The Critical State of the Union

For anyone who still had faith in the European Union as a partnership for peace, an experiment in post-national democracy and an abode of human rights, 2015 was a sobering year. The reckoning started in January, once Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party won the general elections in Greece: the mandate they received from voters involved challenging the austerity programs that European institutions had hitherto imposed on Greece and, by that token, questioning the notion that a democratically elected government was required to subordinate the needs of its constituents to the claims of its creditors. After a six-month long standoff, however, and in spite of a referendum confirming the mindset of the Greek population, authorities in Athens were blackmailed into subservience. As the German Finance Minister had warned his Greek colleague at the onset of the negotiations, in today’s Europe, elections, regardless of the message they send, do not have the power to alter previously established rules.

Protesters gather in Athens
Supporters of the Oxi (“no”) vote gather in Athens on to celebrate the results of the Greek referendum on the EU austerity measures, July 15, 2015. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Did Alexis Tsipras have the means to reject the dictates of the Eurogroup, the collective body formed by the nineteen finance ministers of the Eurozone? Was he in a position to confront successfully the threat of a “Grexit” – the risk of seeing his country expelled from the European Monetary Union? Would Greece have been better off dropping the euro on its own accord, so as to regain its national sovereignty and emulate the defaulting strategies previously experimented by Ecuador, Argentina and Iceland? Alternatively, were there ways to wait long enough, in the face of the European Central Bank’s attempts to foment a run on Greek banks, so as to call the EU’s bluff – considering that forcing Greece to exit the euro was neither cost-free for its creditors nor even consistent with previously established rules? These questions will continue to haunt – and divide – the European left, at least until the next standoff between EU officials and the rebellious government of one of its member-states.

In the meantime, Greece keeps descending into destitution: the country’s GDP, which had shrunk by 25% between 2008 and 2014, dropped another 0.6% in the last three months of 2015, courtesy of “structural reforms” that contract domestic demand, undermine public services and, by way of cutting down fiscal revenues, contribute to the state’s insolvency. The only difference is that Syriza is now the enforcer of the measures purported to meet the conditions set by the so-called “quartet”1 for the renewal of its bailout loans. Reelected in September on the promise that he would balance the social protection of his more fragile constituents with his commitment to deliver on the primary budget surpluses requested of him, Alexis Tsipras can only note that the mood of his European “partners” has not become more conciliatory as a result of his post-referendum surrender – quite the contrary. For the leading members of the Eurogroup have little interest in the project of reconciling what a state owes to its citizens with the service of its debt, or even in letting anyone believe that such reconciliation is possible: their agenda is simply to hammer in that the latter must, in all circumstances, take precedence over the former – and thus to render the punishment of any recalcitrance sufficiently cruel and unforgiving as to deter other potential European offenders.2

Acting as the towering champion of fiscal discipline, the German government was remarkably successful in persuading its European partners that Syriza’s proposals and arguments had to be met with unwavering intransigence. Even the elected representatives of nations almost as debt-ridden and impoverished as Greece – from Ireland to Portugal – refrained from questioning Berlin’s contention that debtors cannot not be choosers – regardless of whether the crushing budgetary cuts demanded of them actually end up reducing their deficits. Yet, just a few weeks after Alexis Tsipras had agreed to sign the Third Memorandum of Agreement with Greece’s creditors – thereby consenting to join the European partnership for perennial austerity – Germany’s apparent hegemony suddenly proved less than pervasive.

While unchallenged in the realm of economic wisdom, Chancellor Angela Merkel was faced with formidable resistance when, in the closing days of August, she declared that welcoming asylum seekers on European soil – and especially refugees from war-torn Syria – was both morally mandatory and economically feasible. That the other European leaders were taken aback by her plea for hospitality is hardly surprising: for until her unexpected turn-about, the representation of immigration as a problem in need of tougher border control and increasingly dissuasive legislation had been the main area of consensus among EU member-states – Germany included. However, it is still noteworthy that the notoriously irresistible German influence, especially over its central and eastern European hinterland, did not extend to what Angela Merkel referred to as “fundamental European values.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looking to the left
German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her fellow Europeans for a more welcoming approach to refugees, August 31, 2015: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” (Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Indeed, in response to the Chancellor’s commitment to take in up to a million refugees in 2015, the governments of the so-called Visegrad group – Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic – decided to close down their borders unilaterally. They also made clear that they would not participate in any burden-sharing program regarding the reception of asylum seekers.  As for François Hollande, the French President, and David Cameron, the British Prime minister, they not only expressed their reticence to the welcoming approach of their German counterpart – vowing instead to limit the intake of refugees to 20,000 people in the next two years – but also argued for coupling any modicum of hospitality toward refugees with an even tougher approach to economic migration.

By the middle of the fall, Angela Merkel found herself increasingly isolated. Domestically, prominent members of her Christian Democratic party – and even of her own cabinet – openly expressed their discontent with her appeal to a Wilkommenskultur – a culture of hospitality – while the extreme rightist and “Europhobic” AFD party (Alternative for Germany) gained unprecedented popular support as a result of the Chancellor’s open border policy. Internationally, opposition did not merely come from the overtly xenophobic regimes of central and eastern Europe. Following the ISIS attacks in Paris, a number of European public officials took the position that the terrorist menace called for a more restrictive asylum policy. In Denmark, a country formerly known as liberal, a bill was discussed, and eventually passed, authorizing state agents to confiscate the valuables of refugees in order to cover the costs of their settlement. For their part, Finnish authorities chose to collect compensation in kind, making unpaid community service mandatory for asylum applicants. Even the governments of Austria and Sweden – the only two EU member-states that had initially followed Germany’s lead – respectively decided to reintroduce yearly quotas for refugees and to amend their legislation so as to make asylum more difficult to seek.

Desperately looking for a compromise that would save her both from reneging on her commitments, at least with respect to Syrian refugees, and from further alienating her partners, the German Chancellor eventually opted for a dual approach. On the one hand, in spite of the accusations of irresponsibility leveled at her by her European colleagues, she held fast on her refusal to tamper with Germany’s obligations under the Geneva Convention: if only on account of her country’s history, she argued, setting quotas for eligible asylum seekers was simply unacceptable. On the other hand, however, Angela Merkel found it more than acceptable to reduce the number of people seeking refuge in Germany indirectly, by means of reinforcing the control of the EU’s external borders.

The German Chancellor thus joined her voice to the European consensus according to which the proper response to the current “refugee crisis” involves (1) ramping up the patrolling capacities of EU agencies,3 (2) providing the various points of entry into EU territory with “hot spots” where unwelcome economic migrants will be identified and separated from certified refugees, (3) expediting the deportation procedures for those who have not been deemed worthy of Europe’s hospitality, and (4) increasing the number of so-called “safe countries of origin” – namely, countries deemed safe enough to disqualify their nationals’ applications for asylum.4 Though these measures are undeniably more likely to increase the death toll among the people trying to reach the European shores than to curb their determination to risk their lives, the rationale behind their promotion is that, with time, European citizens will get used to shipwrecks, the mass detention of asylum seekers and brutal deportation methods, treating them as no more than the regrettable yet unavoidable price to pay for their own protection.

While the collateral damage produced by armed border patrols and segregating hot spots may eventually help to desensitize the European population to the lot of refugees, in the short run, the sheer visibility of their tragedy is bound to tarnish any claim to a Wilkommenskultur. Therefore, in order to salvage her pursuit of a workable compromise between the display of German hospitality and the shoring up of “Fortress Europe,” Angela Merkel has urged her EU partners to reach an agreement with Turkey, with the goal of turning Turkish territory into a buffer zone. Under this putative deal, the government of Ankara would agree to prevent asylum seekers who transit through Turkey from continuing their journey – as well as to take in migrants deported by EU member-states. In exchange, Turkish authorities would not only be offered a resumption of the negotiations regarding a future EU membership and Schengen visas for Turkish nationals;5  they would also receive large sums from the EU to improve the efficiency of their border police and build more camps for the people entrapped in Turkey. Just as importantly, they would be assured of Europe’s silent acquiescence to the dirty war waged by the Erdoğan regime against the Kurdish people  – both within and beyond Turkey’s borders.

The looming agreement between the EU and the Turkish government will certainly go some way, if it is effectively implemented, to hide the ugliest underside of European immigration policy. The facts remain, however, that Turkey already hosts more than two million Syrian refugees – twice as many as all EU countries combined – and that its border with the European Union is an extremely long and porous region. Consequently, regardless of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s zeal and Angela Merkel’s willingness to appease him, the European promoters of the so-called “Joint Action Plan” with Turkey are well aware that, given the dire prospects regarding the near future of the Middle East, asylum seekers will continue to cross the Aegean Sea and arrive in large numbers on the coast of Greece. Taking stock of this inconvenient prospect, EU officials are intent on innovating: whereas outsourcing the most sordid aspects of their immigration policy to non-member-states is a time-honored practice – in the early 2000s, a period when the Central Mediterranean area was the privileged route to Europe for African migrants, Muamar Gaddafi’s Libya was the EU’s partner of choice – what they are considering now is turning an actual member-state, namely Greece, into a buffer zone. Indeed, despite the wretched conditions of their economy and public institutions, the Greek authorities have recently been urged to keep a large proportion of the asylum seekers who reach Greek shores from pursuing their journey to their desired country of destination – Germany primarily, but also the UK or Sweden.

Migrants raft on the shore in Kos, Greece
Migrants arrive in Kos, Greece. (Alessandro Penso)

Does being treated as an internal transit country entitle Greece to equivalent compensations as those offered to Turkey – be it debt relief, the right to make more moderate spending cuts, or sizable European investments in Greek infrastructures, if only to help the Athens government host the people it is supposed to maintain (not to say detain) within the confines of its territory? Hardly. Contrary to Erdoğan, Tsipras has not been lured with Schengen visas but threatened with expulsion from the Schengen zone – i.e., threatened with another type of Grexit – if he does not comply with his country’s new assignment. Furthermore, since it is quite obvious that the near-bankrupt Greek state is in no position either to fund a police force capable of patrolling its borders efficiently or to provide public services and housing – even in the form of refugee camps – for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, the European plan is to have EU agencies – such as the future European Border and Coast Guard Agency – take on these tasks directly, thereby depriving Greek authorities of the last remnants of the sovereign power delegated to them by their constituents. In other words, Greece’s status is bound to evolve from a “debt colony” – as Alexis Tsipras used to call it, before becoming its chief administrator – to a full-fledged protectorate.

Situated at the epicenter of the continent’s ongoing brutalization, Greece is certainly not the only country where the toxic mix of never-ending austerity and ever-increasing inhospitality has turned the ideal of European unification – compromised as it was from the start by unaccountable decision-making and the disproportioned weight of business interests – into a grim and cruel reality. Though Portugal and Ireland are arguably faring a little better than Greece, these poster children of the Eurogroup’s gospel of fiscal discipline largely owe their slightly better statistics to the massive emigration of their own nationals since 2009 – especially among the young and educated segments of their populations.6 Equally disturbing is the contrast between the determination of European institutions to quell any challenge to their economic wisdom and their leniency vis-à-vis the suppression of civil liberties and publicly assumed racism that have become the templates of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his emulators in Slovakia and now Poland. Worse still, with the unfolding of its new frontier management strategy, the EU seems poised to promote Budapest’s little caudillo from humored “bad boy” to misunderstood visionary – at least with respect to dissuasive border control mechanisms such as razor edged fences guarded by heavily armed troopers.

At the EU-Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, on May 22, 2015, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, jokingly greeted the Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán by saying ‘Hello, Dictator.’ ‘Hello, Grand Duke,’ replied Orbán to Juncker, native from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

How did Europe acquire these features, which the last twelve months have brought into such stark relief? The ruling elite and its apologists will claim that, notwithstanding the difficulty of finding common ground among twenty-eight member-states, EU policies represent the best, or even the only, possible response to the consequences of two unexpected events dating back to 2011: namely, the sovereign debt crisis that hit several European countries in the wake of the Great Recession and the so-called Arab Springs, whose violent aftershocks have led to the current exodus of Middle Eastern refugees. However, one could also argue – as do many of the scholars, activists and artists featured in this issue – that the sorry face of contemporary Europe owes less to these allegedly external shocks than to the ways in which the governing agencies of the European Union have interpreted and responded to them.

Indeed, as the bailing out of private banks and the chaotic fall of Arab dictators respectively increased public deficits and the northward movement of populations from North Africa and the Middle East, European policy-makers predicated their reactions on two interlocked, and equally counterintuitive, assumptions: in their view, resorting to austerity measures would facilitate the economic recovery of countries plagued by unsustainable debt and massive unemployment, while curbing immigration was necessary to preserve the social compact on a continent characterized by its rapidly aging population.

Economically, the reasoning was that Europe’s prosperity, regardless of circumstances, depends on the attractiveness of its territory in the eyes of investors. Insofar as purveyors of credit tend to be lured by flexible labor markets, light taxes on capital gain, a lean public sector and loosely regulated industries, European leaders asked their constituencies to believe that the road back to affluence was paved with scarce and precarious jobs, shrinking benefits and bankrupt public institutions. Politically, however, governments beholden to investors must grapple with the risk of placating financial markets at the expense of voters. Thus, in order to ward off accusations of neglect, EU officials sought to demonstrate that, short of shielding their citizens from social and economic insecurity, they remained capable of protecting them against a different peril – to wit, the demographic and cultural menace attributed to migrants. Though inhospitality does nothing to improve the lives of Europeans, their elected leaders found that investing in border control and ramping up the deportation of undocumented foreigners was an expedient way of conveying that they could still act on behalf of the people who had elected them.

Though briefly challenged in the course of 2015, first by Syriza’s resistance and then by Angela Merkel’s appeal to a Wilkommenskultur, the combination of “restorative” austerity and “protective” inhospitality devised by European authorities in the wake of the Arab springs and the sovereign debt crisis of 2011 offers a clear blueprint of what the EU stands for in the winter of 2016. Yet, the increasingly brutal treatment of Europe’s own struggling populations and of newcomers seeking its hospitality still raises pressing questions regarding both the deeper roots and the sustainability of an economic and political regime preoccupied with attracting investors while repelling migrants.

Firstly, why it is that some of the distinctive features of Europe’s relatively recent past – be it the attachment of its citizens to the social rights and protections of the postwar era or the fresh memory of the horrors resulting from state-sanctioned xenophobia in the interwar period – did not act as a more powerful deterrent? Or, to put it differently, when and under what circumstances did the social compromises of welfare capitalism as well as the much-vaunted association of European unity with human rights lose their currency among the managers of European affairs?

Secondly, what can the misery wrought by austerity programs and the ordeal endured by asylum seekers possibly hold for the near future of European institutions? Will the current custodians of the European project prove capable of persuading the citizenry that “there is no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher used to repeat – save for a formal blue-brown alliance between them and the resurgent extreme-right? Conversely, will they be compelled to change their ways, either under the pressure of some new “crises” – whether another financial crash, an ecological disaster, or an acceleration in China’s economic downturn – or simply because investors, fickle and ungrateful as they are, will cease to regard the deflation-ridden gated community that Europe aspires to be as an attractive destination for their liquidities?

refugees scale fence of golf course in the Spanish enclave at Melilla, Africa
Asylum seekers attempt to cross the six-meter tall border fence blocking their access to Melilla, the Spanish enclave in North Africa on October 22, 2014. (Reuters/José Palazon)

Lastly, and most importantly for anyone who believes that a regime predicated on perennial austerity and sanctioned xenophobia is responsible for the critical state of the European Union, what would constitute a winning alternative? More precisely, how might the European left overcome its symmetrical yet equally defeating propensities to compromise with the present and idealize the past, so as to develop an agenda that neither gives in to the deficit fetishism of its neoliberal opponents nor simply longs for the golden days of welfare in one nation-state? Addressing these urgent questions is the purpose of “Europe at a Crossroads.”

Recommended citation: Feher, Michel. “The Critical State of the Union.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Europe at a Crossroads



28 JULY The “Convention relating to the Status of Refugees” is approved by the United Nations in Geneva. The multilateral treaty defines who is a refugee, sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum, and sets the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum.


4 DECEMBER Denmark is the first state to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention.


31 DECEMBER In one year, more than 200,000 Hungarians flee to Austria in order to escape from Soviet tanks.


25 MARCH The Treaty of Rome, which establishes the European Economic Community (EEC), is signed by the “Inner Six”: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. It proposes to create a common market within the EEC member-states to guarantee the so-called “Four Freedoms”: free movement of goods, services, capital, and people.


3 MAY Seven non-EEC member-states known as “the Outer Seven” – Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK – sign the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) convention. EFTA establishes an alternative common market that operates in parallel with, and linked to, the European Community.


12 February The Vice President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Raymond Barre, publishes a report in which he appeals to a “greater coordination of economic policies and monetary cooperation.” This report will lead to the decision of European heads of states to draw up a plan in order to create an economic and monetary union by the end of the 1970s.


16–17 October The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) declares an oil embargo. Also known as the “first oil shock,” the embargo impacts the global economy and politics. In Europe, this shock induces the end of the so-called “Golden Age of Social Democracy.”


19 September General elections are held in Sweden. For the first time since 1932, the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP) has to share power. During its longstanding dominance of Swedish politics, the SAP had implemented the so-called “cradle-to-grave” welfare system with the aim of protecting the Swedish citizens throughout their life. Swedish social reforms of 1945 to 1976 are generally portrayed as social democracy’s crowning achievements.


27 October The British President of the European Commission, Roy Jenkins, proposes to accelerate the European economic integration by creating a single currency valid in all the member-states of the EEC.


13 March In a period of international monetary instability, Helmut Schmidt, the German Chancellor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the French President, and Roy Jenkins, the British President of the European Commission, decide to make a concrete first step towards the economic and monetary union of the EEC member-states: the European Monetary System is created, with the aim of stabilizing European currencies and facilitating the fight against inflation.


10 May François Mitterrand wins the presidential elections in France: he becomes the first socialist President of the 5th Republic. The government of Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy will implement ambitious redistributive fiscal programs during the first two years of Mitterrand’s first term, along with a wide range of social reforms and a substantial increase in public investments. These policies significantly improved the living standards of the underprivileged populations as well as the rights of trade unions and wage earners.

18 October The Greek social democratic party led by Andreas Papandreou wins the general election by a landslide. The PASOK forms the first socialist government in the history of Greece. It will create a national health system, set up reforms in family laws that will improve women’s rights, and act to increase low wages.


19 September After the SAP wins the general election, a new social democratic government is formed in Sweden. However, the reforms passed by the Minister of Finance, Kjell-Olof Feldt, seem to be directly inspired by the Chicago School of Economics. They include the deregulation of financial markets and the privatization of state-owned companies. They result in a considerable redistribution of income from labor to capital. Yet, Feldt’s plans to freeze wages and ban trade union strikes will be rejected in the Parliament.


25 March In France, after two years in office, François Mitterrand makes a U-turn in terms of economic policies: the so-called “turn toward fiscal discipline” (“tournant de la rigueur”). Priority is henceforth given to the fight against inflation in order to remain competitive with regard to France’s European partners. The socialists also join the rest of Europe on the path to privatizations and the deregulation of financial markets.

25 March In France, after two years in office, François Mitterand makes a U-turn in terms of economic policies: the so-called “turn toward fiscal discipline” (“tournant de la rigueur”). Priority is henceforth given to the fight against inflation in order to remain competitive with regard to France’s European partners. The socialists also join the rest of Europe on the path to privatizations and the deregulation of financial markets.

6 July In his maiden speech in the House of Commons, Tony Blair declares: “I am a socialist not through reading a textbook that has caught my intellectual fancy, nor though an unthinking tradition, but because I believe that, at its best, socialism corresponds most closely to an existence that is both rational and moral. It stands for cooperation, not confrontation; for fellowship, not fear. It stands for equality.”


14 June Signature of the Schengen Agreement by five of the ten EEC member-states: Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. This agreement on the gradual abolition of common border controls will lead to the creation of Europe’s borderless Schengen Area.


17 February The Single European Act, which set the objective of establishing a single market within the European Community by 31 December 1992, is signed. The Single Act provides for the adoption of about 300 directives that would remove the physical, fiscal and political barriers that impede the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people.


9 November Fall of the Berlin Wall.

9 November Fall of the Berlin Wall.


1 July The last fetters to the free movement of capital are removed: exchange controls are abolished.

15 June The Dublin Convention is signed by Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. The principal aim of this regulation is to prevent an asylum seeker from submitting applications in multiple member-states within the European Community.

19 June The Schengen Convention proposes the abolition of internal border controls, a common visa policy within the EU and a reinforcement of police and judicial cooperation. Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Austria are the first countries to gradually enter the Schengen Area.

31 December After the fall of the Soviet Union, more than one million Eastern Europeans – mainly from Poland, Baltic states and Slovakia – emigrate to Western Europe.


31 March Beginning of the Yugoslav Wars, which will result in the death of at least 140,000 people.

26 September In France, Prime Minister Edith Cresson amends the law on immigration to limit the number of claims for asylum. Asylum seekers no longer have the right to work. Thirty-five years later, it is still one of the reasons why thousands of asylum seekers endure inhumane living conditions in Calais for months with the hope of reaching UK, where they would have the right to work as soon as they make an application for asylum.


7 February The Maastricht Treaty that creates the European Union is signed. It established the completion of the European Monetary Union as a formal objective and provides for the substitution of national currencies by euro. It also defines the convergence criteria – inflation rates, government finance, exchange rate and long-term interest rates – the member-states have to meet for being allowed to adopt euro as their currency. One of the main obligations stated by the treaty is to keep “sound fiscal policies, with debt limited to 60% of GDP and annual deficits no greater than 3% of the GDP.”

30 November A Council Resolution on “Manifestly Unfounded Applications for Asylum” is voted in London.

6 December After Germany receives about 400,000 refugees in one year (a record up to this point) due to the Balkan Wars, the CDU, the CSU, the SPD, and the FDP reach “a compromise” to amend the law on asylum. Their aim is “to prevent abuse of the right to asylum,” while continuing “to provide protection for foreigners who really are victims of political persecution.”


26 May Huge demonstration in front of the Bundestag in Germany. More than 10,000 people protest against the Amendment of the Basic Law restricting the right of asylum. Nevertheless, the MPs voted to validate the “compromise on asylum” they settled 6 months earlier.


1 January The European Monetary Institute (EMI), the forerunner of the European Central Bank (ECB), is created. It’s mission is to oversee the creation of the monetary union.

18 September The SAP once again returns to power in Sweden, but the “Swedish social democratic model” is definitely dead. The Ingvar Carlsson’s government introduces a new package of neoliberal measures, including the privatization of public services and assets. The welfare state shrinks further: drops in compensation rates for sickness, decreases in unemployment benefits, cuts in benefits for orphans, to name a few.

4 October The 50th anniversary of the IMF and the World Bank, celebrated in Madrid, is the scene of a protest by a variety of activist groups that will later go by the name of the “anti-globalization movement.”


1 January Austria, Finland and Sweden enter the European Union.

29 April In the UK, Tony Blair, who has just taken the helm of the Labour Party, initiates his modernization program with the rewriting of the Labour Constitution. The Clause IV, which expressed the Party’s commitment to socialism, is revised to give the Party a new statement of aims and values. Nationalizations are no longer part of the agenda and the “New Labour” vows to be more receptive to the free market and the middle classes.

October In an article entitled Power for a Purpose, Tony Blair writes: “There will inevitably be overlap between right and left in politics in the 21st century. The era of the grand ideologies, all-encompassing, all-pervasive, total in their solutions – and often dangerous – is over. In particular, the battle between market and public sector is over. The value systems and the objectives will, of course, be different but there will be some policy convergence and we should be relaxed not tribal about that.”


19 September Tony Blair declares: “Socialism as a rigid form of economic determinism has ended, and rightly. The objective – a modern civic society in which all individuals have the ability to develop their potential – places us firmly within the tradition of social democracy and democratic socialism.”


23 September Under the pressure of the upcoming deregulation of the European telecommunication market, which was decided by the European Commission, the French government opens the capital of the state-owned company France Telecom to the market. This is the first step in a wide program of privatizations undertaken by the Minister of Finance, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. During its term, the Socialist government sold about €35 billion of assets, a record in France, and made France the world’s second issuer of executive stock-options.

2 May After (New) Labour wins the general election by a landslide, putting an end to 18 years of Conservative governments in the UK, Tony Blair becomes the youngest British Prime minister since 1812.

2 June In France, Lionel Jospin, leader of the Socialist Party, becomes Prime Minister. His government focuses on employment, resorting to a number of neo-Keynesian measures, and succeeds in reducing the rate of unemployment from 12.2% to 8.6% in 5 years. Yet, while railing frequently against the ills of an unregulated globalization, the prime minister hardly strays from the European and international neoliberal framework, especially with regard to privatization and deregulation.

23 September Under the pressure of the upcoming deregulation of the European telecommunication market, which was decided by the European Commission, the French government opens the capital of the state-owned company France Telecom to the market. This is the first step in a wide program of privatizations undertaken by the Minister of Finance, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. During its term, the Socialist government sold about €35 billion of assets, a record in France, and made France the world’s second issuer of executive stock-options.

11 December In the UK, Tony Blair’s plan to cut benefits to single parents sparks the first major rebellion within Labour’s ranks in the House of Commons.

1 October The Dublin Convention comes into force in Austria and Sweden.

2 October Signature of the Amsterdam Treaty. The EU becomes responsible for legislating on immigration. The Schengen Agreements are incorporated into its legal system.


1 June The European Central Bank (ECB) officially replaces the European Monetary Institute. The conversion rates between the 11 participating national currencies and the euro are established. The Bank was the final institution needed to settle the European Monetary Union.

1 July The Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) comes into force. This fiscal monitoring of member-states’ budget deficit and debt is created to ensure and enforce budgetary discipline within the European Union after creation of the single currency. This agreement was initially proposed by German Finance Minister Theo Waigel in the mid-1990s.

21 September Bill Clinton and Tony Blair hold a conference in New York: the Third Way, which aspires to be an alternative to both capitalism and traditional forms of socialism, is officially launched. While they don’t embrace the neoliberal claim that everything must be left to free markets, its promoters consider that the old social-democratic faith in state interventionism is now outdated.

October The British sociologist and then director of the London School of Economics, Anthony Giddens, publishes The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. He argues that the class-based divisions of left and right are now superfluous and that reformist governments can no longer rely on traditional statist programs in the face of powerful global financial forces.

27 October Gerhard Schröder, leader of the SPD, becomes Chancellor of Germany.

1 January The Dublin Convention comes into force for Finland. Non-member states Norway and Iceland conclude agreements to apply the provisions of the Convention in their territories.


1 January The euro is officially introduced in Europe. It will be only used for financial dealings until the introduction of its physical form in 2002. The national currencies of the Eurozone member-states cease to exist independently. All bonds and other forms of government debt are, from then onwards, denominated in euro.

25 April Along with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, the Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, and the Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D’Allema attend a round-table discussion in Washington DC on “The Third Way: Progressive Governance for the 21st Century.”

9 June Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair publish a joint document, “The Way Forward for Europe’s Social Democrats,” which calls for radical reforms in the organization of welfare state as well as unhindered economic deregulation and liberalization – a process already very much under way in the UK, but not in Germany. “Product, capital and labour markets must all be flexible,” write the two social democratic leaders.

13 September In France, Lionel Jospin is interviewed on an evening TV news program after the Michelin tire company announces that, regardless of record profits, it plans to lay off 7,500 workers. The giant firm justifies the move by claiming that financial markets are asking for better returns on their investments. In response to the outcry provoked by Michelin’s statement, the Socialist Prime Minister admits his powerlessness: “The state can’t do everything.” “I don’t think we can regulate the economy with laws anymore,” says Jospin.

September After a growing number of refugees were found in the streets of Calais and surrounding towns – which became the northern border of Schengen Area and the main crossing point to reach the UK – the French socialist government creates a humanitarian emergency shelter in Sangatte. This center, run by the Red Cross, had the capacity to house 700 people.


23 March The European Council introduces the Lisbon Strategy in order to deal with the low productivity and stagnation of economic growth within the European Union. The Lisbon Strategy aims to “make Europe the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world,” by 2010.


18–22 July About 200,000 people from the anti-globalization movement protest at the Genoa G8 Summit. While social democratic leaders have endorsed the neoliberal doctrine and made their peace with the fact that markets dictate economic policies, within civil society, left-leaning movements refuse to comply with Margaret Thatcher’s contention that “there is no alternative.” All the future European leaders of the radical left – from Alexis Tsipras to Pablo Iglesias – were among the the demonstrators in Genoa.

25 March The Schengen Area is enlarged to include Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

27 December 1,470 would-be asylum seekers, mainly Afghans and Iraqi Kurds, are registered in the Sangatte Refugee camp, living in very precarious conditions in a center built to receive a maximum of 700 people. They paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to travel from their home country to the UK, but are stuck at the entrance of the Channel Tunnel.

31 December In one year, 7 migrants died when hit by trains during their attempt to reach the UK through the Channel Tunnel.


1 January Euro becomes the main currency across Europe. The United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden do not participate in the euro regime. The UK and Denmark had asked to opt-out during the negotiations of the Maastricht Treaty. Sweden doesn’t meet the convergence criteria. After a referendum in 2003 reveals 55.9% of voter were against membership in the Eurozone, Sweden decides not to adopt the European currency.

21 April Lionel Jospin is severely defeated in the first round of the French presidential election – by Jacques Chirac but also by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme right.

22 September Gerhard Schröder wins a second term as German Chancellor with a narrow majority.

23 May Marc Gentilini, president of the French Red Cross, denounces “the untenable and inhuman situation” at Sangatte. He recalls that, before the center was opened, “migrants, including women and children, were sleeping out in the streets,” and warns that it would start again if the Refugee camp were closed down.

21 June The Seville European Council strengthens the externalization of asylum. The member states’ government leaders urge that “any future cooperation, association or equivalent agreement [. . . ] concluded with any country should include a clause on joint management of migration flows and on compulsory readmission in the event of illegal immigration.”

26 September Nicolas Sarkozy, French Interior Minister, and his British counterpart, David Blunkett, go to Sangatte to announce the closing of the Refugee Center. Responding to a woman who asked him where the migrants will go, Sarkozy answered: “Back home! The future of an Afghan is to participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

16 December The Sangatte humanitarian emergency shelter closes its doors. Thousands of people become homeless with no food, shelter, or care provided by the French authorities.


14 March The German Chancellor, head of a Social Democrat-Greens coalition, announces an in-depth reform of the social welfare system and the labor market. The so-called “Agenda 2010” involves drastic cuts in pensions, unemployment benefits and national health insurance. The new legislation makes it much easier for companies to lay off their employees.

15 January The automated fingerprint identification system, EURODAC, begins operating in all EU member-states, plus in Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. This database has been created to identify asylum seekers and irregular border-crossers, and to determine whether they have already applied for asylum in another member-state or have illegally transited through another state (“principle of first contact”).

18 February Signing of the Dublin II Regulation that aims to rapidly determine the member-state responsible for an asylum claim – the state in which an asylum seeker first enters the EU – and to provide for the transfer of an asylum seeker to that state.


1 May The European Union expands to include Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

29 October The Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe is signed by representatives of the then 25 members-states. Ten countries – Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain, Poland, the UK, Czech Republic, and Portugal – decide to submit the endorsement of this Constitution to their citizens by referendum.

14 March José Luis Zapatero brings the Spanish socialist party to power 8 years after the defeat of the former social democratic Prime Minister Felipe González.

14 October At a summit of 13 center-left heads of government in Hungary, Tony Blair warns that a Labour third term in the UK would see a clampdown on people “languishing on benefits.”

11 July Twenty days after rescuing 37 passengers from a dinghy sinking in international waters between Libya and Lampedusa, Cap Anamur, a ship belonging to a German aid agency, is finally authorized “for humanitarian reasons” to dock in Sicily. During these 3 weeks, Italy, Germany and Malta handed over the responsibility to one another, insisting that it was impossible to meet for fear of creating a “dangerous precedent which would lead to numerous abuses.”

26 October The European agency Frontex is created to manage the cooperation between national border guards and to secure the external borders of the EU. The main aim of Frontex operations is to detect and stop illegal immigration.


29 May French voters reject the EU proposed Constitution sending shockwaves across Europe. The Dutch reject it 3 days later. Although it was ratified by a majority of member-states, the project is hence abandoned.

1 January Hartz IV, the last of a series of labor market reforms in Germany, takes effect. “Mini-jobs” are created. While these reforms contribute to a gradual reduction in the unemployment rate, they also result in a wide increase of part-time work. They also introduce contractual relations, with economic sanctions, between “job-seekers” and “job-centers” – the idea being that the poor look for work only when they are no longer unconditionally assisted by the state.

22 April Tony Blair, British Prime Minister, talks about “the issue of asylum.” He proposes to “tighten the asylum system further” so as to be “fair to those who genuinely need asylum and who use the correct channels.”

5 May In the UK, the New Labour wins a historic third term at the General Election, albeit with a reduced majority.

7 May Spain declares an amnesty for about 700,000 illegal immigrants. On the February 7, Jose Luis Zapatero’s government opened a three-months qualification, during which illegal workers and their employers can apply for residency and work permits. “We can feel very satisfied,” says the labor minister, Jesús Caldera. “Almost 700,000 jobs brought out of the black economy – that represents 80% to 90% of all such jobs held by immigrants in Spain.”

22 November Angela Merkel, leader of the CDU, succeeds Gerhard Schröder. She becomes the first woman Chancellor of Germany.

22 April Tony Blair, British Prime Minister, talks about “the issue of asylum.” He proposes to “tighten the asylum system further” in order to be “fair to those who genuinely need asylum and who use the correct channels.”

7 October In Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco, the anti-migrant border-fence is assaulted by hundreds of people. Caught between Spanish rubber bullets and Moroccan gunfire, about 15 migrants died and more than 50 are injured. The same day, a group of about 500 men, women and children are found in the Sahara by Doctors Without Borders. After being expelled from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, they had been brought by the Moroccan police to the desert and abandoned there without food or water.


15 March Tony Blair’s controversial school reform is adopted by MPs, but only because of Tories’ support. Schools are encouraged to “acquire a trust” and thus be funded by private sponsors (businesses, charities, faith groups, etc.). With this law, the state vows to become a less important direct provider of services and, instead, calls for more public-private partnerships.

4 July In Slovakia, after the social democratic party (SMER-SD) wins the general election with only 29.1% of the votes, its leader, Robert Fico, forms a coalition government with a nationalist and a right-wing populist party to become the Prime Minister. The Assembly of the Party of European Socialists (PES) reacts by suspending temporarily SMER’s application to join the PES. During the campaign, Robert Fico pledges to meet the requirements – spending cuts and market deregulations – that would enable his country to quickly enter the Eurozone.


1 January Bulgaria and Romania enter the EU.

16 July In the USA, following a major increase in defaults on mortgage payments, the investment bank Bear Stearns announces that two of its hedge funds have collapsed. The news produces cascading sales of mortgage-related securities that will eventually lead to the so-called “subprime crisis.”

13 December The Treaty of Lisbon is signed. For the first time, an accord gives member-states the explicit legal right to leave the European Union, and details the procedure to do so. The treaty includes a great number of reforms that appeared in the Constitution rejected by the French and the Dutch two years earlier.

5 June Three weeks before succeeding Tony Blair as British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, gives a speech promising “British Jobs for British Workers.”

21 December Schengen border-free zone is enlarged to include Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Later they will be joined by Switzerland and Liechtenstein.


15 September The international investment bank Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt. The ECB releases €125 billion in one week in order to prevent the collapse of the European banks hit by the subprime crisis.

29 September The Irish economy is the first to go in recession. Ireland’s deficit reaches 7.2% of the GDP, far above the limit of 3% imposed by the Maastricht Treaty. The Irish government announces that it will provide an unlimited guarantee on all deposits and loans in order to avoid a bank run.

8 October Responding to major drops in the stock market during the first week of October, the government of the United Kingdom puts up a €850 billion package to rescue British banks.

9 October The Icelandic government nationalizes the three main banks of the country and warns of the risk of a national bankruptcy.

7 February Because of the violations of the rights of asylum seekers committed by Athens’ government, Norway announces it will stop transferring any of them to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation. Finland announces a similar move two months later. Germany and Sweden only stop the transfer of unaccompanied children.

22 September French authorities dismantle Calais ‘Jungle’ camp. After the closure of Sangatte humanitarian emergency shelter, thousands of asylum seekers remained there, homeless, camping in the woods near the harbor of Calais and waiting for the opportunity to reach the UK.


23 July Faced with a major banking, monetary and fiscal crisis, Iceland officially files for EU membership in the hope that joining the Eurozone will stabilize its economy.

4 October The PASOK wins with an absolute majority in the Greek general election. George Papandreou, the leader of the social democrats, becomes prime minister. Just eleven days after taking office, however, he publicly announces that the previous government has hidden the actual state of his country’s finances: the real deficit amounts to 12.7% of the GDP. This announcement marks the beginning of what will be a downward spiral for the Greek economy, caught in the vicious circle of recession and austerity.

8 December Financial markets tumble after Fitch downgrades Greece’s credit rating.

4 October The PASOK wins with an absolute majority in the Greek general election. George Papandreou, the leader of the social democrats, becomes the Prime Minister. Just eleven days after taking office, however, he publicly announces that the previous government had hidden the actual state of his country’s finances: the real deficit amounts to 12.7% of the GDP. This announcement marks the beginning of what will be a downward spiral for the Greek economy, caught in the vicious circle of recession and austerity.


3 February The European Commission backs Greece’s Stability and Growth Programme and urges it to cut its overall public sector wage bill.

15 March The financial crisis turns into a European sovereign debt crisis. Two weeks after – and only after – the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou bows to international pressure and announced a far-reaching austerity programme, European Finance Ministers agree to the technicalities of what will be the first rescue package in the history of the monetary union.

18 March George Papandreou warns that Greece will not be able to cut deficit if borrowing costs remain as high as they are – about 10%, and that the country may have to go to the IMF.

15 April Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, says there is no possibility of a Greek default, and no doubt that Germany will participate in the bailout despite serious objections from parts of German society.

27 April Standard and Poor’s downgrades Greece’s debt ratings below investment grade to junk bond status. The ratings agency also downgrades the Portuguese’s debt and issues a negative outlook warning that further downgrade to junk bond status is likely.

3 May The first Greek Memorandum of Understanding is finally signed after it was postponed for about two months because of some European leaders’ deep reluctance to bail the Greeks out.

9 May The 27 EU member-states approve the creation of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) to “safeguard financial stability in Europe by providing financial assistance” to Eurozone states in economic difficulty. The EFSF is authorized to borrow up to €440 billion that may be combined with loans up to €60 billion from the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism, and up to €250 billion from the IMF, to obtain a total crisis fund of up to €750 billion.

12 May After Zapatero had promised he would “not make workers pay for the crisis”, his government, under the pressure of the EU and investors, makes a spectacular political U-turn. The Spanish Prime Minister takes drastic austerity measures to reduce the deficit. He announces spending cuts of €15 billion over 2 years, including a 5% cut in civil-service pay, stagnant pension benefits, and €6 billion reduction in public sector investments. Zapatero expresses his regrets about the “obvious social impact” of such measures, while the other leaders of the Eurozone, anxious to avert a Spanish debt crisis, welcome them with relief.

22 November An emergency session gathering European Finance Ministers, the ECB and the IMF is held. After having put up €110 billion to rescue Greece from a sovereign debt default few months earlier, they agree to bail out Ireland up to €90 billion in order to “safeguard financial stability in the EU and in the euro area.” This rescue package will entail a three-year austerity programme in Ireland.

11 May After Labour loses the General Election, Gordon Brown resigns as the Prime Minister. The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron succeeds him.

12 May After Zapatero had promised he would “not make workers pay for the crisis,” his government, under the pressure of the EU and investors, makes a spectacular political U-turn. The Spanish Prime Minister takes drastic austerity measures to reduce the deficit. He announces spending cuts of €15 billion over 2 years, including a 5% cut in civil-service pay, stagnant pension benefits, and €6 billion reduction in public sector investments. Zapatero expresses his regrets about the “obvious social impact” of such measures, while the other leaders of the Eurozone, anxious to avert a Spanish debt crisis, welcome them with relief.

17 December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old jobless Tunisian, burns himself to death after police brutally seized the fruits and vegetables he was selling in the street. Two days later, hundreds of young Tunisians gather to protest. The Arab spring begins.


6 April José Sócrates, the resigning Prime Minister, announces that Portugal, facing a status of bankruptcy, will request financial assistance from the European Union and the IMF. One year earlier, before the country became a victim of pressure from bond traders, rating agencies, and speculators, Portugal had one of the best rates of economic recovery in the EU.

16 May The Eurozone leaders officially approve a three-year €78 billion bailout programme for Portugal, which becomes the third country after Greece and Ireland to receive emergency funds. Two months later, the new Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, will announce a wide package of austerity measures. In the following year, the Portuguese unemployment rate will rise from 12.3% to 17.3%.

6 July Moody’s downgrades Portugal’s credit rating to junk status. It also speculates that the country could request a second bailout just as Greece did, but Portugal will not. It will exit the Troika’s bailout on May 2014.

12 March Portugal is the first European country to develop an “indignant” movement: Geraçao a rasca (“Generation left behind.”) The March 12 Movement, organized without political parties or trade unions support, sees more than 300,000 citizens who define themselves as “non-partisan, secular, and peaceful,” protest against austerity in the Portuguese streets. This demonstration, the biggest since the 1974 Revolution, further undermines the already shaky legitimacy of the socialist government of José Sócrates who resigns eleven days later.

15 May The Indignados movement emerges in Spain. The main motives of the movement are the influence of financial institutions over policy-making and the austerity measures adopted as a response to Spain’s worst economic crisis in decades. The so-called 15-M is launched with gatherings of more than 130,000 Spanish citizens throughout the country.

20 November A snap election is held in Spain. Reeling from the austerity measures taken by the Zapatero government, the PSOE endures its worst result ever in a general election since the Spanish transition to democracy. The conservative Popular Party receives an absolute majority of seats and Mariano Rajoy becomes Prime Minister.

January Uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Lebanon.

14 January President Ben Ali flees Tunisia.

11 February In Egypt, the President Hosni Mubarak stands down and hands power to a military council.

17 February Protest movement spreads to Libya.

13 March Human rights activists warn international media that Iran’s Islamic regime is using child soldiers to repress anti-government demonstrations.

18 March Protest movement spreads to Syria. Security forces kill at least five protesters in the city of Daraa.

27 March “Left-to-die boat case”: 72 migrants on a rubber boat are left to drift for 14 days in the Mediterranean, although Coast Guards and NATO military forces were informed of their distress. Only 9 passengers survived.

22 April Fearing the incremental arrivals of Libyan and Tunisian migrants from Italy, France looks to restore border controls within the Schengen area.

28 April At least 500 pro-democracy protesters are believed to have been killed by the Assad government security forces since the beginning of the uprising. Thousands of civilians have been arrested and many have gone missing. A divided UN security council fails to agree on a statement condemning the Assad regime’s violence.

29 April In Syria, Hamza al-Khatib, 13, is arrested by the security forces. His mutilated corpse will be released to his family one month later.

30 April NATO airstrike kills one of Gaddafi’s sons and three of his grandsons in Tripoli.

9 May EU imposes an arms embargo on Syria, but doesn’t penalize Assad personally. Tanks enter Homs.

10 May Syrians start to flee to neighboring countries, especially Lebanon.

19 May After two months of brutal repression of pro-democracy protesters and civilians, the USA and the EU impose sanctions on Bashar al-Assad for the first time. President Obama urges Assad to lead the democratic transition “or get out of the way.”

17 June The Italian government signs a Memorandum of Understanding with the Libyan National Transitional Council. This document focuses on measures to reduce illegal immigration. The two countries commit to cooperate on the repatriation of migrants.

27 June The ICC issues an international arrest warrant for Gaddafi for charges concerning crimes against humanity.

20 October After a long manhunt, Muammar Gaddafi is captured by a militia and is beaten and stabbed to death.


9 June After the collapse of an enormous housing bubble that plunged Spain into a severe crisis, the Eurogroup agrees to provide up to €110 billion to the Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring to the Spanish government. Like the rescue packages granted to others member-states facing economic difficulties, this bailout programme will be subject to stringent control from the Troika – austerity measures having to be strictly and rapidly applied.

25 June The Cypriot government requests financial assistance from the EU after the ratings agency Fitch downgrades bonds issued by Cyprus and disqualifies them for being accepted as collateral by the European Central Bank.

27 September The European Union establishes the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). The objective of this intergovernmental organization is to safeguard Eurozone and provide instant access to financial assistance programmes for its member-states burdened with financial difficulties.

6 May In France, François Hollande, leader of the Socialist Party, wins the presidential election. Though elected on the promise that he would renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty so as to combine growth with fiscal discipline, he rapidly bows to Angela Merkel’s refusal to modify her priorities. Moreover, barely a month after being elected, Hollande visits Athens in order to urge Greek voters to choose the Conservative leader Antónis Samarás over Alexis Tsipras, the candidate of the anti-austerity left. “If the impression is given that the Greeks want to move away from the commitments that were taken [. . . ], there will be [European] countries that will want to end the presence of Greece in the Eurozone,” warns Hollande.

15 September In Portugal, after the conservative Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, announces an increase in workers’ social security contributions amounting to a net monthly wage, the movement of angry citizens formed the previous year gathers about one million people in a demonstration throughout the country. Their motto: “The Troïka can go to hell! We want our lives!”

17 December Greece completes the three-year-long construction of a ten-kilometer-long wall along its border with Turkey to stop the entrance of migrants. From now on, the only way for migrants to reach Greece is the perilous path across the Aegean Sea.


16 March After tough negotiations between Cyprus and the Troika over the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding, a €10 billion bailout is officially accepted by the Eurogroup, the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF.

15 December Ireland is the first country to exit the Eurozone bailout programme. The Minister of Finance Michael Noonan describes the crisis as the “biggest catastrophe” in the country “since The Famine.” “The real heroes and heroines are the Irish people,” Noonan says.

20 June Amnesty International reports the use of torture on asylum seekers and migrants in Libyan detention camps, partly financed by the EU within its framework against illegal migration policy and border security cooperation with third-countries. Libya holds thousands of migrants, including children, indefinitely, without any hope of release. The NGO decries the deplorable conditions in these so-called “holding centers.”

3 October A boat with about 500 migrants on board sinks near the island of Lampedusa. 366 people die. This is the first in a long list of tragic shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea.

18 October The Italian government launches the Operation Mare Nostrum, a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. By rapidly detecting boats in distress and bringing help to their passengers, the Operation saved over 170,000 migrants in one year.


17 January In Spain, Pablo Iglesias officially launches Podemos, a political party that claims to be the political translation of the 15-M movement.

25 May With the European Parliamentary election, the radical, or anti-austerity, left becomes visible within the EU political frame. In Spain, Podemos wins 5 seats, getting a much higher score than what polls had predicted. In Greece, Syriza becomes the largest party with 26% of the votes. The same day, Syriza’s Réna Doúrou is elected Regional Governor of Attica (the vast metropolitan area of Athens). This victory marks a turning point in Syriza’s rise to power.

26 June In Spain, the manifesto entitled Guanyem Barcelona (“Let’s Win Barcelona”) is published. The first signatories – social activists, university professors, journalists – explain why they decided to move from the ranks of the social movements to the electoral arena: “The hour has come to reclaim the institutions so that they serve the majority of the people and the common good.” From Barcelona City Hall, they hope to orchestrate a “democratic rebellion” that would serve as an example for Spain and Europe as a whole.

31 October After Italy failed to obtain funds from other EU member-states to continue Operation Mare Nostrum, it put an end to the operation. Italy could not handle the cost of Mare Nostrum beyond its first year, which proved too expensive (9 millions euros per month) for one country to support by itself.

