Saturday 5. December 2020
#186 - October 2015

What sort of borders does the EU need?

European Council

With the Syrian refugee crisis, over the next few months EU Member States will have to define what sort of borders delimit the European free circulation area.

The European Union is a free circulation area. To such an extent that we Europeans are barely aware of crossing a border when we travel by road, rail or air. Cross-border workers have a clearer perception of borders because they know the differences in legislation, salary scales and social benefits between different countries. Our current experience is that the borders between Member States are tending to become more blurred.


Violent borders

The same cannot be said of the “extreme points” of Europe, where the border is a dangerous place full of risks, sometimes fatal, for all those who try to enter Europe, and in particular for migrants and refugees.


The borders of Europe are violent and dangerous precisely because, in our political way of thinking, they are intimately linked with the imperative of security. The same phantom of fear drives us to fix three solid, sophisticated bolts on our door, or to use walls and barriers as means to control European borders. In this context the border appears to be more and more of a revenue generator as technologies become increasingly advanced, expensive and highly profitable for the companies that develop them. It is a matter of controlling the entrances and exits as tightly as possible. Even within the free circulation area, there are times when some countries are tempted to install more drastic controls on their borders with their neighbours. The concept of “illegal” entry, so resonant in terms of European rights concerning foreigners, highlights this desire to control our borders and is often used as a political instrument.


References to “Fortress” Europe have precisely the same meaning: controlling our borders is our highest priority, and it is this dominant policy that makes them so dangerous and deadly for those who hope to find in Europe the protection that they seek at any cost. Europe could adopt a different policy if it wished to respect its commitments and traditions: it should set up a safe and legal means of access as soon as possible for those who ask it for protection.


Redefining our sovereignty

What is the origin of the idea that we absolutely must control our borders? Obviously it comes from the way in which our political thinking shapes ideas of national sovereignty over our territory and our frontiers. Yet, does being “sovereign” necessarily make us (or make us believe ourselves) capable of controlling every person’s access to our territory, or their stay on it, all too often relying upon a set of clearly codified national rights?


The concept of sovereignty belongs to the mid-sixteenth century and is linked to the emerging idea of a State, describing the right to exercise the political authority deemed necessary over a geographical area or group of populations. In the nineteenth century, the idea of sovereignty evolved to justify the power of Nation States, indissociably linked with the control exercised over their respective territories, and it is this rationale that still governs our political thinking today. In our times this connection to a territory is more relaxed; globalisation, especially migration, places more emphasis on mobility. Because of the intolerable developments that we are witnessing as events unfold on our borders, we need to change our view of sovereignty and dissociate it from our anxiety about controlling our territory and our borders.


What we really need is a form of governance at the very least at European level – better still  at global level – committed to a humane policy that respects human rights in order to “manage” migrations and mobility. As matters stand today, no Nation State is capable of managing such matters alone.


From now on we should understand our sovereign status as a clear political decision to participate in a concerted strategy between Member States to deal with populations obliged to flee their countries and in need of protection. This does not mean that borders should disappear. Instead, we should restore their main function as a “space between”, a space that at the same time joins us together and distinguishes us apart, a place where we can live in our own different ways, represent our different cultures, officialise or share our differences. A door that should not be bolted, but opened wide, basically a threshold where we demonstrate the first gestures of hospitality.


Jean-Marie Carrière SJ

Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Europe

Teilen |

Published in English, French, German
COMECE, 19 square de Meeûs, B-1050 Brussels
Tel: +32/2/235 05 10

Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.