The economic and political significance of the Mediterranean for Europe has shifted dramatically from crucial reservoir of labour to deeply problematic border. First came the gradual inclusion of the continent’s southerners – Italy first, much later Greece, eventually Portugal and Spain – into the European Community and the Common Market. This accompanied, and to some extent promoted, their surprising metamorphosis from migrant-sending to receiving countries. In the meantime, and partly as a side effect, it was increasingly the southern and eastern shores – Yugoslavia, the Maghreb and Turkey in particular – which emerged as recruitment basins.

By the early 1970s, active recruitment of migrant labour had officially been discontinued, but it took one more decade for European governments to agree that the ban on low-skilled labour migration needed joint enforcement to become effective. Systematic cooperation and targeted harmonization were also felt necessary to achieve another strategic priority: a common space of economic and civic freedom through the suppression of customs and police controls at ‘internal borders’. What was later to be known as the ‘Schengen Club’ was born, and with it the ‘common external border’. Over 34,000 km of the EU’s Mediterranean coasts soon became the most politically contentious and symbolically charged emblem of ‘Fortress Europe’.

Harmonizing and reinforcing controls towards the outside was the price for lifting internal checks: freedom for insiders was enhanced at the expense of freedom for outsiders. In the meantime, with the collapse of the socialist bloc, perceptions of where the line was drawn between Europe’s inside and outside markedly changed in the course of a few years, and the grand eastern enlargement project took shape: the Union opened up to the east and closed down to the south.

The European border which has been developing since then is a new kind of border. Not any more a neat and simple border line punctuated by guarded checkpoints, in front of which trucks and tourists’ cars queue, but rather a wide (and constantly widening) and complex border zone, itself bounded by blurred borders, where pre-emptive and repressive controls and surveillance activities are performed at multiple stages, through a variety of more or less technological means, and by a heterogeneous plethora of public and private actors. Very significant human and financial resources have been invested in developing ever more sophisticated techniques, methods and infrastructures for profiling persons, scanning vehicles, screening spaces, and detecting anomalies and forgeries. Under the pressure of (alleged and perceived) interdependence and growing anxiety about unwanted migration, Europe has turned into the largest and, by some possible measures, the most advanced laboratory in the world for migration controls, with the Mediterranean as prime testing ground.

According to the letter and the spirit of European treaties, every inch of the external border is understood as ‘common’: established on behalf of all member states and benefitting them all. It is only due to the hazards of geography and territorial sovereignty that each stretch is primarily controlled by the agents of one specific state.

It was a few years after the formal incorporation of such principles in the law of the European Union that the imbalances embedded in such an unprecedented distribution of duties and responsibilities among sovereign nations became clear. Border countries, with Mediterranean ones on the frontline, were called to perform a common function, according to common standards, but using their own means. The distribution of border surveillance costs, potentially heavy, especially in the case of maritime activities, turned into an issue which started to climb up the EU’s policy agenda.

Meanwhile, the borderization of the Mediterranean was proving effective, although sometimes in unforeseen ways. The efforts of coastal EU states, usually with the crucial cooperation of neighbouring transit states, closed down several once prominent irregular migration routes, including the Otranto Channel, the Gibraltar Strait and the crossing to the Canaries.

This successful border upgrade was applauded in politicians’ discourses and in public perceptions, but there were some collateral effects. Given the mixed nature of the deterred flows – where ‘economic migrants’ share boats with minors, victims of trafficking and asylum seekers – externalization of controls implied a substantial thwarting of the international obligation to protect forced migrants. Even more seriously, the more risky smuggling techniques required by enhanced controls had as a side effect a rise in deaths at sea (conservative estimates reach a figure of around 20,000 victims over two decades).

Furthermore, the relative effectiveness of such epochal transformation was integrally related to the authoritarian nature of Europe’s main ‘partners’ operating on the southern shore. The strong and capillary control that so-called ‘moderate Arab regimes’ had over their territories and societies, and their capacity to disregard widespread popular opposition to exit controls and readmission policies, were critical factors in the success of European externalization strategies. This became transparent in 2011, when the collapse of those regimes stirred a wave of anxiety among migration control bureaucracies, amplified by the media, contributing to Europe’s precocious (and to some extent self-fulfilling) scepticism on the destiny of ‘Arab revolutions’.

Such anxiety proved exaggerated or at least premature, because – in a first phase at least – cooperation agreements were quickly and effectively negotiated between key players, as, for instance, between the Italian government and the new Libyan and Tunisian authorities. But the intensification of regional push factors (from the escalation of the Syrian conflict to a new deterioration of the situation in the Horn of Africa), together with the relapse of Egypt and Libya into conflict and instability, are once more showing how fragile is a European migration management strategy which gives priority to the separating over the connecting function of the Mediterranean. The weakness of European responses in the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy of 3 October 2013, and the tensions surrounding what ‘European solidarity’ should actually mean in such circumstances, are another urgent reminder of the long-term unsustainability of reducing the Mediterranean to just a border.

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