1 November Mare Nostrum is superseded by the Operation Triton, a border security operation conducted by the EU agency Frontex. This operation, with a budget four times less than the one dedicated to Mare Nostrum by Italy, is far less effective than the one it replaced. Compared to the same period in 2014, the New York Times reports that early 2015 saw a 1600% increase in the number of migrants who drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.


12 March Iceland announces that it has officially dropped its bid to join the European Union. “Iceland’s interests are better served outside the European Union,” the Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson writes on his website.

13 March European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker calls on European governments to show solidarity with Greece after the German Minister of Finance, Wolgang Schäuble, warns of “an accidental” Grexit from the Eurozone – a Grexident: “As the responsibility, the possibility to decide what happens only lies with Greece, and because we don’t exactly know what those in charge in Greece are doing, we can’t rule it out,” says Schäuble.

5 July The Greek government organizes a referendum to decide whether Greek people have to accept the bailout conditions – a new package of austerity measures – dictated by the country’s creditors. More than 60% of the voters answer Oxi (“No”). Describing the vote as a “historic decision,” Alexis Tsipras says the rejected package amounted to “blackmail for the acceptance on our part of severe and humiliating austerity without end and without the prospect of ever prospering socially and economically.” However, barely a week later, the prime minister will stun his constituents by agreeing to the even harsher program that Athens’ European partners have devised in the wake of – and in retaliation against – the referendum.

11 July During a meeting of the Eurogroup, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Minister of Finance, proposes a plan that would require Greece to transfer €50 billion state assets into a trust fund in Luxembourg in order to pay down its debt and stay in the Eurozone. The yields of the privatizations should not pass through Athens but directly go to the Greece creditors.

25 January Syriza, the anti-austerity party of the left wins the General Election in Greece, just short of an outright majority. Alexis Tsipras becomes Prime Minister and vows to end the “vicious cycle of austerity.”

24 May Ada Colau, the anti-evictions activist, leader of Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common”), wins the municipal election and becomes the Mayor of Barcelona, the second largest city of Spain. Across the country, leftist candidates stemming from the 15-M movement win 5 City Councils elections. Manuela Carmena, a former judge and an indignada leader of the coalition Ahora Madrid, becomes the Mayor of the capital, Madrid.

5 July The Greek government organizes a referendum to decide whether Greek people have to accept the bailout conditions – a new package of austerity measures – dictated by the country’s creditors. More than 60% of the voters answer Oxi (“No”). Describing the vote as a “historic decision,” Alexis Tspiras says the rejected package amounted to “blackmail for the acceptance on our part of severe and humiliating austerity without an end and without the prospect of ever prospering socially and economically.” However, barely a week later, the prime minister will stun his constituents by agreeing to the even harsher program that Athens’ European partners devised in the wake of – and in a retaliation against – the referendum.

28 August Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, proposes to create a “network of refuge cities” in Europe. In the first 24 hours after Barcelona’s City Hall published an email address for citizens who want to help, about 1,200 offers of assistance will be registered, from housing to language lessons.

12 September In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, the candidate of the left wing of the Labour party wins the leadership contest with an overwhelming majority of votes. During the campaign, he has claimed that the party needed to break with the New Labour era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. People are “fed up with the injustice and the inequality” of Britain, proclaims Corbyn after his victory.

20 September After Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agrees to a crushing Eurozone-led austerity program, the so-called Third Memorandum of Agreement, and announces his resignation on the 20th of August, a snap general election is held in Greece. It results in a new and unexpectedly large victory for Syriza.

25 October In Poland, the right and the far right win all the parliamentary seats in the General Election. The left totally disappears from the Parliament.

26 November In Portugal, António Costa, leader of the Partido Socialista, becomes the Prime Minister. Although his party came second in the General Election, Costa succeeded, much to everyone’s surprise, in forming an alliance with the other parties of the left (the Communist, the Green and the Left Bloc): while these parties did not enter Costa’s cabinet, they committed to support the new Prime Minister in the Parliament, and thereby granting his government the majority. As for his agenda, the new Prime Minister has cautiously pledged to tamper with the austerity programs imposed on Portugal by its EU partners.

20 December The Spanish General Election marks the end of the hegemony of the two establishment parties over the political landscape. Together, the ruling conservative party, Partido Popular, and the PSOE, its socialist opponent, gather barely 50% of the votes. Podemos ranks third and receives over 5 million votes.

12 April More than 400 people died when their boat sank off the coast of Libya.

18 April 800 migrants die in another tragic boat disaster in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy. Children between the ages of 10 and 12 were on board.

30 April 1,300 migrants die at the external EU borders in the period of only a month.

11 May Amnesty International reports abduction, torture and rape of migrants in Libya.

23 June In opposition to the Dublin Regulation, Hungary stops receiving the asylum applicants who were fingerprinted in its territory and later crossed the border to another EU country.

13 July Hungary begins erecting a 175-kilometers razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia.

4 August Bulgaria builds the final part of a large razor-wire fence, begun in November 2013, along its border with Turkey. The country used the 15 millions euros it received from the EU for border protection to erect this wall adorned with watchtowers and thermic cameras, with a total cost of 46 millions euros. Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in Europe.

5 August France erects new razor-wire fences and installs extra security cameras at Calais to prevent migrants from trying to reach Britain. More than 3,000 refugees live in the so-called “Jungle.”

20 August Slovakia announces that it will only accept 200 Christian migrants.

24 August Germany decides to suspend the Dublin Regulation regarding the processing of Syrian refugees’ asylum applications, even if this is not the country where they entered the EU.

27 August The bodies of 71 refugees are found in the back of a truck that was abandoned on a highway in Austria.

28 August Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, proposes to create a “network of refuge cities” in Europe. In the first 24 hours after Barcelona’s city hall published an email address for citizens who want to help, it receives 1,200 offers of assistance, from housing to language lessons.

2 September The shocking image of a drowned three-year-old Syrian migrant, Aylan Kurdi, upsets Europe. The young boy lying facedown on a Turkish beach brings visibility to the desperate plight of refugees.

3 September A wave of sympathy for refugees in civil society, triggered by Aylan’s picture, compels responses from governments in Western Europe. The slogan “Refugees Welcome” goes viral, especially in Germany.

4 September The Hungarian government sets a trap for hundreds of refugees stuck in Budapest for days. Police officers make the migrants believe that a train is going to take them to Austria, but the convoy stops a few kilometers further near a refugee camp where all the passengers are locked up by force.

5 September Hundreds of German citizens welcome – with friendly messages, applause, food, clothes, and gifts – thousands of refugees in Munich and Frankfurt train stations.

6 September In one weekend, 18,000 refugees arrive in Germany.

7 September In France, François Hollande agrees to admit an extra 24,000 refugees over two years, but requires a stricter distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants at the external EU borders. Regarding economic migrants, the socialist French President says: “We can understand them, but not welcome them.”

11 September A video, filmed by an Austrian volunteer, shows migrants being fed “like animals in a pen” in a refugee camp in Hungary. The refugees scramble to grab food thrown above a fence by police officers wearing helmets and hygiene masks.

14 September Greece and Italy agree to the installation of hotspots on their external borders. The aim of these centers is to identify and fingerprint asylum seekers, and to filter out migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean in search of better economic circumstances.

22 September EU interior ministers approve a controversial plan to relocate 120,000 migrants across the continent over the next two years. Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic vote against these mandatory quotas. Finland abstains from the vote.

20 October The German Bundestag enacts the Act on the Acceleration of Asylum Procedures. This new law substitutes benefits in kind for cash benefits during the asylum process and deportation procedures are sped up for those who have been disallowed. Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo are added to the list of safe countries of origin, which means that their citizens no longer have a chance to obtain asylum in Germany.

11 November Slovenia erects razor-wire fence along its border with Croatia.

15 November Witold Waszczykowski, the foreign minister of the new Poland’s right wing government, says that Syrian refugees arriving in Europe should form an army to “liberate” their home country instead of “drinking coffee in the cafes of Berlin” while western soldiers face ISIS.

18 November Macedonia starts to erect a razor-wire fence at its border with Greece.

25 November Following the Paris terror attacks, Poland’s new Prime minister announces his country will refuse to take in its EU compulsory quota of 4,500 refugees.

29 November To stem the flow of refugee leaving the Turkish coasts to reach Europe, the EU offers Turkey 3 billion euros and the resumption of negotiations on its membership. In return, Ankara promises to tighten controls on its maritime border.

8 December Finland’s government announces that it will require asylum seekers to work for free and to acknowledge a “national curriculum” on Finnish culture and society, highlighting women and children’s rights. It will also reassess living conditions in the refugees’ home countries twice a year and possibly cancel residence permits if it decides that the situation has improved.

15 December The European Commission presents its proposal for a new European Border and Coast Guard Agency that would replace Frontex.

24 December In Germany, arsonists burn down a brand new asylum hostel that provided for housing 120 people. In 2015, the country witnessed more than 220 far-right attacks against refugees.

31 December In her New Year address, Angela Merkel urges Germans to see refugee arrivals as “an opportunity”; “Countries have always benefited from successful immigration, both economically and socially,” the German chancellor says. Germany welcomed 1.09 million refugees in one year.


18 February The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calls for its affluent members to ease up on austerity and spend more on public investments to boost growth.

17 February While the Portuguese and Spanish socialist respectively govern with popular support and enter into negotiations with the anti-austerity left in their respective countries, in France, Manuel Valls’ nominally socialist government presents a blueprint for a labor law reform that proves far more socially regressive than any project ever elaborated by the French right. Coupled with the open-ended state of emergency imposed by François Hollande after the November attacks on Paris – and the suppression of civil liberties that it entails – the French government’s new efforts to make the country more “competitive” signal that for some European socialists, breaking with the spirit of the “third way” is not part of the agenda.

1 January On New Year’s Eve, a wave of sex attacks and robberies committed by migrants in Cologne and other German cities shocks Germany. More than 1,000 complaints will be filed.

4 January Sweden imposes identity controls at its border with Denmark to restrict migrants. Denmark does the same at its border with Germany.

21 January The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, warns that the refugee crisis could put a definitive end to Schengen in the short-term.

22 January Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Foreign Minister, says that refugees who refuse to attend special integration training courses may see their social benefits cut. The day before, the Chancellor said that Austria would take measures to reduce the number of refugees.

25 January The EU threatens Greece with expulsion from Schengen Area if Athens doesn’t do more to halt the influx of refugees from Turkey.

26 January The Danish Parliament enacts a bill that allows police to seize refugees’ assets. The migrants will only be allowed to keep their items of sentimental value and 10,000 kroner ($1,465). Anything above this will be confiscated to cover the cost of asylum seekers’ treatment by the state.

28 January Anders Ygeman, Sweden’s Interior Minister, announces that his country is going to expel 80,000 asylum seekers.

1 February In Belgium, for the first time ever, a European government charters a plane with some one hundred asylum seekers on board. The passengers are all volunteers for repatriation to Baghdad. A few days earlier, one of them said on a TV report: “I’d rather die in Iraq than stay in Belgium.”

2 February Controversy in Belgium after Carl Decaluwé, governor of West Flanders, fearing that the port of Zeebrugge would become a “new Calais”, gave people of good will the warning: “Do not feed the migrants, or more will come.”

3 February Germany tightens its immigration laws to harden the reception of asylum seekers, facilitate their deportation, and introduce tougher criminal penalties. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are added to the list of safe countries of origin.

6 February In Prague, a social center that offered Czech language lessons to refugees is firebombed by about 30 anti-Muslims protesters. More than 20 people were inside the building.

11 February After Germany, Greece and Turkey ask for help, NATO deploys ships in the Aegean Sea together with the EU in order to stem the influx of migrants.

The Life and Time of the European Consolidation State

Since the early 1970s, Wolfgang Streeck argues, “democratic capitalism” has been striving to disavow its oxymoronic nature.1 What the author of Buying Time calls democratic capitalism is a political economy predicated on the conciliation of market competition with the entitlements granted by the outcome of democratic elections and collective bargaining between organized labor and capital owners. Though simultaneously beholden to two divergent guiding principles – merit measured by competitiveness and vested rights defined by social needs – this regime found a semblance of stability during the postwar period, at least in the developed countries of the Western bloc. An expanding welfare State, powerful unions and the commitment of political elites to full employment were the factors that enabled democracy and capitalism to live in relative harmony – for as long as the reconstruction of Europe and Japan generated a robust growth rate.

However, once the conditions under which postwar economies were able to grow rapidly and regularly ceased to exist, the tensions between the respective beneficiaries of capitalist meritocracy and democratic decision-making were quick to mount. Thus, to ward off a full-fledged regime crisis whereby “market justice” and “social justice” would be officially declared incompatible, Wolfgang Streeck explains that the custodians of “democratic capitalism” have endeavored to delay the day of reckoning by successively resorting to three expedients.

At first, Western governments sought to preserve full employment as their overarching macroeconomic objective without interfering with the nominal wage increases obtained by collective bargaining: consequently, they dealt with dwindling growth by letting the rate of inflation rise steadily. Insofar as wage earners kept their jobs and had their income pegged to the prices of goods and services, the stagnation of the economy largely spared them. Capital owners, on the other hand, saw the value of their assets falter. At the same time, by the mid-1970s, the dismantling of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates and the deregulation of oil prices provided them with fresh speculative alternatives to a low-yielding “real” economy. Thus, to prompt a change of course in monetary and fiscal policy, they raised the threat of an investment strike that would have made stagflation unmanageable – at least within the framework of a capitalist democracy.

The second phase of what Wolfgang Streeck describes as the “delayed crisis of democratic capitalism” started in 1979, when Paul Volcker, the newly appointed chairman of the Fed, responded to the grievances of capital owners by pushing interest rates to unprecedented heights – thereby quelling inflation once and for all. The ensuing recession, the author of Buying Time explains, compounded with the responsiveness of neoliberal governments to the calls for tax relief emanating from the business and middle classes, precipitated the morphing of an increasingly disabled “tax state” into a “debt state” whose governing agencies made up for declining fiscal revenues by borrowing an increasingly large share of the resources required to fulfill their missions.

The double context of globalization and financialization helped sustain the debt state for about a decade: institutional investors were eager to take in large amounts of putatively safe treasury bills issued by the richest countries, the latter’s rulers used their borrowed funds to ward off social unrest – which could have resulted from stagnating wages and precarious jobs – and the propertied classes understood that a ballooning public debt shielded them from higher taxes. However, by the turn of the 1990s, the size of budget deficits was such that the confidence of financial markets in the solvency of the debt state could no longer be counted on.

Initiated, in the United States, by the Clinton administration, the third expedient put in place in order to prevent the demise of democratic capitalism still involved debt. While elected officials promised and to some extent managed to consolidate their own budgets without raising taxes – thereby restoring the trust of investors in the quality of their bonds – they also succeeded in maintaining the acquiescence of the salaried classes – by virtue of giving them an unprecedented access to commercial credit. Thanks to the prowess and deregulation of financial engineering, private citizens were enticed to acquire with borrowed money what shrinking public services no longer provided – housing, pensions, health care, higher education. Though hampered, especially in the United States, by George W. Bush’s tax cuts and military expenditures, this early version of what Wolfgang Streeck designates as a “consolidation state” remained in place until the financial crisis of 2008 emphatically revealed its fault lines.

Dramatic as it turned out to be, however, the ensuing Great Recession did not act as a wake-up call for the leaders of the developed world. If the return of Keynesian wisdom – and thus of a revamped tax state – was briefly evoked at the outset of the downturn, what public intervention actually entailed was a swift, albeit brief, come back of the debt state – in the form of bailouts aimed at saving the financial institutions that were deemed too big to fail. Yet, as Wolfgang Streeck further recounts, the success of this rescue operation resulted in considerable budget deficits, and freshly salvaged investors were quick to express concern about the sustainability of the public debts to which they owed their survival. Thus, by 2010, the debt state gave way, once again, to a consolidation state.

Despite claims to the contrary, fiscal responsibility is not the chief concern of consolidators. While they certainly publicize their intention of balancing budgets, the purpose of their efforts is not to render the countries they govern less dependent on debt but to make sure that creditors will continue to lend them the funds they need at a reasonable rate. In short, consolidation is about sustaining the attractiveness of the State in the eyes of investors: credit, rather than self-sufficiency, is the name of the game.

Now, to retain the creditworthiness of the territory under their administration, governments are bound to give precedence to the tastes of the lenders who ensure their solvency over the wishes of the citizens who still vote them into office: in Wolfgang Streeck’s terms, the will of the “State’s people” (Staatsvolk) must be subordinated to the exigencies of the “financial markets’ people” (Marktsvolk). Thus, to the extent that postwar economic growth is no longer replicable, consolidation is bound to expose democratic capitalism to a peril that is symmetrical to, yet equally as lethal as, accelerating inflation: whereas runaway inflation amounted to a democratic corrosion of the conditions under which capital remains profitable for its private owners, consolidation gradually reduces democracy to an electoral competition between hardly distinguishable teams of consolidators.

The consolidation state, Wolfgang Streeck makes clear, is by now pervasive, at least throughout the developed world. Yet there are two notable specificities to its European variety. On the one hand, within the EU, and even more emphatically the Eurozone, the mechanisms through which democratic life is subordinated to the confidence-building measures demanded by investors are hard-wired in the institutions purported to deliver Europe’s unity – be it a Central Bank unaccountable to voters and chiefly concerned with price stability or a Treaty limiting the ability of national governments to run a deficit, regardless of circumstances. To put it bluntly, unification and consolidation have become de facto synonyms in the European context. On the other hand, however, European citizens, except in post-communist countries, are arguably more attached to the protective and redistributive features of the erstwhile tax state than their counterparts in the rest of the developed world.

The complex and potentially explosive entwinement between the resistances to austerity politics and to supranational agencies in European societies forms the background of the questions we have addressed to Wolfgang Streeck, regarding the near future of the European consolidation state.

Symbol of European Union in Frankfurt, Germany
Golden stars of the EU flag decorate the euro symbol in Frankfurt, Germany.

MF: In your recent work, you describe how liberal democracies have gradually become what you call “Consolidation States,” a regime whose representatives make it their priority to sustain the value of their public debt in the eyes of investors. The champions of consolidation like to present themselves as traditional and virtuous “fiscal hawks,” that seek to reduce the burden represented by an excessive public debt in order to free their constituents from the hold of financial markets. What you show, however, is that their actual objective is not to alleviate the pressure exercised by bondholders but to deserve their undying confidence.

How are we to decipher the discrepancy between what consolidators actually do and the ways in which they legitimize their actions?

WS: Governments find it hard to tell their voters that the claims of financial investors must take precedence over those of citizens, for example, pensioners or patients. Appeal to old-fashioned bourgeois virtues such as thrift and financial prudence is less risky; so is the promise of fiscal autonomy that is being restored as a result of consolidation. The truth is, of course, that it is not political autonomy that is the objective of consolidation but shrinkage of the public sector, accompanied by extensive privatization of social insurance and public services, including even the military. The smaller the public sector, the more confident financial investors can be that their capital will be repayable and profitable. Typically spending cuts tend to come together with tax cuts for corporations and the rich, restoring the deficit and necessitating further spending cuts.

MF: Elected officials, you explain, are aware that giving precedence to the attractiveness of their countries in the eyes of bondholders is likely to damage their popularity among voters. Thus, in order to prevent a vote of diffidence against their agenda, they endeavor to eschew the political incidence of the discontent they generate by wresting the management of “the economy” from democratic scrutiny. Now, while demonstrating how the pursuit of consolidation disables democracies throughout the developed world, you also insist on the specificities of the emerging “European Consolidation State.” 

What are the latter’s distinctive features in your view, and how can it be compared and contrasted with the state of consolidation in the United States? 

WS: The European Consolidation State is vested in a supranational institution, called European Monetary Union. It comprises several national states and functions as a mutual surveillance and hierarchical enforcement machinery. Being supranational, it is even further removed from democratic control than the national governments. This is needed because the idea of a social welfare state is more deeply entrenched in Europe than in the United States. The U.S. doesn’t need supranational control to reassure “the markets” since consolidation at the expense of citizens in favor of creditors is ideologically uncontested there. Moreover, the United States, unlike European countries, commands the world’s reserve currency, which means that it can essentially print unlimited amounts of money to service its debt and creditors are happy to sit on a mountain of dollars (or can be forced to do so to the extent that their “national security” depends on American aircraft carriers). The U.S. is also the most important safe haven for global capital and can pay for its raw materials in its own currency.

MF: You argue that the strictures of the Economic Monetary Union (EMU) endow the few northern European countries whose public finances are consolidated – because their economic model has long been export-driven and inflation-averse – with the power to force their own choices and practices onto their partners – in particular those whose growth model is traditionally driven by domestic demand and a sizable public sector. In other words, under the guise of European integration, the architecture of the common currency institutes both a de facto hierarchy and a cultural homogeneity, whereby the representatives of member-states running a large deficit are coerced into imitating the ways of the governments whose budgets are balanced, even if such recipes turn out to be counterproductive – as is the case for Greece, where measures meant to consolidate the Greek public finances have in fact considerably increased the country’s public debt.

Do you think that, in an environment where investors’ mobility is unhampered, replacing the euro by national currencies will allow for a return to the “variety of capitalisms” of yore? Under current circumstances, aren’t financial markets capable of undermining the Keynesian proclivities of a government, regardless of whether it belongs to or defects from the Eurozone?

WS: There is no ideal currency regime in a capitalist world in turmoil. In my view, reform of the euro system must first and foremost provide for breathing space for the Mediterranean countries, breaking the stranglehold of Germany and the neoliberal fanatics at the European Central Bank (ECB) over their economies. Also, no full return to national currencies would be needed, only some degree of flexibility for individual countries concerning exchange rates. Right now we have a de facto gold standard in Europe, and it has been well-known since the 1930s that a gold standard is incompatible with democracy. Something like the original Bretton Woods regime with fixed but adjustable exchange rates would help. The euro could continue to exist, but for some or all member countries as a reference currency against which they could revalue or devalue, in a politically agreed-upon process.2 It was a shock to me that the Greeks had no Plan B when they were forced to accept their third “support package.” So they were unable to make something out of the Schäuble proposal of a temporary exit to readjust exchange rates. There is as a matter of fact no case of a country successfully restoring its competitiveness by deflating its economy without flanking by a downward adjustment of its currency. Incidentally, small and medium-sized European countries like Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway are doing a lot better than comparable EMU countries and note that they have not been attacked by speculation (the Soros robbery of the Bank of England is now almost a quarter century past).

MF: Though briefly disabled by the financial collapse of 2008, the European Consolidation State has successively weathered the Great Recession and regained its footing during the ensuing sovereign debt crisis. Yet, entrenched as it undeniably is, a number of recent events may prove challenging to the current regime of financial consolidation in the Eurozone. Our next questions pertain to these possible disruptions and, more generally, to the near future of the ongoing crisis of democratic capitalism in Europe.

The standoff between the first Syriza government and the representatives of Greece’s creditors ultimately concluded with Alexis Tsipras’ surrender to the austerity measures outlined in the “Memorandum of Understanding.” Yet, the various promoters of this outcome hardly agree on what should happen next. According to some – the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB – the second Syriza government will not be able to make good on its commitments unless it is properly sponsored – by the ECB’s “quantitative easing” program but also by a substantive “haircut.” Though equally convinced that Athens will not meet the objectives set by the Memorandum, others, such as the German finance minister and the chairman of the Bundesbank, believe that the only reasonable solution is not debt relief but Greece’s temporary or permanent exit from the Union. 

In your view, how serious is the ostensibly growing divide between these two approaches and, to the extent that the rift persists, which line is more likely to prevail? 

WS: I think the situation is not that simple. There is a lot of cheap talk here, also a lot of “buying time.” Quantitative easing cannot continue forever, and will never be enough to bail out the Italian banks and the Italian state when it comes to the crunch, not to mention the French banks and the French state. (Greece is tiny, and if it weren’t for the potential precedents of a Greek bailout, its debt would long have been absorbed by the rest of Europe. But even the Italians and the French were in the end against a Greek bailout because Renzi and Hollande were afraid of having to tell their voters that in addition to accepting neoliberal labor market “reform,” they would also have to cover the Greek debt owned by Italian and French institutions.) What the ECB is up to can only be guessed at; it is completely insulated from public control, even more than other central banks. The president of the ECB Mario Draghi, by the way, is an old Goldman Sachs hand and a member of the neoliberal Bocconi club. As I said, a Greek exit, temporary or not, if flanked by debt relief and investment programs (on which the Greeks could have insisted while the Germans could ultimately not have let the Greeks starve, or unilaterally declare insolvency), might have been a good start for a reform of a currency system that is increasingly turning out to be ungovernable. Now the misery in the Mediterranean including France will continue, the mood in Europe will sour from year to year and from crisis to crisis, and right-wing nationalist parties will continue to increase their shares in national electorates, eventually also in Germany. (I will never understand why people think the German electorate would accept the German government subsidizing the economies and the public finances of the Mediterranean countries on behalf of BMW and Audi. Most German voters don’t work for them, and otherwise they are exactly like voters in other countries.)

MF: At once the template and the leading component of the European Consolidation State, Germany relies on the performance of its export industry – especially in non-European markets – to maintain its symbolic and material dominance over its European partners. 

How do you assess the significance of the considerable slowdown currently affecting the Chinese economy, but also of the recent scandals shaking the reputation of the German industry, for Germany’s capacity to hold on to its time-honored economic strategy, and thus to remain the role model that the rest of the Eurozone is compelled to emulate?

WS: Honestly I don’t know, and I think nobody knows. Whether the Germans want to “compel” the other Europeans to become global export champions I really doubt; the same holds for “symbolic dominance” or being a “role model.” For the German export industry it’s enough if you buy its products. Put otherwise, in capitalism you want to make profits, not love. It is true, however, that China and the U.S. are ultimately more important than Europe for the German economy, and any slowdown or crisis in China can be a disaster for it (also any lowering of economic inequality in the United States, which would suppress demand for luxury cars). On the question of VW: we will see. Usually corruption has little influence on market shares; see Siemens, or Bank of America.

MF: On August 30th of this year, Angela Merkel declared that, in light of the ongoing influx of people seeking refuge in Europe – but also in light of Europe’s economic capacities and demographic needs – a more welcoming stance on immigration was both morally mandatory and materially auspicious. In the subsequent weeks – and more drastically since terrorist attacks hit Paris, on November 13th – the German Chancellor’s statement has been met with a growingly fierce opposition, from her European partners and even from within her own government. 

Insofar as living conditions in certain regions of the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans – not to mention the most impoverished countries of the EU – are not likely to improve any time soon, how do you envision that the potential shifts in Europe’s immigration policy will impact the current European consensus on financial consolidation – especially considering that the changes could involve substantial public investments in housing and education so as to accommodate migrants, but also equally massive investments in military equipment and detention camps so as to repel them in the name of the never-ending war on terror? 

WS: This is another complex story. Right now the German government seems, or pretends, to believe they can shoulder the expenses for the new immigrants out of current tax receipts, or in the worst case by rededicating a tax surcharge initially devoted to rebuilding East Germany. Most other countries aren’t taking any refugees at all, or have stopped taking them, so they would have no additional expenses in the first place. Detention camps, as far as I know, are not being planned; but in any case they would be cheap. The latter applies also to additional border police; unlike what Merkel claimed, it is technically not really difficult to close Europe’s Mediterranean border. The Turks would have to do most of the dirty work, and may in return be admitted to the European Union. The military will only be used for some feel-good bombing in Syria, Libya, Iraq, wherever; this, too, will not cost much.

MF: Debates among critics of austerity have centered on whether the EMU should be reformed or dismantled altogether – with either camp claiming that the other’s approach plays into the hands of extreme right nationalists. Yet, what the Greek “crisis” has revealed is twofold: on the one hand, European governing agencies are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep all member-states on the path of perpetual austerity; but on the other hand, even the people who suffer the most from the policies of the Consolidation State seem to fear that leaving the euro would render their condition even more dire.

In light of this apparent deadlock, how do you think anti-austerity parties and social movements will and should – not necessarily the same question – elaborate their platforms in the near future? How are they to argue convincingly that a change of majority in a single country can produce more felicitous effects than what the Syriza experiment eventually delivered?

WS: Austerity is the only common economic and fiscal policy possible as long as member states insist on their economic and fiscal sovereignty. All of them do this, including Greece, and most certainly France. The only exception may be Germany, but only because Germans expect a Europe without national sovereignty to be a German Europe (which is why the governments of the other countries prefer to carry out their neoliberal “reforms” on their own). As far as anti-austerity parties are concerned, the Greek capitulation was a disaster for them, and one of its results was the weak turnout at the recent Spanish election and the disappointing result for Podemos. Tsipras is now loved by the German government, and I can understand why: he has blown it the big way for the European Left. As I said before, as long as we still need national sovereignty in Europe as a protection against German Europeanism (in the same way as we need national sovereignty globally as a protection against American inter-nationalism), the only way forward is a rethinking of the European monetary system, and more generally a departure from the superstate project behind European integration. The formula in the Maastricht treaty, according to which the goal is “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,” sounds like a threat to a rapidly growing number of Europeans. If we do not want Marine Le Pen to be President of France sooner or later, we better begin a serious debate on what used to be called the finalité of the European integration project, with the aim of rebuilding Europe from the bottom up as a community of democratic nations, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all Europe constructed top-down and kept together by technocratic agencies like the European Central Bank.

MF: You explain that in a Consolidation State, employers are primarily accountable to their shareholders – to the detriment of other stakeholders, in particular their employees – while national governments give precedence to the demands of the bondholders in possession of their public debt over the wishes and needs of their constituents. Hence the sorry state in which labor unions and left-leaning political parties find themselves. You also signal that one of the major differences between the sovereign power granted to voters (the Staatsvolk) and the control exercised by investors (the Marktvolk) has to do with timing: people vote periodically, whereas financial markets auction bonds continually. 

Arguably decisive in the current subordination of the Staatsvolk to the Marktvolk, this pace imbalance raises the question of the possible paths toward a re-democratization of the polity. In other words, should the critics of consolidation invest their hopes in the restoration of relatively protected nation-states – in order to re-empower the agencies of “periodic” power such as unions and political parties – or should they endeavor to invent their own techniques and institutions of “continual” rating and auctioning power – in order to challenge investors on their own turf?

WS: A good question indeed, on which I have not thought enough. As an initial response, I do not find the two alternatives you mention necessarily mutually exclusive. My concept of democracy is not elitist-bourgeois but popular–proletarian: populist even, in the sense of the American reform politics in the interwar period. This means that any renewal of democratic government must be such that normal people, the famous little men and women in the streets, must be able to understand what political decisions are about and feel invited to add to the public discourse what they believe they need to say. Time-proven instruments “of ‘continual’ rating and auctioning power” that meet this criterion are strikes and demonstrations: the physical showing of political “body mass” in collective actions of protest or support. We need much more of this to break through the fabrications of the PR agencies and the technospeak of governments and central banks. From here on we will have to see.

Recommended citation: Streeck, Wolfgang (interviewed by Michel Feher). “The Life and Time of the European Consolidation State.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Imaginaries of German Economic Success: Is the Current Model Sustainable?

Be careful what you wish for – You might get it!

Not so long ago, the British weekly newspaper The Economist (2013) conjured up the imaginary of Germany as a “reluctant hegemon,” calling on the country to take a more decisive political leadership role in Europe. In a similar vein, Martin Wolf argued in the Financial Times (10.12.2014) that Germany “is too powerful and too central to avoid its new destiny. Upon it rests the future of a politically and economic fragile Europe. The time of thinking small is past. Germany is now a big country with big responsibilities. It will be judged by how it lives up to them.” Imaginaries can be thought of as powerful ideational and material roadmaps in so far as they give meaning and shape to the (European) economic field (Sum/Jessop 2015). By invoking the imaginary of a reluctant hegemon, actors construct a narrative about Germany and use it to change its performativity within and across European organizations and institutions. After escaping the previous imaginary of the sick man of Europe in the 1990s, Germany is now seen as the most successful economy in the Eurozone (Scharpf 2015). This imaginary reflects the yearning for a hegemon that can provide foundational principles and overarching meaning in times of economic, political, and identity crises.

Measured against other EU member states, Germany’s recent economic achievements are quite impressive. It has outperformed the Eurozone average growth rate since the second quarter of 2010. Recently released data shows that Germany’s GDP increased by 1.7 percent in 2015, the best performance since 2011 (Tagesschau, 14.1.2016). Germany now has the strongest as well as the biggest economy in Europe with a 4.5 percent unemployment rate in the Q3 2015, leaving other member states of the Eurozone countries far behind with an average unemployment rate of over 10% (except Austria). While many critics accuse Germany of contributing to global macroeconomic imbalances, it continues as the export nation par excellence. According to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database, German exports accounted for about 40.6 percent of total economic output in 2014.

Whether Germany is a European hegemon and whether other European member states actually want Germany to perform this role (what has become known as the Germanification of Europe) remains a much-contested issue. According to the theory of hegemonic stability in the discipline of international relations, hegemonic powers are essential to provide the norms and principles needed to resolve international coordination problems (Kindleberger 1973). In calling for an altruistic hegemon it is nevertheless worth remembering that hegemons seldom act against their own self-interests (Ruggie 1998) and that they often do so to advance their objectives against other agents in a tactical manner (Lagna 2015). This European question regarding the role and desirability of a hegemon is significantly connected to Germany’s unique discourse around its deficit fetishism (Stiglitz 2016).

In terms of fiscal prudence, CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has achieved a zero deficit target (die schwarze Null) two years in a row (2014 and 2015), which is all the more remarkable given that this has not happened since 1969. Recently released figures show that the German federal government has achieved a budgetary surplus of €12.1 billion for 2015, which is double the amount forecast in November of last year (n-tv, 13.1.2016). Symbolically achieving this target conjures up the imaginary of German fiscal responsibility versus the imaginary of Southern fiscal profligacy, implying that Southern Europe should change its socio-cultural norms and conventions to become more like Germany. As was demonstrated during the Eurozone debt crisis, Germany is the largest creditor country in the Eurozone and thus wields enormous structural and asymmetrical power against debtor countries (Dyson 2010). In other words, Germany’s strong tradition of deficit fetishism functions as an ideational and material roadmap to advance its objectives to institutionalize restrictive fiscal norms across the EU against a Keynesian focus on boosting aggregate demand.

However, Germany’s strength in creating a discursive environment of fiscal norm-setting must be seen against the background of the weakness of other European member states. The French-German axis and its traditional division between the Grand Nation acting as the political player and Germany as the economic leader has given rise to German domination of both fields. Recognizing the shifting power constellation, both Nicolas Sarkozy, former French conservative president, and François Holland, the current socialist president, have accepted this subordinate role – presumably a necessary concession for remaining at the European helm of power. Outside both the Eurozone and the Schengen agreement, Britain is simultaneously distracted with its internal debate on whether to stay in the European Union, and it is a significant fact that it has mostly been uninvolved in the Ukrainian crisis. As a result, Angela Merkel has strengthened her global geopolitical position. Speaking fluent Russian, she has become the most important interloper between the superpowers for finding ways to resolve the Ukrainian conflict. Her very presence demonstrated this during the 2015 Minsk negotiations in Belarus between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Moreover, she has consecutively been cited as one of the most powerful political European leaders by Forbes business magazine. In addition, Time magazine has chosen her as the 2015 Person of the Year for her engagement in resolving the Greek crisis, her moral leadership in the refugee crisis, her commitment to resolving the crisis in the Ukraine, and her resolute solidarity with France in response to the fatal terrorist attacks in Paris during 2015.

This positive German political and economic imaginary was challenged, however, by the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Deep ruptures emerged between the northern creditor countries (Germany, Finland, Austria and the Netherlands) and the economically weaker and indebted southern periphery. The standoff between an economically powerful Germany and the economically weaker peripheral countries has been further aggravated by a new East-West refugee rift. Angela Merkel is hailed by many for her moral leadership in opening the German borders, for disregarding the Dublin agreement (the rule that refugees have to seek asylum in countries of their entry point), and for her response to the closure of the Hungarian borders to incoming refugees from the Balkan route in the summer of 2015. At the same time, many Eastern European member states refuse to accept the refugee quotas negotiated by the EU-Commission to settle within their borders. This present rift between EU member states from the East and West is not only a crisis on humanitarian grounds; it is also a huge challenge to the survival of the European Union itself. Even the President of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz, has voiced his concern that the disintegration of Europe is a real possibility (SpiegelOnline 25.12.2015).

Germany and the EU are thus faced with manifold and multifaceted problems. In what follows, this essay aims to explain the following:  the German success story in the midst of such regional and global turbulences; the issue of whether the German model can be replicated by other member states; and whether this model is sustainable in both the short and long terms. In order to explicate these questions, two different imaginaries regarding the German economic success story are presented. One relies on a domestic explanation citing the structural reforms of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) and the subsequent competitiveness of Germany’s export industry. The other Post-Keynesian approach argues that Germany’s economic advantages are the result of the undervalued single European currency, which has provided a competitive advantage to German export goods at the expense of peripheral countries. It is important to examine both narratives, since German economic and political elites are using the domestic explanation as a model for Europe’s highly indebted peripheral countries to restructure (deregulate and liberalize) their economies. However, if we follow the Post-Keynesian model, then the adjustment for balanced current accounts in the Eurozone lies within Germany itself. Specifically, the focus on exports goes hand in hand with Germany’s underinvestment in domestic physical and social infrastructure. If we thus inquire into whether the German export model is sustainable, the Post-Keynesian model will deny such a positive scenario, precisely because German export surpluses presuppose that other countries finance these through deficit borrowing. This is simply the result of a closed economy in which surpluses in some countries have to be balanced with deficits in others. However, the influx of 1.1 million refugees during 2015 alone could alter the German export-scenario. In fact, the outlays for additional housing and schools, teachers, policy officers, border guards, translators, administrative personnel, and the announced increase in military spending will result in higher public fiscal expenditures and thus will shift the export focus to a more balanced domestic infrastructural investment. That this is not just “wishful thinking” was recently emphasized by the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble who stated that the integration of refugees takes priority over the zero deficit target (schwarze Null). Inadvertently, then, the refugee crisis may provide Germany with the incentive to encourage domestic investment at a time when the export markets in emerging economies are declining due to global economic weaknesses.

Two Imaginaries of German Economic Success:
The New German Model versus the Macroeconomic European Monetary Regime (EMU)

In the comparative economic literature on the varieties of capitalism approach (VoC), Hall and Soskice (2001) have characterized the German economy as the archetypical coordinated market economy against the liberal market economy of the Anglo-Saxon type. As such, the authors dispute the assumption that economic globalization will lead to a convergence along the lines of Anglo–American capitalism. Rather, they focus on national institutional differences, which explain the respective economic policies and performances. In the coordinated type of market economies, non-market relations to coordinate economic activities play a more important role than the competitive market arrangements in liberal market economies. However, this coordinated model of German capitalism has undergone a dramatic transformation under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) in the 1990s with the introduction of Agenda 2010, which liberalized the highly regulated labor and social welfare markets. This transformation, according to the arguments of many political and economic elites, has helped Germany to escape the earlier imaginary of the sick man of Europe and to prepare Germany for the global challenges of the 21st century.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble gazes thoughtfully to the left.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble presents a draft of the 2014 budget during a plenary session in the lower house of the German Parliament on April 8, 2014 in Berlin. (Clemens Bilan/AFP/Getty Images)

In contrast to this domestic explanation, Post-Keynesian macroeconomists (Stockhammer/Köhler 2015; Hein et. al., 2015; Flassbeck/Lapavitsas 2015) argue that finance-dominated capitalism (or financialization) has given rise to two complementary European growth models: a ‘debt-driven growth’ model in the Southern periphery and an ‘export-driven growth’ model in Germany (also in Austria, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent in Finland). As such, some countries are running huge trade surpluses (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands) while many others accumulate deficits, which result from particular currency and monetary imbalances, themselves created through the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). These two models are highly asymmetric in that the surplus countries wield power over the deficit countries.

The Post-Keynesian macroeconomic approach provides an alternative to the domestic structural explanation in that it illustrates the missing link between the domestic model and the regional monetary environment (Scharpf 2015). Namely, the policy preferences of economic actors are shaped by their situation in the international economy. In order to explain the German economic success, we thus need to have some understanding of the impact that international (in this case regional) monetary regimes and domestic economic situations have upon policy preferences. This complimentary vertical relationship between the domestic and the international political (monetary) economy helps us to understand how the system of a highly competitive export economy was able to emerge as a result of the introduction of the single Eurozone currency (Jessop 2014; Scharpf 2015; Gourevitch 1978).

The Transformation of the German Model

Most mainstream German economists and members of the government extoll the virtues of the New German model based on the narrative of “living within one’s means,” which is rooted in the imaginary of the Swabian housewife. These ideas of fiscal frugality are a legacy of the traditional ordoliberal school hailing from the 1930s, which sees the culprit of the present Eurozone crisis in the profligacy of peripheral countries whose governments did not abide by a system of ordo (Ordnungspolitik) rule-based fiscal and monetary prudence (Young 2015; 2014). The daily German Bild-Zeitung has extolled this deficit fetishism by targeting and constructing an imaginary of “the lazy Greeks” versus the “hard-working Germans.” Such imaginaries laid the discursive foundation for the normatively tinged discussions about indebted nations being guilty (schuldig) for their own self-inflicted misery.

The re-emerging discourses and imaginaries of fiscal rectitude and of a disciplinary rule-based system followed upon the dismal economic performance of Germany in the 1990s, with its slow growth and its high unemployment. As is well known, this earned Germany the title of the sick man of Europe. The incoming Gerhard Schröder SPD/Green coalition government (1998–2005) introduced Agenda 2010 with its goal of liberalizing the highly regulated labor and social welfare markets. To strengthen Germany’s export-led growth model, the coalition government increased wage-restraints to boost competitiveness and reformed the social insurance system by lowering the social wage. This made part-time work more feasible and thus vastly expanded a low-paid, precarious secondary labor market (Scharpf 2015). As a result, wage inequality and workforce flexibility increased, greatly benefitting the German export-oriented industries (Streeck 2015).

The structural changes of the Red-Green coalition did not fully transform the model of the German coordinated market economy (Hall/Soskice 2001) into a “liberal market economy” along the lines of Anglo-Saxon shareholder capitalism. But it did liberalize and introduce greater flexibility into German stakeholder capitalism. The erosion of collective bargaining agreements, the liberalization of capital markets, the introduction of shareholder value into corporate governance, and the resulting real wage suppression – all of these changes increased German competitiveness against other Eurozone peripheral countries, and thus greatly enhanced the export-led strategy of the German growth model. But they also came with high costs for Chancellor Schröder and the SPD. The introduction of this neoliberal reform agenda cost Gerhard Schröder the 2005 election to the CDU/CSU. It also led to a split within the SPD: the left wing of the SPD joined forces with remnants of the former East German socialist party to form a united German left wing party, Die Linke.  

This domestically focused narrative is not wrong per se. Indeed, it is part of an economic imaginary that is equally shared by macroeconomic Post-Keynesian economists. However, the post-Keynesians argue that this focus on the domestic arena is insufficient as an explanation for the present German economic success story. From this perspective, while the export-driven model is celebrated as the result of German technical prowess and know-how, this growth model cannot be properly understood in isolation. Exports need markets, and these markets were found in the European periphery. They were financed by large German capital outflows to pay for the imports, and in this process the peripheral countries amassed huge amounts of debt (Sinn 2010). While it is undisputed that the Agenda 2010 measure did introduce greater competitiveness through wage restraints, the domestic liberalization and deregulation processes alone do not explain Germany’s economic triumphs. Equally important was the introduction of the European Economic and Monetary System (EMU) and its new monetary and currency regime (the Euro), which made the German export model (with high employment) so competitive against the more demand-led growth of the peripheral Eurozone countries (Scharpf 2015; Stockhammer/Köhler 2015; Hein 2015).

Challenging the imaginary and narrative of a domestically driven economic success story is all the more important since German government leaders and mainstream economists present themselves as moral taskmasters and hold up the imaginary of the “hard” road Germany travelled to reach the present economic triumphs. German political leaders never tire of claiming that the right medicine for the economically malaised periphery is the formula of imposing stringent fiscal rules, lowering taxes, deregulating the labor market, reducing social spending, and privatizing state properties and public goods. But this formula fails to recognize the importance of the Eurozone currency regime for locking in undervalued exchange rates to the advantage of German exports (Cameron 2012; Scharpf 2015).

Two Complimentary Growth Models:
Export-driven and Debt-driven Growth

The introduction of the Euro resulted in two complimentary growth models: one that relied on debt to finance consumption spending (‘debt-led growth’) in the Eurozone periphery; or the other, which relied on export surpluses (‘export-led growth’), mostly in Germany and Northern Eurozone countries. However, as the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis has made clear, the EMU cannot accommodate two concurrent economic models – one geared toward savings and exports, as is the case in northern Europe, and the other relying on borrowing and public expenditures, as is the case in southern periphery countries (Streeck 2015). The conflict of these two models is not restricted to the Eurozone; instead, it was (and still is) a worldwide phenomenon that demonstrated its dysfunctionality once the financial crisis and the sovereign debt crisis started to wreck havoc worldwide. Contrary to the Fordist period of mass production and mass consumption up until the 1970s, these two growth models are not driven by business investment leading to a profit-led growth regime (Stockhammer and Köhler 2015). Instead, Anglo-Saxon countries developed a debt-driven growth model while China’s surpluses financed the US-deficits by either buying US Treasury Bills or mortgage backed securities (MBS) to facilitate strong consumption demand, and a residential housing boom, which led to the financial crash starting in 2007. On the opposite side, Germany, China, Japan and some Middle Eastern oil exporters engaged in an export driven growth model, in which domestic growth is discouraged at the expense of exports. In the Eurozone, the two regimes had equally devastating effects in that cheap credits increased household debts as a percentage of GDP and a real estate investment bubble emerged in Spain, Ireland, and to a lesser extent in Portugal, as well as large public debt accumulation in Greece and Cyprus.

The surge in credit was made possible by the creation of a single European financial market. Once member states joined the Eurozone, countries could borrow on the international capital markets at the same interest rates irrespective of their economic performance. Indeed, looking back to the pre-Euro period in 1998, Greece had to pay an average 8% interest rate. But starting with their membership in the Eurozone, Greece could borrow money as cheaply as Germany and even more cheaply in terms of the real interest rate, since inflation rates were higher than in Germany. This created a massive boost to credit financed domestic demand in the peripheral countries (Young/Semmler 2011).

Initially, the introduction of the Euro had a negative effect on Germany. Entering the EMU at a high exchange rate, the monetary policy of the ECB was too restrictive for low-inflation Germany. In addition, during the 1990s the high cost of German unification caused low economic growth and high unemployment. The strongly unionized West German workforce suffered further from the influx of a highly skilled East German workforce, which added strong wage competition. To avoid large job losses, the industrial unions agreed to wage restraints below the existing collective bargaining agreements. As a result, unit labor costs in manufacturing did not only stagnate but actually declined by 9% between 1999 and 2008 (Bofinger 2015). The wage moderation had an immediate effect on Germany’s price competitiveness and on its exports to the Southern peripheral countries. In effect, the economic weakness of these countries helped to lower the real change rate while increasing the German current account balance. As Scharpf has argued, “(T)he monetary union allowed a dramatic fall of the real effective exchange rate after 2001 which then caused a steeper rise of German export surpluses than at any time since the end of the Second World War” (2015: 97).

