Why Fortress Europe and the European Union Can’t Coexist

This piece was initially published on Byline Times on April 2nd 2020.


Just a few weeks ago, a period of time that now seems to have been relegated to the distant past in light of the COVID-19 crisis, Fortress Europe was once again brutalising the bodies of migrants and refugees on its borders with Turkey.

While most of our attention is currently, justifiably, on the Coronavirus pandemic, the questions raised by the EU’s actions on its borders will resurface soon enough. Here’s what we can expect.

Evoking the usual civilisational arguments, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, declared that those desperate men and women and their children were not just confronting Greece’s border, but rather that Greece as a whole was “being our European aspida [shield] in these times”. As The Economist rightly put it, this statement came only five years after the European Commission itself chided Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban for his brutal anti-refugee response. To put it bluntly, the EU is now using the language of war to describe asylum seekers.

What the EU is guilty of doing here is, in effect, a normalisation of the far-right’s desire to inflict violence against the ‘other’. When tear-gassing children becomes normalised, it won’t be long before they’ll start being killed by people who will livestream it on Facebook. We are witnessing a dark chapter in European politics and if this is not immediately stopped it will get darker.

As things stand, it is fair to expect that the EU is choosing the latter path. In fact, von der Leyen announced €700 million (£609 million) in EU funds for Greece, including €350 million which will be available immediately to “upgrade infrastructure” at its border. This is from the same EU which praises the bringing down of walls dividing cities and regions, as it did again recently at the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also from the same EU which, not too long ago, chose austerity instead of a writing off of Greece’s debt. There’s nothing like a foreign ‘other’ to unify ranks.

The widespread anxiety over those trying to reach Fortress Europe’s borders has its roots in a constant and deeply inconvenient reminder of that which might come to us all one day. As Byline Times writer Musa Okwonga has writted: “Everyone can be a refugee, but no one seems to grasp this until it’s their turn to run.” We may not think about it in our daily lives, but we can all feel anxious about its very possibility.

As all of our lives have now changed so quickly in light of the Coronavirus, desperate images of people at the Greek-Turkish border are replaced with images of European cities battling the pandemic. For the time being, the attempt by some – such as Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini – to scapegoat migrants for COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have caught on, although the same cannot be said for communities of Asian origins, who are facing increasing amounts of xenophobia.

Mirror, Mirror on the Tube

Seeing the images from the border took me back to a peculiar memory of a mindless ride on the London Tube. I noticed an elderly man reading a right-wing tabloids, with an anti-migrant headline. It was the usual story about racialised men trying to get into this island.

Dread filled me instantly as I saw myself in that front-page image, saw what could have been my life had I been born just a few dozen kilometers to my east, had I been Syrian instead of Lebanese, had I been of a country’s ‘war generation’ (Syria since 2011) instead of its ‘post-war generation’ (Lebanon since 1990).

The man’s facial expression has since morphed into something monstrous in my mind. Truth be told, I don’t remember what he looked like. I just remember being exhausted at the very idea that adults could believe what they were reading about ‘us’, those who have never had the privilege of relying on stable structures.

“Liquid fear means fear flowing on our own court, not staying in one place but diffuse,” said the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. “And the trouble with liquid fear, unlike the concrete specific danger which you know and are familiar with, is that you don’t know where from it will strike.”

But of course, these headlines have never been about ‘us’ at all; they are not about the Migrant with a capital M, but about those who need the Migrant to exist in the first place. The Migrant is a category by those who do not see themselves as migrants or, worse still, those who do and believe themselves to be ‘the better kind’ of migrants. It is a category that festers in the ideaspace long before it is forced unto our bodies in physical space.

In the 1981 interview quoted above, James Baldwin, referring to non-western migrants to Europe, told the Dutch interviewer that Europe is facing the people it did not want to face, the people it actively avoided facing for decades and centuries. Today however, Europe is no longer haunted by its past, but by its possible futures. This fear, to use Bauman’s terminology, is liquid because “there are no solid structures around us on which we can rely, in which we can invest our hopes and expectations”. This is what migration, the climate catastrophe, pandemics and rising inequalities remind us of; symptoms of a world that can no longer be hidden away, no matter how high the mountain of corpses gets. What cruel irony then that this liquid fear is now best symbolised by those drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Even sadder is the fact that these people are themselves fleeing both concrete and liquid fears, both authoritarian regimes and abstract futures.

I came to the UK just as the ‘hostile environment’ was being implemented with the full complicity of many of the country’s dominant media outlets and political parties, including Labour. I have since left and, in the meantime, the UK has left the EU – while the EU continues to fail its own stated ideals.

In the 1981 interview, Baldwin was also asked if ‘we’, Europe, have to “live the same history” as the US. “I hope you don’t,” Baldwin replied. “If I were you, I would study, I would take [the US] as an object lesson, and don’t do what we did.” Baldwin’s words spoke to a deep-seated anxiety among Europeans at the time, but it only seems to have gotten worse since.

Although less than a decade after Baldwin’s interview, Europe’s most symbolic wall fell in Berlin and people were allowed, if only briefly, to imagine different futures, today the EU is putting up even deadlier borders on land and sea, financing coast guards from Greece to Libya to prevent this most urgent of all threats: the arrival of the poor, non-western ‘other’.

This hostility towards the ‘other’ is best symbolised, not by the far-right, but by what is considered the centre in European politics. In what can be described as the most honest statement by a member of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, the former leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group, tweeted in April 2019 that “we need to better protect our external borders to keep our internal EU borders open”, implying that the arrival of undesirables is so threatening that it could undo decades of intra-European bridge-building.

The EU now faces a dilemma which it does not want to acknowledge: it is attempting to consolidate its progress by promoting an anti-borders rhetoric from within, while militarising its borders from without. In other words, Europe wants to be Fortress Europe and the European Union at the same time. This will not work and, if Europe does not dismantle Fortress Europe, it will be dismantling the European Union instead.