The fragility of EU border and migration politics

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In mid-November, with thousands of migrants effectively trapped in miserable, inhumane and even life-threatening conditions at the Belarusian–Polish border, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas labelled Belarussian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko the “head of a state smuggling ring”, and Chancellor Angela Merkel accused him of a “hybrid attack” on the EU.

Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, European leaders have been united in stressing the priority of securing EU borders. These statements can be partially interpreted as reflecting a desire to avoid any repetition of the 2015 ‘migration crisis’, in which over a million refugees entered Europe. More fundamentally they reveal an EU-wide political consensus on border security that has been three decades in the making, reinforced by the political shockwaves following 2015, but that has at its core a growing reliance on non-EU states, such as Belarus, Libya and Turkey, that threatens to be its undoing.

Exaggerated threat perceptions

The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan in August 2021 led one European diplomat to declare that another crisis on Europe’s borders was ‘inevitable‘. Yet, despite these initial and Eurocentric comparisons with Syrian arrivals in 2015, Afghanistan’s context and broader changes over the last six years have made a carbon-copy repeat highly unlikely. Greater geographical distance, the end of hostilities in Afghanistan, border closures in Iran and Turkey’s partially EU-funded construction of extensive border walls – motivated by an anti-immigration public backlash following the inflow of over five million Syrians – make just getting to Europe much more difficult. The basic fact remains that the vast majority of the world’s displaced people  – 85 per cent according to the most recent UNHCR data – live in the developing world, notwithstanding the approximately 3,000 mostly Afghans, Syrians and Iraqi Kurds brought to the Belarusian–Polish border.

For Afghan refugees, the most pressing challenges remain within their country and neighbouring states. Approximately 1.4 million Afghan refugees have settled in Pakistan plus a further 800,000 registered Afghan refugees living in Iran and estimates of a further 2.3 million living there irregularly, half a million of whom entered in the months prior to the fall of Kabul. Europe has thus far shown no ambivalence in its desire for those refugees to stay far from EU borders. European governments have declared that “there is no reason” and “no place” for Afghans in Europe, and that we “cannot assume the consequences” of the Taliban takeover and must “protect ourselves” against migration, in some cases with a common European approach. All this could lead to the conclusion that EU politicians are running scared of increasingly anti-immigration European voter bases.

Fragility of migration acceptance

Look more closely, however, and the evidence actually suggests that attitudes to immigration – formed by early-life experiences and broader psychological tendencies – are actually quite stable and, in many countries, generational change is making them gradually become more positive over recent decades. The rapid electoral growth of the radical right in 2015 – and partial decline since – was primarily driven by the importance or salience that voters gave to the issue, which suddenly became an electoral priority for those with pre-existing anti-immigration views amid policy uncertainty and scenes of chaos and disorder at Europe’s borders. In countries such as Germany, immigration went from a reasonably minor political issue to one that, at its peak, nearly 80 per cent of citizens agreed was one of the most important affecting their country. Such unprecedented intensity of feeling motivated citizens in many countries to reorient their voting habits, leading to major Eurosceptic and anti-immigration electoral successes. In 2021 with Covid-19 dominating the political agenda, immigration seems unlikely to have the disruptive political potential it had, particularly if it remains so difficult for Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis and others to actually get anywhere near Europe except via the very limited places available on official resettlement schemes.

Even so, keeping immigration a low-priority issue appears to be an overriding, and unifying, priority for European governments. This has resulted, first, in far higher spending on border controls, primarily in the form of new border fences and the EU’s own border security agency, Frontex, now armed, uniformed and with a budget projected to grow threefold in the next six years to around €1 billion, if nothing else a quiet leap for a particular vision of European integration.

Second, keeping immigration out of sight and thus out of mind has required ever-increasing reliance on non-member states to enforce deterrence and prevention for the EU, most notably with the EU–Turkey deal of 2016, recently extended, but also with deals across North Africa, funding of refugee hosting across the Middle East and South Asia and the precarious task of engaging with governments from the likes of Belarus, Egypt and even the Taliban.

Risks of the ‘hard’ deterrence focus

The Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed in September 2020 directs EU attention towards ‘irregularity’ rather than refuge and protection, including a focus on deporting rejected asylum applications – something mainly western EU member states called for this summer specifically for Afghans – while proposed forms of solidarity within the EU are explicitly ‘flexible’ to quell Eurosceptic narratives on sovereignty.

By contrast, free movement of persons within the EU has perversely been strengthened by the most fundamental constitutional effect of 2016 – Brexit – that actually accelerated public support for free movement elsewhere in Europe and got rid of the member state most explicitly opposed to it, despite the fleeting renegotiation it secured on the issue. However, even here we see some reimposition of border controls in Schengen, following the ‘migration crisis’, terrorist attacks and Covid-19, as well as a slowdown on enlargement.

Overall, motivated by a desire to keep immigration out of sight and out of the minds of voters, and so undermine Eurosceptic electoral threats, the EU is now far more able to prevent migrants reaching, let alone passing through, its borders. This consensus may now seem like a source of political strength, but neighbouring countries being unwilling to cooperate or actively using migration to ‘attack’ the EU could lead to salience rising amongst the public.

More fundamentally, the EU will have to back its rhetoric with a serious and necessarily costly commitment to protection beyond its borders that – being beyond the current consensus and with political attention and capital turned elsewhere – may prove harder to muster, with the risk of short-term deals, fixes and sanctions aimed squarely at prevention rather than protection.


James Dennison is part-time Professor at the Migration Policy Centre of the EUI, where he leads the Observatory of Public Attitudes to Migration (OPAM). He received his PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the EUI in 2017. He regularly advises European and international organisations on the politics of migration.

Andrew Geddes, Professor of Migration Studies and the Director of the EUI’s Migration Policy Centre, has led and participated in numerous collaborations on international migration, with academic and non-academic partners. In 2014-2019 he led an ERC-funded project on the drivers of global migration governance (MIGPROSP).