From the perspective of currency undervaluation, German export performance and the sustained pressure on nominal wage increases have provided German exporters with the competitive advantage to dominate trade and capital flows within the Eurozone. At the same time, the wage moderation led to a declining real domestic demand in Germany. In the period between 2000 and 2005, the average annual growth rate of domestic demand declined to -0.1 percent, but in the rest of the Eurozone the growth rate of domestic demand amounted to 3.2 percent in the first period and 2.0 percent in the second. The weak domestic demand in Germany implied for the rest of the Eurozone a strong deceleration of their exports for goods and services to Germany. This was different before 1999 when Germany’s imports from Eurozone countries and its exports were growing in parallel (Bofinger 2015). Given the overall weakness of the Eurozone economies, the strength of the German exports did not result in the much-needed corrective effect of increasing the Eurozone exchange rate, as would have been the case during the DM-period (Scharpf 2015; Cameron 2012).

Germany’s export volume grew twice as fast as that of other members in the Eurozone between 1996 and 2008, while the domestic demand of German private households declined 1.5% per year against the rest of the Eurozone members. Labor income moved at an almost identical pace to productivity, while in peripheral countries nominal labor costs rose faster than productivity, with Greece in the lead. The growth rate in unit labor costs from 2000-2008 for Southern European countries increased by more than 24% compared to 3% in Germany. As a result, peripheral countries had been losing competitiveness relative to Germany and showed large current account deficits, which were mirrored by current account surpluses in the North. Because the German current account turned into a surplus, Germany experienced a huge net outflow of capital to peripheral countries, financing the housing bubble and rising household debt (Stockhammer/Köhler 2015). This led to an uneven playing field for peripheral countries and resulted in two different types of boom-bust cycles in the Eurozone: first, Germany/Austria with low unit labor costs, high technological innovations, rising export surpluses, capital exports, and low consumption growth; second, in the peripheral countries, wages rose faster than productivity and there was a visible consumption boom largely based on cheap borrowing on the capital markets, which translated into current account deficits for these countries. Since the Eurozone is a confederation of independent states, one member state’s current account surplus has to be compensated for by a deficit run by another country, or expressed differently, if countries benefit from undervalued real exchange rates (Germany), while others suffer from overvalued real exchange rates (Scharpf 2015). This is particularly true in the Eurozone where there is no mechanism for tax and transfer policies to provide for regional equalization and stability as is the case in federal countries like the United States (Semmler/Young 2011).

The asymmetric imbalances in the Eurozone between those countries with a current account surplus and those with a deficit increased significantly before the financial crisis of 2007. It then decreased during the sovereign debt crisis, only to reach a German all-time high surplus of 8% of gross domestic product in 2015. This is, of course, the opposite of what was expected. For it was expected that the introduction of the Euro would lead to a convergence of the economic competitiveness of all Eurozone countries. Yet exactly the opposite happened, and there seems little incentive to change the fixed exchange rate regime that so overwhelmingly favors Germany’s export-led growth model.

Is the German Export-Led Growth Model Sustainable?

Given that the success of the German export-growth model is the result of an undervalued exchange rate, and much less the result of structural reforms implemented via the Agenda 2010, its long-term sustainability is in serious doubt. The outlook for Germany’s short-term sustainability is less pessimistic, since any shocks take generally about two years to filter through to industrial plant production. Germany continues to benefit from its highly competitive manufacturing sector, having carved out a technological niche at the higher end of a rather price-inelastic product market. Germany was also very quick to substitute the declining Eurozone peripheral export markets with new markets in the United States, in the Middle East, and particularly in China. Accompanying large German business delegations, Angela Merkel’s frequent visits to China (and now also India and Brazil) has put these countries on the map as important buyers of alternative energy and green products. The introduction of quantitative easing (QE) by the Central European Bank has also provided a huge bonanza for German competitiveness, since it lowered the Euro exchange rate against the US dollar by about 20% since 2014. Germany also benefits from the very low oil price. However, it does not reap the full benefit of the price decline, since oil transactions on the international markets are calculated in US dollars.

On the negative side, German exports consist mostly of high-tech machinery exports, factory plants, automobiles, and pharmaceuticals. At the moment, it is difficult to predict the fallout of the Volkswagen emission scandal, but it could be substantial if legal actions in the US and Germany lead to convictions and heavy fines. Germany’s over-reliance on manufacturing is problematic since the country is less competitive in areas of financial services and the cultural and performative arts. Most importantly, Germany lacks the entrepreneurship and start-up culture in digital innovations and services demonstrated by Facebook, Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Airbnb, and Uber. Virtually all these digital innovations come from the United States, which means that Germany is cutoff from these innovative branches of digital development. This has much to do with the bureaucratized and underfunded university system where the structure of the curriculum prevents flexibility, entrepreneurship, and innovation. The result is a brain-drain, particularly to Anglo-Saxon countries that often provide lucrative scholarships for German graduates wishing to escape the bureaucratic educational environment.

Screen showing Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index with pedestrians walking in front
Pedestrians walk past an electronic display showing the closing figures of Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong, China on August 24, 2015. Hong Kong’s snowballing stock losses are, by one measure, the most extreme since the crash of 1987. (Jerome Favre/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But it is geopolitics that provides the greatest challenge to Germany’s over-reliance on exports. European sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing the Crimea and destabilizing the Eastern Ukraine have affected many smaller and middle-sized companies in the Southern German region. Just as Germany is turning to new export markets in the Middle East, the entire region is exploding in warfare. Neither is the outlook very bright for Chinese growth and other emerging economies. Chinese financial volatility in the first weeks of the New Year of 2016 sent shock waves through the developed countries’ stock markets. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, has warned that the emerging economies are confronting a ‘new reality.’ Both the US Federal Reserve’s shift towards ending its monetary easing and the subsequent rise of the US dollar value will have negative repercussions for many emerging countries. This is not a one-way street. A slow-down in emerging markets will have negative impacts on the weak growth in advanced countries. While the Chinese shift towards a slower growth can be seen as an important step for sustainable growth in the long run, the short-run impact on global trade and commodity prices can be quite severe, even triggering financial turmoil (FT 13.1.2016: 4). These global developments are not good news for Germany’s export sector. A glimmer of hope may be provided by the Iranian nuclear deal and the repeal of economic sanctions in 2016. The German export industry is anticipating substantial business opportunities and new markets to replace the sanctions-worn Iranian industrial structure. German estimates range from an increase to €10 billion within the next five years from a sanction-induced low of €2.1 billion in 2013, with an expected creation of 100,000 jobs (RTL-news, 17.1.2016).

The largest fault line of this export conundrum lies in Germany’s imaginary of deficit fetishism. The balanced budget policy goal is highly counterproductive given the global economy’s secular stagnation (Larry Summers) or its savings glut (Ben Bernanke); both of these terms suggest a slow growth phase due to insufficient global aggregate demand. According to Stiglitz, “countries like Germany that consistently maintain external surpluses are contributing significantly to the key problems of insufficient global demand” (Stiglitz 2015). In a recent ZeitOnline article, Heiner Flassbeck admonished the Germans to ‘stop dreaming!’ (26.11.2015). The German dream to spend only what the state takes in is a nightmare for everyone else. Yet Wolfgang Schäuble’s zero deficit target (schwarze Null) enjoys support from the Social Democratic leadership, mainstream economists, the media, and it is overwhelmingly backed by the German public. Nobody was surprised when both houses of the German federal parliament passed the debt brake with a huge majority. The upshot is that these restrictive deficit targets will prevent the use of fiscal policy for much needed investment in infrastructure, technology, education, the environment, and social housing (Truger 2013).

This imaginary of deficit fetishism implies that Germans are saving champions. In fact, the household saving rates of about 17% in 2015 Q3 is the highest in Europe, above France, the Eurozone, Italy and Spain (FT tv15.1.2016: 1). Hidden in this saving euphoria lies the unspoken truth that savers need others to incur debts. Since the state, private households and large corporations have amassed huge amounts of savings, Germany needs others beyond its border to spend. Flassbeck estimates that Germany needs €250 billion in new foreign debt for 2015 in order to achieve its zero deficit target at a time of low economic growth. It also makes little sense to put savings in a banking account at a time of zero interest rates, effectively withdrawing the much-needed savings from the economic cycle (Flassbeck 26.11.2015).

Rather than using its economic strength to shift to an economy driven by domestic demand and thus acting as locomotive for the near-stagnating EU, Germany (along with other Nordic countries) has tightened the fiscal policy across the entire EU. The building blocks for this rule-based system consist of the Fiscal Pact with its constitutionally mandated debt brake. To tighten the Stability and Growth Pact, greater macroeconomic surveillance was enacted with the Six Pack, while the Two Pack provides common provisions for monitoring and assessing draft budgetary plans and for ensuring the correction of excessive deficits of the member states in the Euro area. Given that German political leaders and the mainstream economic profession continue to proclaim that reducing the debt rather than investing in infrastructure is the answer to the Eurozone imbalances, any kind of fiscal demand stimulus does not seem to be on the horizon. What is missing is an informed public discussion on how to counter the deficit of aggregate demand. Instead of stigmatizing Keynesians as outdated and ill-informed, a public discussion of these matters would itself be a sign of progress. However, all is not lost. The large influx of refugees may just provide the (unintended) incentive to force Germany to change its export-oriented growth model and focus more on domestic investment expenditures.

Conclusion: The Refugee Crisis as
an Economic Opportunity for Germany

While Angela Merkel was hailed for her human gesture of welcoming the refugees from Syria and Iraq during the summer of 2015, and defended her action against her critics by maintaining that if she has to apologize for this act of humanity, then she would not call this (Germany) her country anymore, the crisis has turned into a political nightmare for the Chancellor. Her often repeated, Wir können das schaffen (we can handle this) is becoming less clear with the arrival of 1.1 million refugees by the end of last year. The turning point came with the New Years’ Eve mass of sexual assaults on women in Cologne and 12 other German cities. In the meantime, some 700 complaints have been received by the police in Cologne alone. The perpetrators were supposedly young men from North Africa and Maghreb states. However, there is still no exact information on their immigrant backgrounds, or whether any recent refugees from Syria were among the perpetrators.

The right wing political parties, such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and France’s Front National, have greatly contributed to a mass hysteria about the danger of letting large numbers of single men enter Europe. The political danger for Angela Merkel does not only come from the right wing fringe. Members of her own party as well as Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria and party leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), demand a limit of 200,000 refugees a year, and urge the protection of Bavaria’s borders against refugees entering the country from Austria without papers. He has threatened to call on the German Constitutional Court to arbitrate in the matter of whether Angela Merkel has violated federal law by failing to protect German borders. It is evident that this problem is not just a German task; it is part of the EU’s duty to protect the outer borders in order to safeguard the Schengen agreement (border free) within the European Union. However, the solidarity of other EU member states is surely wanting in this regard. Yet the single European currency depends on free movement (Schengen Agreement) within the European Union. As Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, warned, the single European currency will fail without the Schengen Agreement.

Refugee shelter in Berlin, Germany
Hangers 6 of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany is transformed into temporary accommodation for some of the estimated 50,000–80,000 migrants and refugees living in the city. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Aside from these geopolitical and security concerns, Germany is confronted with a heated debate about the economic benefits and costs of integrating refugees. Even prior to the refugee influx, discussions in Germany revolved around the shortage of skilled labor and the general gloomy demographic outlook. Many business elites saw young refugees as a means of counteracting the skill shortage facing Germany in the coming years. In this context, a study by the Bertelsmann-Stiftung provides support for the economic net benefits of refugees. However, the president of the Institute for Economic Research, Hans-Werner Sinn rejects this argument. He claims that for every migrant there is an additional net cost of €1,800 of what the migrant contributes, since most refugees do not have the necessary qualifications and thus will become a burden on the German Sozialstaat. To avoid this scenario, he suggests a point system for selecting migrants according to professional expertise, age, health, language competence, and assets (Sinn, 5.1.2016).

Such a negative scenario is disputed by others. Marcel Fratzscher, Director of the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW), argues that quickly integrating refugees into the labor market despite their initial lower qualifications will provide long-run positive effects for the entire German economy. It is also shortsighted to consider educational training only as costs rather than as a long-term investment that creates net value for companies and stimulates future demand. Some positive results are already visible in the latest data on GDP growth for 2015. It was widely expected that last year’s GDP growth would range between 1.2 and 1.4 percent. The higher figure of 1.7% growth reflects the expenditures on refugees in terms of hiring new teachers, social workers and integration specialists, as well as providing the physical infrastructure to house refugees, the additional administrative staff to attend and register those refugees, along with the necessary border guards and policy officers. Herein lies the opportunity for Germany’s shift from an export-led growth model to more domestic investment for physical and social infrastructure. Given that Germany has solid economic growth figures, it benefits from low interest rates and a low oil price. It also has the substantial cushion of a €12 billion household surplus, and it has sufficient spare capacity to invest in the training of refugees. These investments will return as future added value for the economy as a whole (Der Spiegel 47/2015).

Marcel Fratzscher is not alone in this positive outlook. Heiner Flassbeck argues that – rather than pitting the German Hartz-IV receivers against refugees and scrapping the minimum wage and other social benefits – the influx of refugees is an opportunity from which the entire population can benefit. Catching up on the neglected investment in infrastructure, environment, education and technology would satisfy two things at once: it would provide infrastructural investment and thus benefit future generations, while at the same time it would offer trading partners in the European periphery sufficient space to reduce their debts. Germany cannot indefinitely increase its competitiveness against its trading partners and hope that by exporting its surplus these countries will be able to repay their debts in the future. It is a huge illusion to think that the imbalances between German current account surpluses and deficits in Southern Europe will be sustainable (Flasssbeck 26.11.2015).

Despite the hysteria surrounding the refugee crisis at the beginning of 2016, the German situation does not look as bleak as many seem to predict. Even Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has recently declared that the integration of refugees takes priority over the zero fiscal target. This may open the lock to a new imaginary of a domestic-led growth model in Germany. In the process, it may also return the Eurozone to a much-needed balanced current account regime.


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Wolf, Martin. 2014. “Europe’s lonely and reluctant hegemon.” Financial Times. 10.12.2014: 9.
Young, Brigitte. 2015. “The battle of ideas in the Eurozone crisis management: German ordo-liberalism versus Post-Keynesianism,” ed. Sebastiano Fadda and Pasquale Tridico, The Economic Crisis in Social and Institutional Context, London/New York: Routledge.
___. 2014. “German Ordoliberalism as Agenda Setter for the Euro Crisis: Myth Trumps Reality,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 22(3): 276–87.
Young, Brigitte and Willi Semmler. 2011. “The European Sovereign Debt Crisis: Is Germany to Blame?,” German Politics and Society, 29(1): 1–24.

Recommended citation: Young, Brigitte. “Imaginaries of German Economic Success: Is the Current Model Sustainable?” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Return or Revival: The Ordoliberal Legacy

With the onset of the European sovereign debt crisis in the spring of 2010, the name “ordoliberalism” surfaced, or more precisely resurfaced, in public discourse: German authorities, and especially the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, have been infatuated with fiscal discipline and rule-bound governance because they are said to be ordoliberal at heart. European institutions are also reportedly the product of ordoliberal design because they were largely “made in Germany,” though beyond the borders of Germany proper.

Ordoliberalism is the German branch of what the economist and historian Philip Mirowski has called the “neoliberal thought collective.” The multiple offshoots of this family tree include Friedrich Hayek’s section of the Austrian School, Milton Friedman’s Chicago School, and the Virginia School of public choice, or “constitutional economics,” led by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. The ordoliberals owe their name to the journal Ordo, founded in 1948 by the Freiburg School economists Walter Eucken and Franz Böhm. However, the ordoliberal intellectual sensibility dates back further to the 1930s, also encompassing the work of Wilhelm Röpke, Alfred Müller-Armack and Alexander Rüstow, among others.

While the ordoliberal doctrine has been widely recognized as the main inspiration of postwar Germany’s “social market economy” – and thus as a major influence on Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard, the first two Chancellors of the Federal Republic of Germany – its lasting mark on policy-making has long been overshadowed by the pre-eminence of Keynesianism up until the mid-1970s, and thereafter by other strands of neoliberal thought, particularly those of Hayek and Friedman. How are we to understand and assess ordoliberalism’s recent “return” or “revival,” both in Germany and in the European Union? What are the distinctive features of the ordoliberal brand of neoliberalism? These are the questions we asked Thomas Biebricher, whose work explores a variety of neoliberalisms and focuses on the German older sibling of the neoliberal family, namely ordoliberalism.1

WC: Before we discuss the relevance of ordoliberalism in Europe today, perhaps you could begin by recalling the historical context of its emergence. Under what conditions did the ordoliberal doctrine come into being?

TB: My understanding is that neoliberalism in all its variants is a response to a multifaceted crisis – the crisis of what is now referred to in the Anglo–American context as “classical liberalism.” I think that very early on, when the neoliberal movement was in its formative stages, there was a broad agreement between the narrative produced by the ordoliberals and that of other early neoliberals. According to this narrative, sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century liberalism went astray: its doctrine was either impoverished – reduced to slogans like laisser-faire – or distorted – leading liberals to make an alliance with progressive or even social-democratic forces. Early neoliberals saw both the impoverishment and the distortion of the liberal doctrine as major problems – especially as they persisted in the first part of the twentieth century. Thus, neoliberalism actually arose as a response to the crisis of liberalism, and especially to the alliance between liberals and progressives.

Other factors were involved in the crisis of liberalism: first, there was WWI, when a bourgeois liberal world collapsed after thriving for more or less a hundred years – the era that Karl Polanyi describes in The Great Transformation. After WWI there were of course all kinds of economic problems, including the Great Depression, which constituted a major blow to liberal ideas about markets and put their harbingers on the defensive. At the same time, Keynesianism was on the rise, partly in response to the Great Depression, while, in the United States, there was the New Deal – a defining step in the development of the American welfare state.

Still in the 1920s and 30s, very illiberal forces were also on the rise, from Soviet Communism to fascism and National Socialism; so, altogether, the “crisis of liberalism” points to a very complex crisis syndrome. All of these factors put together – grave internal factors within liberalism itself as well as important external factors – led to the formulation of a neo-liberal project, which was not supposed to be a restoration of classical liberalism, but actually a modernization of the liberal creed and in that sense really and properly a neoliberalism.

For the German ordoliberals especially, I think that all of these factors played an important role. In their particular narrative, what is of great importance is the failure of classical liberalism to theorize what a properly functioning market order should be; they thus took on that theoretical task as their main project. They associated the failure of both the discourse and the practices of “old” liberalism with the Weimar Republic, a context which was at once revealing and traumatic for them, not least with regard to what they considered to be the deficiencies of pluralist democracies. I think that, politically speaking – for their political thought – the collapse of the Weimar Republic was the most important event.

In terms of economic policy, the premise of the ordoliberal project was that liberalism got into a crisis because it did not keep the promise of functioning free markets – namely that the latter are supposed to deliver economic growth and welfare for all (pretty much). And so, the new kind of liberalism that the German ordoliberals sought to define centered on the question of how markets are constituted in the first place, and how markets are then regulated in a proper way so that they don’t undermine their own logic.

WC: How would you compare the central features of ordoliberalism with other neoliberal currents? What are the differences, for example, withthe ideas of Friedrich Hayek, who both falls inside and outside of the ordoliberal framework in certain respects? Or with the version of neoliberalism we find in Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics?

TB: The term “neoliberalism” was officially introduced during the “Colloque Walter Lippmann,” which took place in Paris in 1938. I think that, in those days – throughout the 1930s, the 1940s and even early 1950s – the ordoliberals were probably the most influential members of the broader family of neoliberal scholars. When you read the things that even the young Milton Friedman wrote around 1951, in an article called “Neoliberalism and its Prospects,” you notice that he still speaks the language of ordoliberalism. Later on, of course, the ordoliberals’ hold on neoliberal thought will loosen, and other strands will become much more important.

But to go back to the ordoliberals: for them, the main issue is really about how to constitute and sustain a functioning market system. Markets operate properly, they claim, when there is effective competition. However, competition does not come about spontaneously: it requires the right kind of infrastructure, norms and regulation. What they call an “economic constitution” is needed to establish markets in the first place.

An important part of this constitution involves the financial order. The idea of “sound” money is very important for ordoliberals because, according to them, it is only when you have sound money, only when you don’t have inflationary bubbles that you will have functioning markets.

Angela Merkel and Walter Eucken in a collage
[left] German economist Walter Eucken (1891–1950) was a founder of the Freiburg school of ordoliberalism. (Ullstein Bild) [right] German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the anniversary ceremony of the Walter Eucken Institute at the Konzerthaus in Freiburg, Germany on January 13, 2016. (Patrick Seeger/dpa/Corbis)

Yet, in their view, economically speaking, the biggest bêtes noires, if you will, are probably monopolies, cartels, and trusts. In their analysis, these processes of capital concentration and centralization – manifestations of economic power, as they would call it, that they had witnessed in the first decades of the twentieth century – are what spells doom for the liberal idea of a market order. So in terms of economic policy, the kind of framework or competitive order that they have in mind must primarily prevent the formation of monopolies. And if monopolies already exist, the watchword would have to be: slash or disentangle them. This is really the radical aspect of what they are proposing.

What you have, then, when a proper “economic constitution” is in place, is what Michel Foucault calls “an entrepreneurial society.” Because if you push the ordoliberal reasoning to its ultimate consequences – as Röpke, Eucken, and Rüstow actually did – what you already find is a notion of the entrepreneurial self that Foucault talks about; that is, if you draw all the consequences of what they advocate. I think the crucial insight on which the ordoliberal doctrine is predicated is that markets are not a “natural” phenomenon. They need to be sustained and supported; they can’t be left to their own devices.

Just in parentheses here: of course when you hear this, it sounds really ironic. For you get the impression that over the course of the last five or six years, we are rehearsing the history of economic thought. Because that’s exactly what people have been saying over and over again, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and as a critique of allegedly neoliberal deregulations: “Oh, self-regulating markets, what a joke! That can never exist.” It’s strange because this is exactly the discourse of early neoliberalism, namely that markets are not self-regulating. Okay, end of parentheses.

Now, regarding the differences between ordoliberalism and other strands of neoliberalism, I’m just going to stress a couple of contrasts – though more could be said.

First, if we compare Hayek and the ordoliberals, there are grounds for claiming that Hayek’s perspective was in fact germane to the ordoliberal ideas, as would be attested by the fact that, toward the end of his career, Hayek went to teach in Freiburg, the alma mater of ordoliberal thought. However, I think that there is a crucial difference between the ordoliberals and Hayek: the former, as I stated earlier, believed that a functioning market order, one based on free and fair competition, required a framework of norms and rules, and that the formulation of these norms and rules was an exercise in economic and political imagination. The latter, on the other hand, especially in the later part of his intellectual career, was highly skeptical about such a vision, which, for him, bordered on “rational constructivism” – namely, the idea that we can use our political, economic imagination, or simply our reason, to draw up rules and regulations and expect that they will actually work. For Hayek, the market order could only arise from a spontaneous evolutionary process – which implies that rules can do no more than facilitate or, at least not hamper, this evolution. In that respect, constitutional economists, like James Buchanan, would come down on the ordoliberal side rather than seconding Hayek’s belief in cultural evolution and his insistence on the fact that norms cannot be invented out of thin air.

As for Milton Friedman, the other great neoliberal luminary, we can say that the famous Chicago School economist was influenced by ordoliberal thought early on but that his thought soon developed in a different direction. Central in Friedman’s contribution to economic thought is of course his monetarist doctrine. Now, to a large extent, monetarism is in line with what the ordoliberals have to say about “sound money.” Friedman’s approach is just a bit more radical and must be understood in light of his adamantly anti-Keynesian stance. His conviction is that the only thing public authorities can do with regard to economic policy is to provide for a steady, slow expansion of the amount of money that is in circulation. And that’s really all there is: you shouldn’t use monetary or fiscal policy to try to engage in anti-cyclical economic policy, as the Keynesians would have it. Friedman claims to be concentrating on what works, which leads him to argue that a number of things – proactive fiscal policy, tinkering with interest rates – just don’t work: all you get when you try to implement those measures is the exact opposite of what you aim to achieve, namely inflation and stagnation.

The consequence is that Friedman’s toolbox of economic policies – of what the state can do to help markets thrive – is all but empty, whereas the ordoliberals believe that a pretty wide set of public policies are necessary to sustain the market order. Overall, Friedman has been incredibly influential, of course, but, in my view, his thought is not the most intellectually stimulating version of neoliberal thinking. But what is distinctive to his brand of neoliberalism is the way in which he combines monetarist ideas with supply side economics and market de-regulations. This is Friedman’s signature, so to speak.

A final sentence on this question: so far, I have only focused on the political economy side, if you will, on the economic dimension of all of these brands of neoliberalism. I think we should add that there are other distinctions to be made when it comes to their political thought.

WC: Let’s push forward a bit historically to what is generally considered the onset of the neoliberal era. How and to what extent did these differences inform the contrasting modes of government deployed by the promoters of the “conservative revolution” in the U.S. (with Ronald Reagan), in the U.K. (with Margaret Thatcher), and perhaps also with their German counterpart in Helmut Kohl?

TB: Well it’s a complex issue to figure out what the relationship is between neoliberal theory and neoliberal practice, or what we call the neoliberal policies of Ronald Reagan’s administration and Margaret Thatcher’s government. There is this wonderful anecdote where Thatcher throws Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on the cabinet table and says: “This is what we believe in.” But of course it is not as if she had just implemented Hayek’s agenda, and neither did Reagan simply implement Friedman’s agenda. There is a book by Daniel Steadman Jones, called Masters of the Universe, where he analyzes how Hayek’s and Friedman’s ideas were respectively translated, or implanted, into Thatcher and Reagan’s governmental practices. But it’s not as if there is a well articulated neoliberal playbook that’s coming from Friedman or Hayek that can just be used and implemented by politicians step by step. The only case where something like a direct transposition of theory into practice actually happened was Chile under Pinochet. I think there is nothing comparable.

Nevertheless, there are policy ideas that you find in Friedman and Hayek, which you also find in the policies of Reagan and Thatcher:

One of the most important examples would have to be the monetarist ideas of Friedman that were implemented both by Thatcher and Reagan. Yet, they have been abandoned just as rapidly – Thatcher, in particular, gave up on monetarism per se after just a couple of years. While monetarism was implemented, however, it certainly had a major impact, triggering a deep recession in the United States, for example, and thus indirectly weakening an already fairly weak labor movement.

Another instance of Friedman’s influence on the Reagan administration was the latter’s attempt to deregulate many sectors. Whether these deregulations were successful is a matter of controversy, depending on where you stand politically. Similarly, under Thatcher, we saw a massive initiative to privatize public assets, which is something that not only Hayek but more generally, all neoliberals were always in favor of.

The introduction of market logic and market imperatives into the public sectors – what later on would be called “new public management” – was also introduced under Thatcher: for instance, new mechanisms such as “opting out” and “competitive compulsory tendering” are injected into the welfare state and in the National Health Service in the 1980s – even though the full-fledged neoliberalization of state apparatuses will only be achieved in the following decade.

The difficult question (and I think so far there have only been tentative answers to it) is really: Why is the story of Germany so different? In the early 1980s, and in some cases as soon as the late 1970s, there certainly have been dramatic policy shifts in a neoliberal direction, not only in the US and UK, but also in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Not in Germany, though.

There was a change in government in 1982-83: the Christian Democratic Union won the elections and, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which is a liberal party in the classical sense, formed the new government. Early on they announced that there would be a massive shift in policy – and not just policy, they also spoke about changing the overall culture of Germany. Ultimately, however, nothing dramatic happened. There were certainly needle pricks, I’d say, with respect to the welfare state and the power of unions, but they were really not much more than needle pricks – at least if you compare them to what happened elsewhere in the developed world, especially the US and the UK, at the same time. So, the question is why.

One answer is that Germany was substantially different from its American and British counterparts in terms of its political and economic structures beforehand. The German economy was considerably less exposed to the triggering conditions of the 1970s stagflationary crisis – to the high inflation rates combined with economic stagnation. So, to the extent that the pain was not as significant, the pressure to steer public policies in a radically different direction was simply not as strong in Germany as it was in other Western countries.

We also have to remember that, before the 1982 elections, the economically liberal Free Democrats were already in government, but in a coalition with the Social Democrats. So all they did was change partners once the Christian Democrats won the election. It’s not as if this were a sort of grassroots movement that demanded a significant shift in policy. Though voters gave the center-right a majority, I’m not sure the newly elected government thought that they had such a strong mandate to enact dramatic policy changes.

The last thing I can say is more anecdotal, but telling. In 1982, but before the elections, when the Liberal Democrats were still in a coalition with the Social Democrats, Otto Graf Lambsdorff, minister of economic affairs from the Liberal Democratic Party, drafted a famous “white paper” where he advocated a number of pro-free market reforms. Once the Christian Democrats came to power, and the Liberal Democrats joined them in the cabinet, the white paper was apparently briefly examined, before the new cabinet decided to put it away in some desk drawer. The irony of the story is that a number of the measures that Lambsdorff proposed were eventually implemented, not by the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, but rather by the Social Democrats and the Green Party when they took office – sixteen years later, in 1998. So, the real neoliberal turn in Germany took place under the stewardship of the Red-Green coalition in the 1990s, and thus coincided with the second wave of “neoliberalization” in the US and the UK under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, respectively, rather than with the so-called Black-Yellow coalition (the Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats) of the 1980s.

WC: It’s fascinating that neoliberalism – here, as a modified mode of economic reasoning and as a strategy for rationalizing state-economy relations – was so quickly and widely disseminated that the Social Democrats embraced and advanced an agenda that was beyond the reach of the free-market-Right just a decade before. Regarding the connection between this belated wave of German neoliberal reforms, on the one hand, and Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” push to the “middle,” on the other hand: Do these transnational links help explain the shift toward measures that were once (and that are still) floated by the conservatives (CDU) and the free-market liberals (FDP)?

TB: The first thing to stress is this: you can say that an agenda has been successful, if not hegemonic, when even your political opponents feel obliged to subscribe to it. So, in that respect, you must hand it to the proponents of the neoliberal agenda. For they were able to influence even those who are expected to oppose them at the doctrinal level, like Social Democrats in Germany, the Labour party in Britain or the Democrats in the United States.

Now, regarding the German Social Democrats specifically, they were clearly influenced by the evolution of the center left in the United States and Great Britain. They remained in the opposition for a very long time – from 1982 to 1998 – and, during that time, of course, they noticed what was going on with the New Democrats and with the New Labour – whose leading figures rose to power on a program of “modernization” that largely amounted to infusing social democracy with neoliberal ideas.

Now, to conceal their conversion to the neoliberal creed, New Labour, New Democrats and “modernized” German Social Democrats resorted to a kind of “communitarian” fig leaf – what the British sociologist Nicholas Rose refers to as “governing through communities” and “empowering civil society.” By that token, however, Third Way parties actually added a new discursive dimension to neoliberalism, at least if you compare their appeal to communities with Thatcher’s famous claim that “there’s no such thing as society.”

As an aside, one should recall that, for their part, ordoliberals already insisted on the importance of naturalized communities, small communities at the grassroots level – which they saw as an indispensable complement to the relative coldness of market relations. All of these things came into play in this second wave of neoliberalizations, with the representatives of the Third Way, but you already find them in the writings of Röpke and Rüstow: ordoliberalism is really a unique combination of neoliberalism and quasi-communitarian ideals – another difference between the German strand of neoliberalism and Hayek or the Chicago School.

WC: This brings us to the present political context, and specifically to what some scholars have called “the return of ordoliberalism,” even at the supranational level. This is partly due, of course, to Germany’s relative dominance in the European Union, but it’s arguably also a result of the buildup of EU accords and of the response of the Troika and other actors to the sovereign debt crisis.

Is it pertinent to speak of a “return” of ordoliberalism in Germany and Europe, or rather of its “revival,” the latter implying that the construction of a united Europe (particularly, as a monetary union) was an ordoliberal project from the start? Or should we speak instead of an ordoliberal “turn” across the EU and its members – that is, precisely because of Germany’s hegemonic power over the institutions and other member-states of the Eurozone?

TB: In a way this is a question of perspective. There is reason to speak of a “return” of ordoliberalism insofar as, for a long time, I don’t think ordoliberalism was very present in public discourse or even in the consciousness of the European elites. It was a rather obscure tradition in the academy, and was no longer perceived as being very influential. So to suddenly hear the language and vocabulary of ordoliberalism being spoken again, to hear its merits being extolled again by a number of people – to name just a couple of people, for example, Wolfgang Schäuble, Jürgen Stark (a former chief economist at the ECB), and Jens Weidmann (the chairman of the German Bundesbank). Even Mario Draghi, the current chairman of the ECB, has talked about the ordoliberal foundations of the institution he represents. I think this is kind of surprising. It’s puzzling and it should focus our attention on what’s going on here. So, it is in that sense that we can speak of a “return” of ordoliberalism – because it was not part of our vocabulary for quite a while.

Yet, on the other hand, I think it might make even more sense to speak of a “revival,” considering that ordoliberal ideas have always contributed to the overall architecture of the European Union and its various developments. At the same time, it’s not as if Europe is an exclusively ordoliberal construction; I think that would be way off the mark. There are a number of different and sometimes countervailing logics that have presided over the institutional development of the European Union. But ordoliberalism is certainly one of them. The idea of the common market, for example, is clearly inspired by ordoliberal ideas. There are a number of early and very interesting texts by the ordoliberals, but also by Hayek, that expound the merits of something like the “common market,” something like a federation of states endowed with a common market.

Regarding Europe, the ordoliberals had concerns about the early European Union, the “European Community,” as it was called back then. They worried that too many political competences would migrate up to the supranational level. They were concerned about the advent of some kind of super-state, completely removed from “natural communities.” That hasn’t happened, though. And I would argue that things are much better from an ordoliberal point of view today than they seemed to them very early on, in the first stages of the EU’s development. So I think the proper way to describe what is going on these days is to say that we are looking at a new round of ordoliberalization – which is not to say that the ordoliberal logic is the only one at work in European institutions.

CDU poster with Ludwig Erhard
[top] Ludwig Erhard (1897–1977), former Chancellor of Germany. (© dpa/Corbis) [bottom] A Christian Democratic Union election poster featuring Ludwig Erhard, September 5, 2001. (Tom Maelsa/dpa/Corbis)

Take the Maastricht Treaty for instance: The European Monetary Union (EMU) was strongly influenced by ordoliberal ideas and concerns about sound money. Likewise, the strict rules that were part of the Maastricht Treaty are clearly rooted in the ordoliberal doctrine. For the latter professes that the economy should be governed by rules – and by sanctions that need to be enforced when the rules are not respected. The Maastricht regime established in 1992 was exactly that – although its custodians have since considered that the rules originally established were not sufficiently strict or at least that they had not been enforced rigorously enough.

So what we have seen, especially in the last four years, is the attempt to tackle the alleged laxity of the Maastricht regime by means of introducing more stringent rules backed by more sanctions. In fact, it is not only the stringency of the rules that has been reinforced but also their scope that has been expanded. The point is not merely to crack down on existing budget deficits but, more broadly and preventively, to monitor the macroeconomic imbalances in every member-state – this has been the purpose, since 2010, of the so-called Six-Pack of regulations. The public policies and budgets of the EU member-states are now monitored on a continual basis – not only when they are on the brink of default. The European Commission and, to some extent, the European Council and the European Parliament, are in charge of the monitoring process.

Overall, what we see is a multiplication of enforceable norms at the supranational and also at the national level. The two levels are connected of course, insofar as the Fiscal Compact established at the European level mandates the member-states to introduce legislation or even Constitutional amendments in order to abide by the European rules. Indeed, the 2012 Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, often dubbed “Fiscal Compact,” which was signed by all EU member-states except for Great Britain and the Czech Republic, requires all signees to pass a legal and preferentially a constitutional reform that has the effects of a balanced budget amendment. Practically, this means that, major crises or unexpected disasters notwithstanding, budget deficits must never exceed 3% of the country’s GDP, while in the medium and long-range, the budgets of all member-states ought to be balanced – their deficits should not exceed 0.5% of GDP.

Both the modus operandi and the goals of the Maastricht and, even more pointedly, the recent post-Maastricht regimes are deeply true to the ordoliberal creed. On the one hand, the combination of rules and sanctions purported to keep governments on a narrow track corresponds to the ordoliberal vision of a proper “economic constitution.” On the other hand, the purpose of these rules and sanctions is also in keeping with ordoliberalism, since they are largely about securing an environment of effective competition and about bolstering the competitiveness of every member-state through a process of “internal devaluation.” Since the EMU makes it impossible for the members of the Eurozone to increase their economic competitiveness by an export-boosting devaluation of their currency, the only way they can improve their position in the race is to lower the cost of labor – that is, cap wages – and reduce public expenditures – social benefits and investments in public services. Such measures are not only music to all neoliberal ears but also steeped in ordoliberal doctrine. Politically, this translates into a semi-authoritarian order, to use a harsh word, and one that is definitely technocratic.

WC: That’s an excellent segue to the question of neoliberalism and democracy, a topic you engaged in a recent article. One central claim shared by different branches of the neoliberal family is that the fragile workings of the market need to be protected from democracy’s allegedly illiberal tendencies. Neoliberal policy-makers and their intellectual mentors often concede that democratic procedures should be preserved – at least in the countries where they are part of a longstanding liberal tradition – while simultaneously claiming that they cannot be allowed to interfere with the price mechanism. Could you elaborate further on a question that we’ve already partially taken up, namely: What are the specifically ordoliberal ways of curtailing the unruliness of democracy while leaving its formalities more or less intact?

TB: Before we focus on the ordoliberal response to the threats presented by democracy, it is important to recall that there is a range of positions in neoliberal thought with regard to democracy. The dominant opinion – which is a bit of a cliché – is that neoliberals argue for the replacement of democratic processes and institutions by pervasive market mechanisms: whenever and wherever it is possible, markets and their logic should take over. However, there are neoliberal thinkers who not only pay lip service to democratic traditions but also advocate some forms of direct democracy – at least when they believe that the people can be mobilized to advance neoliberal reforms and thus circumvent the resistance of what they see as the cartel nature of party politics.

Now, with regard to the ordoliberals, the concern that they have with democracy – and which they share with other branches of the neoliberal family – is rooted, in part, in their elitism, the suspicion in which they hold the judgment of the masses. To make sense of their mistrust, we must remember that the ordoliberal doctrine was forged during the Weimar Republic, which was the first instance of mass democracy in the German context. And, as we know, it did not work so well. So, the pathologies of the Weimar regime left a mark on the ordoliberal view of democracy. Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy had an impact on them, as it did on Hayek.

The ordoliberals’ main concern was that most people did not understand much about economics. So, in their view, it was unwise to let the unknowing majority decide on these matters. However, their argument was less about the ignorance of the masses than about what constitutional economists call the rent-seeking propensity inherent in representative democracy. According to the ordoliberals, what typically happens in a democracy is that different segments of civil society – more or less powerful individuals and groups – will make demands based on their “special interests.” Because they seek reelection, politicians will then grant favors and make promises to satisfy these demands, even at the expense of the general interest. So, the aggregated or cumulative result of all this favor-granting and promise-making business will be really bad economic policy. In short, what ordoliberals don’t like about democratic practices is the erosion they cause to the general rules that ordoliberalism treasures so much. Thus, in their view, it is necessary to insulate the political process of decision-making, or at least to shield it, from the pressures of the “special interests” that make up a pluralist civil society.

Now, it is important to admit that many of us share the ordoliberals’ concern  – namely, that powerful and wealthy private interests besiege the political system. There is no denying that lobbies are a huge problem. So, the ordoliberals’ misgivings about pluralist democracy are not entirely outlandish and, by themselves, their worries don’t make them into authoritarians. Yet, their response to the flaws of representative democracy – namely, that the political process should be sheltered, as much as possible, from popular oversight – is clearly problematic. That all the demands stemming from civil society would be treated as the expression of “special interests” is what I find worrisome.

If it should not be up to the people to decide how the economy should be run, then who? For the ordoliberals, the answer is: economists and experts because their position is predicated on knowledge and competence, not on sympathy with any type of special interests. This is not the answer Hayek gave. But for the ordoliberals, there is such a thing as an “intelligentsia” – in Karl Mannheim’s sense of the word – whose members are not driven by interests and ideologies – which in the ordoliberals’ eyes always go together – but by science – which is necessarily “disinterested.”

WC: Arguments of the sort you just mentioned – expertise over demagogy – were of course used by the Troika and the Eurogroup to discipline the first Syriza government. Perhaps most famously, Wolfgang Schäuble held the neoliberal line and dismissed the Greek referendum by saying, “Elections can’t change the rules.” What did the negotiations between the Eurogroup and the Greek government during the first six months of 2015 reveal about the tensions between neoliberalism and democracy? 

TB: There is hardly any question that the Troika effectively restricted the exercise of democracy in Greece. Of course, some will say that the Greeks have brought this upon themselves – not without motive, for there is no doubt that the Greek state has been plagued by inefficiency and cronyism for many years. Yet, it is not an overstatement to say that, in the past several years, the Troika – meaning the representatives of the EC, the ECB and the IMF – and not the Greek people, has dictated the terms of Greece’s economic and fiscal policy. And this situation continues today, despite the referendum of July 2015, where the Greek people said “No” to the memorandum that European institutions wanted to impose on their country. So, the anti-democratic, and technocratic, nature of the Troika’s exigencies is undeniable.

Another argument purported to minimize the Troika’s assault on democracy states that the infringement of European agencies on Greek domestic affairs is an emergency measure, due to the fact that Greece is nearly bankrupt. So, it makes sense that harsh conditions would apply to those who have to beg for money. Though I don’t want to subscribe to this kind of logic, the broader point is that it is not just countries on the verge of bankruptcy whose democratic institutions are trumped. Because of the permanent monitoring system of the post-Maastricht regime to which I referred earlier, all the member-states of the EU, and especially of the Eurozone are subjected to the same surveillance and sanctioning mechanisms.

The crucial actors in this regime are precisely the ECB, the IMF, and the European Commission – especially the EC, I would say. Since the thrust of the European dynamic is to depoliticize decisions regarding public policies, the EC is the agency that is best qualified to prescribe measures designed to correct macroeconomic imbalances on the basis that they are just sound economics. To the extent that they are accountable to voters, national governments and the European Parliament tend to re-politicize matters, whereas the Commission does not have to worry about elections.

This situation is problematic not only because public matters should not be depoliticized – if democracy is to be preserved – but also because the political reforms pushed by the EC produce winners and losers among member-states, and thus redistribute burdens and benefits. So what is being depoliticized is in fact a supremely political matter.

WC: At the domestic level in Germany, the current government, where the CDU and the SPD rule in tandem, has maintained its commitment to a balanced budget (the so-called “black zero” or Schwarze Null) despite the impending costs of “welcoming” more than a million refugees. At the EU level, the Fiscal Compact and the past year’s developments reveal not simply a similar intention to stay the course, but a determination to intensify the stringency of sanctions for those who might wish to take a break from austerity. In your view, what are the main challenges that this hard line may have to confront, both in Germany and in Europe?

TB: In the German context the Schwarze Null is first and foremost about symbolism. For the government, it is important to be able to claim that the budget will be balanced – or at least that the state will not run structural deficits (I am fairly certain that a number of accounting tricks are mobilized to secure this accomplishment). For the German authorities, the symbolic importance of maintaining and displaying fiscal discipline is twofold:

On the one hand, it is about being exemplary and, by that token, conveying to the leaders of the other EU member-states that they can and must follow the German example: “we are balancing our budget and so should you; with a little effort, any country in Europe could be like Germany.”

On the other hand, the display of fiscal discipline is directed at a domestic audience. For German conservatism is currently experiencing a kind of identity crisis. Though Angela Merkel has been very successful in terms of staying in power, the traditional base of the CDU, the more conservative voters, are no longer sure of what their party is about and so they are wondering what is in the CDU for them. So, showcasing the Schwarze Null is about telling these people: “this is what we stand for. We stand for fiscal discipline, and that’s conservative. We might have gotten rid of all kinds of other tenets that were formerly considered to be conservative, but in terms of economic policy, we’re still the real conservatives because we’ve delivered on what we promised . . . even in the middle of a refugee crisis.” Saying that is especially important because it is the first time in fifty years that the budget of the German state is balanced – and because it may not happen again in the years to come. Thus, making as much as possible of this year’s feat is the best way to make sure that conservative voters will remember it when the next campaign season comes around.

Now, in terms of the challenges that the politics of fiscal austerity may face, we have to remember that, since the beginning of the European sovereign debt crisis in 2010, Germany has been acting as a quasi-hegemon, in terms of economic policy at least, simply because its government had a lot of money that other European countries needed. So, having cash to lend gave German authorities considerable leverage. Of course, the way they used the leverage they had, making themselves into the chief enforcers of austerity, did not produce a lot of gratitude and good will on the part of the peoples who were on the receiving end – in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal. So, considering that the role Germany played is hardly forgotten in these countries, the latter are unlikely to show much solidarity towards the country of Angela Merkel when it comes to the sudden inflow of refugees. For the tables have turned now, at least in part: in particular, German authorities are trying to convince their Greek counterparts to keep a large number of asylum seekers in Greece, so as to lighten Germany’s load. But of course Greek authorities are unwilling to comply – not to mention that they cannot afford to do it properly: why should they show any solidarity with Germany, considering the way Germany treated them and continues to treat them, with respect to their public debt? Therefore, I think we are entering a phase that Germany may find quite difficult to navigate – a phase that may prove problematic and worrisome for Europe as a whole.

Interview conducted on December 21, 2015

Recommended citation: Biebricher, Thomas (interviewed by William Callison). “Return or Revival: The Ordoliberal Legacy.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

The Euro Crisis and the Neoliberal EU Policy Regime: Signs of Change or More of the Same?

The Euro Crisis has painfully exposed the weaknesses of the European economic policy regime. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon countries, where the global financial crisis began, it is the euro area that is teetering on the brink of deflation now and it is only in the peripheral euro area countries that the crisis has turned into a depression. So how do Europe’s elites want to reform the European policy regime? Are they questioning the neoliberal model or merely modernising it? To get a glimpse of the future of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) this blog takes a detailed look at the Five Presidents’ Report on ”Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union,”1 which represents the most comprehensive single statement by the European institutions thus far about the direction EMU should be heading. Our assessment is that the report sets out to permanently and institutionally codify the structural adjustment programmes which have been applied to the crisis economies whilst at the same time providing further impetus to cross-border financial speculation. The report recommends a single-minded focus of national policy on “fiscal responsibility” and competitiveness through eroding of labour standards, and a renewed push for financial liberalisation in the form of a Capital Markets Union. The propositions for a common fiscal policy lack detail, and there is no mention of reform of the European Central Bank toward a genuine lender of last resort. The report does not aim at restructuring the two neoliberal growth models that have characterised Europe before the crisis: a debt-driven and an export-driven model. The restrictive fiscal and monetary policy regime which ultimately was critical in turning a financial crisis into a sovereign debt crisis remains essentially unaltered. Hence, there is little reason to believe that the problems of the EMU will be resolved by the implementation of the plans outlined in the report. We will therefore contrast it with progressive Keynesian policy proposals.

The Five Presidents’ Report

The Five Presidents’ Report is divided into five sections. The first section sets out the planned timetable for the proposed reforms which is comprised of three stages, with the final one to be reached by 2025, by which time all reforms, it is hoped, will be in place. As we shall argue, important measures which would be required to be urgently implemented are, if mentioned at all, delayed as far as possible, whereas the most damaging measures are prioritised.

Collage of the members of the Five Presidents council
The five presidents of the European institutions: Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission; Jeroen Dijsselbloem, President of the Eurogroup; Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament; Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank; and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council.

