EU. It was evident well before the refugee crisis that mainstream politics were moving to the right to placate populists, racists and fascists. As the refugee crisis has evolved it has become clear we face both the growth of EU state racism – extending the responses to the ‘threats of terrorism and migration’ through the new centralised Big Brother database initially covering 225 million non-EU citizens, but soon to be extended to cover air travel of everyone in the EU, together with checks at and inside the borders for non-EU and EU citizens. And now the introduction of national biometric ID cards for hundreds of millions across the EU is planned. This comes in the context of the rise of racist and fascist groups on the ground and in parliaments and governments, unopposed by the EU.

The growth of state authoritarianism combined with racism at all levels tells us the EU is facing an existential crisis which threatens its fundamental principles and laws. The EU elite have totally lost their way, many people have lost faith in the EU’s ability to deliver, and we are living in my view in a very dangerous historical moment, especially given the failure of the EU to act against racism and fascism. Belatedly, the European Parliament passed a report by a large majority, condemning neo-fascist groups who are using democracy to spread hate and violence.

Some quarters in the EU bubble favour what is known in the lexicon as ‘triangulation’ - adopting the policies of the populists, fascists and racists in the hope they will go away. Whereas history tells that appeasement only legitimates these political forces.

It is a moment when we really have to take seriously the lessons of history.

Tony Bunyan

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