In the second section, the report reaffirms that a sustainable EMU requires that all member states “converge to the highest level of prosperity” (Juncker 2015: 7). Yet, the report still clings to the belief that such convergence can be achieved through supply-side reforms of the same kind which have been unsuccessfully applied throughout the periphery since the crisis. The idea of establishing “National Competitiveness Authorities” in all member states is the most concrete proposal in this section, and it is believed to be of such importance that it should be implemented as soon as possible. The focus of these authorities is clearly envisioned to be on a fairly narrow definition of competitiveness, related to prices and especially wages. Member states are expected “to converge towards the best performance and practices in Europe” (p. 7) which can easily be read as a euphemism for a race to the bottom in terms of labour standards. The ultimate aim of convergence is supposed to be a similar level of resilience against disturbances, without direct reference to the levels of employment or income at which this should be achieved. The original aim of convergence (i.e. “convergence to the highest level of prosperity”) is apparently presumed to be an automatic outcome of supply-side reforms. “[E]fficient [read: flexible] labour markets that promote a high level of employment and are able to absorb shocks without generating excessive unemployment are essential: they contribute to the smooth functioning of EMU as well as to more inclusive societies” (ibid). There is little reference to the idea of a genuine social Europe beyond platitudes to the effect that “Europe’s ambition should be to earn a ‘social triple A’” (p. 8). Eventually, this new convergence process is envisioned to become binding for member states with standards which “should focus primarily on labour markets, competitiveness, business environment and public administrations, as well as certain aspects of tax policy (e.g. corporate tax base).” The potential pitfalls of this approach are clear: the winners of this intra-European competitive race (which are likely to be those countries currently already enjoying competitive advantages) will continue to rely on the export-driven growth model which characterised economic developments in a subset of Eurozone countries prior to the crisis. The Capital Markets Union, discussed below, on the other hand, will serve to strengthen the forces which led to the debt-driven growth model representing the counterpart to the export-driven one. These growth models emerged in a situation in which wage shares were falling in Eurozone economies, most of which are wage-led (that is, they are economies in which an increase in the share of wages in national income leads to an increase in aggregate demand and GDP), since growth had to come from sources other than domestic demand out of wage-income.2 The report’s proposals, especially those in the second section, may well lead to a further decline in wage shares, and are thus antithetical to what progressive Keynesians advocate based on empirical findings about demand regimes.3

The third section contains proposals regarding the Banking Union and the Capital Markets Union. Out of all the projects described in the report, these two are the furthest developed with detailed proposals for implementation. In addition to the already agreed single supervisory and single resolution mechanisms, the report once more suggests the creation of a European Deposit Insurance Scheme for the Banking Union; a proposal which has so far proved controversial, with Germany frequently opposing it. The creation of a Banking Union composed of these three pillars is indeed desirable to help ensure that banking crises do not turn into sovereign debt crises. However, it remains questionable whether the proposed size of the resolution- and deposit-insurance funds would be sufficient to withstand the collapse of a major European bank.4 If this is not the case, national budgets would again have to be used for bank rescues, which would further reduce the already slim fiscal manoeuvring space available to Eurozone members during crises. But there is an even bigger problem: while the aim of the Banking Union is to improve the stability of the financial system, the report’s proposals for the Capital Markets Union are likely to lead to increased instability.

There is no attempt at serious financial reform or regulation in the report. It shies away from proposing a break-up of large universal banks or at least the ring-fencing of investment banking from commercial banking operations, the taxation of financial wealth, or regulation of the shadow banking sector. At the same time, the proposed Capital Markets Union (CMU), which is to be implemented as soon as possible, is likely to further increase the systemic importance of large universal banks. The proposition for the CMU, which has been interpreted as a concession to the UK and its oversized financial sector,5 is framed as providing an opportunity for channelling financing into productive investments, particularly of SMEs. However, the report makes no practical suggestions as to how this would be achieved. Capital market financing of firms is indeed less developed in continental Europe than in the United States, but even there SME finance is primarily bank-based. Rather than helping SMEs the most likely effect of CMU is to further increase the power of large banks. Indeed, one cannot help but think that the detailed proposals relating to the CMU which have been put forward6 are actually designed to lead to this outcome. For instance, the proposed rules on due diligence and self-attestation in the so-called “Simple, Transparent and Safe Securitisation” (STS) scheme clearly favour market participants with superior resources and analytical capabilities. The whole proposed regulatory framework to a significant extent reflects the interests of the financial sector7 (rather than those of the real economy, which the CMU is allegedly designed to help) and will facilitate the emergence of a renewed era of credit-led booms driven by the securitisation of mortgage loans in which the largest banks are the major players. As such, rather than to act against the conditions which led to the emergence of rising indebtedness and growing current account imbalances in the periphery, the European institutions aim to provide new impetus for speculation. The report argues that the CMU will increase financial stability by “provid[ing] a buffer against systemic shocks” (p. 12). This appears highly naïve in light of the experiences of the peripheral countries during the crisis and those of developing countries with capital market liberalisation. Both examples show that international capital flows tend to be highly volatile and pro-cyclical. They tend to aggravate rather than alleviate difficulties during times of crisis and uncertainty. More financial liberalisation will not solve the problem of financial instability.

In the fourth section, the report attempts to address the shortcomings of the European fiscal framework. Remarkably, and despite the importance of the issue, this section is in fact the shortest in the entire report. The proposals are accordingly vague. The section first reaffirms the commitment to the rules binding national fiscal policies and makes suggestions for stricter implementation. The role of the ECB, and the fact that its restrictive mandate (which prevents it from supporting national fiscal policies as any other modern central bank does) is essentially the only reason that these fiscal rules are necessary in the first place, are not mentioned in the entire document. The report then raises the prospect for fiscal policy at the Eurozone level. In the European context, it constitutes progress that the five presidents make the case for a European fiscal policy, but their understanding of the role of fiscal policy is extremely narrow. The measures, according to the report, will only take the form of automatic stabilisers without scope for discretionary policy.8 However, the crisis has shown that active, discretionary fiscal policy is necessary and can be (and has been) very effective especially during recessions.9 But in Brussels and Berlin, such things cannot be spoken about in polite company. The fiscal policy framework is only envisioned to be implemented at the second stage of the reform process. This is ironic at best. Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal need government spending now, not in ten years. In addition, the report envisions that economies would only be able to benefit from this framework by meeting the strict conditions outlined in the rest of the report. The framework is not viewed as a tool to promote convergence and is hence a far cry from the fiscal and welfare policy proposal we outline below. Fiscal orthodoxy is thoroughly entrenched in Europe and the priorities set by the report are strikingly at odds with what is necessary to return growth and prosperity to all of Europe.

The fifth section contains a number of token-propositions under the heading of democratic accountability which fall far short of what would be required to address the democratic deficit at the European level. There are to be additional debates in the European Parliament on economic matters. National parliaments of member states are reminded to exercise their right to invite a member of the European Commission. No mention whatsoever is made of additional decision-making powers for elected representatives or a wholesale democratic reform of the European institutions, strengthening the power of the Parliament vis-à-vis the Commission and the Council. The risks of delaying democratic reform are clear, particularly in crisis countries where austerity policies are perceived as being forced by unaccountable institutions. This will further strengthen the support of euro-sceptic parties, which are predominantly on the extreme right. On this dimension, the report thus clearly misses the aim of putting the EMU on a sustainable footing. Again, the section makes some unspecific comments regarding the setting up of a Euro Area treasury. However, the report also reaffirms that “[t]he Stability and Growth Pact remains the anchor for fiscal stability and confidence in the respect of our fiscal rules” (p. 18).

The EU Policy Regime and the Sovereign Debt Crisis

Thus, overall, the report provides little hope for a change of the EU policy regime. That this regime is indeed well-anchored in neoliberal and ordoliberal political and economic thought has been demonstrated at length by one of the present authors.10 Its major features, including restrictions on national fiscal policy, liberalised goods and financial markets, a centralised, independent monetary authority focused on inflation targeting and an emphasis on competitiveness and flexibility of labour markets all fit well into these strands of thought. The regime is characterised by a strong belief in the efficiency of the market system, a distrust of state activity and an anti-labour bias. To these characteristics, one might also add a certain distrust of democracy, exhibited by the meagre proposals regarding the problem of the democratic deficit. It is well known that prominent neoliberals have at times been quite hostile to the idea of democracy, viewing the freedom of markets as the quintessential way to achieve personal freedom for all. These characteristics are also discernible in the Five Presidents’ Report. Especially notable is the fact that the report does not at all touch upon the ECB, which is modelled on the archetypical example of an ordoliberal central bank, the German Bundesbank.11 The crisis has shown that the ECB’s current institutional setup is not feasible in serious economic downturns when a genuine lender of last resort is needed the most, which is the reason why it has found various creative yet overall insufficient ways to circumvent its mandate in practice.

European Central Bank Headquarters
The euro currency symbol sits on a sign outside the European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany. (Martin Leissl/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

What, if anything, can be done to truly fix the flaws in the EU policy regime and the construction of the Eurozone? Several critics regard the fixed exchange rate regime as the root of the problem.12 In this view, the currency union is a vehicle for German/northern dominance through “neo-mercantilist” economic policies. According to them, Germany was more effective in constraining wage growth and gained a competitive edge over southern European countries. The euro system allowed Germany to pursue a growth strategy based on trade surpluses via wage suppression, with the root of the problem lying in fixed exchange rates which enabled this strategy. This reasoning leads some commentators to advocate an exit from the euro of certain countries or a wholesale breakup of the euro area. 13

There is some truth in these arguments, but they miss out on important factors. Financialisation only plays a supporting role in this story as it allows for a recycling of German trade surpluses to finance southern Europe’s imports. In fact, trade deficits were not only forced upon southern European countries by improved German competitiveness. Southern European countries were growing faster than northern countries and their growth pulled in imports. This growth was fuelled by a credit boom based on a property bubble, enabled by liberalisation of capital flows brought about through the monetary union. It came with rising household debt and proved highly unstable, but, from a macroeconomic point of view, it was not the growth rates that were unsustainable, it was their financing structure.

As regards the escalation of the crisis: the neoliberal macroeconomic policy regime of the euro area plays the central role. It is the separation of monetary and fiscal space that explains the uniquely European transformation of the global financial crisis into a sovereign debt crisis. And it is the refusal of the ECB to play the role of the lender of last resort to governments, not the fixed exchange rate regime, that forces national governments to adopt austerity policies. Why did the USA and the UK outperform the southern European countries despite a similar debt overhang? Because they used a strong devaluation to improve their competitiveness? No, the US devaluation early in the crisis was modest and Britain did not devalue at all. Rather it was the central bank financing of government spending under the mantle of quantitative easing that allowed them to run larger budget deficits than European countries while keeping interest rates low.14

A Keynesian Alternative

In contrast with the Five Presidents’ Report, a progressive Keynesian economic strategy15 would involve an economic policy mix that breaks thoroughly with neoliberalism. It would aim to solve the problems of the EMU without the need for a break-up.16 It would use deficit spending for demand stimulation and have full employment as its overall goal. A Keynesian strategy aims for inflationary adjustment, which means higher demand growth in surplus countries.

First, wage policy would not aim at wage flexibility, but at an equitable income distribution that is consistent with relative trade positions. This would involve policies which would create a system of transnationally coordinated wage bargaining that takes into consideration issues of equity, domestic demand, and trade balances. It would not be a framework aimed at convergence to the lowest level of labour costs and requires a strengthening of collective bargaining structures and ought to be complemented by a European system of national minimum wages. This would be an alternative to the current system in which deflationary pressure is put on the deficit countries, and it would contribute, along with the second element of the progressive Keynesian strategy, to lowering current account imbalances in Europe both by increasing demand growth in the north and by leading to a convergence of relative costs.

Second, the financial sector needs restructuring and shrinking. Debt restructuring will in some cases be necessary to make debt manageable, but in general a Keynesian strategy aims at raising income rather than deleting debt. An inflationary environment would facilitate a reduction of debt burdens. To counteract the regressive distributional effects of bank rescues, a substantial wealth tax would have to be introduced. Bailed-out financial institutions would be put under public control to ensure change in management practises. Financial regulation would lean against asset price bubbles to control credit growth. This would help to contain the credit-fuelled booms which were an important factor driving current account imbalances prior to the crisis.

Third, there needs to be a robust mechanism of redistribution across regions, a redistribution that does not rely on generosity and bail-outs. This would consist of two elements. On the one hand, crisis countries require a Marshall Plan style investment programme to help them build up productive capacities and rebalance the structures of their economies away from sectors such as real estate. Such a programme could, for instance, be undertaken by a Eurozone treasury, or by the European Investment Bank. It would help to address any component of the current account imbalances which cannot be eliminated through adjustments in relative labour costs, promote employment and restructure the economies of southern countries toward higher value-added production. On the other hand, a European social security system should serve to redistribute income from prosperous to depressed regions without increasing debt levels. Both these measures would increase the resilience of the Eurozone at large against both symmetric and asymmetric shocks.

Fourth, the Keynesian policy package frees fiscal policy from the shackles of the present regime. Fiscal policy has to be used to ensure that aggregate demand is at a level consistent with full employment. This implies a strong anti-cyclical component. Part of this can be delivered by automatic stabilisers like unemployment benefits and a progressive income tax, but a substantial part will be discretionary policy. States need to be able to react if their economy is facing a recession or high unemployment. Specifically, this means that the southern European countries should see a large increase in government spending as their output levels are well below capacity. Ideally these expenditures would come out of a European budget, based on Eurobonds and backed up by a reformed ECB-mandate.

Quite independently of any economic considerations, a reform of the EMU would also have to seriously address the democratic deficit. Whilst, of course, there is no specifically Keynesian view on democratic reform, sensible proposals which would not impair any of the measures advocated here have been made.17 Overall, the proposed programme would help to provide a change of course away from the policy framework based on neoliberal thought which both caused the crisis and is now preventing a recovery.

Recommended citation: Reissel, Severin and Stockhammer, Englebert. “The Euro Crisis and the Neoliberal EU Policy Regime: Signs of Change or More o the Same?” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

The Politics of Public Debt Structures: How Uneven Claims on the State Colonize the Future

“We don’t owe anything. We won’t pay anything. Cancel illegitimate debt.” Illegitimate, illegal, odious, and unbearable debt should become the focus of our struggle, proclaims the Comité pour l’annulation de la dette du tiers monde (CADTM, “Committee for the Annulation of Third World Debt”). Their doctrinal appeal now extends to all countries – no longer merely to those in the southern hemisphere, but also to those considered “economically advanced.”

In April 2015, at a moment when Greece’s fate in the Eurozone was still subject to tense negotiations, the Greek parliament established the Truth Committee on Public Debt. Chaired by Zoe Konstantopoulo (who then served as the head of the Hellenic Parliament) and scientifically coordinated by Éric Toussaint (a professor of political science, a member of the Scientific Committee of ATTAC France, and a spokesperson for the international network CADTM), the mandate of the Committee was to investigate the origin and contraction of the Greek public debt.

The overarching purpose of the Committee was to expose, first, debts “incurred in violation of sovereignty but also of democratic principles (including consent, participation, transparency and accountability)”; second, debts “used against the best interests of the population of the borrower state, or otherwise debts that are unconscionable, the effect of which is to deny people their fundamental civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights”; and third, “measures attached to the IMF loans to Greece that breached fundamental laws as protected under the country’s Constitution, customary law and international treaties to which Greece is a party.”1

A meeting of the Greek Debt Truth Commission with President of the Greek Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, June, 2015.
After meeting with the Greek Debt Truth Commission on June 11, 2015 in Athens, President of the Greek parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou, Green party member of the European Parliament Eva Joly, and Belgian historian and the CADTM spokesman Éric Toussaint appear at a press conference. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)

The Committee concluded that Greece was incapable of reimbursing its debt and that, regardless, reimbursement was out of the question. The report introduced a definition of the unsustainability of the debt that stands in stark contrast with the dominant perspective, which is distinctive of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the European Commission – whose mission it is to evaluate the public policies and public finances of the member-states of the Economic and Monetary Union.

Instead of settling for an analysis of “macroeconomic variables and debt projections” of “adjustment programmes” that “enable discussions around the debt to remain at a technical level,” the authors of the Committee’s assessment advocated for the recognition of other criteria of evaluation: “an assessment of the human rights impacts of the macroeconomic adjustment and fiscal consolidation that were the conditions for the loan… the ability or capacity of the government of the borrower state to fulfill its basic human rights obligations, relating, for example, to healthcare, education, water, sanitation, and adequate housing, or to invest in public infrastructure and programs necessary for economic and social development,” and, more generally, to take “the interest of the population” into account.2 This counter-investigation clearly stages the conflict that now opposes, on the one hand, the holders of public debt and state creditors in a broad sense – multilateral institutions, financial investors, financial and bank institutions – and on the other hand, the “populations” whose holdings are limited to public endowments. While the former are determined to be reimbursed at all costs by public powers (so as to make good on their investments), the latter see their benefits sacrificed to the growing share of public funds and investments devoted to servicing the debt – since Greece’s economy has become entirely dependent on the commitment of its government to give precedence to its creditors’ expectations.

From Debt Relief to Public Debt Structures

When a country has been bled dry and the gross domestic product has fallen by 25% in just a few years, it is certainly legitimate to resort to the instruments of judicial recourse and to describe Greece’s debt as “illegitimate, illegal, odious.” For not only is the state ordered to secure a primary budget surplus for the coming years,3 but it is also under the obligation to make its creditors the primary beneficiaries of the money reserves thereby constituted – all of this to the detriment of economic growth and much needed public services. The description of debt as “illegitimate, illegal and odious” would be true for any country, state, or sovereign power pushed into similarly dark corners and led into the kind of impasse in which Greece finds itself today.

However, we must also wonder about what happens – or, more precisely, what else might happen – both prior to and in the aftermath of these emergency situations when the social and political movements calling for an alternative to the status quo see the “cancelation” of the debt, or the possibility of defaulting on it, as the only solution. The public debt question, which every country in the world must address at this point in time, also invites us to examine the political significance of public debt structures.

At stake here is regaining a form of collective control over the financing techniques of the state and over public and social expenditures. The fight for such a re-appropriation must take place alongside necessary struggles that aim at having illegitimate debts recognized for what they are. However, the difference between the two struggles is that activism concerning debt structures is situated upstream from the battles for debt cancelation: indeed, its purpose is to avoid these situations of ultimatum, where the fear of defaulting compels governments to keep their financial commitments, even at the cost of letting the populations under their care sink into misery.

Without casting an a priori judgment on the various forms of state financing, including debt financing, it is important to revisit earlier regimes, if only to dispel the notion that resorting to financial markets and thus submitting to the expectations and exigencies of private creditors is the obvious and only way to proceed. The main issue here is not the specific identity of the bondholders – as when the French Treasury and National Assembly establish a distinction between “resident and non-resident” holders of the French public debt, or between domestic and foreign financial institutions. Politically, the crucial question is that of the concrete modalities through which the state collects funds and issues its own debt. In other words, what is significant here are the chosen techniques of subscription.

What ultimately matters is therefore the composition of a public debt, or its “structure” in the strongest sense of the term: how the modes of financing, dictated as they are by power relations, determine how the collection and the uses of public finances are apportioned between the public and the private spheres, between what is devoted to shared resources and to individual appropriation. History is rich with examples where states did not draw their financial means from a market governed by the appetites and wishes of the financial class, but instead relied on regulations that were politically, administratively, and legally established.

For instance, at the end of the Second World War and in countries like Germany, Italy, and France, the share of the public debt was said to be “non-marketable”; the public debt, which was collected and managed through administrative and political regulations, was considerably larger than its “marketable” or commercial counterpart, which included the bonds that were issued, sold, and distributed in conformity with market procedures. In the United Kingdom, during that same period, the public debt was evenly divided into negotiable and non-negotiable portions. By 1993, however, the commercial share of the debt had risen to 82% in the UK while in Germany, it grew from 8% to 81% between 1953 and 1993.4

Altogether, the so-called “Golden Age” of capitalism – from 1945 to the mid-70s – was a time of intense experimentation with respect to off-market financing of the state. In the countries where the marketable debt had been hitherto dominant, its proportion diminished notably during those years. In Canada, from 1946 to 1976, public debt went down from 85% to 37%; in the Netherlands from 99% to 61%, and in Spain from 100% in 1945 to 22% in 1978. In France, even throughout the 1970s, three quarters of the techniques of state financing still pertained to the “non-negotiable,” or in other words administered, share of the debt. From 1987 onward, however, the proportion was reversed and the “negotiable” instruments, subjected to the law of the financial markets, became predominant. There is thus nothing “natural” or obvious about resorting to the capital markets in order to finance the state; nor is it inevitable to expose the state’s credit by allowing rating agencies and private investors to monitor public policies. To the contrary, between the beginning of the post-war reconstruction and the current period, governments were involved in a social, political, and institutional endeavor designed to undermine and deconstruct the power of banking and financial institutions: their purpose was to discipline the financial industry in order to make it the instrument of collective projects, broad public services, and social progress.

The Golden Age of the French Treasury Circuit

In the last three decades, France has been one among many countries that has followed the international trend of predominantly resorting to financial markets in order to gather public funds. Yet, in the aftermath of the war and right up until the 1960s, the French state had several techniques at its disposal that made borrowing outside its own public circuits merely optional. A brief account of these mechanisms allows us to grasp the extent of the political change that has occurred in the recent period. It also allows us to realize that reclaiming these techniques might produce a departure from the current regime.

The first five-year plan for “modernization and equipment” (from 1945 to 1950) sought to “insure a rapid rise in the population’s quality of life, and particularly with respect to food provision.” Projected in the program were: (1) the reinstatement of basic industries that had been damaged or destroyed during the war (coal, electricity, steel, cement, agricultural engineering, and transportation); (2) the modernization of agriculture; (3) the assistance to the construction industry (buildings and public works); (4) the development of the export industries; and (5) the transformation of living conditions (particularly housing conditions). It is noteworthy how priorities were defined at the time, including by Charles de Gaulle – how what counted as absolute necessity had nothing to do with today’s austerity and budgetary discipline: “as far as the economy is concerned,” and in order to “use common resources for the benefit of all,” de Gaulle declared, “the pursuit of particular interests must always give way to the regard for the general interest.”5

After the war there were no reserves to pay for the first plan, and the structures capable of creating, sustaining, and collecting the necessary funds needed to be reinvented. In 1945, the French Ministry of the National Economy was given the task of supervising the financing of public investments. Economic planning and a tight control of the banking system and financial markets, as well as a public and centralized system of collection and reallocation of savings in the national economy, embodied this deployment of state power. The Treasury established mechanisms that procured easy, regular, and secure resources for the state in order to provide “available liquidities in all circumstances.”6 As for covering public deficits, at the time there were hardly any constraints as we understand them today: the public authorities did not have to deal with interest rates established by financial markets – rates that may be low and profitable, as is currently the case, but nonetheless subject to inherent and often irrational volatility.

The organization of the cash flow at the time made the state the investor and the banker of the national economy: this was known as the “Treasury circuit.” It included a variety of more or less constraining mechanisms and compelled a number of financial institutions to deposit resources they had themselves collected in the economy through the Treasury. The French Treasury thus functioned like a commercial bank, collecting deposits that allowed for a large proportion of public deficits to be covered almost automatically, outside of any market procedure: it received the funds deposited – mandatorily – by its correspondents and settled their expenses for them according to their orders, just like a commercial banker. At the same time, these deposits represented “spontaneous resources” (according to the administrative term of the time) for the Treasury, which passively centralized these flows, there again, like a present-day large commercial bank.

This mode of financing is entirely different from the way we currently think about debt. When it did go into debt, the Treasury did not appeal to creditors outside its own purview but, instead, collected and mobilized the resources of its own network of savers – the “Treasury’s correspondents.” Far from making the state dependent on external lenders, the Treasury circuit was a structure that made for the deployment of a truly public financial capability. The contrast with today’s regime is striking: within the circuit, the interest rates that were applied to the money deposited at the Treasury were determined by the state and thus not subjected to the law of supply and demand. Money circulated within a public network of individuals or institutions that acted as depositors and short-term lenders. The state, via the Treasury, was a privileged financial actor since the resources automatically came under its purview. By 1955, this system had made the Treasury the largest collector of funds (with the exception of the Banque de France) in the French economy: “It alone collects more capital (695 billion francs) than the banking sector (617 billion) and allocates more funds (783 billion) than the entirety of the public and private institutions involved in granting credits (715 billion).”7 This “public marking of money”8 is tethered to the nationalization of the banking and credit industry, two thirds of which – including the Banque de France, nationalized in 1945, and four major commercial banks – was controlled at the time by the public and quasi-public sectors.

Thanks to this system, the issuing of middle- and long-term bonds, which exposes the state’s credit to the judgment of the markets, is no more than an optional instrument – though one that provides a complementary lever to which the French state did resort. Regardless, the Treasury circuit acted as an efficient protection against the return of the so-called “wall of money” (mur de l’argent) – to wit, the obstacles previously raised by financial capitalists in order to undermine a government’s attempt to engage in non-orthodox social, fiscal, and monetary policies, or, more generally, to take measures that go against their class interests.9

Throughout the thirty years following the end of the Second World War, the average debt to GDP ratio was stable: around 15% to 20% as opposed to almost 98% today. The Treasury circuit also enabled French authorities to spare themselves the political liability of turning too systematically to the Banque de France for an advance. While these advances, directly provided by the European Central Bank, are now perceived as the best solution for a member-state in need of money, at the time, a government that would consider such an option needed to get a parliamentary approval and was usually faced with a bit of a popular uproar and a heated public debate.

Though the Treasury circuit model is often associated with the danger of runaway inflation, it must be recalled that in its heyday, namely the 1950s and 1960s, inflation was contained below a 6% average.10 Above all, one must bear in mind that, far from being limited to the management of the cash flow, the tools that were then allotted to the Treasury enabled the state to play an important role as a regulator for the amounts of currency and credit in circulation. For as early as 1948, the state also established a system of liquidities oversight according to which banks were obliged to acquire and keep a set amount of Treasury bills. Such a requirement was understood as a “forced loan.” It was a matter of making sure that the banks did not get rid of the state securities, but also a way of controlling their activity: it worked somewhat as a system of mandatory reserves – but one in which the banks’ liquid assets, instead of being deposited in the Central Bank, were systematically invested in Treasury bills.

Rather than a permanent opportunity for monetary laissez-faire, these obligatory Treasury bill provisions were a lever for monetary action that could work both ways: having to keep a certain amount of state securities in their coffers, banks were restrained in their ability to over-lend to companies or households in times of inflation – while still keeping the state afloat. In the name of the general interest, this technique introduced a political and administrative coordination of monetary and financial functions.

The political organization introduced by the Treasury circuit system seems utterly exotic today. At the time, the state stood above the market. Defining the interest rates on its bills was the state’s sovereign prerogative. It set the value of its securities and issued them continuously: documents speak of “open faucet” or “open window” issuing. There was no market session then, no adjudication of the bonds and no auctioning organized by the Agence France Trésor – the agency currently in charge of financing public deficit, whose task it is to expose the credit of the state to the gaze and the capricious moods of bondholders.

The financing techniques of the “golden age” did establish a particular political relation between public authorities and financial institutions. Making it mandatory for banks to acquire its bills, the Treasury imposed an earmarking of their money supply. The continuous issuing of securities ensured that the needs of state were covered at all times and dispelled the threat that the markets would price its bonds unreasonably. It thus turned the state into an uncommon borrower, endowed with the power to make the rules regarding its own debt and to impose its authority to the banking and financial world. The state placed itself above the fray and, unlike every other debt issuer, did not have to expose its credit to the assessment of market agents.

The Treasury circuit constituted an experiment in the political enlistment of money, which embedded it in regulatory practices and through the mandatory cooperation of financial institutions. The dismantling of these mechanisms began at the end of the 1960s and with the precise goal of removing the state from its pedestal. The banker-state was undone in the name of competition and for the sake of “freeing” a sizeable portion of the financial sector. One must recall that the financial industry had been a longstanding detractor of the Treasury circuit system, accusing it of “financial repression.” If anything, such grievances prove that, until then, the control of financial institutions had not been what it would be for François Hollande in 2012 – namely, a vapid electoral promise purported to give a left-leaning spin to the socialist candidate’s presidential campaign: far from an unsubstantiated wish, it was then a reality, precisely organized by legal and technical mechanisms so as to balance the relation of power between public agencies and private financial institutions, or even to tilt the balance in favor of the former.

The Politics of Marketable Debts

The successive reforms initiated from the middle of the 1960s on aimed at turning the state back into a borrower among others, a vulnerable and fallible agent that had to submit to the litmus test of capital markets. The fatal blow in France was struck between 1966 and 1968 by Michel Debré, the Minister of Finance at the time, and his young technical adviser, Jean-Yves Haberer, who was fascinated by the American model of market financing. Haberer explicitly sought to “dismantle the circuit [and] all the automatic mechanisms that enabled the Treasury, without lifting a single finger, to draw its fill of liquidities from all the French financial circuits.”11 He wanted the state to improve its managerial efficiency by way of undoing the regulatory mechanisms that gave it too much financial security. It is necessary to “make the State live like a borrower,” Haberer claimed; “in other words, to put it in a position where it must ask itself the borrower’s questions about the cost of loans and the service of its debt.”12

Michel Debre at a press conference in Paris, 1966.
The Minister of Finance, Michel Debré, at a press conference in Paris, February 16, 1966. (Jean-Claude Deutsch/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Such an approach already announces the current wisdom according to which it is up to the international financial markets to finance a state’s sovereign debt. Only a real market, the reasoning goes, compels the state to be “transparent” and to prove trustworthy, particularly in regard to its credit and the soundness of its policies, and in the eyes of investors. The financial community thus appears as the privileged interlocutor of the state, as well as the main arbiter of what is good and bad, necessary and superfluous, in the realms of monetary, economic, and even social policy-making. For in order to sell its bonds, the state must always listen to the desires expressed by the financial markets and internalize what market actors conceive as the common good: to please investors, policy-makers must predicate the economy on free trade, give precedence to the fight against inflation, be mindful of fiscal discipline, and allow for a relatively high rate of unemployment in order keep salaries down and give their dues to external constraints.

While public debts have been given over to the markets and their criteria for some time, further developments are still in the works. The institutions that are spearheading neoliberal reforms – the International Monitory Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the European Union (EU) – are determined to complete the process that depoliticizes public debts by way of commodifying them. To that end, they seek to turn the state Treasury, as was done with the European Central Bank, into an “independent” agency, by which they mean an institution detached from the government and free from ministerial control. Such an agency for debt issuing and management, presumed to act exclusively in the name of technical imperatives, would transform Treasury bonds into a “pure instrument,”13 entirely determined by market rules. Managed by traders, it would be shielded from political deliberation and emancipated from public oversight. Therefore, this issuing agency should no longer be situated, physically, in the confines of the Ministry of Finance but, instead, find a home in the closest proximity to the financial market – as is already the case for the British and German debt agencies, respectively located in the City of London and in Frankfurt.

The hegemony of marketable debts comes with its own politics. State finances are exposed to the judgments and evaluations of savings collectors and lenders of all kinds (businesses, life insurance companies, banks, public institutions), rating agencies, and financial analysts. Having become regular borrowers, states are now constantly obsessed with their credit: looking attractive in the eyes of private investors and maintaining their rank in the competition for borrowing capital at the best price are their primary concerns. The primacy of marketable debts pulls states into a perpetual race the winners of which are those who satisfy budgetary requirements and manage to be the most market-friendly in terms of taxation and other public policy decisions.

As the credit measured by private investors becomes the state’s chief obsession, the pursuit of a good rating defines what public finances and their management are about, what issues and what solutions must shape the public debate regarding debt. The latter thus focuses on budgetary factors: the state is customarily blamed for spending too much and managing its own finances badly – thereby letting deficits go astray. Within this causal and argumentative regime, there is of course no space for a discussion of the modalities of state financing. And when governments complain about what they must do to attract investors, the representatives of the reigning orthodoxy retort that complacent governments are prone to use the markets as scapegoats in order to present themselves as victims. Better still, the harbingers of fiscal discipline like to marvel about the fact that markets are increasingly attuned to public policies and that their conduct merely amounts to helping governments by means of holding out a mirror in front of them, thereby enabling them to see and correct their errors. Markets, the argument further goes, thus play the salutary role of “watchdogs,” acting as a “normative counter-power” and “a safety rope” for governments.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert French Treasury Securities Poster
A French Treasury Securities poster features a bust of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a computer monitor, and the phrases “the liquidity of the market” and “the solidity of the state.”

One often hears the accusation that states “live above their means,” that they are overly lax with respect to their budget: the charge that public officials are “big spenders” who do not speak the language of truth is pervasive in the rhetoric of mainstream media and in political debates.14 Yet, omnipresent as these charges are, those who never tire of making them experience themselves as Cassandras, prophets preaching in the desert and endlessly alerting the public without being heard: so they keep at it, repeating on a daily basis that taxes are too high and that France’s competitiveness can only be restored if social programs are slashed and if unproductive public services are no longer allowed to hinder economic growth.

To remain a “good” and thus attractive borrower – thereby dissuading lenders to raise the interest rates on its bonds – a state must exercise a strict discipline and be totally transparent with respect to its financial situation in order to show its budgetary good faith.15 To keep governments under constant pressure, both the European Commission and rating agencies16 resort to ratios, such as the debt to GDP ratio, that are purported to remind ostensibly sovereign powers what their priorities must be. For example, this is the case with the 60% debt of GDP threshold that became famous because it was one of the main public financial criteria that states had to meet in order to be qualified for entry into the European monetary union. Measured by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Commission, it remains a tool for governing European public finances.

Social vs. Financial Debts: The Looming Competition

Accounting methods, with regard to public expenses and debt, also undergo transformations in order to adapt to the expectations of financial investors. To prove their credentials to creditors, states, having become ordinary borrowers, have to play the game of transparency and furnish all possible information. The financialization of state finances thus leads to the financialization of accounting methods. Organizations such as the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) have long pleaded for the establishment of a metrology applicable to all economic agents, henceforth without distinction between states and private businesses.17 Key in this ostensibly technical reform is the question of the “implicit commitments” – also called “off-balance-sheet” or “future debt.” For the new method requires states to evaluate a still barely visible part of the administration’s balance sheet, namely, the promises of future pension payments to civil servants. At stake is the determination of whether these commitments constitute an actual debt of the state to its employees – as actual, in other words, as the loan agreements that states sign with private creditors. Are future pension expenses to be included as liabilities in the state’s accounts and, if so, do they impact the famous ratio of debt to GDP, which has become the focal point of debates on public finances? Alternatively, should these expenses be considered as one of the state’s implicit, reversible, and amendable commitments, and thus kept off the balance sheets?

What this methodological reform entails is the replacement of “cash-based” accounting, in which expenses are recorded when they are paid – when money actually leaves the accounts – by a mode of accounting based on “commitments.” This mode of accounting, also called “accrual accounting,” takes into account all the debts “accrued-to-date,” that is to say, all the debts that have been incurred up to the reporting day. Such a change in the mode of accounting potentially expands the purview of the public debt by including pension commitments as liabilities. Now, including these future disbursements among current liabilities also serves as an incentive for provisioning these ineluctable commitments of the state. Therefore, the ongoing restructuring of accounting methods can be understood as a “pedagogical” measure aimed at state representatives: as future risks regarding the state’s commitments become more visible, public officials are enticed to reflect on the sustainability of pension plans and thus to reckon with the “necessity” of extending the duration of pension contributions. In other words, they are compelled to push back the legal age of retirement in order to avoid the state from going bankrupt.

To consider future pension payments as a liability of the state, an explicit commitment and an actual debt, is to acknowledge that civil servants have accumulated a claim on the administration and capitalized an asset. Historically characteristic of funded pension systems, this representation of the relationship between the state and its employees clashes with the spirit of the pay-as-you-go pension regime – which is still operative in France – and thus tends to alter its nature. For once a form of reasoning predicated on savings and individual capital accumulation is allowed to penetrate the pay-as-you-go regime, it inevitably undermines the latter’s philosophy – which has always been about keeping the allocation of pensions separate from the logic of individual asset management.

The notion of a contract between generations is at the heart of the discursive strategy deployed by governments when they argue for a new approach to pensions. In France, as in other countries, senior finance officials are fond of claiming that the protection of future generations is a legitimate goal for them to pursue. As they envision them, however, these future generations are always already endowed with very specific moral values and political aspirations: primarily concerned with the protection of their own assets and feeling entitled to demand certain benefits from the social state, their particular sense of social justice seems limited to a form of responsibility vis-à-vis the future generations – and expressed by their wish to protect them from excessive debt. In short, the future generations share the concerns of today’s governments, whose priorities consist of being accountable to their creditors and to the progeny of their constituents by way of revising their modes of accounting, showing more restraint in their expenditures and scaling down the commitments they have made to their citizens in the past.

The new debt order not only reforms the state and the way it spends and collects funds, but more radically, it changes the way the state thinks about the various populations to which it is accountable. How long can this order last, given that it is leaning on a social powder keg? Until recently, in order to remain socially acceptable, the hegemonic exponents of financial capitalism were still careful to allow for a modicum of public and social spending. However, their relentless anxieties about deficits and the perennial austerity to which governments must consent to appease their creditors are rapidly eating away at what is left of the welfare state of yore.

If future pension expenditures are considered as debts in the same way that Treasury bills and bonds are, then these social commitments established and guaranteed by public policies should be as firmly kept as the financial loan contracts, which are subscribed to by the state and which bind it to its private creditors. Herein resides the ambiguity of ongoing accounting reforms purporting to convert all expenses into actual debts. What is at stake is whether the state is equally committed to bondholders and to the future recipients of social benefits – whether the rights of the latter are as robust as the rights of the former, whether both types of “creditors” have the same chance of holding the state to its word. The very nature of what the public debt stands for and encompasses is in a way reopened by the current changes in accounting techniques: does the public debt only involve the contracts, protected by contract law, between a borrowing state and the holders of its bonds, or does it extend to the “promises” made by the state to future pensioners? Paradoxically, it appears that by turning all the obligations of the state into individual contracts, pro-market reformers end up recognizing the existence of a “social debt” that would be as solidly inscribed in contract law as the agreements between issuers and private holders of public bonds. This new approach to debt is not limited to the pension issue: for instance, the French Cour des Comptes, the equivalent of the British National Audit Office, is now in favor of including among the state’s liabilities the cost to the Department of Public Education (Ministère de l’Éducation nationale) of a child from the age of six to sixteen.18

Now, in the mind of pro-market reformers, the idea of representing social benefits as “IOUs” was initially about alerting public opinion to the allegedly excessive weight of public spending: their purpose was to have ordinary citizens realize that the state was living above its means and that such profligacy constituted an unbearable burden not only for today’s taxpayers but also for future generations. However, regardless of its promoters’ intentions, the inclusion of social benefits among state’s liabilities might in fact serve the interests of their recipients, to the extent that it would inscribe public policy commitments into a contract as binding as the ones that behold governments to their creditors.

Since 2010, the sovereign debt crisis that resulted from the banks’ bailouts has certainly slowed down the process of identification between social and financial debts. Yet, at the same time, the social and economic conditions created by the European governments’ responses to the sovereign debt crisis have brought the competition between the two types of claimants into stark relief. In other words, the question of which “creditors” should be given precedence by the state – the holders of its bonds or the recipients of its benefits – has clearly become the defining issue of our times.

Economists have shown that there are many disparities in the relation of citizens to public debt.19 Among children, those who are born in privilege will benefit from the Treasury bonds that their families have in their portfolios, and the interest rates of which are often protected from inflation. Furthermore, the volume and value of such savings tend to increase as the tax burden on the wealthy becomes lighter – allegedly in order to boost economic growth.20 If debt in political debate is considered a liability of the public Treasury and a burden for future generations, it must also be recognized as an asset, at least for some socio-economic portions of the citizenry – today and in the future. At the height of a crisis, these disparities necessarily intensify. Thus, in a still covert fashion, the opposition and potential conflict between those who are on the receiving end of social spending and those savers who hold state bonds tend to structure the current social and political debates.

Though they largely initiated the process, and did so in order to stress the excessive indebtedness of some states, national governments, European institutions, and private actors such as rating agencies are now quite worried about the consequences of treating social and financial public debts on a par – of giving them the same legal status. For instance, Vincent J. Truglia, an executive from the rating agency Moody’s, says that, for his part, he has always been reticent to take a state’s future commitments into account in the calculation of a sovereign debt’s rating:

My fundamental view is that – it may sound very trivial – but there is no future. Everything is always in the present. The real argument is always about income distribution today. The only fundamental political argument there ever is; it’s income and wealth distribution in the present.21

Private financial agents now feel that their own rights to the reimbursement of the bond securities they hold are “threatened” by the claims on the payment of the social debt. They thus reckon with the fact that the interests of bondholders are in direct competition with the “demands” of citizens expecting to benefit from public and social expenses. At the turn of the 2000s, Moody’s even went so far as to predict that most developed states would probably default on their public debts. But, what the rating agency meant at the time, was that it was expecting states to default on their “social debts” and their pension funds:

Moody’s expects almost every industrialized nation to “default” on its pension promises. We have concluded that, with few exceptions, it is nearly impossible for almost every major developed nation to meet the public sector pensions currently promised, including health care for seniors, without significant adjustments to future benefits. Benefits will have to be scaled back, in some cases, significantly.22

Nowadays, the representatives of the financial industry are thus intent on reinstating an almost ontological difference between the social and financial debt. They fully appreciate the fact that public opinions seem to agree – that they also understand the financial debt to be a firm contract whereas the social debt is merely a conditional agreement, that calling it a debt is a social “convention” and that it is no more than a political “promise” that is reversible by definition. In short, bondholders and the managers of their portfolios are now primarily concerned with the rehabilitation of their special status of full-fledged creditor.

However, the consensus between financial institutions and the rest of the population regarding the difference of status between financial and social debts is bound to vacillate when a government’s default on its social debt leads to a major impoverishment of its constituents. This is what happened in Greece, leading, in the general elections of January 2015, to the victory of Syriza. For a while, the new governing coalition was able to embody the hope of a break with the austerity regime of the European monetary zone and the injunctions of the so-called Troika – the representatives of Greece’s main creditors, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

This political change brought about by Syriza’s victory opened a public conversation about the Greek debt: public authorities were asked to decide whether to give precedence to the needs of their constituents or to the claims of their creditors – to determine which types of commitments should be fulfilled in priority and which payments could be either shorn off or at least postponed. In April of 2015, resources and liquidities had grown so rare that the two types of obligations could no longer be met and a choice had to be made. Thus, the government announced that it was bound to take the unprecedented decision of defaulting on a payment to the International Monetary Fund. The Greek state could no longer afford to reimburse the 458 million euros it owed to the IMF on April 9 if it were to pay the salaries and distribute the social benefits that were due on April 14. Sources close to the Syriza party told the media:

We are a Left-wing government. If we have to choose between a default to the IMF or a default to our own people, it is a no-brainer.23

Thus, for a brief moment, a political party in power had chosen to act as the protector of the social debt, thereby assuming to challenge the wisdom and interests of the financial community – which, in the case of Greece in 2015, were represented by the various public institutions that had previously bought the Greek debt from private creditors. However, the moment of defiance proved indeed brief: the Syriza experiment ended in surrender, which shows that the competition between social and financial debts remains clearly rigged in favor of the latter. Yet, by virtue of exposing the asymmetric structures of a state’s obligations, the standoff between Athens and its creditors points to the possibility of redeploying class conflict and social activism around the following question: why should we assume that financial contracts are irrevocably binding while, for their part, the state’s commitments to the recipients of social benefits can be nullified by a new law on finances?

Barely a year after Syriza’s first electoral victory, Greece is more than ever a “debt colony,” as Alexis Tsipras called his country before becoming prime minister. Greek public goods and services are currently being auctioned and sold to private investors, under the guidance of Greece’s creditors and the brokerage of the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, in order to reimburse the country’s debt. The objective of this operation is to maximize the value of sold public goods: the latter are listed in a catalogue and their sale to private investors is supposed to give a boost to the Greek economy while taking care of mature debts.24 It is indeed in the name of reimbursing the debt that the Greek territory and its infrastructures are being converted into commodities and wrested from public control. What is happening to Greece is exemplary of a great reversal, still very much at work, whereby the state ceases to be what it was in the post-war period, namely the thing that gives measure and value by way of making political decisions and planning the economy, and instead becomes the thing measured and valued – assessed, rated, but also broken up and traded according to the rulebook of financial markets and under the authority of European institutions.

Current asymmetries between the valuations of social and financial debts sustain the hegemony of bondholders, prevent the political control of money, and give perennial precedence to the service of the debt over any other consideration. Consequently, they not only result in the entrapment of nominally sovereign countries but also in the colonization of their future. Yet, as we have seen, the introduction of the notion that there is a competition between two kinds of debts – financial and social, contract- and status-based – could lead to the reopening of a public debate about the fundamental duties of the sate. Until recently, European governments – whether center-right or center-left – were prone to claim that they had to spend less for social programs and public services in order to “save” the welfare state from bankruptcy. It was a matter of necessity, they argued, and not of choice. However, once commitments made to citizens – in the form of pensions, public education, salaries of civil servants – and the contractual obligations to bondholders are both understood as debts, the question of choice – of choosing which creditor should be given priority in times of money crunches – can no longer be denied by public officials.

To reopen the question of the Treasury’s infrastructure, including at the European level, to reintroduce the idea that the state can resort to a variety of techniques in order to borrow and fulfill its missions: these moves are essential both for challenging the hegemony of the current regime – according to which financial markets are the only place to look for a loan – and for checking the permanent blackmail exercised by financial institutions. Without giving in to the nostalgia of capitalism’s “Golden Age” – with its unbridled productivism and its “dirigiste” governing style – past experiments, discredited as they are by the official account of recent history, can usefully contribute to the critique of the present and to the search for an alternative. If the current debt order is to be subverted, a reassessment of the role and priorities of the state can no longer be deferred.

Translated by William B. Caroline

Recommended citation: Lemoine, Benjamin. “The Politics of Public Debt Structures: How Uneven Claims on the State Colonize the Future.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

The Fate of an Impasse: Europe, Year 2015

The year 2015 was revelatory of the current state of European politics, but exactly what it revealed about the path ahead remains a matter of perspective. From one angle, it exposed the true depth of the European Union’s impasse – its “unsustainable” commitment to undemocratic institutions and to a fiscal and monetary framework predicated on interminable austerity – from which no escape is in sight. From another angle, the year 2015 represented a kind of rupture, as the sovereign debt and refugee “crises” came together and as emergent parties and social movements (from the left as well as the right) contested the EU’s chosen course of austerity and technocratic rule.

In his recently published book, Europe Entrapped, Claus Offe assesses the predicament of a Europe split into winners and losers – a split that runs between a German-dominated “center” and a southern “periphery,” between the proponents and the skeptics of deeper integration, between technocrats and populists. According to Offe’s diagnosis, Europe is suffering from a fundamental crisis of “crisis management.” While the technocrats in Brussels and at the ECB do not have a democratic mandate, the national governments of its member-states are committed to goals other than the common good of Europe. An economic and monetary union of “ever closer integration” has failed to achieve the kind of “balance” that it forecasted for itself. The self-imposed rules and sanctions it continues to enforce – specifically, the austerity measures imposed on its peripheral members subjected to accumulated debt and speculative financial markets – have resulted in unnecessary suffering and legitimate doubt about its future. The predicament in which the EU finds itself can thus only be resolved through radical institutional democratization and forms of shared economic and social policy, even as the discursive tools and political alliances that could affect these changes appear hidden on the anticipatory horizon.

As 2015 came to a close, we met with Claus Offe in Frankfurt to ask him about the year’s developments, their meaning for the current impasse, and their potential implications for Europe’s fate in the near future.

Q: In a 2013 article that foreshadowed the central arguments of your recently published book, Europe Entrapped,1 you argued that, “in the end, it will depend on the protests and resistance of those who have been hit the hardest by the crisis. Perhaps this resistance can force the elites to steer toward a more productive course. At the moment, their ever more frantic efforts are buying ever less time, on credit.”2 Was Syriza – the leftist movement and party elected in January 2015 to govern Greece, one of the hardest-hit countries on Europe’s so-called periphery – an expression of such a protest?

CO: It’s hard to find a lot of inspiring news here, given the austerity deal that Syriza was forced to sign last summer. For me, there’s the encouraging push toward a kind of internationalization, insofar as Syriza in Greece led to Podemos in Spain. In Portugal there have also been some very interesting and promising developments of resistance to austerity policies. But there’s no mistaking that the trend in Europe is moving toward the right – both in the market-liberal, austerity version of the right and in the nationalist-populist version of the right. This is happening not only in the streets, but also in the national parliaments. In France, the United Kingdom, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries (without even speaking of Eastern Europe), we’re experiencing a strong presence of right wing populism – an anti-European and increasingly authoritarian, right wing populism inspired by the role models of Putin, Erdoğan or Orbán.

On the one hand, this is very worrisome. On the other hand, perhaps it allows for a cautious hope that the EU and the EU elites will now be forced to act. The political forces determining larger dynamics are now in a three-fold crisis – the Euro-crisis, the refugee crisis, and the terror crisis – and thus they’re very ambivalent. From the perspective of future historians, I think that the years of 2015 and 2016 will be seen as a turning point for the European Union.

Q: Do you think that, at the very least, the resistance of the Syriza government succeeded in challenging the hegemonic discourses at the level of the EU?

CO: Yes, to be sure. The protagonists of the hegemonic discourse have begun to have second thoughts. In a country like Greece, it’s all about political stability. The radical right wing political party Golden Dawn is now the third-largest party in Greece – that’s very dangerous. In a situation like this, something could go very wrong. Looking above all at Greece’s history, this much is clear: in 1967 there was an authoritarian regime change, which took place under the protection of the Americans.

I also think that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble would admit in a private conversation that a certain self-limitation is necessary in this disciplinary prosecution against the Greek economy. Yet it’s certainly also the case that the French and above all the Germans really want to use this example of Greece and to send a clear warning: a leftist government shouldn’t be allowed to pass through with what’s seen as an irresponsible incursion of debt.

It’s clear that the relative immiseration that one sees – not only in parts of the Greek population, but also in parts of the Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Irish and also British populations – will not continue without potentially destabilizing political consequences. It will lead to a reordering of political forces, and many of these forces are unconventional in the highest degree.

A distinction that I once found quite useful is the distinction between political parties that aim to take governmental responsibility and to play a role in parliaments, on the one hand, and pure protest parties that don’t share this ambition or that don’t have the prospects to attain it, on the other hand. But in some countries, parties that emerge out of protest movements can achieve a fusion of both sides of the coin. These are at once protest parties and parties that actually can partake in governing their countries. One example would be Italy’s Berlusconi and the Lega Nord Party, while the Freedom Party in Austria would also belong to this form of politics – on the one hand, socially protectionist concerning its own clientele and, on the other hand, xenophobic, anti-liberal, and anti-European.

Q: How would you account for what one might call the “populism” of these kinds of parties?

CO: The concept of populism is of interest because it refers to how an allegedly homogenous “we” can form by setting itself against a closed-off block perceived as the “other.” In other words, it’s us against the others. It’s a “we” at the bottom who are directed against those “others” at the top, the “establishment” or the upper “one percent.” This is the “upward-looking” version of populism. But there’s also a “downward-looking” version: It claims that the foreigners, the migrants, the underclass, the minorities, etc. are making illegitimate demands on “our” resources and our capacity for recognition. What we see in the USA’s Tea Party is a combination of both. They are against “Washington,” for example, because for them “Washington” means the universalization of health care reform and the liberalization of immigration policy: the liberal establishment that benefits the undeserving in order to “buy” their support and allegiance.

Populism always opens up a wide front and uses assumptions of homogeneity: “We, the People.” I travel quite often to the states in Eastern Germany where there are other cases of how this works. One formula that is unbelievably catchy, that is easy to grasp, and that is repeated over and over again is this one: “We’re foreigners in our own country. We were thus robbed of something that belongs to us. We were robbed by foreigners who are here illegitimately, and the government is betraying us while it allows them access in irresponsible ways.” This is an obsession that one needs to reckon with. The CSU (the conservative Christian Social Union party in Bavaria) is currently attempting to link itself up with this kind of populism, while the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) is rather attempting to manage it. This is where the split between the two parties lies – parties who are nevertheless (and for the time being) part of the same federal government.

The SDP (Social Democratic Party) also doesn’t know what to do. It’s a party that hasn’t been able to get rid of a “comrade” like Thilo Sarrazin and that has allegedly lost, as a consequence, around a hundred of its top intellectuals. The Social Democrats apparently can’t expel him because parts of its own base think the same way that he does. Sarrazin’s three amazingly successful books effectively articulated the three central themes of the radical right wing AfD party (Alternative for Germany): rejection of migration, rejection of the EU’s monetary union, and rejection of liberal standards of political correctness. This is the situation right now, unbelievable as it may be. There’s a thoroughgoing xenophobia among craftsmen and skilled workers, which forms part of the electoral core of the Social Democrats. As we know, legal and political liberalism as well as cosmopolitan internationalism are clearly not entrenched in the genetic code of the working class – neither in Germany nor elsewhere.

A supporter of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) displays an anti-Merkel placard during a demonstration against the German government’s asylum policy in Berlin on November 7, 2015. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: At the level of the EU, what do you currently see as the key strategies for crisis management?

CO: As far as I can tell, the prevailing strategy at the moment is the relatively mild strategy of bringing interest rates down, delaying the repayment of debt or the conditionalization of repayment by tying it to the rates of economic growth performance of indebted member-states. Governing elites in Germany are apparently beginning to understand that their reputation will be damaged by a confrontation that is too harsh, even though Schäuble is obviously committed to sticking to this path. But maybe this is a case of the classic division of labor between “good cop” and “bad cop,” between Merkel and Schäuble.

But I also think that, from what I can judge at the moment, the strategy of even a weakened conditionalism is hopeless. Christina Lagarde, the chairwoman of the IMF, was completely right: There has to be a “haircut” to lower the amount of debt payments, and indeed a significantly large one; additionally, there needs to be a transnational program for redistribution. In other words: a Marshal Plan for Greece. But even in the case of an investment initiative of a significantly large order, we need to get used to the fact that in Europe – like in other advanced regions of the world – the difference between regional growth poles and stagnating regions or sectors is growing, with overall economic growth curves turning flat, as much of the current literature on “secular stagnation” suggests.

If we think, for example, about the trade between the Länder of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the north of Germany and of Bavaria in the south of Germany: the deficit here is presumably at least as large as the foreign trade between Germany and Greece. Within a federal nation-state, this is normal and is balanced out by the federal government according to the constitutional norm of an “equivalence” of living conditions within one country, which is a political accomplishment. We have this principle in the German constitution, but since Europe isn’t a federation, the EU doesn’t have it in the same way; at best, it is only through bureaucratic discretion. We nonetheless should follow such a principle of equivalence so that the entire periphery of the EU can be prevented from falling into accelerating decline.

The question remaining here is what the growth industries of the future should actually consist of. Will it be in solar energy? Will it be in pharmaceutical research? Should it be in electronics or in the shipbuilding industry? Should it be in the service industry, such as in banking? One must decide on a strategy if one wants to conceptualize a growth strategy for the European periphery. Eventually the core of Europe will need to pay for this strategy. The alternative would have economic and especially political consequences that would unavoidably lead to the disintegration of the EU.

Q: How do you see these problems linking up with the EU refugee crisis?

CO: I don’t have a clear answer to this question. It’s a new situation. The European Court of Human Rights decided – against the letter of the Dublin accord – that migrants who arrive in Greece first cannot be sent back to Greece by other countries because the housing and living conditions there constitute a violation of human rights. There were bulldozers that cleared out the refugee camp in Patras. Although there were still people there, the bulldozers piled through and everyone only had five minutes to flee. The terrible pictures from this scene are well known. Since then German officials aren’t allowed to send back refugees who have documents showing that they came through Greece, even though that’s specified in Dublin directives. The refugee crisis is, as I said, a new situation. It’s surely also a bargaining chip for the Greeks, since they can say: We are hit the hardest, so subsidize us for the accommodations of refugees according to your own standards. The political leverage that Greece has lost in the debt crisis may well be recovered in the refugee crisis. Eventually, this may result in a major deal in which the EU not only forgives Greece’s debt but also compensates Greece for the cost of adequately coping with at least parts of the refugee problem.

Q: The Greek state is often depicted in public discourse as the “guilty” party (als “schuldiger” Staat) of the sovereign debt negotiations. In your view, how does this framing device function politically?

CO: The winners and the more powerful parties in the debt crisis adopt an actor-centered model by rhetorically establishing the view that whatever happens must be attributed to the intentional acts of particular actors – actors who enjoy the freedom to act otherwise than they actually do. Once this cognitive frame is established, everything falls into place: Greek politicians run excessive budget deficits because they want to please their voters and buy support, and because they are opportunistic or corrupt; in doing so, they go to extremes, whether it be on the left or the right. According to this frame, “we” don’t want to have anything to do with these people but, unfortunately, we’re stuck in the same boat with them and so we want to use all means available to prevent them from rocking the boat, since that would get us all wet. This kind of argument is sometimes even more cautiously formulated: For example, “We want Greece to stay in the EU, and to achieve this we’re ready to make sacrifices.” That’s Chancellor Merkel. Or for a more direct example, Thomas Strobl, a prominent CDU politician, put it this way: Der Grieche nervt (“The Greeks have been getting on our nerves for far too long now”). It all boils down to a matter of character deficiencies of agents who need to be corrected through the administration of negative sanctions. In contrast, losers tend to use a language of material and institutional constraints and of pressing needs that together make up the driving forces of their action in which choice is severely limited. According to the losers, what is to be blamed is not the character deficiencies of agents, but rather the misconstrual and malfunctioning of institutions that lead to irremediable resources constraints.

Q: The dominant discourse is largely marked by a binary schema: either for Europe or against Europe. Rarely does a third position appear as an option: for a different Europe. Similarly, debates mostly revolve around two standpoints: either for reforms or against reforms; either “rational politics” or “populism.” How do you understand the operation and role of such binary logics?

CO: Yes, such simplifying dualisms are both an indispensable means to organize discourses and a distorting limitation of their fruitfulness. Let me add another binary schematization of the current situation, which would go like this: we either need a federal or quasi-federal European state that is also mandated and capable of major redistributive measures (and reasonably immune from nationalist backlashes opposing them) or we need to move backwards to renationalization and forget about “ever closer integration.” This is the alternative that I actually see at the moment. Whoever opts for the latter is, however, taking a short-sighted and dangerous road toward the regressive disintegration of Europe, in both a political and an economic sense. Either things are going to get much better through a robust solution to the current accumulation of crises, or they are going to get much worse. That is to say: the status quo is not an option. That would be my schematization, but I have to admit that this way of posing the problem is not widely agreed upon. Instead most representative actors tend to think in geographic categories: center vs. periphery, “rational people” vs. “irrational spending,” North vs. South, East vs. West, etc. It ultimately is all about the framing of these kinds of oppositional pairs.

Police tape and barb-wire in front of European Central Bank
In anticipation of a protest against austerity by Blockupy, an alliance of social movements, activists, workers, and trade unions, the police block access to the new building of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt on March 16, 2015. (Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: What might a thoroughgoing integration of Europe look like? What kinds of institutional frameworks would need to be changed such that the deepening of European integration would not mean the intensification of austerity politics? What conditions are necessary to open up new avenues for progressive alternatives?

CO: That is precisely the question. I think that there’s a difference here between what’s being thought and discussed behind closed doors and what’s actually being said in public debate. I believe there are a lot of people in Brussels – such as Laszlo Andor, former Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labor Mobility – who say that, without the socialization of labor insurance and its costs, nothing is going to work in Europe. Intentions, proposals, and visions like these would create a different Europe.

The other axis is of course comprised not only the executive, but also of the parliamentary bodies. For example, Mario Draghi has demanded a European finance minister – supposedly, one who is not just a supervisory agent with policing power to enforce fiscal rectitude. But this is a failing proposition because a finance minister, when deciding on serious matters such as taxation, spending and debt, needs legitimate budgetary authority – that is, if we don’t want to fall back into the times of “taxation without representation.” Budgets are, after all, laws. Laws are drafted by ministries and made by parliaments. Yet there isn’t any parliamentary foundation in the EU, only a very weak one with the power of the purse, which could be strengthened by a European finance minister – if one existed. The EU has regulatory powers, not taxing powers. For the latter, it would need its own democratic mandate to tax and spend. Taxes and dues are painful to those who have to pay them; hence the vote of a law-making body would be necessary in order to make these pains tolerable.

Q: What are the mechanisms preventing this much-needed public discussion concerning a way forward?

CO: My friend and sparring partner, the ever-combative Wolfgang Streeck, has argued that democracy needs a state and a democratic state needs borders. True enough.  Europe is not a state, however, and so it’s also not a democracy; moreover, its borders keep changing and are partly contested. But the concept of the state entails borders. Unlike the states in the USA, Europeans have not grown accustomed to conceptualizing their political identity as being part of larger political whole. Given their history of international wars, they are reluctant to do so. There is no equivalent to what emerged after the US Civil War – namely, a union with a Constitution, with a president, with clearly drawn borders, which, taken together, represent a large political community. This process didn’t take place in Europe and so there’s also always the danger that it will reduce itself to smaller political entities. The enduring weight of conflictual national histories and the absence of a revolutionary, founding act: These are historical obstacles Europe faces in comparison to the history of the USA. If the cold war had only lasted a little longer, perhaps there would have been a chance to merge Europe together into a political union. But this was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead an economic union was established – indeed, in an economic zone that was fully inadequate for such a union and, as it turns out, even for a consistent and reliable trajectory of an “ever closer union” of ever more member-states.

Q: Around what set of demands could different European states come together to form an alternative political movement? It appears that, in the contemporary constellation, the deployment and the role of political concepts have become less clear. Political demands are often made beyond the positions of right and left. There is the option of returning to particular left signifiers, like Syriza. Or, somewhat like Podemos, there is the option of distancing oneself from leftist parties and instead trying to invent a new political vocabulary. This raises the related question: What kind of conceptual scaffolding is required to create new forms of international solidarity in Europe?

CO: You cannot possibly believe that I have a ready-made, conclusive, and valid answer to this question. But I’m watching with great interest, like everyone else, to see which actors emerge, together with their alliances and programmatic objectives. The very latest on the scene is this: Europe as community fighting against terrorism. I doubt that this fear-driven idea can serve as the basis for actual community formation, of course. It won’t solve any European problem.

One thought that is well known from the Stern Report on climate change (2005) is this: “the sooner we get ourselves to do something, the cheaper it will be.” By implication, the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be, and at some point prohibitively so. If a large investment program for Greece had been started in 2010, we would have saved a lot of money as well as, arguably, a lot of suffering.

The most important political questions are questions of “framing.” For example, the framing of time horizons: if we were able to get the framing right, such that the logic of timeliness would follow, a lot would be gained from this. We act rationally insofar as we encounter “now,” rather than defer, foreseeable dangers. Up until this point, a politics of small steps and solutions has dominated, as if we had unlimited time.

So the answer to your question is: the political forces that could directly provoke such changes are hard to find at the moment. But one has to be able to imagine such forces; otherwise it won’t work at all. We will find ourselves in a creeping decay if we aren’t able to act right now. The time to act is now. This is easier to see with the refugee question and the terror question than with the most decisive of all – the economic question.

It’s agonizing that I can’t give a more optimistic answer to the question of what exactly needs to happen. But I think the dimension of time is very important. The year 2015 is a turning point. At the end of 2015, one needs to push for an answer of what needs to happen – indeed, at the institutional level of the European Union. Irresponsible waiting is an activity that turns out, at least in retrospect, to be prohibitively costly – which is not to deny that democratic will-formation, coalition-building, the gathering and dissemination of information and deliberation can be enormously time consuming processes.

Q: But couldn’t this dimension of time be characterized in a different way? Particular relations and structures of power carry their own logic of inherent necessity, which can rob us of a sense of the possible. Determinate necessities appear to dominate, and perhaps we need to sharpen our sense for other possibilities and to point to potential alternatives.

CO: Niklas Luhmann speaks of “the urgency of the short-term” (die Vordringlichkeit des Befristeten). Following a more critical perspective, this is to say: politics has lost the vision and the capacity to keep its eye on the future. We’re living from day to day without a long-term vision or plan for problems of climate, energy, and security.

This is indeed the same critique: we shouldn’t just do something for tomorrow; we have to do something for the days after tomorrow. We need to do something now, because doing something the day after tomorrow is going to be far too expensive. That is an exponentially increasing rate of cost: every passing year doubles, triples, quadruples the costs. At some point it then becomes unaffordable.

Q: In this regard, how do you understand the relationship between time, power, and debt? Indebtedness also has a political dimension since it comes to dominate the temporal conditions and possibilities of political action.

CO: Yes, the debtor needs to pay the next installment until a fixed date. Sure, those who don’t need to pay off any debts have more freedom at their disposal. The disposal of future income is already determined if you have debt; you need to pay the installment and the interest. This is surely also a form of shackling, a form of constraining action. But the avoidance of debt is of course also a form of shackling. The deadweight of debt accumulated in the past precludes choices concerning the future. Yet it is true that only by taking on debt can you “invest” in the future, as creative entrepreneurs supposedly do. So the courage to take on debt is also an impetus for economic creativity.

Q: After Syriza surrendered to its creditors and was then nevertheless successfully reelected by the Greek citizenry in September 2015, what do you make of the political prospects for anti-austerity movements? Might we be able to expect a “swing to the left” in Europe?

CO: The problem is that there aren’t many alliances, and above all there aren’t many alliances between political parties. Central parties for this kind of alliance would be the Greens and the Social Democrats. There’s the strategic cooperation between Podemos and Syriza, a pair of parties with reciprocal bonding. But these are weak signs for the possibility of supranational alliances of political parties. The party alliances in the European parliament are very weakly qualified for this task. In Europe we vote according to national electoral laws. So I see a diffuse and fragmented arena of political actors, which is to say: there are hardly any visible or recognizable alliances being formed across state borders. I just can’t see them. I think I would see them if they existed.

How did Greece become isolated? Why didn’t a southern alliance form and threaten with the creation of a southern currency, a “Seuro,” if you will? Since May 2015 the score was 18-1 against Greece: not a single nation said, “enough is enough,” with the exception of this famous quote from Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who said it on the morning of July 13, after the defeat and blackmail of Greece.

Your question is absolutely the central question. But I don’t see a constructive and inspiring answer, at least if the answer is to be found somewhere in political parties, the media and university research. An idea would need to be developed around which such a transnational European left-alliance could crystalize itself. The current state of Europe is not sustainable. But who is going to change it and which institutional reforms will be successful – all of this must be answered in the (hopefully near) future.

Interview conducted on December 4, 2015

Translated by William Callison

Recommended citation: Offe, Claus (interviewed by William Callison, Jonathan Klein, and Johann Szews). “The Fate of an Impasse: Europe, Year 2015.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

The Marks of Austerity in Thessaloniki, Greece

In Greece, the combined effects of the financial crisis and the budgetary cuts purported to mend it have been swift and devastating. Since 2008, the unemployment rate has increased over 200%. About 50% of youths under 25 are unemployed – compared to 7% in Germany. More than a million people have been laid off in the last 6 years, and the number of Greeks suffering from depression has increased 300%.

Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, has not been spared. In some of the main shopping streets, more than 50% of the stores have permanently closed down. For the local population, the iron curtains of the closed shops are just the tip of the iceberg; they are the most visible aspect of the austerity shock that hit them in May 2010, when the first memorandum of agreement between Greece and its creditors was signed.

Closed down shops and bankrupted businesses that have turned the nearby industrial zone into a post-apocalyptic landscape; endemic unemployment, long queues in front of soup kitchens, and an ailing health care system: these are the stigmas that have come to traumatize Thessaloniki and its inhabitants.







In March 2014, Kostas Arvanotópoulis, the Minister of Education at the time, broadcast two commercials, in which Greek youths were encouraged to opt for learning a trade and forego longer and more expensive studies. Eight months later, Andréas Lovérdos, his successor in the government of Antonis Samaras, proposed to make up for the shortage of teachers by resorting to unpaid volunteers. The volunteers’ sole incentive was a potential advancement in ranking if a position were ever to open in the future.

Public schools and universities as well as students of working and middle class backgrounds bore the brunt of the austerity measures imposed by the Troïka. From 2008 to 2013, the percentage of youths out of work, school or apprenticeship increased by 92.6%. Throughout the country, the administrative staff in schools and universities were reduced to part-time employment. The ensuing strike lasted several months. As for the teachers, 2500 of them were suspended, recruitment was brought to a halt, and the non-renewal of temporary contracts was thoroughly implemented. In December 2015, tenured professors at the University of Thessaloniki were expected to hold classes until 10 pm in order to make up for the scarcity of teachers.


Signed in August, 2015 by the Greek State and its creditors, the third Memorandum of Understanding allocates a mere 3.5% of the total health care budget to public hospitals. For other member states of the EU, the average share of the health care budget going to public hospitals is 7%. According to hospital practitioners, the Greek system would need an additional 26,000 health care professionals, including 6,000 doctors, in order to function properly.

On the rare occasion that new personnel are hired, their employment is always precarious: a 5-month contract with a salary of 600€ ($652) per month for a young medical doctor. At this point, the entire system owes its survival to the overly exploited staff. Students and seasoned professionals alike are leaving the country in droves: just in the last 3 years alone, the medical association reports, the city of Thessaloniki has lost 2000 practitioners.

Public hospitals often lack basic sanitization material (alcohol gel, toilet paper, soap, cotton…) and pharmaceutical products (serums, injections). Patients are therefore expected to provide the necessary equipment themselves. Doctors com- plain about the recent increase in hospital-acquired infections, most notably in intensive care units.

According to Katsiba Dafni, the President of the Union of Thessaloniki Hospital Practitioners, in the last 6 years, life expectancy has decreased by 3 years for women and by 5 years for men – a devolution that is usually only found in war-torn areas.

Translated by Sacha Le Chêne

Recommended citation: Berthe, Vincent. “The Marks of Austerity in Thessaloniki, Greece.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Europe and the Specter of Democracy

Between January and July 2015, Yanis Varoufakis was finance minister of the first Syriza-led government in Greece and, in that capacity, sought to renegotiate the terms of the Memorandum of Agreement imposed on his country by the Eurogroup and the so-called Troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He resigned after Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, decided not to act on his overwhelming victory in the July 5th referendum and instead yielded to the exigencies of Greece’s creditors. Since then, Yanis Varoufakis has been working at the foundation of a trans-European movement for the democratization of the EU. We met him in Paris, just a few weeks before the official launching of DiEM 25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), which took place in Berlin, on February 9th, 2016.


MF: I’d like to start with a couple of questions about Greece and the relationship between Greece and its creditors under Syriza II – Alexis Tsipras’ second government. The first question regards the relation between Syriza II and the IMF. In the wake of what could be called the surrender of the Greek government, and in spite of the July 5th referendum, the IMF seemed to soften its position in certain respects. Now that Greece had surrendered to the terms of the “Memorandum,” the representatives of the Washington-based institution conceded, “we have to admit that the Greek debt is in fact unsustainable,” which implies that some measure of relief is necessary. The German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, as well as the chairman of the German Central Bank and other hard-line members of the creditors’ club immediately balked at the idea of a “haircut,” however modest. While the rift between the ostensibly more forgiving approach of the IMF and the intransigent stance epitomized by Schäuble has not subsided in the ensuing months, Alexis Tsipras has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to exclude the IMF from the group of institutions involved in the implementation of the third “Memorandum of Understanding.” How do you explain the attempt by the Greek Prime Minister to get rid of the institutional actor that seems the most willing to reckon with the fact that Greece’s debt needs to be partly written off?

YV: Firstly, let’s begin by stating the fact, the historical fact, that there is no new development here. The IMF has been repeating, quite correctly, that the debt is unsustainable since 2011, 2012. There was even a time, when Christine Lagarde in 2012, 2013, proposed to the Greek government of the time, the right-wing/PASOK government, to forge an alliance between Athens and Washington DC, the IMF, in the Eurogroup, in order to bring about debt relief. Then, the Greek government rejected that, choosing instead to remain loyal to Berlin. So what you just described is a repetition and continuation of this pattern. The explanation for this by Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minster, if you were to put this question to him, would be that the IMF keeps making these noises about the importance of debt relief but only refers to the part of the debt owed to the Europeans. He would tell you that the IMF would never consider debt relief for the part of the debt that is owed to the IMF. So it only puts forward the suggestion of a haircut to other people’s money, and not its own loans to Greece.

In addition, and far more importantly, the IMF, he would say, sets ruthless and rather horrific conditions in the realm of labor relations and pension cuts. Alexis Tsipras has always held this view, even when I was in the cabinet. This was not my view, it was his, and I was ambivalent about whether we are better off getting rid of the IMF because the IMF’s noises regarding debt relief are insubstantial and hypocritical, and they don’t help much anyway. He believed that in order to achieve a better balance between social policies regarding labor markets, pensions, and debt relief, it was best to try to deal with European officials directly. I am of the view that this is a mistake because having the support of the IMF is instrumental to the federal government in Berlin. This seeming contest between Washington DC, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Berlin is a game that Athens shouldn’t be playing. The IMF will stay in the program, possibly without lending more money, because it is absolutely essential for Angela Merkel to be seen in the eyes of the federal government as having the IMF on her side.

The surrender, as you put it, was devastating for one reason: we, the Greek government, did not use the IMF’s internal divisions in order to extract from the Troika an agreement where debt relief and debt restrictions would come first and before anything else. Once that surrender was effected, I think all this gaming, regarding whether the IMF should be part of the program or not, is neither here nor there. It is beside the point, the pot has been lost.

MF: My second question relates to the nexus formed by the consequences of the third memorandum imposed on Greece and the evolution of European immigration policies. Starting on August 30th 2015, there has been this remarkable shift in the German government’s official policy with regard to refugees – especially from Syria. You wrote about it yourself, emphasizing the contrast between the principled nature of the German Chancellor’s stance in the context of the inflow of asylum seekers and her attitude toward Greece a few months earlier.1 Though Germany had de facto already been more welcoming than its European partners (with the exception of Sweden), what was remarkable in Angela Merkel’s speech on August 30th was that she said, first, that welcoming refugees was a moral duty and, second, that Germany and Europe as a whole could afford it. This was maybe the most remarkable part of her statement, since, until then, European governments had always justified their policy of inhospitality by claiming that they just could not afford to let everyone in. Now, after the initial shock produced by Angela Merkel’s sudden turn-about, the French and British governments as well as the representatives of European institutions – and prominent members of the Chancellor’s own party and government – were quick to counter the call for a Wilkommenskultur: though careful to keep their distance from the openly xenophobic position of Central and Eastern European leaders, they managed to impose a “middle ground” whereby the EU would be more welcoming toward certified refugees but, at the same time, show even more toughness than before with economic migrants. In order to sort between “good” and “bad” foreigners, EU officials decided to introduce so-called “hot spots” along the borders of Europe where the selection process would occur. Under the guidance of the German government, they also sought to sign new agreements with “transit” countries – Turkey in particular – whose governments would receive ample European funding to prevent asylum seekers from entering EU territory.

So this is where Greece, all of a sudden, becomes an important player: as the main entry point for refugees, it is granted the status of an internal transit country. In other words, European authorities, and the German government in particular, want their Greek counterpart to keep migrants from pursuing their journey to the north of Europe. Hence, in October and November, there were rumors in the German press that Angela Merkel was about to soften her position with regard to the Greek debt crisis if, in return, Alexis Tsipras’ government agreed both to retain refugees in Greece and to step up the control of its country’s borders. However, what we have heard in the last few months amounts to a shift from carrot to stick, meaning that the European Commission, backed by the governments of several member-states, is now threatening Greece with a new kind of “Grexit” – an exit from the Schengen Area where, in principle, internal European border control has been abolished – if its government does not make greater efforts to protect the rest of the Union from refugees. What do you make of this new development?

YV: If you take the three words “European,” “refugee,” and “policy,” and put them together, you end up with a joke. There is no such thing as a “European refugee policy.” In the same way that you would end up with a magnificent anecdote if you put “European,” “foreign,” and “policy” together. What you described is proof of this fact. There is no such thing as a European refugee policy. The policy, on the one hand, and the instrument implementing it, on the other, which is a body that is supposedly overseeing the protection of the common EU borders – both of these are in a shambles.

The arrival of so many refugees – independently of the Greek negotiations regarding the Memorandum of Understanding – coincided with the defeat of our government, and the humiliation of the Greek prime minster, and all of my comrades who accepted the surrender and stayed in the government. At the time, I said that the surrender was a defeat for Athens’ government and a major injury to the spirit of Europe. The notion that you can drag a country through the mud, and humiliate it by forcing upon its bankrupt government a program that everyone knows is inhuman, as well as another loan with conditions that are absolutely impossible to fathom – all of this expresses a shattered European spirit. Let me give you a simple example. The idea that every single Greek company (whether they are a single person company, a conglomerate or a corporation) has to prepay the whole of their 2016 corporate tax in the last two months of 2015 is a notion that only needs to be directly stated so that you can recognize that this is done to a country specifically in order to crush and humiliate its government. The moment some entity like the Troika imposes such a humiliating treaty on one state in order to bring about an electoral outcome that they prefer – whether you are in Spain, in Portugal, in Ireland – causes you to realize that the very spirit of the European Union has been crushed, broken, shattered. Once the spirit of the EU has been shattered, how do you expect a common, humane, rational, and enlightened approach to the problem of refugees? Once the spirit of the Union has been dealt such a heavy blow, then everyone thinks about their strategy in terms of avoiding their contribution to a common cause, and everybody adopts an envious attitude, a “not in my backyard” kind of attitude. Everybody tries to shed their responsibility regarding refugees, regarding any common burden-sharing.

Angela Merkel at that point responded magnificently. I don’t know why, and I don’t really care. I wouldn’t be surprised if the terrible effect on Germany’s image of how her government had death with ours had something to do with it. Angela Merkel can be accused of many things, but she can’t be accused of not being an astute politician who understands the effect various developments have on Germany’s image and on her own image as the Chancellor of Germany. But again, I am pleased that she made this magnificent decision, whatever the underlying purpose and rationale was.

Of course, once the Greek government was humiliated and the spirit of the Union was crushed, that magnificent decision was not supported by a fragmented European Union. So she found herself in the eye of the storm. She found herself receiving the slings and the arrows of a lot of ultra-nationalist, anti-refugee, blatantly racist, or sometimes quasi- and hidden-racist narratives against her and her decision to open the borders to the Syrian refugees. As a result, she then had to backtrack and create a fudge, a typical European Union fudge. Part of that fudge is what you described: thinking in terms of borders and “buffer zones”; the idea of reconstituting borders within Europe, which was aided by the terrible events in Paris; the idea of creating a wall between the European Union and Turkey, with a buffer zone on the other side of the wall, which could be purchased from President Erdoğan of Turkey for 2–2.5 billion euros; and the idea of having another buffer zone on the other side in Greece, with Frontex or some iteration of Frontex playing the role of border control, which would effectively take over control of Greece’s border with Turkey from Greek authorities. When the Greek authorities resisted this plan based on the fact that we don’t really have a federation, and that we don’t have a federal border patrol like the US does, then suddenly the Greek government was treated with threats just as they were treated a few months before in relation to debt reform. Just as we were threatened with Grexit earlier, the Tsipras government was threatened with the exit from Schengen.

This is what happens when an economic crisis, which was inevitable and created by the bad design of the common currency area, spills over into a crisis of politics, of culture, of legitimacy, of the very constitution of Europe itself – in the final analysis, it spills over into the crisis of European democracy.

MF: Practically, however, don’t you think that, as the pressure Angela Merkel is already under continues to mount, the Greek government could acquire more leverage? To put it cynically, if the Chancellor eventually yields to the demands coming from her majority and adopts a tougher line, at least with respect to the control of Europe’s external borders – which seems to be the trend, especially since the Cologne events on New Year’s Eve – won’t she need to help Greece play its part as a “buffer zone” at the edge of Europe?

YV: I don’t believe that the bargaining power of the Greek government has been increased by these developments. This is because you can only increase something if it is non-zero. If it is zero, and you multiply it by any factor you want, it will still be zero. Greek bargaining power is now zero. And it is zero because of the surrender to the Memorandum of Understanding that I refused to sign and vote for in August. On the first page of this document there is one sentence, “the killer sentence,” as I call it. It states, I think verbatim, that the Greek authorities commit to agreeing with the institutions. Full stop! The implication is that, even if they don’t agree, they commit to the institutions. Any treaty between me and you, where I commit to agree with you, whereas you don’t commit to agree with me, is effectively a surrender of my inalienable rights. It is the transformation of my person into your slave. Once you have done that you don’t have any bargaining power at all.

Greece has always been important. It was important before July and August. If you take one quick look at the map of Europe – Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, but also in relation to North Africa, Libya and so on – you realize what the Americans always understood since the time when they intervened in the Greek Civil War in 1946. The geographical position of Greece renders the place a strategic key point. This has always been the case. Last year when I was a minster, it was clear that the United States, Berlin, and Brussels considered us crucial in the geopolitical developments vis-à-vis Russia, Ukraine, ISIS, Libya, Egypt, and the Palestinian issue. They only put the squeeze on us, with the closure of banks and the threat of the Grexit, when they knew our side was about to capitulate. Once they know you will capitulate, it doesn’t really matter how important you are to them because they know they have you. Therefore I don’t believe that the added bargaining power caused by the refugee issue is going to make any difference since they take it for granted that they effectively rule the roost in Greece.

MF: Let’s move on to some speculation about the conditions under which the critical state in which the European Union finds itself could evolve. We will get to the chances of a democratic awakening a little later but, first, I would like to get your views on a possible external disruption, namely, the considerable downturn of the Chinese economy and its potential ripple effects. It is true that, with the possible exception of Germany, European economies are not decisively dependent on their commercial relations with China, at least at this point in time. However, the indirect effects of a persistently sluggish growth rate in China may be consequential for Europe: the Chinese authorities may react to the downturn of their economy by boosting their export industry, rather than focusing on their domestic market, thereby reducing imports from developed countries in general – Europe and Germany in particular. 

Now, we must remember that what enabled the “surplus” countries of northern Europe to impose perennial austerity programs on their deficit-ridden partners in the south was the fact that the northern export industries were primarily geared toward non-European markets – such as the United States but also China and the other emerging economies – which meant that they no longer needed to keep the southern European populations as solvent consumers. So, the question is whether losing China, and maybe other emerging economies, as a safe outlet for their export industry could suggest to the German authorities and their pro-austerity partners in the Eurozone that the time has come to give back the Greek, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese people the means to buy German goods . . .?

YV: I wonder! In 2013 I was re-writing and editing a book that I scripted in 2011 called The Global Minotaur, which was my theory of the global crisis of 2008 and 2009. I wrote exactly this story that you just put to me in the book’s last chapter. What I had effectively said in the original draft in 2011 was that – in the immediate aftermath of the great financial sector implosion, which began with Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, and Lehman Brothers in 2007 and 2008 – the Chinese authorities, very astutely, understood what was going on. In a state of panic they decided it was imperative for them to maintain their domestic growth rates at a level that would keep the social economy stable and that would maintain the migration waves within China from the hinterlands to the coastal areas. By doing so, they hoped that – on the basis of building bubbles through real-estate operations that would be financed through asset price inflation – this would provide credit to the economy and then become a kind of investment-spurt that would make up for decreasing export revenues. By doing this, they thought that they would be buying time. They knew they had about 5 or 6 years within which to do this, and they were hoping that within these 5 or 6 years, America and Europe would get their act together and push up the level of aggregate demand globally so as to prevent the bubbles in China from bursting. Neither America nor Europe came to the party, and the Chinese bubble started to deflate. The Chinese authorities have been very skilled at preventing deflation from becoming a complete blowup, but they cannot stop it: they are not even trying to order the tide to return.

While I was finishing that book in 2013, I posed this very question, which you just put to me. It’s a great question. Germany redirected its net exports from the periphery of Europe to China – not to other emerging economies, but to China as well as the economies that are kept afloat by China. I wrote that this was not going to last because the Chinese bubble, which was an intentional bubble, couldn’t be anything else and so it was going to deflate. Slow, fast, or medium-fast: it was going to happen. And now it has happened. Additionally, you have the rest of the emerging economies and China together, which today are characterized by a level of private sector indebtedness that is higher than that of America and Europe prior to the 2008 collapse. That speaks volumes toward what is coming. Even if you don’t have Lehman Brothers-like catastrophes in China, this level of private sector debt is such that it leads to a simple conclusion: we are not going to have investment that grows anymore, not in the emerging market, and certainly not in Europe or the United States. We are simply not going to be able to envisage a situation in which Germany can continue along the lines of beggar-thy-neighbor to maintain its net export growth and to ignore the rest of the Eurozone.

Does this mean some sense is going to be knocked into the heads of the people in the German Ministry of Finance? Or does it mean that denial is going to be maintained through greater authoritarianism in the European Union? It could be either. In the former case, if some sense pervades, there would thus be greater openness to the idea of creating the circumstances of a “New Deal” for Europe by means of, for instance, energizing the European Investment Bank to create an investment that lets growth expand. Then there would be hope. But I very much fear that denial is the order of the day, as it has been in the last 5, 6 years. In this scenario, Germany would become more deflationary and the rest of Europe would descend into an even deeper depression.

If you take into consideration everything we discussed before – about refugees, about foreign policy, about the geopolitical issues confronting us – and you add to the mix the developments of deflation and depression, aided by what is happening in China, then you end up with a picture that becomes bleaker and bleaker.


MF: For almost three decades, the European left has tried to reassure itself that the neoliberal turn initiated by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US would be a passing nightmare: neoliberal policies wreak such social havoc, the reasoning went, and the economic theories on which they are predicated are so silly, that people will surely rise up against their enforcers, either in the voting booths or in the streets. However, the kind of short-termism that is the name of the neoliberal game has proved that it was not necessarily short-lived, even in the face of a major financial crisis and the Great Recession that resulted from it. Thus, more recently, the European left has shifted from confidently announcing the impending end of the neoliberal era to warning that, unless ruling elites change their ways, a resurgent fascism is around the corner – under the guise of the French National Front, the British UKIP, the German Pegida and AFD, and of course, Golden Dawn in Greece. These extreme right wing parties may indeed come to power, but it may also be the case that the fear generated by such a prospect is what enables the short-termist neoliberal elites to stay in place – though not without gradually implementing large sections of the extreme right’s program. The recent regional elections in France provide a good illustration of the latter possibility: while poised to win the presidency of several regions, Marine Le Pen’s party ended up winning none. Yet, the reforms to the Constitution that the French socialist President is now promoting largely borrow from the National Front’s rulebook. So, this means that the challenge we are facing does not only involve the electoral victory of the right wing populist parties, but also the undoing of our already-damaged democracy at the hands of the familiar and ostensibly reasonable people who are in charge today.

YV: Spectacularly apt point! Let me give an example. In the spring of 2012, when the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn were emerging out of the woodworks in Greece, soon to take their place in the Greek parliament, they stormed power without going anywhere near government. In the winter of 2012, a Minster of Health in the Socialist Party, in association with another Socialist Party member, the Minster of Public Order (the police), went into cahoots to have women arrested from the streets of Athens. The reason they gave was that the women were posing risks to public health under the pretext that they were operating as prostitutes infected by the HIV virus. They were picked up randomly from the streets, placed in police cells, forcefully tested for HIV, and those who were HIV positive had their photographs posted on the Internet. Now, I cannot imagine what kinds of even worse things the Golden Dawn thugs would have done if they were in power, especially given that all of this was also portrayed in a fully fledged racist manner. The women who were arrested were presented in the press as being black, being Russian, being Ukrainian and, in the end, as being Muslim. At that time, some of us rose up and wrote fiery articles, and there was a beautiful documentary made on the subject. The point here is the same one that you made earlier: the fascists and the Nazis don’t need to enter the buildings of the ministries. They are in power without being in the government, whereas those in the government are not in power. This is the greatest danger, the greatest fear, and the greatest peril that we are facing. I believe this is an intermediate state that we have been in. In a sense, this has surreptitiously, and without any central design or plan, prepared for the moment when we say, well, we have the Nazi policies, let’s have the Nazis as well, or that it doesn’t really matter if Marine Le Pen is the President if her policies are being implemented by the Socialist Party anyways.

My greatest fear is that Marine Le Pen will seem like a decent development as president because at least she has something to say about the incongruities and the irrationality of Europe, whereas President Hollande doesn’t. He allows, in a sense, for an ultra-right wing social agenda to be introduced in order to avoid losing more votes to Le Pen. He does so without having the strength of argument that Le Pen has with regard to the flimsiness of the monetary situation under which the French social economy suffers.

MF: Let’s try to move to a more hopeful subject. Since your resignation from the Syriza I government last July, you have been traveling and addressing a number of audiences all over Europe. I would like to get your report on the spirit you have encountered in the countries you have visited. In the wake of Alexis Tsipras’ decision to surrender to the dictates of Greece’s creditors, there was an understandable fear, throughout Europe, that Syriza’s broken resistance would have a devastatingly depressing effect on the various movements, and more generally the people, seeking to change the course of European politics. And indeed, it seemed, at first, as if the star of Podemos in Spain – which had been Syriza’s strongest ally – was fading (though the young party did not do badly in the December general elections). In Britain, however, just a couple of months after Syriza’s surrender, Jeremy Corbyn unexpectedly surged to the leadership of the Labour Party. More recently, the legislative elections in Portugal resulted in a new kind of alliance between the Socialist party, the so-called Left Bloc, the Communists and the Greens. What is your assessment of the post–July 12th moods of the anti-austerity movements and constituencies across Europe? Let’s start with Britain, where you have spent a lot of time.

YV: Let me begin by saying that when we were running for government about a year ago, just before the election on the 25th of January 2015, our slogan was: “We are challenging the austerity in Greece in order to change Europe.” We challenged austerity unsuccessfully, we were defeated, and so we surrendered in July. Our failure cast a dark shadow over many people throughout Europe, even people of the center-right who were hoping that what we were doing in Greece was going to create a new agenda, a new dialogue, and a new possibility for the European Union. Our defeat had this depressing effect on many people. So the first thing I tried to do, since my resignation, was to connect with as many Europeans as I could to make sure that such a depression would not happen. We acknowledged that we lost the battle. It was an important battle, and then we set it aside. Now we are moving on and taking the battle to many other frontlines. The main frontline is now the whole of the European continent, not just the Eurozone. And this is where Britain comes in.

I started my travels in France, Germany and many other places, where I addressed a multiplicity of audiences – not all from the left, including (even as recently as a few days ago) a bunch of bankers and financiers. The good news is that – and this is the segment of our interview which is more evangelical – the vast majority of people who came to talk or listen to me didn’t do so out of an urge to show solidarity with the Greeks. They arrived with a sense of foreboding, and a sense of concern, about what effect the crushing of the Greek government would have on them, their societies, their welfare state, their pensions, their local hospital, their local schools, and on the capacities of their communities to make decisions pertinent to their own life. That was a great source of satisfaction, joy, and hope for me. Very soon I had this idea and scenario in mind: as Europeans we either harness the feeling that truly binds us together and allows us to redefine European identity on the basis of resistance; or, through the terrible false dilemma according to which, if we don’t accept the powers that be in Brussels and their catastrophic policies, we must espouse the narrative of Grexit and fragmentation, in which case, we are effectively moving back into the cocoon of the nation-state.

We can harness that spirit of concern for locality alongside the concern for the globality of Europe in order to create an alternative. We can stay in Europe in order to challenge head-on the highly anti-democratic processes and institutions of the European Union, and we can salvage Europe and the European Union from it. I experience the glimmerings of this possibility wherever I go in Europe. There are no guarantees and no certainties, but there is enough hope to make me excited, to make me wake up in the morning, and to make me throw all my energies into this lot.

The referendum that the Tory government has called in Britain is a splendid opportunity for the whole of Europe to redefine its identity. Most Brits are opposed to Brussels. They don’t like to be bossed around by an unaccountable bureaucracy in the European Union. At the same time, they are very coy about leaving the devil they know for the realm of the unknown and about sailing into the Atlantic and distancing themselves from the continent without a clear destination. So it is important for those of us who believe in breaking down and opposing the false polarization – between Euro-loyalism (being loyal to Brussels and to Frankfurt) and the fragmentation processes of the European Union – to side with the forces of progress and improvement. It is important to effectively forge a common alliance and a common mandate for contesting the European Union and wrestling it away from the forces that are so loathsome and contentious of democracy and that lead us toward an economic crisis, which only strengthens authoritarianism and the anti-democratic tendencies of Brussels. I think of Britain and the referendum that will be taking place – we don’t know exactly when – as a wonderful opportunity for a new movement that sees the democratization of the European Union as its number one priority; a movement to reunite the parts of the Eurozone and the parts of the European Union that are not in the Eurozone; a movement that wants to see Europe growing stronger through democratization and through confrontation with the current powers that be.

MF: Do you believe that the Labour Party’s new leadership shares your views and feelings on this issue?

YV: Absolutely. I think they understand very well that it is essential for the Labour Party to map out a third path: neither the blind acceptance of what Brussels is and how it operates (which some Blairites are happy to condone or some, very few, Tories like Kenneth Clarke have the tendency to adopt); nor the acceptance of the Euro-skepticism of many of the Tories as well as a few sections of the Labour party, which seem to believe that Britain does not need the European Union. The Labour Party leadership understands that they need to create a radical third alternative that says something very simple: we want to be part of the European Union in order to fight against Brussels, and to fight against the deep contempt that Brussels has for the democratic processes. They understand this while also knowing that an exit from the EU is not going to take Britain on the road to socialism, but towards a kind of isolationism, a “little England-ism,” which would make it more vulnerable to awful trade agreements like TTIP, and towards the loss of sovereignty through free trade agreements.

MF: Now let’s move on to Spain, where there seems to be, not exactly a rift, but a debate between two strategies within the anti-austerity left. 

On one side of the debate, there is Podemos, or more precisely the leadership of Podemos, whose priority is to build a party capable of winning elections at the national level. Early on, as you remarked many times, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain emerged almost at the same time as the twin beacons of hope for those who wanted Europe to stray from perennial austerity and ever-shrinking democracy. In fact, for his part, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, has remained loyal to Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras. Though perhaps with less enthusiasm than before, Iglesias has kept his solidarity with Syriza even after Tsipras signed the Third Memorandum of Agreement last July – despite the risk of slightly dampening the hope of radical change that Podemos is supposed to represent. 

On the other side of the debate in Spain, there is the so-called confluencia approach represented by Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, which is also popular in Valencia, Galicia and other places. Its supporters advocate a horizontal alliance between different social movements (some focusing on evictions, others on the tourism industry, others on the privatization of public services, etc.) and the representatives of left-leaning political parties. Instead of giving precedence to national elections, they focus primarily on the local level – municipal and to some extent regional – as the proper springboard to build a trans-European movement.

What is your view on this strategic debate, especially in the wake of the December elections, where the proponents of the confluencia strategy played an important role in Podemos’ relatively good results? 

YV: The recent Spanish election was a magnificent result primarily because it put an end to the toxic narrative of the success story of austerity. It’s clear that the Spanish people rejected the narrative that austerity worked and that Spain was a glowing example of how the policies of the Troika, if adopted enthusiastically by the local elites, are going to work. The Troika’s policies didn’t work, and the Spanish people said so. The second reason why it was a remarkable experience for me is because of the confluencia, as you put it. I’m thinking of the ways in which the variety of social movements – such as Barcelona’s Ada Colau, whom you mentioned, as well as her colleagues and comrades – rose up by targeting predatory tourism and home foreclosures from a banking sector that was being salvaged by the weakest of tax payers. On the basis of that, they went all the way from zero to having control and wrestling power in the great city of Barcelona. This is a great beacon of hope for all of us. The capacity of the cities to produce progressive politics flies in the face of the failures of the left in the last hundred years.

Our pan-European movement to energize and bring together Europeans – whatever it may be in the end – has to be energized from the cities to adopt the methods, the narrative, the esprit and the élan of these movements. Our movement has to adopt such methods and narratives in order to create a potential for reconstituting the dynamics of European progressive politics. I am very pleased that Podemos has adopted this line and embraced those movements.

Having said that, I am convinced that – despite all the right incentives and motives – any progressive party like Podemos is mistaken when its leaders think that we can stop the European Union’s degeneration process through the electoral process at the level of the nation-state. The best thing that a political party like Podemos can hope for is participation in some kind of coalition government such as the one in Portugal. If we, the opponents of the Troika’s Third Memorandum, were to set up a political party, the best thing we could imagine happening would be some kind of coalition with Syriza II, as you put it. But all of these coalitions would only be formed under the conditions of accepting the rules of Eurogroup! These are the rules of the Troika; they are the rules of the game that have been rigged to ensure that all of these mandates of progressive movements are crushed before they even get a chance to find expression at the level of national politics.

This is why I believe that what happened in Barcelona and in Valencia; what is happening in the streets of many cities, villages and towns; what is happening in Greece, in Denmark, in Britain, and so on and so forth: all of these developments will only find an expression that does not betray their initial ideology and impetus if we are able to bind together at the level of Europe and to exert pressure everywhere simultaneously.

MF: What you just said seems to convey that, while local experiments may thrive, there is a real deadlock at the level of the nation-state. To put it crudely, it conveys that the best Podemos can hope for is to broker a coalition like the one that is now governing Portugal, with the prospect of soon becoming something similar to
Syriza II. 

YV: Look at Portugal! In Portugal, the President of the Republic made an explicit condition for the formation of the left coalition government; they had to accept commitments to the Eurogroup and to the rules of the Eurogroup. That is astonishing! It might be that you accept the rules but, at the same time, you have a policy of going to the Eurogroup and demanding that the rules be changed. For instance, imagine this: if a national parliament commits to never changing the constitution and to never enacting new pieces of legislation that contradict the older ones! What is the point? You might as well not have a parliament. So any party of the left that accepts the rules and that commits to not challenging them legally effectively has no reason to exist and cannot affect change through national politics. To get the audacity, the strength, and the courage to go against these prescriptions by the President of the Portuguese Republic, the Socialist Party of Portugal and the left parties all over the periphery would need to have the support of like-mined Europeans throughout the Eurozone and the European Union. If we had such a movement, which effectively pressured the government of Austria through the national parliament of Austria (or those of other countries, whether Slovakia, France, or Germany) to end the pressure on a new government in Portugal and to remove this rule about never challenging the rules, then there would be a possibility that even the Socialist Party of Portugal could find the courage necessary not to effectively commit themselves to political oblivion.

MF: Insofar as the trans-European movement in which you put your hopes – and, as we shall see, your energy – is still very much in the making, where does the current situation leave the parties on the left whose representatives have either won elections or are currently competing in national elections? What possibilities remain for the ruling parties in Portugal, for example? How should anti-austerity parties, such as Sinn Féin, prepare themselves for the upcoming elections in Ireland? What kind of “survival kit,” if there is one, is available to a government intent on avoiding the lot of Syriza I?

YV: It depends on the country and on the state of its finances and banking system. The weaker the banking system and the state’s finances, the easier it will be for Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin to snuff out any kind of resistance from a newly elected progressive government in Ireland or Spain. The answers will have to be tailor-made according to the respective member-state. The most important aspect of this is precisely what I was saying before: to help create a sense of solidarity amongst the progressives throughout the EU, which would allow progressive parties in the member-states to find the courage to even think of the question you posed. That is the first point: to help them stiffen their lip. Secondly, once that has been achieved, you need to maximize your capacity as a government to fend off threats, and in particular the threat of bank closures. The threat of bank closure is how they pushed us [Syriza I] in a hole, by starting a bank-run, a run on the Greek banks, before we were elected, which they then accelerated through the rumor that the Central Bank was not going to support the Greek banks. At some point, while this self-fulfilling prophecy was creating a bleeding of deposits, they said, “ah, this is what you have done by not negotiating properly,” and then closed our banks down, effectively forcing the Prime Minster to choose a position between surrender and a complete cessation of the banking payment system.

Let me give one brief practical answer to your question of “what is the survival-kit?” In other words: how do you bolster your bargaining power? You would have to digitize your payment system. When the banks closed in Greece on the third of June, 85% of the pensioners didn’t even have debit cards to use and buy things in shops or to take out the 60 euros that the government allowed them to withdraw from ATMs. This, of course, was tantamount to a humanitarian catastrophe – that is, when 85% of pensioners, the elderly, have no access to any payment mechanism. If every transaction was digitized, the threat of bank closures would be far less, and therefore the degrees of freedom for the Greek government would be far greater. These are technical issues, but it is important to keep them in mind because the Central Bank and the powers that be do keep them in mind. I am afraid it’s important that we have defenses in mind that are based on the same logic.

MF: Would these defenses merely represent emergency measures, a way to buy a little time?

YF: Not necessarily; I don’t think there is anything wrong with a digitized payment system. Estonia is the only country I know which has fully digitized transactions and it’s actually a great thing. The Bank of England has suggested it for England. In a sense, it is the way things are going and we might as well get there very quickly. It helps defeat tax evasion completely and utterly, and it even allows us not to use quantitative easing, but to pose negative interest-rates to stimulate the economy. There are many benefits to a digitized system, and one of them is reducing the power of the European Central Bank to blackmail a recalcitrant member-state government.

MF: Such a measure could, for instance, help bolster the bargaining position of a small country such as Portugal?

YV: Of course! Because bank closures mean a humanitarian crisis, and Frankfurt has the capacity to close banks; then your bargaining power is much lesser.


MF: Let’s move to the trans-European democratic movement that you are not only talking about, but that you are also endeavoring to build. Democracy in Europe Movement, or DiEM, is its name; it is in the making and will be officially launched, in Berlin of all places, on the ninth of February 2016. What could be the modes of operation of a trans-European movement such as DiEM? If I understand correctly, it will neither be a political party nor simply a lobby – although you emphasize that it is concerned with a single issue, the democratization of European institutions. This means that its purpose is neither to secure votes – what parties are about – nor simply to influence ruling elites – what a lobby does. And DiEM is not a union either, whose purpose would be to negotiate better political conditions with the representatives of the European institutions. So, how do you envision the modes of operation of the movement: how do you see DiEM exercising the kind of pressure that would prove helpful, for instance, to a government confronted with the demands, and the might, of the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup?

YV: The number one lesson I learned during my five, six months of negotiations at the level of the European Union, the Eurogroup, etc., is that the old way of doing politics in Europe is kaput – finished. The old way was: we set up a party, an organization, or a movement in one country and we work very hard to create a manifesto, an electoral program, or promises of what we are going to do if our compatriots, in Germany, France or Greece, vote us into government. Once elected, we learn how to use the instruments of the member-state’s government in order to effect this mandate. Only then, as an afterthought – once we’ve done all that work, once we are in government, or at least once we have a substantial percentage in the national parliament – only then do we try to find allies with some like-minded parties in Europe.

This tends to be flimsy; very soon, and especially at the level of Brussels and the European parliament, it degenerates into a farce. If it is true that the nation-state-based political organizations have failed to connect to Europe, to create a conversation that leads to a consensus, and to bind various movements and parties together into a force to be reckoned with that stands up against the Troika and the lenders that are running the Eurogroup at the moment, then what is the alternative? The alternative is to invert the pyramid. Instead of starting at the level of the nation-state and forging an alliance, which is flimsy and brittle, how about starting a movement throughout Europe on the basis of a very clear manifesto that binds us together? How about a movement with some very simple ideas of what we want to do as Europeans? To begin this conversation, we are starting in Berlin and taking it to other cities. Anyone who respects and feels for these elements, irrespective of political affiliation or ideology, can join and participate. If this conversation proceeds well, it will be dialectically creative and, as a result of this conversation, it will produce a consensus that will then find electoral expression in the different member-states. The expression can take different forms in different countries depending on the circumstances. So DiEM, or Democracy in Europe Movement, can compete in elections as a party in some countries; in other countries it can go into collaboration with existing parties, or it can effectively lend support to parties. This is not for me to decide; it’s not for you or anyone in DiEM to decide: the whole point is that this would evolve organically.

DiEM is a movement. It is not a party, a trade-union, a think-thank or a conference. It’s a surge: a surge of European democrats who are moving together to seize control, to put the demos back in democracy at the European level, and to infect every nook and cranny of the EU with democracy. It is a totally utopian project, and it’s very likely to fail. But it is the only alternative to the awful dystopia that we are facing if we don’t do anything at all.

MF: Staying with the question of DiEM’s modus operandi, it seems to me that one of the main problems facing social movements today is one of “occupation” – to borrow from the “occupy” initiatives of 2011 – albeit less of space, squares, or parks, than of time. The activities of traditional organizations, such as political parties and labor unions, are geared toward “discrete” moments: elections, strikes, street demonstrations, etc. While these manifestations of popular will may certainly have an influence on policy-making, by definition, they can only occur from time to time: people vote once every few years. Financial markets, on the other hand, and in particular the bondholders who are the ultimate arbiters of a country’s attractiveness, vote every nanosecond. The time in which they operate is “continuous,” and this goes a long way toward explaining why governments give precedence to the wishes of the investors financing their budgets over the demands of their constituents. In such a context, I would argue that one of the major challenges for a movement like DiEM would be to find ways of occupying time and intervening “continuously” so as to compete with investors for the “hearts and minds” of governing agencies. Don’t you think?

YV: You are raising an issue that has been of central importance to liberal democracy since at least the early nineteenth century. The constant triumph of the economic sphere over the political sphere, and the way it has been cannibalizing the political sphere, is part and parcel of the evolution of contemporary capitalism. There is a predatory relationship between the economic and political spheres. The population of predators that are overly successful in eating their prey at some point starve to death and their numbers shrink; the prey would pick up again, and the balance continues. This is more or less the relationship between the financial sector, or the economic sector more generally, and the political sector. Financial capital in particular has the capacity to make inroads into the space of politics and to take over its power. Yet, with its encroachments increasing and with political power shrinking, the economic and financial sphere is destabilized. This is because the economy needs politics to stabilize itself. Thus the political sphere reasserts some of its capacity to control capital, the economic and financial sphere, as it did under Roosevelt, for example. This process continues; it goes on and on. There is nothing new there.

In the case of the EU, because it was stabilized as a cartel in the 1950s and, to this very day, it doesn’t operate like a normal state, we have a very interesting incongruity and paradox. I will phrase it in personal terms. When I speak with bankers in Europe, even though I am admonished as a left winger, a radical left loony, and so on and so forth, I am usually met with a blanket agreement about what I am saying. They are very worried. They see a source of irrationality in Brussels. Brussels’ irrationality might have been useful to them when they were bailed out, but nevertheless they don’t trust the current regime in the EU with creating circumstances amenable to their banking and financial enterprises. So I don’t believe that the great threat to a democratization process in Europe comes from the bankers. It comes from the very bureaucracy of the European Union and the political regime that is centered upon it.

Recommended citation: Varoufakis, Yanis (interviewed by Michel Feher). “Europe and the Specter of Democracy.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016)

Vital Space: Humanity – Athens

Vital Space: Humanity – Athens is part of the Vital Space: Nature | Humanity project by Danae Stratou and the Vital Space creative platform.

Vital Space: Nature | Humanity is a video project that addresses the challenges posed by globalization and its discontents; by the plight of the environment; by the ebb and flow of mass migration movements. A momentous urban expansion is spawning the planet’s largest cities, as wave upon wave of migrants abandon the countryside and the periphery, and while economic wastelands are emptied of people and left in a state of ecological fragility. The project focuses on the contrast between the vast, empty, fragile, and uninhabited spaces, and the overpopulated, highly contested, urban environments. For more on Vital Space: Nature | Humanity, see:

Vital Space aims to raise public awareness on issues related to the environment and urbanization by means of wide-reaching artistic interventions. In a time when economic and environmental crises coincide, contemporary art – especially when it takes place in public spaces and is designed to reach and address a wide audience – can play a significant role in dissolving the polarization that characterizes our current relationship with nature and with one another. Contemporary art can activate a deeper awareness about the most pressing issues of our time and inspire a global audience. For more on Vital Space and its projects see:

Welcome Management: Making Sense of the “Summer of Migration”

In the summer of 2015, the events in and around Europe made international headlines. The keyword was “crisis,” and its sites were multiple – the streets of Athens and the backrooms of Brussels, the shores of the “periphery” and the train stations in the east and center of the continent. As the developments were reported in dramatic fashion, two issues took center stage: first, the final showdown between the Greek government and its European creditors; second, the arrival of refugees fleeing to Europe from countries ruptured by international and civil conflicts, such as Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq.

These apparently distinct developments were punctuated by an ostensible shift in Germany’s political orientation and self-conception: from the leading disciplinarian of Greece’s debt payments and fiscal policy (with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s advocacy for either harsh austerity or “Grexit”) to the leading humanitarian in EU immigration policy (with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “welcome” speech on the imperative to take in Syrian refugees). Retrospectively, the developments have been variously called the “summer of austerity” and the “summer of migration.”

The short-term chronology and fragmentation of this narrative is problematic, however, for it covers over the longer and intersecting histories that made the crises possible. To grasp the recent politics of austerity and immigration, then, we must account for the historical crystallization of institutional and discursive strategies that have come to govern the formation of European politics at the local, national and transnational levels.

For this we turned to Sonja Buckel, a social and political theorist whose research has critically examined European migration law and border control practices. Both her recent book and her collective research project, co-led with John Kannankulam and Jens Wissel at the Institut für Sozialforschung, explore various contexts and processes of European “transnationalization”: namely, the shift from national migration policies to the construction of a shared “European migration politics,” itself premised on the maintenance and financing of a post-colonial border regime in North Africa, the Middle East and, today, in Turkey and Ukraine. This collective research project also interrogates the internal connection between neoliberal austerity politics and EU immigration politics by focusing on Germany, Spain and the U.K., as well as on regulations and practices of border control such as Blue Card, Frontex, and Dublin II.

Thinking through the present and recalling the recent past, we met with Sonja Buckel in order to make sense of the “summer of migration” and to understand its significance for social and political movements working to forge a different Europe.

WC: Before we turn to the key discursive and institutional strategies that have shaped European immigration and border control policies, let’s begin with some intersections with the politics of austerity. From the perspective of your recent research, how have austerity and migration control come together to set the stage for the double drama of the summer – the showdown between the Troika and Greece’s newly elected leftist government and, soon thereafter, “the summer of migration” that took over the political stage?

SB: In Staatsprojekt Europa, we looked at four different “hegemonic projects” – neoliberal, conservative, left-liberal, and welfare-statist – that have shaped the EU border regime and immigration policies. We understood these projects not primarily as constellations of actors, but as political strategies expressing dominant social forces. With regard to European integration, the neoliberal project, whose promoters include financial institutions and transnational corporations, has clearly been the dominant one. Part of this strategy requires the public authorities of EU institutions and of the member-states to give precedence to the stability of prices over the pursuit of full employment; it entails the attempt to boost growth through austerity measures and supply-side incentives, such as privatization, lower and less progressive taxes, and deregulations of the labor and capital markets.

If we want to understand the current consensus among European elites on austerity programs, as well as the privileged role of Germany in the shaping of these programs, we need to go back to the late 1970s. This is the time when the neoliberal project started being hard-wired into European institutions. The German phobia of inflation has dominated European monetary policy ever since that time, despite France’s attempts to introduce a measure of Keynesianism – with regard to public spending – into the mix.

In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty sealed the hegemony of the German perspective: first, by imposing budgetary “stability” – to wit, a “debt criterion” and a “deficit criterion” – on every member state; and second, by modeling the future euro on the Deutsche Mark. Yet, in spite of having their views inscribed in the Treaty, German authorities never ceased to worry that other European governments did not treat the common rules seriously enough. Thus, in the following years, they endeavored to entrench this preoccupation with fiscal and monetary discipline even more deeply within the fundaments of the EU – namely, in the Amsterdam Treaty and the “Stability and Growth Pact” of 1998. Though the addition of a “growth” element seemed like a concession to France, in truth, it was little more than lip service. The French authorities wanted a European economic government with some powers of social investment and redistribution, but they never got it. What they got instead—as compensation for the German-styled euro and monetary policy to which they consented—was the Eurogroup. The Eurogroup comprises the regular, but informal and unaccountable, gatherings of the finance ministers of the Eurozone. Though France had imagined and hoped for something very different, the Eurogroup’s main purpose became ensuring that the criteria of “stability” are properly respected and enforced.

Later on, with the Lisbon Treaty and the Fiscal Pact, the disciplinarian prerogatives of the Eurogroup and the European Commission were formalized. These entities are now officially empowered to review the budgets of member states and to mandate “healthy” structural reforms – namely, spending cuts in the public sector and an ever-more flexible labor market.

Finally, with the onset of the sovereign debt crisis, the so-called Troika was created – essentially as a creditors’ consortium comprised of the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – to take special care, or more precisely to dictate the social and economic policies, of debt-ridden member states. Together with the Troika, the Eurogroup used norms of “economic governance” and its highly informal status during the embattled negotiations with Syriza, the newly elected leftist government of Greece, its Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and its then Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. To recall but one example of this informality: Yanis Varoufakis was thrown out of one of their meetings. Varoufakis said: “You can’t throw me out, that’s not how it works here. This entity is governed by unanimity, so my voice also needs to count.” The legal council of the EC reviewed the issue and claimed: “It’s an informal council, so we can do what we want.”

In sum, we can say that the austerity regime of the last five years is nothing more than the final stage of implementing a neoliberal project that was initiated four decades earlier. The sovereign debt crisis proved to be a major advance in this regard, insofar as neoliberal actors took advantage of it to consolidate the power of informal and unaccountable agencies. This was clearly demonstrated in the summer of 2015 with the conclusion of the six-month standoff between the Syriza government and the Eurogroup.

WC: So we can take this as the structural background, as the institutional and quasi-institutional framework for a transnational neoliberal strategy. Throughout the negotiations with Greece, we saw that the Troika largely towed the line of Angela Merkel and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. At that time and still today, how can we best explain the widespread support of even the most disciplinary elements of the neoliberal project in the German media, the political establishment and, to a large extent, the German public?

SB: Yes, this consensus in Germany has deep roots. Throughout the heated negotiations between the Syriza government and the German-led Eurogroup, the German media was an unbelievably uniform front, without almost any other positions in sight. It is important to understand here that the hegemony of the neoliberal narrative goes back to the fiscal crisis and the stagflation of the late 1970s. Just take the example of the university system: in economics departments in Germany there are hardly any Keynesians (without even speaking of Marxist or feminist political economists!). In economics classes, the neoclassical orthodoxy is not taught as one position among others, but as the economic science. This is not just national, but is also reflected in EU institutions. Yet, the very notion of debt does not have the same meaning from a neoliberal or a Keynesian perspective. For instance, the Keynesian economist Heiner Flassbeck1 keeps on repeating that, if the rest of Europe is to have a chance, Germany needs to run a debt. Germany needs to “live beyond its means,” as the neoliberals like to say, for at least fifteen years. That his plea for social spending falls on deaf ears in his own country is an understatement.

WC: Let’s move from austerity politics to immigration policies, and specifically to the apparent disjunction between Merkel on Greece vs. Merkel on refugees (in a word: Willkommen!). Can you spell out the disjuncture? How should we understand this shift? 

SB: I will get to Angela Merkel in a moment. But there again, if we want to make sense of her stance, we need to go back in time and look at what made 2015’s “summer of migration” possible. Our collective book shows how the immigration policy dimension of the neoliberal project became hegemonic a little later than the economic policy dimension – namely, in the second half of the 1990s. It was then that the neoliberal project broke through and crystalized into what we call “managing migration.” Now, as a blueprint, the neoliberal project has no real interest in border control: migrants mean cheap and abundant labor that brings down labor costs for business, all of which plays into the logic of competitiveness. However, to prevail, neoliberals had to make concessions and compromises with the proponents of other potentially hegemonic projects – above all, with the conservatives, who see mobility and cultural diversity as threatening, and to a lesser extent with the left-liberals, who object to the overexploitation of the labor force. Hence the ascendance of the discourse and strategy of “managing migration,” whereby migrants are not rejected as such, but are rather selectively taken in – according to a distinction between “good” and “bad” candidates.

WC: …Like in the UK under Tony Blair where the official discourse was: let’s welcome the “good” hard working economic migrants from Ukraine and Poland but not the “bad” or fake asylum seekers who only want to take advantage of our generosity. Or like in France under Nicolas Sarkozy who introduced the distinction between “chosen” immigration (immigration choisie) for “highly qualified”  workers and “burdensome” immigration (immigration subie) for designating the beneficiaries of family reunification law…

SB: Yes, these are cases that fall exactly into the neoliberal strategy with respect to migration. We found the same logic at work in our research on Germany and Spain. German authorities focused especially on the “highly qualified” migrants to make the point that immigration was “useful,” whereas their Spanish counterparts also made informal openings for “low skilled” migrant workers, including undocumented workers, who play a major role in the agricultural sector. So the neoliberals, provided that they conceded to some conservative demands about still needing to repel migrants, succeeded in imposing their approach.

Migrants at makeshift tent camp in France
Migrants take shelter in one of the makeshift camps, or “jungles,” in Calais, France.
(Alessandro Penso)

However, this consensus, which was not reached in Germany until the end of the 1990s, stands in stark contrast with the atmosphere of the preceding period. From the mid-1970s to the immediate aftermath of the asylum law reform in 1993, the conservative strategy was clearly in the hegemonic position. In our book, there is a remarkable article by John Kannankulam about the various positions in the debate leading to the compromise that tightened the conditions under which refugees could seek asylum in Germany. At the time, there were no European immigration policies – every member state was in charge of its policies – and Germany was faced with a major inflow of up to 400,000 asylum seekers, mostly from war-torn former Yugoslavia. Though refugee centers are frequently the target of violent attacks today, there is really a huge difference, in terms of public discourse, between now and twenty-five years ago. Back then, the governing CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party pushed for a position that looks much more like that of the extreme right wing today than that of Angela Merkel’s position. There was a large consensus that Germany is not a country of immigration. Hence the two-thirds majority that was actually forged in the Bundestag and was needed to change the Constitution (Grundgesetz) so as to amend the article on asylum – an admittedly liberal article that reflected the demands on Germany in the immediate postwar period. So, compared to that moment in recent German history, the “managing migration” approach of the neoliberals represents a notable shift in outlook, though it also integrated parts of the conservative project.

WC: Is there something specific to the neoliberal strategy or to the immigration discourse in Germany that would explain the somewhat surprising two phases following Merkel’s welcoming gesture – the initial support of civil society, and then the political and cultural pushback that followed upon it?

SB: There is still another piece to the story. The neoliberal and the conservative projects were not the only contenders vying for hegemony. The left-liberal alternative also played a part, and this strategy pulls from a range of different players: from the older remnants of the 1960s student movement to more recent forms of civil society activism, stemming from the Greens in the Bundestag and the European Parliament to activist groups like No Border. Until the mid-1990s, these forces were pretty much powerless to challenge the conservative hegemony, at least with respect to immigration. For instance, they could not manage to make their voices heard at the time of the debate on asylum reform.

Then things changed. Somewhat paradoxically, the influence of the left–liberal strategy increased as “managing migration” rose to prominence. With the ascendance of the neoliberal discourse on the economic benefits of immigration, a political space opened for supporters of mobility rights and cultural diversity. The left-liberal alternative – and this is where I would place the German Willkommenskultur – became stronger. Institutions like Pro Asyl gained steam in reaction to Germany’s “asylum compromise,” and it has now become a force that is financed by private left-liberal donations. In this context, refugee councils, church asylums, and other groups also came into being and gained prominence for the first time. Previously, such left-liberal pushes could hardly make a dent in the conservative hegemony. But now they have more resources, both of the economic and discursive kind.

This is the context of “managing migration”: a neoliberal open-border politics has been interwoven with a left-liberal humanitarian and human rights strategy, while also needing to make concessions to the conservative project. It is important to see that what is currently happening with the immigration crisis is not a crisis of neoliberalism. Instead, “managing migration” remains effective.

Now, this is why I think Angela Merkel can advocate for her current position. But one can also think that, of course, personal reasons play a role in Merkel’s persistently welcoming stance – even in the face of growing opposition from the ranks of her own party. Surely, her Protestant upbringing and her youth in East Germany could be quite significant for her sense of duty to people who seek refuge in Europe. At the same time, however, these personal sentiments do not seem to contradict her unwavering attachment to austerity programs in Germany and throughout the Eurozone, regardless of the pain they cause to the peoples of Southern Europe. For Merkel, then, the perennial pursuit of balanced budgets (the Schwarze Null, so famous in Germany) is not in contradiction with the Wilkommenskultur for which she stands. But this sometimes makes it terribly hard to fit together the pieces of the puzzle. I watched Merkel’s New Year’s address to the nation, for example, when she reiterated her determination to welcome refugees. For a moment, I was taken in by her message, and I wondered to myself: Have I been brainwashed? Merkel is sympathetic and progressive! But we need to understand that her stance signals no break with, or crisis of, the neoliberal project.

WC: What a strange situation we find ourselves in! Given this simultaneous boon to both neoliberal and leftist strategies, how would you characterize the new situation of the left after the so-called “summer of migration”?

SB: As I mentioned earlier, the left, or the left-liberal project, contains many alliances and ranges from liberal human rights organizations to No Border activists who reject borders altogether. Before and especially after the “summer of migration,” the convergence between the left-liberal and the neoliberal projects has had the effect of reinforcing and advancing both. In turn, the intersection of neoliberal and left-liberal projects also produces a reaction, which is part of the strident resurgence of the conservative project: for example, in Germany, with the right wing AFD party (“Alternative for Germany”) and the Pegida movement (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”). Yet the reason why these conservative surges are so aggressive and violent is precisely because they no longer hold the hegemonic position.

Right now, for the left-liberal project, the dominant discourse is clearly one predicated on human rights but also on empathy and care. In comparison to a few decades before, there has been a massive shift toward progressive, humanistic arguments. In Germany, we are seeing thousands of people who were never politically active but who suddenly decide that it is their mission to help out with refugees. Even though these people might not have identified with it consciously before, these are overlaps with the left-liberal project and they represent a remarkable discursive shift.

WC: …And so, should we understand what’s going on here in Germany primarily along the lines of humanitarianism and the supremacy of human rights discourse? Despite or because of this, are there sectors of society that are being politicized in new ways that may have long lasting effects? In other words, what are the prospects for left-liberal politicization in the near future?

SB: In the last few years, it is true that many of us who are on the left have been somewhat jealous of what has been happening in Spain, with the Indignados and Podemos, or in Greece, with the Syntagma movement and Syriza. Just before these movements erupted, their future success was anything but foreseeable. The old Spanish cadre of activists told us that nothing was happening in Spain. Then, only three weeks later, new activists came and invigorated democratic politics from the bottom up, and a strong movement grew. The fact that activists there could not only join forces but also win elections – or at least hope to win elections – certainly caused joy and envy from leftist onlookers. So, our first reaction here was: “this could never happen in Germany.” But I don’t think this is necessarily true. For what we see in Germany right now, around and prompted by the refugee issue, are people who were not exactly apolitical before, but who did not feel represented by the existing political parties and system. Like the Indignados in Spain, in 2011, who shouted just that to the political class: “you don’t represent us!”

Now, one could say that this is all just a humanitarian or empathetic reaction, and not a real political mobilization. However, I would respond that when forces from civil society decide to take action, something deeply political and important is happening. And so, it is up to left-liberal activists who, sometimes on the verge of depression, have been waiting a long time for something to happen. It is up to the left to draw on the potential of the present moment. This is what happened with the citizens, activists and intellectuals in Spain: “indignation” begot a new political movement when the left joined and worked together with the people who were politically active. This is what needs to happen. What must be avoided, meanwhile, is a deeply entrenched tendency of the left to look at the Wilkommenskultur activists and say: “they are not politicized or leftist enough, they are acting out of the wrong motives, and so on.” While the potential here is great, this tendency always remains a great danger.

WC: These promising developments also undercut some of the internal accusations among the left, namely that “the actors and movements simply aren’t there.” But there are serious problems any potential actor faces, such as the “neoliberalization” of social democracy or the “common sense” of fiscal and economic austerity. In Germany, for example, the CDU-SPD government coalition (above all Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble) love to tout their balanced budget politics, their Schwarze Null. So even if Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik has opened up new paths for left-liberal activists, what do you see as the key obstacles or problems that remain for the left?

SB: That is exactly right, austerity politics has indeed shaped the social reality we live in. Practically, the endless pursuit of balanced budgets has certainly deprived civil society of important resources. Culturally, the phobia of inflation and the cult of fiscal discipline still prevail. To gesture toward the depth of this neoliberal logic, here is a good anecdote: Heiner Flassbeck, whom I mentioned earlier, was once a State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Finance and advised members of the government on reforms to the European Monetary System, among other things. Over time, Flassbeck has had discussions with politicians, such as key party members of Die Linke (“The Left”), and repeatedly urged them to take a very public position and argue that Germany needed to run a deficit for the next fifteen years; this would improve not only the condition of Germany, but all of Europe. But they would always reply: “sorry, but if I say such a thing about debt on television, people will change the channel immediately.” So, yes, the lasting consensus on the economic dimension of the neoliberal project clearly stands in the way. It prevents a full-fledged politicization of social movements created by the crisis of the European border regime. Yet, I don’t give up hope.

WC: Your recent work endeavors to show how the EU border regime operates through practices of “externalization” and “invisibilization.” After the recent deal between the EU with Turkey was signed, you also claimed “Erdoğan is the new Gaddafi.” Could you elaborate on these observations and explain how “managing migration” is working at the moment?

Collage - on top, Gaddafi and Berlusconi ride in a car, on bottom Erdogan and Merkel walk down a hall
[top] Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrive at a ceremony for the Italia–Libya friendship day in Rome, Italy, August 30, 2010. (Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images) [bottom] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, February 8, 2016 (Turkish Presidency/Yasin Bulbul/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

SB: My thesis is that the EU border regime operates with two rings of externalization.

The first ring runs through southern and eastern member-states and comprises agencies such as Frontex, as well as various national border police forces, and relies on the Dublin agreement on asylum. According to this so-called Dublin III agreement, every asylum seeker must file for asylum in the country where he or she has entered the EU. Effectively, this means that southern and eastern European countries are bound to get the overwhelming majority of demands – while northern and western States, like Germany, are largely spared. And, indeed, there was a major drop in applications between the end of the Bosnian war and the 2011 Arab springs – leading to the dismantlement of refugee accommodations and shelters, infrastructure which is badly missing today.

The second ring of externalization, which I believe to be the decisive one, depends on post-colonial border enforcement in North and West Africa as well as in Ukraine. Its purpose is that people seeking refuge don’t get to Europe in the first place. In the past, Gaddafi’s Libya was a key player in the operations of this second ring. The Libyan regime would take care of locking up migrants – whether coming from sub-Saharan Africa or expelled from Europe – in terrible internment camps partly financed by the EU. In exchange for such service, European countries and institutions increased their foreign aid to Libya. In 2007, Italy went as far as pouring large amounts of cash into Libya, allegedly as reparation payments for colonial injustice. Yet, this was just a pure tit-for-tat deal. Word for word, Gaddafi famously warned: “if you don’t pay, Europe will turn black.” In short, the EU and its member states just paid so-called transit countries to prevent migrants from entering Europe and to keep the bad treatment inflicted on them out of (European) sight. Thanks to this arrangement, EU states could continue to pretend that, while firm with regard to the protection of their external borders, they nonetheless remained respectful of fundamental rights and the rule of law – on their own territory.

Though there were rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that condemned the outsourcing of such dirty work, what really put an end to the EU-Libya deal was the fall of the Gaddafi regime, as well as others in northern Africa, in the wake of the Arab springs. Since then, the second ring of externalization has been in a state of disrepair – enabling larger numbers of asylum seekers to cross the Mediterranean and reach Italy, and more specifically the Italian island of Lampedusa, on ships. Additionally, with the war raging in Syria, many refugees also moved from Syria through Turkey, which is not part of the EU, before crossing the sea to Greece.

WC: How do you see the future of the European border? Is the second ring being reconstituted – and how?

SB: First, let’s go back to the first ring of externalization for a moment. Because it is important to remember that we can only truly speak about “European immigration policies” since the Amsterdam treaty of 1999. Until then, immigration management was under the exclusive care of the member states. But from 2000 on, European institutions started to intervene in everything from the regulation of asylum – with Dublin III – to border control – with the creation of Frontex, the European border agency. The fact that the European regime is still young (barely 15 years old) partly explains why it functions so poorly. Moreover, rules and decisions at the Union’s level must always be negotiated among member states with different priorities, which means that they tend to express the lowest common denominator and thus lack coherence and efficiency.

Consequently, when the number of migrants rises, tensions among member states are quickly exacerbated: Greece and Italy complain because their load is disproportionally heavier, especially under Dublin III; Eastern European countries, which have become a major point of entry, refuse to share the burden; the UK refuses to be included in the European regime; France, in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attack, has become even less welcoming than before; and so on.

In this tense context, Merkel’s strategy is to stick to the “managing migration” approach: on the one hand, she continues to claim that we – we Germans and we Europeans – are under the obligation and have the capacity to accommodate a large number of refugees. But on the other hand, she understands that she has to make concessions to conservative forces, domestically and at the EU level: these concessions involve getting tougher with economic migrants and increasing the number of “safe” countries – that is, countries whose citizens cannot claim that they suffer persecution or are exposed to war. But this also means making new deals with transit countries, such as Turkey, so as to reconstitute the second ring of externalization.

Whether Merkel’s strategy will prove successful largely depends on the outcome of the negotiations with Turkish authorities. And the Turkey issue is a delicate one: for if convincing Ankara’s government to cooperate is essential to keep immigration politically manageable at home, at the same time, the Chancellor cannot seriously claim that Turkey is a “safe” country either for refugees or for its own citizens.

WC: This brings us to the new predicament surrounding “intra-EU transit countries.” Greece is about to become, like Turkey, a designated warden-nation full of detention camps for migrants, manned by Greek guards but financed by the EU. In the fall, Angela Merkel was actually praising Greece – at first – for taking on that new mission. But now some European officials are threatening to expel Greece from the Schengen zone. How should we understand these ostensibly paradoxical developments? How do you think the EU border regime will “manage” these zones at the edges of public visibility?

SB: Several weeks ago, the EU made a deal with Turkey, and on the next day the Turkish authorities prevented three thousand migrants from leaving the country to reach the Greek border. These people were swiftly relocated and then deported, while large numbers of refugees who were waiting for a passage to Greece were pushed back inland. Turkey has used illegal measures to detain both its own citizens and refugees within its territory. Yet, in spite of the stepped up efforts to police the EU external borders, about three thousand asylum seekers continue to arrive on the shores of the Greek islands every day. Securing and closing off the borders are impossible tasks – if only because the Turkish coast is so long. And living conditions continue to get worse in Syria, so people will continue to flee. Because they don’t see a future for themselves in Turkey, a country that already hosts two million refugees and whose internment camps are hardly appealing, they will keep trying to get to Greece. This is where the inner and the outer rings meet today. The border between Greece and Turkey represents the interface between them.

Now, Greece, which was hard hit by the Great Recession and then radically impoverished by five years of harsh, EU-imposed austerity, is hardly in a position to receive large numbers of refugees: yet every day they come by the thousands, if only because crossing from Turkey to Greece is slightly less dangerous than trying to enter Europe by other routes – even if two thousand people have drowned in the Aegean Sea in the past four years.

Although European and member states officials knew full well that Greece was overextended, they had no qualms about telling Greek authorities: “these refugees are your problem, you should take care of it.” And when it became clear that the government of Athens could not cope, its “partners” started to speak of a “Schexit” – of forcing Greece to exit the border-free Schengen zone, just as the country had been previously threatened with a “Grexit,” an exit from the Eurozone. So far it has been nothing more than an empty threat.

However, the new idea is to deprive Greece even further of its sovereignty by way of endowing Frontex with the power and responsibility to police the Greek border. At this point, Germany, Austria and also Poland are backing this new development. Until now, despite the European Commission’s insistence that immigration policies should be transferred to the European level, the representatives of a majority of member states have not been ready to let go of their national sovereignty. Currently, however, the critical situation faced by Greece may be an opportunity for the promoters of an integrated European border police force to overcome the longstanding resistance.

Regardless of whether Frontex is actually empowered to run border policing in Greece, I still believe that the evolution of the relationship between the EU and Turkey is more decisive. To put it bluntly, what is primarily at stake is whether the Turkish President, Recep Erdoğan, will accept to take on the role once assigned to Gaddafi’s Libya – and what he might get in exchange for its assistance. Without Turkey’s cooperation, Europe in general and Angela Merkel in particular will not be able to externalize and to render invisible the sordid underside of their immigration policies.

Now, from what we know, what has been offered to the Turkish President includes 3 billion euros in development aid, Schengen visas for Turkish citizens – a longstanding and legitimate demand, hitherto denied because German authorities were against it – and the resumption of negotiations on Turkey’s eventual EU membership. These would be positive developments – were it not for the fact that they will bolster the standing and legitimacy of the Erdoğan regime, whose human rights and civil liberties record is appalling.

WC: If this whitewashing deal were to be more widely perceived as such in Europe – say, if and when Erdoğan continues these disturbing measures in Turkey – what consequences might follow for the deal or for the European border regime more generally? Additionally, this raises a complicated question for activists and leftist movements: if the deal fails – whether through politicization or internal rupture – who might ultimately end up paying the price?

SB: I haven’t heard much about the ongoing negotiations in a while, I must say. Angela Merkel traveled to Turkey and signed an agreement at the beginning of December. Immediately thereafter Turkey ostensibly closed its borders. However, the border is too big for such a measure to really be efficient. Since then, however, not much news has filtered thought. The terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, as well as the anxiety created by the Cologne events on New Year’s Eve, seem likely to encourage European leaders to overcome their scruples and reinforce their cooperation with Erdoğan’s regime.

Regarding your second question, it’s really difficult to speak to these problems from a highly normative perspective. One good thing that the “summer of migration” brought to us Europeans is the realization that we are not living in some kind of protected island, where everyone can live in wealth and prosperity so long as European territory is surrounded by huge fences. If anything, the inflow of asylum seekers forces us to reckon with the fact that our (economic, ecological, etc.) ways of life have an impact on the conditions under which people elsewhere suffer. The time of colonialism, in different phases up to the present, still lays out the most elementary conditions for these crises. Even today, our individual and cultural practices, Western foreign policy, and the strategies of corporations play a role in sustaining these conditions. The “summer of migration” has forced us to understand this entanglement. Now, of course, there are people like Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, for whom the problem raised by the “summer of migration” can only be solved with even higher fences, combined with suppression of democracy at home. But one can hope that the current exacerbation of tensions may bring us closer to a more lucid assessment of the world we live in.

Protestors at Blockupy demonstration in Berlin, Germany
Protestors during a Blockupy demonstration in Berlin on June 20, 2015; approximately 1,800 demonstrators marched for support of Greece amidst the country’s economic crisis as well as for aid to refugees coming to Europe. (Adam Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

WC: Given the EU’s border strategy of externalization and invisibilization, what kinds of left-liberal activist work have, in your view, become effective in this context? What, if you will, is to be done?

SB: I think that what needs to be done is exactly what people are already doing. First, here’s an example of local politics taking place right here and now. In Frankfurt, last December, there was a meeting called Frankfurt für Alle (“Frankfurt for Everyone”), which gathered an interesting mix of people: organizations such as Teachers on the Road and Medico International, labor unions, “right to the city” activists and No Border activists, as well as refugee initiatives and homeless initiatives. All these people came together for a progressive migration and border politics, even though they neither knew one another beforehand nor necessarily shared the same political outlook (since the participants ranged from labor union officials to anarchists) – perhaps a realistic version of Negri’s “multitude.” Beyond discussing concrete ways of helping refugees in Frankfurt, they were able to make a collective statement and to integrate the issue in a larger and politicized perspective. This is what I hope continues, this way of establishing networks but also of reclaiming the city of Frankfurt as our city, as a collective good that should be there for everyone – affordable housing for all, Germans and refugees alike. Meanwhile, there is a similar initiative in Berlin.

Aside from acting locally, international solidarity is also essential, and crucial initiatives are underway as we speak: activists from all over Europe are traveling to support refugees in Greece and in Idomeni, for example, which is on the border of Greece and Macedonia. Working together with people who are fleeing to Europe and helping them at each point of their struggle are exemplary modes of activism. For these initiatives are about engaging asylum seekers not simply as objects in need, but as political subjects. As such, and at the risk of sounding overly ambitious, these modes of political action are part of a collective European project – namely, the project of constructing a different and more just Europe.

Interview conducted on January 5, 2016

Translated by William Callison

Recommended citation: Buckel, Sonja (interviewed by William Callison). “Welcome Management: Making Sense of the ‘Summer of Migration’.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

The German Dream: Neoliberalism and Fortress Europe

Neoliberal Xenophobia

During the first half of 2015, as Syriza came to power vowing to resist the dictates of the Troika, the EU contemplated the expulsion of Greece from the Eurozone. That was before Alexis Tsipras’s political turnaround following the July 5 bailout referendum. A “Grexit” may still be on the table today, however, at least for the IMF.1 Despite their Prime Minister’s compliance, today and in the current context of the “refugee crisis,” the Greeks are again under a threat of suspension from the Schengen zone. The same country finds itself at the intersection of the two major European crises of our time.

Of course, one should not conclude that Greece is the problem. In fact, it may be misleading to speak of a “Greek crisis”: both crises are crises not only in, but also of Europe. However, the question remains: is such a repetition a mere coincidence, or is there a strong connection between economic and immigration policies? The answer is complicated by the fact that Germany is also at the intersection of both developments, although in a different role: the German Chancellor’s political handling of the refugees looks radically different than her dealings with the Syriza government. The media marvel: Kaiser Merkel yesterday, Mutti Angela today?2 As the question takes a different shape, an answer becomes more complex: What is the nature of the link between the reign of neoliberalism and political xenophobia in Europe?

Magazine Covers featuring Angela Merkel
From “Kaiser Merkel” (Daily Mail) to “Chancellor of the free world” (Time): portrayals of Angela Merkel in the press, 2013–2015.

In many countries, from Hungary to France, anti-immigration parties have kept growing in the last decade while denouncing the European Union. But in response, during that same period, mainstream political forces throughout the continent (not only openly conservative parties, but also many voices that still claim to be progressive) have generally tried to salvage neoliberal policies by co-opting xenophobic ones. Today, “Fortress Europe” and the neoliberal Union are often two sides of the same coin. Apart from Germany, it looks as if political xenophobia were the price to pay for neoliberal policies: first, in reaction, as their unintended consequence; and second, as a deliberate concession to disgruntled voters from parties in power. Both critics and supporters of neoliberal Europe, including former social democrats, seem to favor xenophobic policies, thereby reinforcing the belief that these shared values have to do with national identities.

That the free flow of capital should result in restrictions on the circulation of workers is somewhat paradoxical. Indeed, the logic behind political xenophobia is certainly not economic: various reports produced by international institutions (from the United Nations Development Program to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) have long pointed out that European economies need more migrant workers, not fewer. As a consequence, it is not unusual, though still remarkable, to see employers support their undocumented workers when they go on strike to defend their rights.3 Neoliberal capitalism knows no borders – neither for capital nor for labor, if outsourcing is any indication. It should thus come as no surprise that political xenophobia needs to be explained politically. It cannot be accounted for in economic terms, or simply according to the cultural logic of national identity.

It is worth remembering that, not so long ago, some of the supposedly progressive promoters of neoliberalism in Europe, far from emulating anti-immigration activists, actually supported immigration. This was true in Britain: starting with the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted on the positive economic impact of (selective) immigration (though more and more at the expense of asylum-seekers). This was also true in Spain, both under the conservative José María Aznar and even more with his opponent José Luis Zapatero: in 2004, only weeks after the Madrid bombings and the elections that brought him to power, one of the new Prime Minister’s first acts was to grant amnesty to about 700,000 undocumented workers. For this neoliberal socialist in Spain, even more than for the New Labour leader in Britain, embracing immigration was yet another sign of a modernity that transcended nationalism in the European Union.

To this day, Blair insists that opening Britain to migrants was no “mistake”: “In 2004 the economy was booming,” recalls the former Prime Minister in a 2015 interview, “and we had a requirement for skilled workers from abroad.”4 But his voice does not resonate any longer; his argument seems to belong to the past. Neoliberalism has renounced supranational modernity in the hope of alleviating national populisms. What happened? Politically, 2005 was a turning point in the European Union. It all started in France, when the European Constitutional Treaty was rejected by referendum on May 29 – three days before the Dutch also voted against it. Some voters, especially on the right, opposed the treaty in the name of national sovereignty; but others, in particular on the left, refused it on the account of its neoliberal policies.

France’s then Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, immediately transformed his party’s defeat into a political opportunity for the right. He decided to interpret the vote as a referendum against unbridled immigration – rather than against the dismantling of the welfare state, market deregulation, and widespread unemployment. According to Sarkozy, the European Union offered the best protection of national identities against migrants. His response to the Euroscepticism of French voters, which amounted to an updated version of a Europe of nations, thus avoided any soul-searching concerning economic policies. The fact that his interpretation served to propel him to the presidency in 2007 certainly helped convince other European leaders that, in order to preserve neoliberal policies while escaping popular anger, political xenophobia provided the best solution.

In Britain, Gordon Brown’s promotion to Downing Street in 2007 facilitated the shift to this form of neoliberal populism. In Spain, Zapatero did attempt to resist the pressures of his counterparts, but not for long. The new European consensus against migrants became apparent with the 2008 European Pact on Immigration and Asylum – a French initiative. As a result, despite the previous rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands, a new version (the Treaty of Lisbon) was thus ratified at the European level in 2009 (this time, the only referendum took place in Ireland; the treaty was first rejected, but the problem soon resolved thanks to a second vote). Europe has since been cemented by its common policies, not only in the economic realm, but also concerning immigration: after 2005, political xenophobia has defined the Union just as much as economic neoliberalism.

Compassion and Self-Interest

While the Greek crisis only confirmed this form of neoliberal rule in the most dramatic fashion, the refugee crisis has shaken the foundations of Europe’s immigration policies. Of course, the first explanation that comes to mind is the sheer magnitude of this population transfer. Indeed, numbers matter: TV footage of crowds crossing borders or packing train stations have certainly struck a chord in public opinion and in public discourse. However, the issue is not purely quantitative, it is also qualitative: the nature of this wave of migration questions the usual justifications of xenophobic policies. A declaration by the socialist Michel Rocard, quoted innumerable times since the French Prime Minister first pronounced it in 1989, epitomizes this double logic, which has long prevailed not only in France, but throughout Europe: “we cannot welcome all the misery of the world.”5

The first implication is indeed quantitative. Were “we” to accept some of “them,” “they” would all come: an invasion would inevitably result from this “open door” (or, in French, with another telling metaphor, this “appel d’air”). Never mind that refugees are not exactly the white man’s burden: rich European countries have actually taken in far fewer refugees than poorer ones, such as Turkey hosting more than 2.6 million people (Of course, this has not prevented the EU foreign policy chief from reminding President Erdogan of his country’s moral, if not legal, obligation to let in Syrian refugees.). Relative to their population, even Germany cannot compare with the efforts of Lebanon and Jordan. The reality of asylum in Europe should not be characterized as “all the misery of the world.”

Never mind that refugees are actually reluctant to come to France. The most embarrassing demonstration of this lack of enthusiasm occurred in the city of Munich. This is where, in February 2016, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls proclaimed that “we cannot welcome any more refugees.”6 But one wonders: was not his display of “firmness” meant to make people forget that in the same city, in September 2015, the French refugee agency (OFPRA) tried to recruit a meager 1,000 Syrians to come to France, only to convince a few hundred? To this day, only 5,000 have applied for asylum in France (1.3% of the total in the EU). This is not exactly a new phenomenon: the awful situation in Calais, where migrants are concentrated in dire conditions while enduring brutal harassment by the French state, reinforced by local authorities, is also an indication that France is no “Eldorado” for the “wretched of the earth.” After all, their hope is not to stay in the country, but to cross the Channel.

Regardless of numbers, this frequent French reference to an Eldorado is crucial in another way that helps to understand the common European logic. It implies an economic argument against immigration premised on the opposition between compassion and self-interest. There is indeed a widespread assumption that Europe cannot afford the luxury of generosity – notwithstanding the positive economic contribution of foreign workers (whether undocumented or not) to European wealth. Today, however, the refugee crisis complicates the story as it revives a distinction that had almost been forgotten, at least in certain countries, between “economic migrants” and “asylum seekers.” In the years of the 2000s, the suspicion about the latter kept rising as they were suspected of actually belonging to the former category: “fake” refugees were supposed to be “true” economic migrants.7 For example, even in a context of war, French media and public officials spoke only of migrants, not refugees – at least until the recent crisis. It took the heart-wrenching picture of a body of a three-year-old child on a beach in Turkey to rekindle, albeit briefly, any potential for compassion.8

Nevertheless, recent developments should not be mistaken for a mere reversal of the logic that has long prevailed. Reason is not giving way to passion, nor calculations to emotions, nor realism to idealism. Arguably, in a more fundamental way, the terms themselves have shifted. On the one hand, granting asylum is neither a matter of generosity nor of self-interest; it is a legal obligation, or at least, it is supposed to be one. Human rights are not a luxury; they are fundamental principles inscribed both in international and in national texts. On the other hand, the recent waves of refugees do not fit the familiar stereotypes on migrant poverty. Studies have long shown that migrating from Africa requires some resources, and thus excludes the poorest, but to no avail. However, this stereotype has recently changed: today, Syrian asylum-seekers are perceived as superior to Roma migrants (although the latter, and not the former, are Europeans). They are expected to be engineers, lawyers, and medical doctors – not beggars. Aylan could have been “our” child, as much as “theirs.”

Young refugees skip stones
Young refugees in Greece skip stones on the sea. (Alessandro Penso)

As a consequence, there is a new interest in refugees, in a double sense: for reasons, of class they seem less foreign than other migrants; at the same time, they appear economically worthwhile. Compassion and self-interest need not be in opposition any longer. At least, this is true in the case of Germany: in dealing with the refugee crisis, despite serious resistance in her own country and even more within her own party, not to mention the opposition of other European governments, East and West, Angela Merkel has tried to maintain a German exception within Europe for as long as possible. This qualitative shift has to do with the quantitative one. From the start, the Chancellor has avoided minimizing the influx. On the contrary, she has insisted on the fact, first, that the numbers would be high and, second, that the effort would be long. As a result, the initial choice could not be half-hearted; it had to be irreversible. Once you welcome a million refugees, it becomes difficult to go back and claim that it is impossible to take in “all the misery of the world.” You have to succeed, and thus prove that what you have undertaken is possible. The logic has to shift.

However, most interpretations of this political choice have not shifted: they either focus on the moral argument or on the economic one – in terms either of compassion or of self-interest. Analysts have often emphasized the cultural and historical reasons underlying this moral stance, rooted in the German past (from the Protestant heritage to the Nazi and the Communist regimes). While some have applauded the Chancellor’s unexpected fortitude, especially in the face of rising political hostility, many on the right have argued that her strategy is unrealistic, both economically and socially (let alone politically). Conversely, others on the left have dismissed her alleged benevolence: the real motivation, according to this perspective, has to do with the demographic needs of an aging Germany, or even with calculations regarding the price of labor in the workforce. Few have taken seriously the recent shift in political logic: it still appears that Merkel is either a cynic, or an idealist.

Dreams of Empire

Obviously, it remains difficult to reconcile the two sides of recent German policies – the cold rejection of the Greeks and the warm welcome of the refugees. Are they not in stark contrast? Paradoxically, Yanis Varoufakis has joined those who celebrate “the moral nation.”9 The former Syriza Finance Minister starts out by rejecting the facile skepticism of those who look for ulterior motives. “That there are benefits from immigration is beyond dispute – except by racists.” However, if this is equally true elsewhere in Europe, “why is it only Germany and its people that took enthusiastically to welcoming refugees?” Because of “one of Germany’s grandest gifts to humanity: the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.” Indeed, “Kant’s practical Reason demands that we should undertake those actions which, when generalized, yield coherent outcomes.”

Why should Varoufakis, of all people, flatter the Germans in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung? Of course, his ironic, albeit serious enthusiasm has to do with the Greek situation: regarding that other crisis, “what should Berlin do? An excellent start would be to apply the same Kantian principle which has been evident in the case of the refugee crisis.” This tongue-in-cheek argument for “universalisable” policies is directed against the (supposed) German incoherence; the text makes a plea for a “moral” coherence: do unto the Greeks as you do unto refugees. But this plea for coherence begs another question: could Germany’s apparent contradictions make sense within the framework of a new logic? The point is not to establish how “sincere” (or “insincere”) the Chancellor may be, but rather to understand both versions in political terms.

What if economic intransigence and moral generosity were but the two sides of the same coin – just like “Fortress Europe” and the neoliberal Union have been for at least a decade – but only in a different political “currency”? Our argument is that this common logic has to do with the improbable emergence of a German Empire within Europe. After the Second World War, the reconciliation of France and Germany became the foundation of the European project.

From the beginning, what was to become the EU developed around this axis. However, the balance of power has changed: it has now become quite clear that Germany leads while France follows. This was manifest during the Greek crisis, perhaps for the first time, and the same Varoufakis confirmed it publicly when he quoted Michel Sapin, the French Finance Minister, who confessed: “France is not what it used to be.”10 One can also think of the recent Norwegian television fiction Occupied: when the EU takes control of Norway, via the Russians, the French Commissioner turns out to be but a mouthpiece for the Chancellor.11 Of course, Germany has been economically powerful for a long time; but only recently have the political consequences of this state of affairs been fully acknowledged.

The comparison of Merkel to Bismarck, the current Chancellor to her nineteenth-century predecessor, as the media frequently did during the first half of 2015, suddenly implied a remarkable change of perspective: in Germany, the popular daily Bild openly called on July 7 for an “iron Chancellor” whose helmet, along with the name of Bismarck, evoked the unabashed glory of the Empire.12 But how could Germany reclaim an imperial status without reviving frightful memories of old wars – as was the case in France? This is where the refugee crisis plays a crucial role: far from entertaining nationalist themes reminiscent of a painful past, especially in Germany, Merkel’s policy has stood firm against the xenophobic and racist themes developed throughout Europe, from Hungary and Poland to France and Britain. Her open-arms attitude is the exact opposite of the scapegoating encountered elsewhere, or remembered from the first half of the twentieth century.

This new Empire is thus a far cry from the old one. In 2013, Ulrich Beck published German Europe.13 In this short essay, the German sociologist denounced the “Merkiavellian” strategy of the Chancellor: the crisis of the euro gave her an opportunity to seize power and become the Queen of Europe. “The new grammar of power reflects the difference between creditor and debtor countries; it is not a military but an economic logic. Its ideological foundation is ‘German euro nationalism’ – that is, an extended European version of the Deutschmark nationalism that underpinned German identity after the Second World War. In this way the German model of stability is being surreptitiously elevated into the guiding idea for Europe.” One could easily argue that this book anticipates the 2015 Greek crisis that finally transformed economic into political power.

In the context of the refugee crisis, our understanding of a “German Europe” has radically changed. Another German sociologist, Heinz Bude, explained in 2015 that Germany was now “Europe’s America.”14 The point was not any longer that all European countries had to become like Germany – in particular in the implementation of austerity policies, such as those imposed upon the Syriza government. The idea was now that Merkel had to lead Europe, whether she wanted to or not. The argument resonated powerfully with the refugee crisis, although it then took on a slightly different meaning: the German rule did become the German exception. In what Bude calls a “society of fear,” contrary to Pegida and other anti-immigration and Islamophobic political forces, the Chancellor does not play on fear. On the contrary: on New Year’s Eve 2015, she made it clear in her address to the German people: “I am confident that if we handle it right, the current major challenge of the arrival and integration of so many people will also present an opportunity in the future.” The subtitles available in Arabic only underlined her confidence.

In this new political economy of affects, desire replaces fear. For Europe’s America, the “German dream” means that the country, just like the United States in the days of Ellis Island, can and will welcome “the wretched of the earth.” Naturally, this is why it attracts them: refugees “love” Merkel. Germans finally transcend their historical guilt, and at long last, become desirable – if only because their own generosity makes them feel good about themselves. The new, unexpected desirability of Germans, in their own eyes as well as in those of the others, profoundly transforms the connotations of the word “empire.” This is most remarkable in Merkel’s mantra: “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”). Such a slogan not only exudes confidence, it also implies that economic power is the foundation of the “German dream.” This is how generosity and self-interest are related.

What the Germans are offered by their Chancellor is self-esteem: thanks to Merkel’s moral stance, they increase their value, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. This logic of self-appreciation is at the core of neoliberal subjectivation, as philosopher Michel Feher demonstrates in his work. Indeed, one could argue that there are two symmetrical versions of national self-esteem: one negative, and the other positive. According to this distinction, weak neoliberals, like the French, are tempted by fear. Hence the politics of resentment, such as racism and xenophobia: whiteness is the last, negative resort of national self-esteem. On the contrary, Germans are strong neoliberals. This is why they open their doors and welcome refugees: they can afford it; therefore, it is their moral duty. This is the positive, Kantian version of self-esteem. The “German dream” is thus a way for Germans to claim a “universalisable” identity: they can escape the fate of the past and project themselves in the future. Now is their turn to claim as their own the famous line by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .”

The German Nightmare

Many will object to this apparently naïve presentation: is not the “German dream” but a shared illusion? Why not call it, simply, imperialist propaganda? It is true that this neoliberal dream is more like a myth – precisely like the “American dream.” It is not unreal, though. It may turn into a founding myth that defines the future of Europe, along with the subjectivities of Europeans. Nevertheless, one can easily point to the discrepancies between the dream and the reality of German policies. First, welcoming refugees did not change the sorry plight of economic migrants – although it did affect their administrative definition: in order to make room for Syrians, Germany immediately categorized Balkan countries as “safe,” thereby excluding these migrants from the status of refugees. The new politics of desirability leaves out “economic migrants,” no matter what this distinction may empirically represent.

Second, the influx of refugees only reinforced the European determination to sort migrants as they enter Europe. There have been attempts to share the load of the new refugees. This would actually undermine the Dublin Treaty that requires refugees to apply for asylum in the country they first enter. But the main feature of current policies is still the so-called “hotspots,” that is, the sorting structures conveniently located at the Mediterranean margins of Europe. “Fortress Europe” has certainly not been dismantled. Along with the pressure against Greece, threatened with exclusion from the Schengen zone, the effort to pay off Turkey to stop refugees within its own borders, and to even ask for the support of NATO in order to prevent the boats of migrants from crossing the Aegean Sea, only confirm Fortress Europe’s fortification. Today, two children, like Aylan, drown daily. How many will tomorrow?

Third, in addition to these important qualifications, the political support for a policy that opens the door of the country to (Syrian) refugees has progressively eroded, including in the Chancellor’s own party. This is especially true after the attacks against women in Cologne, as well as in other cities, by men who were mostly migrants., though not recent arrivals in the country. Ironically, these events coincided on New Year’s Eve with Merkel’s address. Of course, it has been established that they were mainly from North Africa; Syrians did not play a major role in the story. But facts barely affect representations. Despite the insistence on the distinction between “economic migrants” and “refugees,” the two have been used interchangeably in the public discussions of the Cologne events. Will Merkel’s policies survive such a blow?

For all these reasons, the German dream may seem, if not a complete illusion, or an actual nightmare, at the very least strongly compromised – from the very beginning, in the summer of 2015, and even more so in 2016. Even if its failure were to be confirmed, that is, even if Merkel’s original impetus, and the arrival of over one million refugees in Germany, did not result in a real, lasting change of perspective, and at long last a questioning of “Fortress Europe,” Germany’s experience would still be worth meditating. For the goal of this discussion about the “German dream” is not to embrace it. The goal is also not to join a chorus of unexpected approval of Germany’s battle against the legitimate government of Greece in order to mitigate the expected disapproval among progressive critics of Germany.

There are at least two reasons to pay attention to what might or might not, in the end, turn out to have been a mere parenthesis. On the one hand, it helps to understand the new logic of empire: while power is still the primary principle, winning hearts and souls may be the second – that is, making power desirable. On the other hand, it encourages us to realize that there is nothing inevitable about the current equation of “Fortress Europe” and the neoliberal Union. It has not always worked this way, and it will not always work this way in the future. There may not be anything more important, for the critics of neoliberalism, than to avoid falling for its ultimate trick: let us remember that there are always alternatives. Political xenophobia is not the necessary consequence of neoliberal policies. Unpacking the two may help to fight them both, since the belief that they are inevitably linked contributes to their political success. This, in the end, is what might be learned from the European tale of two crises.

Recommended citation: Fassin, Éric and Windels, Aurélie. “The German Dream: Neoliberalism and Fortress Europe.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Onboard the Bourbon Argos: The Médecins Sans Frontières Search and Rescue Operation

The Mediterranean Sea, and in particular, the crossing from North Africa, has always been one of the most dangerous parts of the journey for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who risk everything in their desperate bid to reach Europe and a better life. After the Lampedusa boat tragedy of October 3, 2013 in which 366 people lost their lives, the Italian government established Operation Mare Nostrum to increase sea patrols and help avoid further tragedies. The operation ended in 2014 for economic reasons and was replaced by Operation Triton, which was managed by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the member states of the European Union (Frontex). Unfortunately, Operation Triton was more limited in its scope and budget than the one it replaced. Moreover, the end of Mare Nostrum coincided with an increase in the number of people trying to reach Europe and deaths on the Mediterranean began to increase. According to the International Organization for Migration, in April 2015 alone 1,244 migrants lost their lives while crossing the Mediterranean.

Frustrated by insufficient action from the EU, in May 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or “Doctors without Borders”), launched a ship, the Bourbon Argos, as an additional search and rescue vessel for activities in the Mediterranean Sea. Specially adapted for search and rescue operations and able to maneuver quickly to respond to calls of distress, the boat is specially equipped and has the capacity to rescue 300–350 individuals at a time. The team on board includes medical staff and experienced search and rescue crew. “With the decision by the EU and Italy not to continue Mare Nostrum at the time more people than ever were reaching their shores, we could not wait on EU shores to see thousands more people die,” MSF declared.

These images were taken aboard the Bourbon Argos on November 13, 2015 and close to the Libyan coast. During the operation 93 migrants of different nationalities, including 31 Nigerians, were rescued from their dinghy by the MSF.

Also by Alessandro Penso: “Passage Through the Balkans

Recommended citation: Penso, Alessandro. “Onboard the Bourbon Argos: The Médecins Sans Frontières Search and Rescue Operation.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Ebbing and Flowing: The EU’s Shifting Practices of (Non-) Assistance and Bordering in a Time of Crisis

The movements of illegalised migrants and the bordering of the Mediterranean Sea have seen momentous transformations since the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011.*1 The fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the Qaddafi regime in Libya have allowed migrants to at least temporarily re-open maritime routes which had been sealed off through the collaboration between the EU and North African states. The civil war that has engulfed Syria since 2012 has in turn led to the largest exodus since the Second World War While the majority of population movements unleashed by conflicts in the region have occurred on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, record numbers of people have sought to reach the EU by boat, and equally unprecedented numbers of deaths at sea have been recorded – 3,195 in 2014 and 3,772 in 2015 according to IOM data.2 This intense and rapidly evolving movement of people across the sea but also on the EU’s firm land, where migrants have collectively overcome every single barrier that states have erected in front of them, has been labelled a “migration crisis.” This designation, in return, has enabled the deployment of exceptional military, humanitarian and political “solutions” (see “Keywords” in this issue). At sea we have witnessed a multiplication of actors involved in bordering and rescue practices. Border and Coast Guards have been joined by national and multinational military operations, civilian rescue missions and commercial ships and we have seen repeated shifts in their missions, operational logics, and institutional assemblages. On land, developments have been no less impressive. States have been desperately running behind migrants’ turbulent movements and re-erecting border controls between EU member-states and at the EU’s periphery. These newly staged bordering practices echo the changes to the EU’s political and economic geography in the aftermath of the EU’s “debt crisis” and the increasing polarisation between southern and northern European member-states. Rather than a “migration crisis,” then, we will argue that we are witnessing the crisis of the current EU border regime.

Seeking to account for these momentous changes, as we will try to do in the following pages, as well as understanding the forces and logics that have driven them, are certainly challenging tasks. We believe however that this sea-change may be condensed through a paradox: from 2011 to 2013, our research within the Forensic Oceanography project has focused on documenting incidents leading to the deaths of migrants at sea that resulted from what we have called practices of “non-assistance” (Heller and Pezzani 2014), such as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which 72 passengers were left to drift for 14 days in an area closely monitored by tens of military assets deployed in the context of the 2011 NATO led military intervention in Libya (Heller and Pezzani 2012).3 As we write at the end of 2015 however, we are faced with a growing number of cases in which the loss of life has occurred during and partly through rescue itself. This has been the case in the April 12 and 18, 2015 shipwrecks, in which migrants’ vessels capsized while commercial ships were approaching them to operate rescue. As a result, among the more than 2,900 cases of death documented in the central Mediterranean by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2015, more than 1,500 occurred during the rescue operation itself.4 In our current investigations, we are thus faced with the following paradox: rescue itself, the act of seeking to prevent imminent harm, has become entangled with death, or even become its very cause.

A survivor draws the collision-course between the migrants’ vessel and the King Jacob cargo ship. The wreck occurred on April, 19 2015; more then 800 people perished in the collision.
A survivor draws the collision-course between the migrants’ vessel and the King Jacob cargo ship. The wreck occurred on April, 19 2015; more then 800 people perished in the collision.

To make sense of this paradox, our hypothesis, to state it at the outset, is the following: the practice of rescue has become more deadly as the result of a shift in smugglers’ practices combined with persistent policies of non-assistance on the part of states. In order to account for this new and disturbing reality, we need to follow carefully the successive shifts in the practices of (non-)assistance and bordering that have occurred at the EU’s external frontier in the last few years. In what follows, the sea – and in particular the central Mediterranean – is the centre of gravity of our analysis. We first summarise the pre-October 2013 conditions that led to structural cases of non-assistance. We then describe the break constituted by the large-scale military-humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum which was launched by the Italian government following two infamous shipwrecks in early October 2013 near the island of Lampedusa. Finally, we chart the rapidly evolving practices of rescue and bordering that unfolded after Mare Nostrum was phased out in November 2014. In particular, we elaborate, the partial privatisation of rescue that filled the gap in the state’s rescue capability, and then, in the wake of the twin shipwrecks of April 2015, the unprecedented involvement of non-governmental rescue vessels and the beginning of what is probably the largest maritime anti-trafficking military campaign since the deployment of a British Navy squadron off the coasts of West Africa in the 19th century, namely EUNAVFOR MED. In seeking to understand these successive shifts in practices of (non-)assistance and bordering at sea, we argue that it is essential to attend to the way they have been articulated with their corresponding practices on firm land within and outside the EU. Land and sea have been locked into a continuum by the Europeanization of migration policies that we describe below.

If we were to imagine a map of these evolving practices, we might use the metaphor of “flows,” not to describe the movement of migrants, as it has long been the case, but rather bordering and (non-)assistance practices themselves.5 These might resemble the cyclical ebbs and flows of tides, expanding and retracting from the shoreline of coastal states across the Mediterranean, but also inward, from the shoreline into European land as well as onto the lands of EU neighbouring countries. The movements of this “mirror tide” flowing on land and sea would be related but non-synchronous. We would see recurrent patterns, but also cross-currents, in which practices of bordering and of (non-)assistance come together and apart, entering novel and surprising configurations, and constantly being stirred by migrants’ enduring and autonomous capacity to collectively move across borders. As we will try to show, it is only by attending to the “gravitational pull” exercised on this tide by, on the one hand, the sweeping geopolitical changes in North Africa and the Middle East, and on the other, the new economic and political geography that has been taking shape within the EU in the aftermath of the “debt crisis,” that we might understand the paradox described above.

The Left-to-Die Boat Case and the Politics of Non-Assistance

Animation of the Left-to-Die boat. (Heller and Pezzani. Liquid Traces – The Left-to-Die Boat Case. 2014)

In the early hours of March 27, 2011, 72 passengers embarked on a small rubber boat, hoping to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. After less than 24 hours, they noticed they were running out of fuel, and called for rescue with their satellite phone. Although the Italian and Maltese Coast Guards, NATO forces deployed at the time for military intervention in Libya, and numerous civilian vessels moving through the central Mediterranean were informed of the position of the boat and distress of its passengers, the immigrants were left to drift for fourteen days in the NATO maritime surveillance area. As a result, only 9 of the passengers survived. 63 people were killed by the reluctance of all actors to rescue them.

The left-to-die boat case, which we have reconstructed by using remote sensing devices against the grain, and which has led to several ongoing legal cases against states involved in the military intervention in Libya, is only one of several cases of non-assistance that have occurred in the last years and needs to be understood within the particular form of sovereignty and government of the Mediterranean Sea. As we have described in more detail elsewhere (Heller and Pezzani 2014), contrary to the popular vision of the sea as a homogeneous and lawless expanse lying outside the reach of state power, maritime territories are in fact crisscrossed by variegated and at times conflicting jurisdictional regimes of “unbundled sovereignty” (Sassen 2006). This allows states to simultaneously extend their sovereign privileges through forms of mobile government and elude the responsibilities that come with it (see Steinberg 2001, Gammeltoft-Hansen and Alberts 2010:18, Suárez de Vivero 2010). For instance, the strategic mobilization of the notion of “rescue” has in several occasions allowed coastal states to justify police operations in the high seas or even within foreign territorial waters for which they would otherwise have little legal ground, thus de facto extending their sovereign capabilities through their patrols.6 Conversely, for several years, the Mediterranean coastal states have been involved in diplomatic scuffles over their respective obligations to assist migrants distressed at sea. One of the most notorious and longstanding conflicts has been between Italy and Malta, which have repeatedly attempted to pass onto each other the burden of rescue, basing their claims on the different versions of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) to which they each are signatories (Gammeltoft-Hansen and Aalberts 2010: 21). In the process, the international legal norms established to determine responsibility for assisting those in distress at sea have been used precisely for the purpose of evading and deferring this responsibility. Furthermore, the criminalisation of assistance by states has also been a disincentive for seafarers to comply with the obligation to provide assistance. Fishermen, for example, have repeatedly been put on trial for “assisting clandestine migration” after rescuing migrants. As a result, many migrants have been left unassisted, leading to human tragedies such as the case of the left-to-die boat.

Maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean. (Forensic Oceanography)
Maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean. (Forensic Oceanography)

How can we explain this drive to non-assistance by coastal states? In order to understand the politics of non-assistance at sea, we need to account for its articulation with the particular migration regime that has emerged on land with the consolidation of the EU. The current architecture of the European border regime is based on two main pillars: the Schengen and Dublin Conventions, both signed in 1990, and gradually enforced in the following years. The Schengen Convention, as is well known, instituted an area of free circulation inside the EU and, as a direct consequence, reinforced the EU’s external borders – including the Mediterranean Sea. This process has involved the increasing militarization of the EU’s outer rim but also the recourse to strategies of “externalization,”7 through which non-EU states have been turned into migration gatekeepers on behalf of the EU. These measures, however, did not stop migrants from reaching the EU but rather forced them to do so through clandestine strategies and therefore in increasingly dangerous ways, such as embarking on unseaworthy boats. What Schengen actually produced, then, was not the end of trans-Mediterranean migration but rather the creation of a mass of “illegals,” a cheap and easily exploitable labour force that has become a large-scale and permanent feature of EU states and their economies (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013; Düvell 2011a and b). The more than 20,000 migrant deaths at sea recorded by NGOs since the end of the 1980s are the necropolitical effect (Mbembe 2013) of this regime of illegalisation.8

Deaths at the Borders of Europe, shown by region and year. (Migreurop. Atlas of Migration in Europe. New Internationalist Publications, London: 2013)
Deaths at the Borders of Europe, shown by region and year. (Migreurop. Atlas of Migration in Europe. New Internationalist Publications, London: 2013)

The Dublin Convention and its successive amendments exclusively addressed asylum seekers and their allocation between member-states. To prevent them from filing applications in several EU countries, the regulation officiated that the asylum seekers first country of entry into the EU would be responsible for processing the asylum claims. Moreover, in order to facilitate enforcement, it made the fingerprinting of migrants and the sharing of this data within an EU wide system (EURODAC) mandatory. As a result, the Dublin Convention locked the EU’s external and internal borders, land and sea, in a continuum for the purpose of migration management (Kasparek 2015: 61). Because rescuing migrants at sea entailed the “burden” of processing their asylum requests once these had been disembarked (Guild 2006), Dublin regulations further created an uneven geography of allocation of migrants within the EU, which became increasingly problematic as the numbers of arrivals by sea increased at the turn of the 2000s. The Dublin Convention thus came to operate for northern EU states as the internal dimension of the policies of externalisation that were being applied outside the EU: a policy of internal externalization through which an inner rim of control was erected in order to select and control migrants’ movements. Furthermore, the Dublin Convention has played a key role in making southern EU coastal states principally reluctant to assist at sea and disembarkment.

Besides the strategies of non-assistance described above, coastal states have conditioned interception or assistance at sea (a process which, while legally distinct, has become increasingly blurry in practice) with swift deportation, thereby avoiding the burden of assistance on land. The latter strategy has been applied, for example, by Spain in relation to Senegalese migrants in 2006–2007 (Gagrielli 2008) and Italy in relation to Tunisian migrants in 2008 and 2011 (Cassarino 2013). Another related measure has been to couple interception/rescue with “push back” agreements which allow deportation of the intercepted/rescued migrants to the country of departure without allowing migrants to set foot on EU’s firm land. Such an agreement was signed in 2009 between Italy and Libya (Cuttitta 2014), and effectively sealed off the central Mediterranean route until its collapse in the Arab uprisings. Through these different strategies, southern European coastal states have managed to stop “peaks” in migration across the sea all the while preventing migrants from filing asylum applications once arrived on land. In these and other instances, what we observe is that the “high tide” of control of, and assistance to, migrants across the EU territory that was enshrined by the Dublin regulation, could only be predicated on a “low tide” of assistance at sea, and vice versa.

The border regime defined by the Schengen and Dublin Conventions, however, has been progressively undermined in the last few years. The above mentioned strategies to evade the responsibility for receiving migrants on EU territory were made inoperative by a succession of events and factors: the fall of the gatekeeper regimes in Tunisia and Libya in 2011, the outlawing of push back agreements by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2012 (Cuttitta 2014), and the fact that the political context in the country of origin of the majority of migrants arriving over the last years in principle qualify them for asylum in the EU. As a result, costal states were left with strategies of non-assistance as their only resort, thereby creating the conditions in which cases such as the left-to-die boat could occur. This, however, did not stem arrivals, but rather increasingly made apparent the EU states’ reluctance – and inability – to provide any form of assistance to migrants on land too. Cracks in the Dublin logic and its uneven geography of allocation of migrants across the EU became increasingly apparent in particular with the 2011 ECHR decision to stop Dublin deportations to Greece because of the appalling reception conditions there (Kasparek 2015: 72). These cracks were widened by the record number of arrivals on the EU’s shores, as of 2013, and by the effects of the global economic crisis, which, as Kasparek (2015: 73) notes, “affected the southern economies the strongest and impeded the ability of regional and national labour markets in the south to absorb illegalized migration.” As a result, southern European coastal states were left with a mass of unexploitable migrants (Feher 2015) whose unruly movements across the continent have eventually brought the whole EU border regime to a breaking point. The contradictions brought about by this situation would explode in all their intensity in the aftermath of two tragic shipwrecks in October 2013, when Italy launched the unprecedented Mare Nostrum operation at sea, but also retreated from assistance on firm land, thereby opening the Pandora’s box of the government of migration inside the EU.

The Twin Shipwrecks of October 2013:
Between Tragic Repetition and Sea Change

The remains of a shipwreck that occurred near Lampedusa, on October 3, 2013. At least 366 people perished in the wreck. (Vigili del Fuoco)

On October 3, 2013, a boat carrying more than 500 migrants sank less than 1km from the coast of Lampedusa, causing the death of at least 366 people and a public outcry.9 Not only did this boat manage to cross the multiple layers of surveillance surrounding Lampedusa undetected, but the survivors of this incident have also claimed that a few hours before the boat capsized, 2 or 3 fishermen’s ships ignored their calls for help (this has not been confirmed or disproven to date). On October 11, when another boat carrying over 400, that was taking on water after it had been shot by a Libyan vessel, the deployment of rescue was delayed for over 5 hours due to the aforementioned conflicts of responsibility between the Italian and Maltese Coast Guards. As the investigation we conducted together with the WatchTheMed network and journalist Fabrizio Gatti revealed, in the end, rescue vessels arrived one hour after the boat had sunk and more than 200 people had died.10 Since both of these tragedies involved practices of non-assistance, they initially appeared as the tragic repetition of the left-to-die boat, with an even more exorbitant death toll.11 In hindsight, however, we can see that these shipwrecks were indices of much deeper changes.

First, these events signalled the impact of the ongoing shifts in the MENA region both in terms of intensity of the crossings and of their composition. As of summer 2013, escalating violence in Libya led a record number of people to attempt the crossing of the central Mediterranean. This trend was exacerbated by what would become the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, the Syrian exodus. While until summer 2013, Syrians had mostly sought refuge in neighbouring countries,12 the increasing numbers of refugees quickly exceeded both the capacity of humanitarian organisations and neighbouring countries alike. The lack of prospects for refugees and the progressive reintroduction of visa obligations by neighbouring countries (Awad 2014) led more and more refugees to attempt to reach the EU by crossing the Mediterranean. The tacit acceptance by the EU of humanitarian encampment outside its territory as the first “solution” to manage the Syrian exodus thus began to collapse. Most migrants involved in the October 11 shipwreck were from Syria. The refugees of the Syrian conflict accounted for the highest share of arrivals in Italy in 2013 and 2014, before, as we will see, their proportion went down in 2015 with the opening of the so-called “Balkan route.”13

Second, the massive crossings that we have witnessed since the summer of 2013 were in part enabled by, and contributed to, a shift in smuggling practices. The smugglers in Libya had been operating a well-established business since the beginning of 2000 and their business relied on stable relations with the Qaddafi regime (Monzini et al. 2015). The fall of the Libyan regime and the ensuing political fragmentation led to changes in smuggling practices that have made the conditions of the crossing more dangerous. The increasing level of violence affecting Libyan society has touched migrants as well, and they have been subjected to multiple forms of violence at different moments in the commerce of passage (AI 2015a, Monzini et al. 2015: 42). The Libyan political fragmentation has led to more volatile relations between smugglers and the factions in control of particular areas – as the shooting of the vessel in the October 11 incident exemplifies – but has also allowed new actors who offered lower prices but did not always possess the know-how of safe crossings to enter the smuggling market (Porsia 2015). This in turn has meant that to guarantee a profitable margin, smugglers had to resort to subpar navigation equipment or load more migrants on board their failing boats. The fall of the Qaddafi regime thus allowed to re-open the central Mediterranean route, but in an increasingly precarious condition, which was further exacerbated by the deteriorating political context in Libya.

Finally, following the October shipwrecks politicians were swift to prescribe more of the same failed policies, including: extra funding for the European Border Agency, Frontex, and increasing surveillance through the launch of Eurosur, the European Border Surveillance System (Heller and Jones 2014). On the policy level then as well, these initial measures gave the impression of repetition. However, faced with the impossibility of ignoring the public outcry caused by these shipwrecks, within two weeks Italy single-handedly launched what has been by far the largest “humanitarian and security” operation in the Mediterranean: Mare Nostrum.14 By prioritizing the task of saving lives at sea, Mare Nostrum (MN) constituted a considerable break with the practices of non-assistance at sea described earlier. However, as we will see, MN’s extension of assistance at sea was conditioned on a shift in the logic of assistance on firm land.

Mare Nostrum: From the Blurring of Security and Humanitarian Logics at Sea to the Retreat of Assistance on Land

Admiral Guido Rando of the Italy Navy shows the operational area of Mare Nostrum (in red). (Photo Ansa)
Admiral Guido Rando of the Italy Navy shows the operational area of Mare Nostrum (in red). (Photo Ansa)

One 135 meters-long amphibious vessel, two frigates, two corvettes, four helicopters, three planes and unmanned aerial vehicles patrolling for over one year just a few miles off the coast of Libya at the monthly cost of about 9.5 million euros: these figures provide an indication of the spectacular scale of the MN operation.15 As Paolo Cuttitta rightly notes, the involvement of the Italian Navy in the management of migration was not in itself completely new, and border control had for several years come cloaked in the language of humanitarianism (Cuttita 2014). The scale of MN, however, was unprecedented; so was the inscription of the humanitarian “duty” of saving lives at the core of MN’s mission which was coupled with the aim of bringing to justice those deemed responsible for putting their lives at risk, i.e. the smugglers. Thus MN constituted a clear shift from principled reluctance to operate rescue and the criminalisation of those who are engaged in it, such as fishermen and cargo ships, to proactively performing rescue and criminalising smugglers.16

This shift of mission produced several breaks in the way rescue and bordering at sea had been practiced until then. With Mare Nostrum the “tide” of rescuing activities reached an unprecedented expansion of the spatial deployment of the operations: whereas until then SAR operations in the undeclared Libyan SAR zone were a rare event and the majority of migrants’ boats reached Italian and Maltese coasts on their own or were just “escorted” for the last few nautical miles,17 now, military vessels were continuously positioned in close proximity to the Libyan coast, and intercepted and rescued every migrants’ boat that they encountered. In practice, then, we might say that the jurisdictional lines of SAR zones that served to allocate responsibility for coordinating and operating rescue vanished, and the Italian state extended its claim to rights and obligations at sea far beyond its normally accepted perimeter (even into Libyan territorial waters), effectively giving the full meaning to the imperial undertones of the operation’s Latin name “our sea,” first used by the Roman empire, and later by the Italian fascist regime. Moreover, while disembarkation had constituted a thorny problem for many years, with MN migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean were taken to Italy by default.

A map of the transit boats detected by Mare Nostrum and Joint Operation Hermes. The different colors on the map correspond to different countries of departure. (Frontex)
A map of the transit boats detected by Mare Nostrum and Joint Operation Hermes. The different colors on the map correspond to different countries of departure. (Frontex)

As Martina Tazzioli has importantly highlighted (2014, 2015), MN managed to focus public attention on the good “scene of rescue,” recasting the role of the state and the military as that of a merciful saviour. At the same time, however, this “scene” obscured other crucial aspects of the operation. First, it obscured the fact that, while a record number of people were rescued, a record number of deaths were also reported, and MN did not make the crossing less dangerous.18 MN assets deployed close to the Libyan coast came to operate as a “half-way bridge to Europe,”19 which still forced migrants to resort to the service of smugglers for the first stretch of their journey. Smugglers in turn provided this service with even more precarious and unseaworthy means, counting on MN’s assets to rescue migrants swiftly.20 During this initial section of the crossing, migrants were also at times intercepted by the diminished Libyan Coast Guard, which reportedly managed to conduct operations of “preventive refoulement” (Cuttitta 2014). That such a large operation geared specifically to rescue at sea could not put an end to deaths at sea only confirms that no rescue operation can undo the political violence of the EU border regime which forces migrants to resort to precarious means of crossing in the first place. The very term “rescue” might in this sense need to be replaced by a long descriptive denomination such as “the practice of preventing death of passengers whose lives have been put at risk by the EU’s migration regime and its production of illegality.”21

Our aim is not to simply debunk or verify the humanitarian discourse surrounding MN. Independent of truth or falsity, our interest is in considering MN’s humanitarianism in terms of the practices it enabled. We are interested in MN as a “moral technology” as elaborated by Didier Fassin (2012), as “spatial organizations and physical instruments, technical standards, procedures and systems of monitoring” which, as Eyal Weizman notes, despite being deployed in the name of alleviating human suffering, “have become the means for exercising contemporary violence and for governing the displaced, the enemy and the unwanted” (Weizman 2012: 4). Through this lens, we can see more clearly what MN actually produced beyond its stated “life saving” mission. In the frame of MN, saving lives and policing borders became one and the same thing. Not only did rescue operations allow the arrest of 330 alleged smugglers,22 these operations also allowed for summary identification procedures to happen already onboard the military ships, which for a time became floating detention centres, extending onto the high seas the biopolitical regime of identification normally applied on firm land.23 This, in turn, allowed for swift repatriation procedures for the nationals of countries with which Italy held readmission agreements, in particular Tunisians and Egyptians.24 MN thus epitomised what William Walters has called the “humanitarian border,” in which the limit between security and humanitarian logics is increasingly blurred (Walters 2011: 138).

A migrant is fingerprinted onboard the ship San Marco in November 2013. (Polizia di Stato)
A migrant is fingerprinted onboard the ship San Marco in November 2013. (Polizia di Stato)

Finally, the good scene of rescue ended at the harbour for all those migrants who were not deported and who, after disembarkation, were stranded for months in different types of camps waiting for the assessment of their asylum request, or left with no other choice than continuing their trip. The flip-side of Italy’s extension of its sovereign “privileges” at sea was in fact the retraction of its sovereign “duties” on firm land, i.e. the disinclination to fingerprint and assist rescued migrants once disembarked, thereby enabling their further movement across EU space.25 As a result, of the more than 170,000 migrants who arrived in Italy only 64,625 filed an asylum application in the country (EUROSTAT data). However, more than a deliberate decision and congruous governmental practice, non-fingerprinting and enabling further movement should be understood as having emerged from, on the one hand, the resolute refusal by migrants to enter the Dublin system so as to be able to choose their final destination and, on the other, the tacit acquiescence of Italian authorities. The sound of the slogan “No fingerprints!” which resounded across the streets of Lampedusa in July 2013 when over two hundred Eritreans staged a protest against identification procedures, corresponds, in a distant echo, with the statement of an Italian Navy official: “it is impossible to force them when all refuse… and, moreover, it is finally a good solution for both, since they could move and Italy does not have to host them” (quoted in Tazzioli 2015: 77). Italian authorities, then, used migrants’ desire and struggle to continue their journey into other European countries – which continues in Lampedusa and elsewhere as we write – to get rid of as many people entitled to international protection as possible, de-facto unlocking the bond between land and sea that the Dublin system had created.26 In other words, the “high tide” of assistance at sea within MN was predicated on the “low tide” of assistance on land.

This practice was not without consequences and caused ripple effects across the EU. As it had already happened following the arrival of Tunisians in 2011, intra-Schengen border checks were re-instated at the main points used by migrants to exit Italian territory towards other EU countries. In places like Ventimiglia,27 Chiasso,28 and the Brenner Pass,29 renewed border checks, which in particular blocked “black” passengers, stirred a wave of protests from migrants and activists. While northern European states vocally deplored Italy’s lax attitude, claiming that Italian authorities were in contravention with EU regulations and unduly exporting the strain on their asylum system to their European partners,30 the Italian government retorted that migration was a “European problem” and that Rome could not bear alone the “burden” of providing for all the migrants who reached the Italian coasts. At stake in this tug-of-war was essentially the attempt by EU institutions and northern states to reverse the tide on land and sea: ending assistance at sea and forcing Italy to reinstate orderly assistance on firm land. EU politicians such as the UK Foreign Office Minister Lady Anelay echoed the Italian far-right in denouncing MN as a “pull factor” for people to cross the Mediterranean, thereby justifying her government’s refusal to fund the continuation of the operation.31 The European Commission pledged to foster a more limited European engagement in the central Mediterranean with a new Frontex operation that would be called Triton. On land, Italy was further pressured to step up its fingerprinting efforts and reinstate the processing of asylum applications.32 During its EU presidency, Italy demonstrated its diligence, taking the lead in an EU-wide policing operation labelled Mos Maiorum in mid-October.33 In late October, a few days before the beginning of the Triton operation and the simultaneous phasing out of Mare Nostrum, a circular by the Italian Ministry of Interior was leaked that requested local police forces to use “renewed care” in identification procedures, even if such a procedure required the use of force.34 Finally, Italy took on a leading role in seeking to re-establish control over migration before the crossing of the sea, in particular through the “Khartoum Process” which was initiated through a high-level meeting between the EU and 28 African states in November 2014 and was dedicated to managing the movements of migrants coming from the Horn of Africa.35 This messy sequence of informal practices and EU wide negotiations demonstrates once again the inextricable link between the politics of migration on land and sea. Italy had challenged this link with operation MN and other EU member-states and institutions desperately sought to re-establish it. 2014 thus saw a phase of rapid tidal change in the politics of bordering and (non-)assistance across land and sea. 2015 would prove even more volatile, leading to contradictory currents and increased turbulence which would prove deadly for migrants.

From January to April 2015: The Retreat of State-Led Assistance at Sea and the Privatization of Rescue

The phasing out of Mare Nostrum in November 2014 and the beginning of the far more limited Frontex-led Triton operation36 was unanimously criticised by several human rights organisations who predicted that the change would not lead to fewer crossings but rather to more deaths.37 United Nations Rapporteur on Migrants Rights, François Crépeau, denounced the logic of ending rescue at sea on the grounds that it constituted a pull-factor amounting to using deaths at sea as a deterrent.38 To this criticism, the European Commissioner Malmstrom as well as Frontex officials39 responded on several occasions that Triton should not be considered a replacement of MN as it had radically different operational aims and means. Triton had a much smaller budget – initially 2.9 million euros per month – and fewer available assets which were patrolling a smaller area extending up to thirty nautical miles from Lampedusa.40 Moreover, the aim of Triton was border control and not rescue at sea, and it thus involved a very different spatial and operational logic: instead of proactively patrolling the waters immediately off the Libyan coast as assets within MN had, SAR activities were now only to be operated as a secondary outcome of its border patrols, and Frontex assets would only be deployed towards SAR operations if they were called upon to do so by the Italian Coast Guard. If MN signalled the flowing of state sovereignty at sea, Triton signalled its tactical retreat, the rapid ebbing of assistance at sea. Comparing the zone in which most rescues were conducted in 2014 as indicated on the map above with the patrol zone of Frontex’s Triton operation indicated in the animated map below, one could only be left wondering about the fate of all the migrants’ boats that would soon encounter situations of distress in this zone but risked being left unassisted.41

An animated map of bordering and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean between 2013 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography)

In the first five months of 2015, the considerable gap in rescue capabilities left by MN’s (non-)replacement by Triton was partially filled by the massive recourse to shipping vessels as the agents of rescue operations.42 The commercial shipping community had already emerged as a crucial actor during MN, when it started to be involved in rescue operations on an unprecedented level43 but with the ending of Mare Nostrum, it took on an even more prominent role: of the 39,250 people rescued by May 20, 2015, 11,954 were rescued by cargo ships. This represented 30% of the total of the rescued people, thus making the shipping industry the first actor operating rescue in the central Mediterranean. Long opposed and criminalized as part of the politics of non-assistance, the “privatisation” of rescue activities was now not only encouraged but was actively called upon by the Italian Coast Guard. The latter, however, as established by the international legislation on Search and Rescue, still maintained the full control and coordination of SAR operations even in these cases of rescue by proxy. As a result, the scope of state intervention was not diminished, since the Italian Coast Guard actually extended its “SAR capabilities.” In fact, instead of the “privatisation” of rescue, we might speak in this instance just as adequately of the temporary “nationalisation of commercial shipping” to operate SAR.44 This development confirms Sasskia Sassen’s argument that “privatisation” should not be equated with a simple withdrawal of the state from its various regulatory functions, but rather understood as its “repositioning […] in a broader field of power” (Sassen 2002: 173-4). While commercial vessels have contributed to saving thousands of people, their involvement has also posed serious challenges in terms of safety. Commercial ships are not designed to safely approach boats that are much smaller, overcrowded and unstable. Furthermore, they often have a very limited crew, who are not specifically trained nor equipped to carry out the extremely perilous operations necessary to rescue an overcrowded boat on the open seas. As such, and without diminishing the importance of the efforts of the shipping community, it is not surprising that their massive involvement in rescue operations contributed to the two April 2015 shipwrecks, the largest to have occurred in the Mediterranean in recent history.

Map of AIS tracks of vessels surrounding the location of the April 12 2015 shipwreck (DC) off the coast of Libya, in which more than 400 people died. The frantic tangle of AIS ships’ tracks visualized above, typical of this kind of operation, offers a powerful trace of the dramatic moments of search and rescue and points to the disruption of commercial traffic. GIS analysis: Rossana Padeletti for Forensic Oceanography.
Map of AIS tracks of vessels surrounding the location of the April 12 2015 shipwreck (DC) off the coast of Libya, in which more than 400 people died. The frantic tangle of AIS ships’ tracks visualized above, typical of this kind of operation, offers a powerful trace of the dramatic moments of search and rescue and points to the disruption of commercial traffic. GIS analysis: Rossana Padeletti for Forensic Oceanography.

On April 12, 2015, around 4 in the afternoon, over 400 people died while several tug boats were directing themselves to rescue the passengers in distress. According to the survivors, the boat capsized when people onboard panicked while the tug boats were approaching them (the Asso 21 and 24, and OC Jaguar around 4 PM). Barely a week after, on April 18, 2015, over 800 people died in a shipwreck that occurred while the King Jacob, a 147m long cargo ship, was directing itself to rescue the passengers in distress. According to the testimonies we have collected, the boat driver rammed into the cargo ship when the latter turned on its spotlights.45 While we are currently investigating these cases further, it is clear that despite their intentions, the commercial vessels became not merely involved in the rescue efforts, but in the sequence of events that led to the situation of distress and ultimately death of the migrants. Stuck between the shifting practices of smugglers whose operational mode had been adapted to the presence of MN on the one hand, and the EU policy makers’ reluctance to provide assistance at sea on the other, the excessive mobilisation of private vessels for rescue operations led to assistance becoming deadly. In the process, it is as if the two “layers of sea” that had been held separate by the EU’s hierarchical mobility regime and the politics of non-assistance – the first smooth and speedy for privileged passengers and the goods transported by the shipping industry; the second slow and deadly for the “undesirables” of the earth (Agier 2011) – had collapsed into one another again, violently rubbing against each other. As a result, the zigzag movements of commercial ships operating rescue, captured as they were by automatic vessel tracking systems, increasingly came to resemble those of migrants.

The ebbing of assistance at sea resulting from the suspension of MN and its (non)replacement by Triton was thus a murderous policy, which was implemented with full knowledge of the deadly effects it would produce. The data on arrivals, crossing and deaths at sea for the first four months of 2015 tragically confirmed the predictions of human rights organisations: while in the first four months of 2014, more than 26,000 had crossed and 50 deaths had been recorded, in the same period of 2015 an almost identical number of crossings had occurred, but the number deaths had increased to 1,687. The probability of dying at sea had thus increased 30 fold, jumping from less than 2 deaths in 1000 crossings to 60 in 1000 (see statistical annex). Contrary to the claims of EU politicians who saw MN as a “pull factor,” ending MN did not lead to fewer crossings, but to more deaths at sea and a higher mortality rate. Regardless of whether the “high tide” of MN had proven untenable, what is clear is that the “low tide” of Triton and its spectacularly deadly consequences could not be maintained within the regime of the “humanitarian border.” Thus, exposed to the ensuing protests of activist groups and non-governmental organisations, and desperate to resolve the contradictions between its own conflicting imperatives, the EU border regime of (non)assistance and control on land and sea took yet again another direction.

Post-April 2015 Shipwrecks: the De-Coupling of Humanitarian and Security Logics and the “Troikasation” of Migration Management

Like the twin October 2013 shipwrecks, the twin April 2015 shipwrecks signalled another wave of impressive shifts in rescue and bordering practices. A first impressive shift has been the dramatic decrease in the rate of mobilisation of commercial ships for the purpose of rescue operations: the number of people rescued by commercial ships went from 14,796 in the first six months of 2015, to only 705 more in the following six (Italian Coast Guard data, see annex). Clearly, other actors stepped in to fill the gap in rescue capability still left open after the end of MN. First of all, Frontex’s Triton operation was impressively expanded. On May 13, 2015, the European Commission declared that “search and rescue efforts will be stepped up to restore the level of intervention provided under the former Italian ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation.” On May 26, Frontex adopted a new operational plan for Operation Triton, with an increased budget, additional assets and an expanded operational area from 30 up to 138 nautical miles south of Lampedusa, almost reaching the extent that had been covered earlier by MN.46 The expansion of Frontex’s operation in the central Mediterranean in the aftermath of the April shipwrecks can be seen as an implicit admission of guilt by the EU for its deadly policy of retreat.47 Nevertheless, Triton did not become a Europeanised Mare Nostrum overnight. Triton remained first and foremost a border control mission, and rescue continues to be a by-product of this primary mission. As such, Frontex assets continued to not be proactively positioned close to the Libyan coast. Furthermore, the situation in 2015 was markedly different in that the extension of Triton was accompanied by the deployment of other novel operations at sea: the military EUNAVFOR MED operation on the one hand, and non-governmental rescue vessels on the other.

EUNAVFOR MED emerged as the answer to the dilemma that the EU policy makers faced in the aftermath of the April shipwrecks: how not to save migrants – which would allow them to enter EU territory in great numbers at a time of economic downturn – without letting them die – which is untenable in the face of public opinion? The essential outlines of the answer to this apparently unresolvable question were provided on April 22, 2015 by the Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi, in a New York Times OP-ED. The culprits for the unprecedented loss of lives in the Mediterranean, Renzi wrote, were the ruthless Libyan “traffickers” – not smugglers48– the “slave traders of the 21st century.” In order to stop shipwrecks, then, their vessels should be put “out of operation” and those who operate them “brought to justice.”49 While this line of argument of course totally confuses causes and effects, ignoring the fact that it is the very migration regime that forces migrants to resort to traders in the commerce of illegalised passage in the first place, it quickly attracted the consensus of EU policy makers.50 The very same day that Renzi’s article went to press, the EU Council committed to fulfilling these objectives and a project for an EU-wide military operation targeting “traffickers” was formulated.51 In the following weeks, it was further defined according to three operational phases, ranging from surveillance activities, interception and destruction of vessels used for smuggling on the high seas, to direct military action against smugglers inside Libyan territorial waters.52 From the formal beginning of EUNAVFOR MED on June 22, 2015, the mission’s command started coordinating the several military vessels that had been deployed by different states in a more or less chaotic manner in the immediate aftermath of the April shipwrecks.53 With at least five planes and four ships, deployed by twenty-two different countries on a rotational basis close to the Libyan cost, EUNAVFOR MED came to reconstitute the naval force that the end of MN had left vacant.54 This time, however, rather than a “humanitarian and military” operation similar to MN, at work was “a police operation with military means,” as Rear admiral Hervé Bléjean, the Deputy Operation Commander in the Mediterranean, describes it; “the adversaries,” he contends, “are not combatants but criminals, and the aim is not to eliminate them but to bring them to justice.”55 Saving the lives of migrants has been far from the mission’s operational priority. This was clearly illustrated when it was revealed that the UK’s HMS Entreprise had not rescued a single migrant after almost eight weeks of deployment on intelligence-gathering missions near the Libyan coast.56 While it appears that after the summer more rescue operations were conducted, and by the end of 2015 (six months of activity) 8,500 people had been rescued by assets operating within EUNAVFOR MED,57 this number pales in relation to the rescue operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for example, which in eight months of activity rescued 20,129 people.58

Map indicating Search and Rescue areas (dark blue line), Frontex’s Triton and Poseidon area (red), EU NAVFOR MED’s (salmon), joint area of operations (light blue), and the location of interception and rescue missions near the Libyan coast during August 2015. (JO Triton/MRCC ROME)
Map indicating Search and Rescue areas (dark blue line), Frontex’s Triton and Poseidon area (red), EU NAVFOR MED’s (salmon), joint area of operations (light blue), and the location of interception and rescue missions near the Libyan coast during August 2015. (JO Triton/MRCC ROME)

While the operational priority of providing assistance to migrants at sea was stripped of the mission of state-led operations Triton and EUNAVFOR MED, non-governmental humanitarian actors took the initiative to launch a series of rescue operations, constituting a veritable civilian rescue flotilla (Stierl 2015). Here as well, while the involvement of non-governmental actors at sea was not entirely new (see Cuttitta 2014 and Pezzani 2015), it took on an unprecedented scale. In early April 2015, MSF (Holland) had already announced that it would join the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS, in operation since 2014) to provide medical assistance onboard the Phoenix.59 In the aftermath of the April 18, MSF launched two further rescue missions of its own on-board the boats Bourbon Argos (MSF Belgium) and Dignity I (MSF Spain).60 In May 2015 Seawatch, an independent first-aid and rescue operation initiated by a group of German citizens, sailed to the central Mediterranean. Finally, an additional initiative of this kind called SOS Mediterranée is soon to begin its first rescue mission.61 The main patrolling and rescuing zone of the vessels constituting this civilian flotilla lies immediately outside the Libyan territorial waters, between Tripoli and Zuwara, an area that had been covered by MN. While the civilian rescue activities have remained trapped in the “half-way bridge” conundrum that had already proven its limits in the frame of the MN operation – as their intervention could not prevent migrants from resorting to smugglers in order to reach them – their impact has been impressive on both symbolic and operational levels. Because MSF’s action is associated with medical assistance in a war context, its intervention signalled that both the scale of deaths and the militarisation of borders that lead to them have turned the Mediterranean into a war zone. This war zone, however, is created by the EU member-states and their policies, and as such MSF’s discourse can be described as a “reluctant humanitarianism”: it denounces the retreat and inaction of states that has followed the termination of MN and calls on them to redeploy a large-scale SAR operation immediately. In the absence of such an operation, MSF took it upon itself to intervene where states were failing to do so, all the while (like Seawatch) reiterating that saving migrants in distress at sea could not put an end to deaths as long as the exclusionary EU migration policy remained in place.62 By the end of October 2015, non-governmental vessels had rescued over 18,000 people, accounting for 7.6% of all rescued people (see annex).63 In the process, their operations denied states the monopoly over intervention in, and the monitoring of, the seas, thereby enabling civil society to claim its right to monitor the EU’s maritime frontier. To the list of non-governmental initiatives, one would need to add the land-based initiative WatchTheMed and its Alarm Phone project (to which we have contributed), that might be seen as the maritime control rooms of this civil society flotilla. Together, these nongovernmental endeavours have transformed the ostensibly neutral space of the sea into a political arena in its own right.

In the aftermath of April 2015, we can see that the “high tide” of assistance and bordering has risen again to a level similar to that of MN, but this time, the Janus face of MN, humanitarianism and security, have been split into two: the humanitarian mission is operated by the civilian flotillas and the policing mission by EUNAVFOR MED and Frontex. However, both these faces continue to be bound together, in a “secret solidarity,” to borrow Michel Agier’s terms (2010), as the action of non-governmental humanitarian vessels has become integrated, despite their own agenda, with the militarised activities of states. This is exemplified by the view that has become common after civilian rescue vessels leave the scene of rescue. As those onboard gaze into the distance, they see a cloud of smoke rise from the sea: it’s what’s left of the boat on which rescued migrants had embarked after it has been blown to dust by a military ship nearby. This points to a broader ambivalence of humanitarian practice today, which in the words of Michel Agier, is always at risk of becoming the “left hand of Empire,” healing the wounds wrought by the violence of the right hand, and operating in tandem with a politics of containment aimed at the populations of the global south (Agier 2010).64

After a rescue operation is complete, the migrants’ boat is blown up by a nearby military vessel. (MSF)
After a rescue operation is complete, the migrants’ boat is blown up by a nearby military vessel. (MSF)

The redeployment of the humanitarian border in its de-coupled form following the April shipwrecks has not proven more effective than MN in stopping illegalised migrants from either crossing or dying at sea. While the rescue capacity guaranteed by the civilian flotillas and the re-deployment of state actors did somewhat diminish the danger of crossing in the second half of the year, 2,892 deaths have been recorded by the IOM in the central Mediterranean in 2015. This figure is almost identical to that of 2014, and the mortality rate for both years is also comparable (see annex). Just as the effects of the Britain-led anti-slavery campaigns of the 19th century, the last 25 years of policies of closure and militarization demonstrate that repression of smuggling leads to changes in smuggling systems – the shifting of strategies and routes – rather than in their demise. In the meantime, such policies often increase the dangers for migrants in the process.

In fact, the one and only factor that has so far managed to significantly curb the danger of crossing in 2015 has not been a state or non-state operation at sea, whether aimed at policing the border or at rescuing people. The single event that has managed to make the crossing significantly safer for the first time in the recent history of trans-Mediterranean migration65 has been the migrants’ collective choice to change their route as of May 2015 from the central to the eastern Mediterranean, that is from a longer and much more dangerous route to a much shorter and relatively safer stretch of sea. While 806 deaths have been recorded this year in the eastern Mediterranean as well, this number is proportionally much lower in relation to the 856,723 arrivals in Greece than it would have been in the central Mediterranean, leading to a dramatic decrease in the overall mortality rate for the Mediterranean crossing as a whole from 15% in 2014 to 3.7% in 2015 (see annexe). This is, in relation to the figures that have been calculated to date, the lowest mortality rate in the last 15 years (see Fargues et al. 2015). Certainly, having a better chance of crossing the sea alive does not diminish either the human tragedies for those who do not succeed or the hardships migrants are facing once on land; yet acknowledging the crucial role played by migrants’ collective refusal to risk their lives in the central Mediterranean, and the consequent opening of the Balkan route, challenges a recurrent framing of the current events according to which, as Sandro Mezzadra and Manuela Bojadžijev have argued, “migrants and refugees play a passive role while states, governments, and European institutions are the active agents, called upon to intervene.”66

Beyond considering the changing scenario at sea and its impact on the danger of crossing in the aftermath of the April 2015 shipwrecks, in the scheme we have set for the articulation of land and sea, we must further consider the developments that have occurred on land during the same period. In order to do so, we ask: how has the EU sought to prevent the repetition of the unravelling of the Schengen and Dublin regimes on land which had been caused by the extension of state-led intervention at sea through MN? The ongoing crisis of Dublin and Schengen – both in relation to migrants arriving in Italy, and to the record number of people arriving in Greece since the summer 2015 – suggests, in fact, that the attempt to re-implement what we have called a process of internal externalisation has failed. With this failure, the accusations levelled against southern states of being unable – if not unwilling – to provide the degree of control demanded by the EU and its northern member-states has grown. Faced with this situation, within mostly the same succession of institutional meetings that have allowed for the redeployment of control at sea,67 the EU has sought to re-inscribe control on firm land in a newly negotiated way. In short (see Kasparek’s contribution to this issue for further details), the EU has offered limited relocations of migrants from their first EU country of arrival – now labelled “frontline states” – thereby somewhat lifting the “burden” that Dublin regulations have imposed on them, in exchange for southern and eastern European states’ acceptance to re-instate control. This time, however, supervision of the actual implementation of these measures has been entrusted to EU agencies such as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). The personnel of these agencies have been deployed in higher numbers at the external borders of the EU with the aim of operating inside reception centres – now labelled “hotspots” – so as to ensure that fingerprinting and identification are effectively carried out, and “deserving” asylum seekers – a few of whom will be re-located – are efficiently sorted from “bogus” economic migrants who will be promptly expelled through repatriation agreements.68 In this process, Frontex has gone from allegedly being a police force at the service of any European member state, to the executor of northern states’ will against the incompetence of their southern neighbours. We might refer to this move as the troikaisation of migration control since the increasing interference of the northern European states – in particular Germany, the European Commission and EU agencies – into Greece and Italy’s migration management echoes the highly uneven power relations exercised by the tripartite committee led by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to govern the Greek “debt crisis” and crush the Syriza government in Greece.69 The redrawing of economic and political boundaries at the EU level in the aftermath of the “debt crisis” has here been replicated at the level of migration management (see “Crisis” in Keyword in this issue). After being threatened with being kicked out the Eurozone in the Summer of 2015, at the turn of the year Greece finds itself threatened with forcibly exiting Schengen should it fail to reinstate control on migrants arriving on its shores.70

October 30, 2015: The German President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, accompanied by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, visits the Greek island of Lesvos and the newly created hotspot at Morian. During the visit Schulz stated that he hopes “the Greek authorities here speed up as we need the hotspot as soon as possible [and] in an enlarged way.” (European Parliament Audiovisual Services for Media)
October 30, 2015: The German President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, accompanied by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, visits the Greek island of Lesvos and the newly created hotspot at Morian. During the visit Schulz stated that he hopes “the Greek authorities here speed up as we need the hotspot as soon as possible (and) in an enlarged way.” (European Parliament Audiovisual Services for Media)
In addition to reinforcing the EU’s strategy of internal externalisation, the aim of re-erecting the EU’s outer rim of control has not been abandoned either. While the continuing chaos in the country makes enlisting Libyan cooperation impossible, this is not the case for Turkey, which has emerged as the main country of transit since summer 2015. To persuade the Turkish authorities to crack down on the crossing of illegalised migrants, the EU has offered Turkey 3 billion euros as well as additional assistance for the Syrians refugees who reside there. Moreover, the EU has offered to facilitate access of Turkish nationals to the EU through visa programs, and to resume negotiations over Turkey’s integration to the EU. All the while, the EU has suspended all criticism with respect to the Turkish regime’s treatment of its Kurdish population.71 While it has proven recalcitrant,72 at the end of 2015 Turkey demonstrated efforts to enforce tougher controls in the Aegean Sea. Unsurprisingly, and despite the increasing number of NGOs, activists, and humanitarian actors operating rescue missions in the same area of the Aegean Sea, these efforts have coincided with an increase in the cases of death at sea.73 In addition, the EU Commission has presented a proposal to include Turkey in an EU-wide list of “safe countries” where migrants could be easily deported – a measure that the Greek government has already agreed upon.74 Finally, as we write, Germany has taken command of a NATO operation in the Aegean Sea to “stem illegal trafficking and illegal migration,” thus ushering in a phase of de-coupled military and humanitarian operations that had so-far only characterized the central Mediterranean.75 The re-expansion of control at sea that we have witnessed since April 2015 has thus, this time, been coupled with an attempt – unsuccessful to date – to re-inscribe control on firm land within and around the perimeter of the EU. Under the unabashed command of the EU agenise and northern EU member-states, the present regime constitutes successive rims of humanitarian sorting and militarised bordering practices.


October 3 and 11, 2013. April 12 and 18, 2015. These dates, like those of all the other major shipwrecks that have occurred at the maritime borders of the EU before them, do not simply punctuate the cruel and repetitive history of the EU migration regime. Each of these dates also announces a fundamental shift in the policies, practices and discourses that have continuously redefined this deadly border-zone; they mark the making of the Mediterranean into a laboratory from which new assemblages of territory, authority and rights have emerged at a remarkably fast pace. The October 3 and 11, 2013 shipwrecks triggered a rupture in the politics of non-assistance at sea through the launching of the military-humanitarian Mare Nostrum operation and the simultaneous suspension of assistance provided by the Italian state on firm land. The April 12 and 18, 2015 shipwrecks, instead, tragically revealed the deadly consequences of the EU member-states and institutions’ attempt to reverse the MN regime by shrinking state-led assistance at sea and partially privatizing rescue. In turn, the twin shipwrecks of April ushered in the de-coupling of humanitarian and security logics at sea: the latter were performed through Frontex’s Triton operation and the EUNAVFOR MED operation, and the former through the deployment of an unprecedented non-governmental flotilla for rescue missions.

The ruptures caused by each of these tragic events have thus certainly not remained confined to the space of the sea, but have run deep into the already fragile architecture of the EU and its border regime on land; they have expanded the fissures of a system that seems to have entered a perpetual crisis. While the arrivals of migrants on EU shores grew exponentially during the summer of 2015, northern EU states and EU institutions sought to force southern and eastern EU states to re-erect an inner rim of control through what we have called the troikaisation of migration management, all the while continuing to seek to enlist the cooperation in border control of the “transit” states that migrants en route to the EU cross on their way. Indeed, we can see the volatility of the changes over the last two years as the expression of a regime desperately trying to cope with its own contradictions but never quite managing to resolve them. For one, the humanitarian and securitised migration regime on land and sea is stuck between irreconcilable imperatives: it cannot stop people but it does not want to let them move; it cannot let them die but it doesn’t want to save lives either. Within the current hierarchized and exclusionary migration regime, there will not be any resolution to these contradictions. If we come back to the paradoxical evolution to which we pointed at the onset of this article – namely, that of the shift from deaths by non-assistance to deaths through assistance – we can now say that there is only one way out of these equally deadly options: no assistance, but legal access. It is only when migrants are granted legal access to EU territory, and thus to safe means of transport, that the cycle of death may be brought to an end. Until this happens, the migration regime will continually be forced to adapt to the changes brought about by the unauthorized mobility of migrants and the shocks caused by tragic shipwrecks.

The volatile shifts and the desperate search to re-establish an equilibrium that we have observed in the last few months may also be seen as the throes of an emergent regime. The unstoppable momentum gathered through the collective transgression of borders over the last year combined with the deepening of the rifts opened by the “debt crisis” in the architecture of the EU have in fact produced uncontrollable currents that seem to have brought the EU’s border regime, if not the whole of the Union, to a breaking point. Let’s remember that it took the migrant worker struggles and the oil crisis of the 1970s to bring the post-war guest worker regime to an end. What gradually replaced it was the regime of illegalized migration that has been the durable and structural feature of neoliberal economies of the global north. Similarly, we can reasonably formulate the hypothesis that the current crisis of the EU border regime, in the context of the global economic crisis, may lead to a new migration regime, which will be an inextricable dimension of the new phase of capitalism still in formation. Reasonable as it may be, this hypothesis is tainted with pessimism: historically, every new migration regime, while operating differently than its predecessor, has never ceased to deny the full recognition of migrants’ freedom and equality “before, at and after the border,” to paraphrase the advocates of border control. However, in this time of transition, the power of the current migrant struggles may still leave some room for optimism. For after the so-called “Athens’ spring” was crushed by the brutal reaction of the troika, in July 2015, the collective enactment of freedom of movement distinctive of the “long summer of migration”76 (despite the efforts deployed by governmental agencies to quell it) has become the only spark of hope for a different Europe to emerge – a Europe in which the full recognition of freedom and equality is no longer bounded by race, class and state boundaries. Through their movements and struggles, migrants are fighting to realise this idea of Europe, which led them to risk their lives crossing the sea in the first place.

Statistical Annex and References on next page »

Ebbing and Flowing: The EU’s Shifting Practices of (Non-) Assistance and Bordering in a Time of Crisis

Essay text on previous page

Statistical Annex

Data sources:
Arrivals: UNHCR data based on the agency’s border activities, Ministry of Interior and Police data. Data available at:
Recorded deaths: IOM, collected on the basis of statistical data from governments and other agencies, as well as NGOs and media. Available at:

Central Mediterranean

Migrant arrivals in the central Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (UNHR)
Migrant arrivals in the central Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography based on UNHCR data)
Migrant deaths in the central Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Missing Migrants Project)
Migrant deaths in the central Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography based on IOM data)

Eastern Mediterranean

Migrant arrivals in the eastern Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (UNHR)
Migrant arrivals in the eastern Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography based on UNHCR data)
Migrant deaths in the eastern Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Missing Migrants Project)
Migrant deaths in the eastern Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography based on IOM data)

(2) Migrant mortality rate

A mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths in a particular population per unit of time. To calculate the migrant mortality rate (MMR) which we can understand as a measure of the danger of crossing the sea, we calculate the proportion of migrants dying in relation to number of migrants who initially left (the sum of the live arrivals and deaths at sea). However, because neither all arrivals nor all fatalities are discovered in relation to illegalised migration – a phenomena that operates by definition in a partially hidden way –, the calculation of mortality based on recorded arrivals and deaths is by necessity incomplete (see Carling 2007). Even though at present the Mediterranean is a highly monitored space and we can thus expect most deaths and arrivals to be recorded in the sources we rely on (UNHCR for arrivals and IOM for deaths), to date, no satisfactory solution to this methodological issue has been applied to migrant mortality at sea. As such the mortality rate calculated for this study should be seen as indicative of tendencies of the increasing or decreasing danger of crossing rather than a highly reliable measure. For a synthetic discussion of the different sources of data on deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, see Spijkerboer and Last 2014. For a discussion of the methodological difficulties concerning the calculation of mortality, see Heller 2015.

Annual fatalities, arrivals, and migrant mortality rate (MMR) in areas of the Mediterranean Sea, 2014–2015
Annual fatalities, arrivals, and migrant mortality rate (MMR) in areas of the Mediterranean Sea, 2014–2015
Migrant mortality rates in the central Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Heller and Pezzani)
Migrant mortality rates in the central Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography)
Migrant mortality rates in the eastern Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Heller and Pezzani)
Migrant mortality rates in the eastern Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography)
Migrant mortality rates in the Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Heller and Pezzani)
Migrant mortality rates in the Mediterranean during 2014 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography)

(3) Interception/rescue operations by actor in the central Mediterranean

Data source: Italian Coast Guard

2014 data

Migrants intercepted/rescued by actor in the central Mediterranean, 2014
Migrants intercepted/rescued by actor in the central Mediterranean, 2014

2015 data

Migrants intercepted/rescued by actor in the central Mediterranean, up to May 20, 2015
Migrants intercepted/rescued by actor in the central Mediterranean, up to May 20, 2015
Migrants intercepted/rescued by actor in the central Mediterranean, up to October 26, 2015
Migrants intercepted/rescued by actor in the central Mediterranean, up to October 26, 2015


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Recommended citation: Heller, Charles and Pezzani, Lorenzo. “Ebbing and Flowing: The EU’s Shifting Practices of (Non-)Assistance and Bordering in a Time of Crisis” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Shoreline Visions: Lampedusa

“The wave is the recoil of the stroke and it will be greater or less in proportion as the stroke is greater or less. A wave is never alone but is mingled with as many other waves as there are inequalities on the banks where the wave is produced…Many waves turned in different directions can be created between the surface and the bottom of the same body of water at the same time…all the impressions caused by things striking upon the water can penetrate one another without being destroyed. One wave never penetrates another; but they only recoil from the spot where they strike.” — Leonardo Da Vinci, “Of Waves,” in Notebooks

Father Mussie Zerai

Father Mussie Zerai

Modou Gueye

Modou Gueye

Routes, Corridors, and Spaces of Exception: Governing Migration and Europe

Pedion tou Areos

When arriving in Athens at the beginning of August 2015, I was still thinking about the Euro-crisis and the developments in Greece. Just about a month before, an overwhelming majority of the Greek population had rejected the measures proposed by the EU Commission, and just a few days later, the Syriza-ANEL-government conceded to an agreement, which followed from the notorious marathon-summit in Brussels and which imposed even harsher measures than those rejected by the referendum. The roller-coaster ride of the last six months – from the election victory of Syriza in January 2015 via the preliminary agreement on February 20, when both the Greek state’s finances and the perceived window of opportunity were rapidly shrinking, up to the referendum and the imposition of the third memorandum – had come to a crashing halt. It seemed like an utter defeat of a left and democratic project in, and for Europe. I expected the social movements to be apathetic and paralysed.

Around the 20th of July 2015, some 43 families from Afghanistan and Syria set up camp in Pedion tou Areos park. They had been evicted from the nearby Victoria square, a well-known transit point in Athens for migrants arriving from the Aegean islands who want to organise their onward journey toward Northern Europe. Soon, a bustling solidarity effort by the Greek social movements was under way. The call for donations was met with overwhelming generosity – tents, clothes, and foodstuff of all kinds were donated in huge quantities. Steki Metanaston, the social centre for migrants close to the park, was literally overflowing with donations. In the end, donations were sent by the truckload to the Aegean islands, where every day, hundreds of migrants were arriving from the Turkish coast, and where the Greek state was incapable of providing even the most basic services while the migrants were forced to wait for their registration.

This camp lasted until the 19th of August, when the Ministry of Migration had finally managed to set up an open camp in Eleonas, where all residents of Pedion tou Areos were supposed to be transferred. However, only a minority went with the transfer, while many opted to continue the journey across the Balkans. In the four weeks of Pedion tou Areos, many thousands of migrants – men, women and children alike – must have passed through this ad-hoc structure that was solely upheld by the solidarity of the local population and that enabled many to find a few days of rest, and the necessary contacts before starting to move once again.

This chapter out of the largely unwritten book of the histories of migration is instructive in many ways, as it foreshadows what is now commonly referred to as the European refugee crisis. Since by August, there was already a large, though largely unnoticed movement toward Europe on its way. Even though there were reports about large arrivals of migrants on the Greek islands of the Aegean, like Kos or Lesvos, Europe was still dealing with the fallout of the Euro-crisis and the process that led to the Third Memorandum in Greece. Even the institutions and processes of the European border and migration regime seemed to focus almost exclusively on Italy and the Central Mediterranean. The discussion in Greece, insofar as there was a discussion at all, also assumed a manageable increase in number of migrants. An arrival of 200,000 persons in 2015 was considered an extreme, and rather unlikely, estimate. Throughout the spring, there were occasional reports about migrants passing through Macedonia, but nothing that would suggest a movement of the scale that would begin during and continue after August.

Pedion tou Areos is thus not only representative of the movement of migration already on the way, but also the inability of national and European institutions to forecast, to plan, and to provide for even the most basic necessities and infrastructure. These were important patterns that continued in the following months, which meant that matters were almost exclusively addressed through the solidarity of ordinary people. State and para-state institutions as well as the various NGOs and IGOs in the field were, with a few notable exceptions, absent at first and then late to the scene. Without the efforts of individuals and loosely composed, often ad-hoc groups, there would have been an all-encompassing humanitarian crisis during these last months. Yet it was mostly averted by an effort of solidarity from below. To this end, the European refugee crisis is in fact a crisis of the decade-old attempts of European institutions to control, manage and govern migration on the way to and inside of Europe. Under closer inspection, the European refugee crisis is the crisis of the European border regime – it is a crisis of the Schengen system.1

Refugees burn their life vests in Greece
Syrian refugees burn their floatation vests in Kos, Greece. (Alessandro Penso)

This article explains how the invisible path across the Balkans was first established by these movements of migration, and how it then entered into the European spotlight, and indeed onto the screen of the global public, at the end of August 2015. The transformation of a route into a corridor sheds light not only on new modes of governing migration, but also on Europe writ large. The establishment of the corridor – the proposed declaration of specific parts of Europe’s external borders as “hotspots” and the shift of sovereignty toward centralised European institutions legitimated through these denominations – resemble in many ways the political and technocratic interventions into those states most dramatically affected by the Euro-crisis. The latter was epitomised by the actions of the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). If this is indeed an emerging pattern of government in Europe, then at stake here is not only the continuation of the European project in the face of a renewed wave of nationalisms, but democracy itself – both in and beyond Europe.

The Invisible Path Across the Balkans

Throughout spring and summer 2015, an ever-increasing number of migrants arrived on the Greek islands in the proximity of the Turkish coast, where they were first registered. After their transfer to the Greek mainland, they usually continued their journey toward Macedonia, onward to Serbia, into Hungary, and thus the Schengen mainland. Even though Greece is part of Schengenland, it has the character of a Schengen island since the accession of both Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen had been postponed many times. Furthermore, since Greece had dropped out of the Dublin system2 in 2011, a registration in Greece and a subsequent entry into the European fingerprint database EURODAC was without consequence – that is, under the Dublin rules no deportation to Greece would be triggered. On their way toward Hungary, migrants could count on the “tacit acquiescence” of these countries, as Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani (2016) so aptly put it. The states just above understood that they were not a destination, but rather a mere transit country, and thus chose the strategy of silently accepting, and at times even facilitating this movement.

Macedonia serves as a good example. Confronted with a growing number of migrants transiting the country, in June 2015 the Macedonian state introduced new legislation, which allowed migrants to move freely within Macedonia for 72 hours in order to reach a reception centre where an asylum claim could be made. The Macedonian state introduced a de facto transit visa, and it is highly doubtful that this was not the intended purpose. Frontex’s claim that “this new legislation appears to have also had an impact on the border security as it was used by migrants for transiting the country rather than reaching reception centres” (Frontex 2015b, 18) appears as a rather diplomatic way of paraphrasing what was going on. The rising number of transit migrants through August proved overwhelming for the state’s capacity, however, and on the 20th of August a state of emergency was declared and the border with Greece was temporarily closed. A growing number of migrants were stuck at the border and, soon enough, riots and clashes with the Macedonian police ensued. After two days, the government reversed its position, re-opened the border, and started to provide special trains from the Macedonian-Greek border to the Macedonian-Serbian border.

The Hungarian government was confronted, however, with the fact that it was its responsibility (nominally, under the Dublin regime) to process the vast bulk of asylum applications from migrants that reached Hungary via Serbia. It was therefore in a similar position to Italy and Greece before 2011. Likewise, the situation of migrants there has been deplorable. The government opted for a policy of mass detention in order to create a deterrent effect, there were numerous reports about ill-treatment of migrants by Hungarian police forces, and even recognised refugees suffered from homelessness and unemployment. Their situation was the combined effect of an openly nationalist and racist government, on the one hand, and the lasting marks of the hit that Hungary took with the global financial crisis in 2008, on the other hand, which led to an IMF intervention and a massive devaluation of the Hungarian currency.

In June 2015 the Hungarian government announced that for “technical reasons,” no more returns would be accepted according to the Dublin regime. This announcement had to be revoked the very next day due to considerable pressure, notably from Austria. It is safe to assume that the announcement was a gambit to increase pressure on the EU summit of the 25/26th of June, where asylum and migration policies were the main item on the agenda, including the relocation proposal from the European Commission. At the same time, construction work on a 175 km fence along the border with Serbia had already been announced and was met with massive criticism within the EU. The Hungarian position can thus be summarised as an attempt to avoid becoming the main country receiving returned refugees in the southeastern part of the EU; this was an attempt not only to remove the country from the messiness of migration, but also the EU migration and asylum framework completely.

With the ongoing construction of the fence, a formal adoption of the relocation scheme by the EU, and rising numbers of daily arrivals of migrants in Hungary, the government temporarily bowed and adopted the same position of “tacit complicity.” The Budapest Keleti train station became the unofficial transit point where migrants established contact with the informal economy of assisted migrant mobility and brokered their continued journey toward Germany and Sweden. Official transport in trains or buses was prohibited for migrants since, nominally, they had to remain in Hungary to process asylum claims, which meant they had to resort to this grey economy. Effectively migrants did not have to remain at Keleti station for longer than just a few hours.

Keleti and the March of Hope

It should be noted that until the end of August, this route of migration within Europe went largely unnoticed. It had been established through the practices of migration during spring and steadily rose in size, but for the most part it was a silent or invisible practice. On the 25th of August, however, an internal discussion paper from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) leaked to the press. It stated that the BAMF was considering suspending Dublin for Syrian asylum seekers. Its content quickly spread amongst Syrians and was immediately taken at face value. Despite the German government denying this policy change there was no way of taking it back, and Germany became the number one destination country for migrants in Europe. A mere two days later, the Austrian police discovered 71 corpses of migrants in a lorry parked at a motorway car park south of Vienna. Following the discovery, Austrian police intensified its control of vehicles passing through its territory and at its border with Hungary, which resulted in traffic jams of up to 50 km in length. So while more migrants than ever wanted to reach Germany, the passage was effectively blocked as the smugglers suspended their operations.

Video stills from the documentary "We walk together"
Video stills from “We walk together” (Domokos et al. 2015)

The events of the following days mark the emergence of the so-called “Balkans route” from an invisible practice of migration to a highly visible phenomenon. During the week from August 31st until September 4th, thousands of migrants were left stranded at Keleti train station. The Hungarian government oscillated between either allowing migrants to use trains or suspending all international train connections. Later in the week there was an unsuccessful attempt at luring migrants into detention. The situation at Keleti train station grew dire, as basic support was only provided by a few local organisations. Again, both the government and NGOs were largely absent. In the end, the initiative of migrants to start a march on foot toward the Austrian-Hungarian border resolved the situation. The march toward the West, which quickly became known under the hashtag #marchofhope, progressed relatively fast and soon reached a two-lane motorway. The images of this march will surely find their place in the iconography of this long summer of migration: a line of people formed who, after a week of waiting, reappropriated their own mobility to collectively and defiantly leave Budapest. This is brilliantly captured in the video “We walk together” (Domokos et al. 2015). Under the pressure of these images and with the knowledge that a repressive strategy had failed, Germany and Austria announced that they would open their borders and admit the migrants. In the next days, many thousands of migrants arrived in Germany – not clandestinely, but openly in the central train stations and in the heart of the German cities. There, they were welcomed by many people in scenes that were broadcast around the world (see Kasparek and Speer [2015] for a more detailed account of the events).


Keleti and the #marchofhope mark the turning point of the route across the Balkans. They mark the new role that Germany took on, with Chancellor Merkel famously declaring that “We [i.e. Germany] will manage” the arrival and integration of the migrants. Despite immense pressure, the German government has since refused to close its borders (though border checks were reintroduced) or declare an upper limit to the number of asylum seekers that would be admitted. All this has been publicised and praised globally, and provides an astonishing contrast with the image of Germany’s handling of the Euro-crisis. Chancellor Merkel has continued to stress that there can only be a European answer to the movements of migration.

Indeed, however slowly at first, the European institutions started formulating such an answer. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, seized the moment and made the European refugee crisis the central issue of his “State of the European Union” address on the 9th of September. Furthermore, the Commission was quick to adopt a second implementation package for its European Agenda on Migration and has been taking up new initiatives every month; the negotiations with Turkey and the Valletta summit on Migration3 are only the highest-profile examples of these initiatives.

Over the months of autumn, the route across the Balkans remained largely open, but changed in character. The first change was the completion of the Hungarian fence at the border with Serbia. Soon the movements of migration turned toward Croatia, which at first seemed strangely overtaken by the events and which in the following days organised train transport for the migrants. In a most bizarre turn, migrants were transported to Hungary, where, on an open field behind the border, they had to change trains and were transported to Austria. It was only after the construction of a second fence – this time at the Croatian border – that Hungary ceased to be a transit country for migrants. In turn, migrants left Croatia toward Slovenia, and from there on toward Austria.

Both Croatia and Slovenia had the same experience vis-à-vis migration as Macedonia did before. An initial attempt to close the borders and to contain the migrants did not prove feasible, so both countries instead turned to facilitating the transit of migrants. By October, a highly efficient infrastructure of transit had been established across the Balkans, reaching from the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki to several regional distribution centres in Germany. The main architectural feature is the transit camp, geared towards processing migrants as fast as possible, as well as the connecting lines of transport. By this time it was no longer just a route, but rather a corridor, i.e., a narrow and highly organised mechanism to channel and facilitate the movement of people that only states seem capable of providing. While migrants were still able to travel towards the north, the corridor turned the active movement of people, which had constituted the route in the first place, back into a passive mechanism of being transferred. Migrants didn’t travel the route anymore: they were hurriedly channeled along, no longer having the power to either determine their own movement or their own speed.

One thoroughly consistent testimony from migrants is heard in many places along this corridor. Asked why they do not leave the corridor and pursue an alternative path, the answer is that if you leave the flow, you are lost. Outside the corridor, you are subject to the regime of asylum, detention, and deportation. Only inside the corridor, you are allowed to move. The corridor, stretching across and seemingly connecting many countries, has a constitution of its own. One might characterise it as “extraterritorial” to better capture the different laws and rules that apply within (as opposed to those without). That these rules and laws were written elsewhere goes without saying. The EU border and migration regime did not have the capacity to stop the extraordinary movement of people across its borders, but morphing the route into a confined corridor served to re-establish some kind of control over the movements.

This became clear on the 18th of November, when Slovenia first refused entry to all migrants who did not come from either Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Over the course of the next days, all other countries along the corridor followed suit: first Croatia, then Serbia, and then Macedonia. Since Greece had not established this kind of control over its – arguably more complex – border, the Greek-Macedonian border post near the town of Eidomeni became the point of separation of nationalities. Within a few days, thousands of migrants who were refused entry into the corridor were stuck there, and they started to protest. After about two weeks, the informal camp at Eidomeni was evacuated by the Greek police.

Two observations can be made concerning this transformation of the corridor. The first is that the corridor served to establish a new and unprecedented political space. On the 25th of October, the president of the European Commission invited to Brussels the heads of state of Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia for the so-called Leaders’ Meeting on refugee flows along the Western Balkans Route. According to news reports, the meeting started with mutual accusations but apparently, over the course of the session, some common understanding was forged. This resulted in a 17-point statement (Leaders’ Meeting on refugee flows along the Western Balkans Route 2015). The individual points on information exchange, limiting secondary movements, humanitarian efforts, migration and border management, fighting smuggling, and trafficking are very much boilerplate policy recommendations – such was to be expected. But the mere fact that heads of state of government from within as well outside the EU – countries within Schengen and outside, with EU candidate status and not, etc. – convened in this way is remarkable by itself, both for its high-level composition as well as the heterogeneity of countries involved. Their common affectedness and the new connection of the corridor created an ad-hoc political space, orthogonal to all previously existing spaces, such as the EU, the Schengen Zone, and so on. Despite widespread skepticism following the meeting and expectations that, soon enough, the individual countries involved would again pursue their own strategies of beggar-thy-neighbour, this has not yet happened.

Second, it should be noted that the particular choice of the three countries of origin (Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq) seems to follow less a rationale of asylum than the law of big numbers. For instance, notably absent from this group is Eritrea, which is controlled by a grim dictatorship and is a point of departure for many refugees. The Commission’s relocation proposal, to which we will turn later, focuses on refugees from Syria and Eritrea, since only refugees from these countries have an average asylum recognition rate above 75%. On the other hand, Germany has tried especially hard to declare Afghanistan a safe country so that deportations of Afghan asylum seekers would be allowed. The decision to focus on these three countries seems to be based on the fact that migrants from these places constitute the largest groups in the corridor, with Eritreans usually crossing from Libya to Italy.

In this sense, the corridor represents a space of exception – a space where rules and laws are suspended and a space that is not formally constituted. Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani’s discussion of the shifting character of the Central Mediterranean border since the inception of Mare Nostrum in this issue captures a similar notion. The corridor represents a “half-way bridge to Europe” since in order to enter it, the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea still waits ahead. In the corridor itself, migrants are subjected to a different legal regime that suspends some of their rights. Their access to an asylum system that could guarantee them some kind of status still lies at the very end of the corridor. They move and exist in a legally non-defined state and, as in the case of the exclusion of most nationalities, there is no recourse against such arbitrary decisions.

Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson discuss a similar phenomenon in their recent work “Border as Method” (2013, ch. 7). Under the subheading “Corridors and Channels,” they discuss excisions from national territory, such as special economic zones or free ports. They note that

[t]he strange form of excision, by which states establish such zones and enclaves by removing them from ordinary normative arrangements, allows a plurality of legal orders, labor regimes, patterns of economic development, and even cultural styles to emerge. We argue that these zones [. . .] invert the logic of exception that in recent times many thinkers have used to explain the new forms of securitization epitomized by the camp. Rather than being spaces of legal voidness, they are saturated by competing norms and calculations that overlap and sometimes conflict in unpredictable but also negotiable ways (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013, 208f).

While they discuss established and more permanent zones than the corridor across the Balkans, their argument concerning the character of exception remains notable. It focuses on the productivity of the exception, which is hence characterised not as a voidness of legal norms and regimes, and especially not as arbitrariness in a despotic sense, but rather as the ability to choose from competing orders and to impose new ones. This corresponds precisely with the dubious legality and legitimacy of the emergence and temporary stability of the corridor. It is in this sense that the corridor represents a space of exception, which will characterise the emergence of a new border regime that is rising from the ashes of the old.

Looking Elsewhere Too Late

Writing this essay – after the many months that the European refugee crisis has captured the headlines, just as the Euro-crisis had done before – it is difficult to return to my state of mind back in spring 2015, when the route across the Balkans was still invisible. The question that keeps coming to mind, however, is this: How was it possible that this could even happen, after the EU spent decades building and extending the institutions and mechanisms of the border regime?

To pick but one example: The European border agency Frontex was strikingly absent this summer. Despite its supposedly sophisticated Risk Analysis Unit, charged with forecasting changes in migratory patterns, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the agency has failed to even come close to estimating the events of 2015. The Annual Risk Analysis 2015 (Frontex 2015a), published in April 2015, still mostly focuses on the Central Mediterranean. Even with the events I just sketched out above, the agency remained silent and inactive, only to be called upon in late autumn. More generally, during the long summer, all (analytic or reactive) mechanisms of the EU border regime seem to have failed, while Dublin, the corner stone of the European asylum system, was relatively suspended.

But the answer to the question is: the EU border regime was already in trouble in the spring of 2015. The crisis of Schengen, i.e. the appearance of a dis-integrative dynamic in the Schengen process, can be traced back to the events of the Arab Spring of 2011. The overthrow of the dictatorships – first in Tunisia and then Libya – effectively destroyed the Central-Mediterranean border regime, since the delegation and externalisation of the practices of migration containment came to an abrupt end. The arrival of about 30,000 young Tunisians in Italy following the revolution, the ensuing French-Italian border conflict around Ventimiglia, and the subsequent patches to the Schengen Acquis in 2013 are all well documented.

This development coincided with what can be referred to as a democratisation of the border in the sense of Étienne Balibar (1999), albeit on a very basic, or pragmatic level. The by now famous judgment4 in the case of Hirsi Jamaa et al. vs. Italy of January (2012) re-affirmed the legal force of international law – the Geneva refugee convention in this case – even extraterritorialy. To this end, push-back operations at the EU’s external border were outlawed. Without the externalised border in North Africa, and the border included into the realm of international law, a major reversal of border policies of the EU was necessary. Italy’s government’s decision of October 2013 to establish the Mare Nostrum mission and to prioritise the saving of lives over the “defense of the external border” can be hailed as a courageous step. But it can also be seen as the consequence of Hirsi vs. Italy and precisely the emergence of a new approach to governing the borders and migration, where humanitarian and securitarian rationales are not played out against each other, but are amalgamated. After all, the imperative to save human lives, so far leveraged as a critique of the contemporary bordering practices of the EU, can also lend legitimacy to incisive action on behalf of governing migration.

The third development in the crisis dynamics of Schengen is the gradual disintegration of the Dublin system and, with it, the Common European Asylum System. This steady deterioration of the southern European asylum systems within the EU is a consequence not only of uneven geography but, like the Euro-crisis, of the dominance of one economic model prescribed by the North over another practised in the South. The 2008 Pact on Immigration and Asylum,5 brokered by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, cemented the dominance of Asylum as the European political technology to govern migration over the less formalised model of oscillation between illegalisation and collective legalisation in conjunction with employment as practised in the south of the EU. While the construction, agricultural and care sectors of the southern economies were fueled by access to an illegalised and thus a disenfranchised and exploitable labour force, the northern economies depended much less on this approach. Their migration preferences were rather directed toward the figure of the international high-skilled migrant, while an economic need for migration in the lower income sectors could be easily satisfied by the EU’s eastern expansion. Both the creation of the internal market as well as the space of free labour mobility benefitted the export-oriented economies of the north. With the ban on collective legalisation, the rapidly shrinking capacity of labour markets to absorb immigration, and austerity limiting the resources of the state (not only in the field of asylum, but all social sectors), the Dublin system started to fall apart. It could not guarantee the (from the onset fictional) homogeneity of the European asylum systems.

It was this scenario – the breakdown of the central Mediterranean border regime, failure of Dublin as the internal distribution mechanism for asylum seekers, the emergent divisions within Europe – that the Juncker Commission sought to rectify with its European Agenda on Migration in May 2015 (European Commission 2015a). The history of the Agenda itself details the inability of the current European political process to formulate policy responses in time. After the shipwrecks off the shores of Lampedusa in October 2013, a major overhaul of the EU’s migration and border policies had been promised for summer 2014. The Ukrainian crisis, and the controversial nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as the Commission’s president supplanted these plans. It was only in spring 2015 that the Commission started to adopt the first measures. By that time, the political agenda was dominated by the Italian initiatives Mare Nostrum (and its substitution, the Frontex operation Triton) that re-attempted an externalisation of the border, as well as the rising death toll in the Mediterranean and an anticipated mass arrival of migrants from Libya.

The Agenda is an umbrella for a plethora of initiatives, not all of them new. Its main points can be summarised as Relocation, Resettlement and Europeanisation of the border. Relocation refers to the establishment of a pressure relief valve for the Dublin system, where a quota of asylum seekers from EU member states that are confronted with the arrival of large numbers of migrants (initially Italy and Greece) would be distributed, first voluntarily, then mandatorily, throughout the EU. This scheme was never ambitious. In June the decision to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers was made and, in September, another 120,000. These numbers seem strikingly inadequate given the fact that around 800,000 migrants arrived in Greece in 2015. However, the proposal was controversial enough to produce a split within the European Union, with major eastern EU member-states such as Hungary and Poland refusing to support the scheme. This led to the first ever majority decision in the Justice and Home Affairs council in June 2015. Resettlement – that is, the transferring of refugees from conflict zones directly to the EU – seems equally doomed, given the refusal of many EU member states to opt into such a plan.


The most ambitious and equally controversial proposal of the Commission, however, concerns the reinforced Europeanisation of the border, which aims at regaining control over this space. This proposal was already part of the European Agenda on Migration of May 2015, but has gathered momentum due to the events of last summer. The Commission proposes to temporarily declare certain portions of the European external border “hotspots,” i.e. zones with high levels of activity of irregular migration. While the Commission is unclear about the precise criteria that would trigger the designation, it would clearly trigger a “hotspot approach”:

The aim of the Hotspot approach is to provide a platform for the agencies to intervene, rapidly and in an integrated manner, in frontline Member States when there is a crisis due to specific and disproportionate migratory pressure at their external borders, consisting of mixed migratory flows and the Member State concerned might request support and assistance to better cope with that pressure. The support offered and the duration of assistance to the Member State concerned would depend on its needs and the development of the situation. This is intended to be a flexible tool that can be applied in a tailored manner (Avramopoulos 2015, emphasis added).

The early formulations of the “hotspot” and “hotspot approach” make it very clear that the Commission is planning a highly flexible approach. There is neither mention of specific architectures, nor a concrete elaboration of what agencies are to be deployed and to what ends. The Commission stresses that this designation is a temporary one, and it ends with the crisis or emergency
being resolved.

Curiously, the EU interior ministers have taken a different view on what a “hotspot” means. To them, it is the return of detention infrastructure in a new guise:

setting up of reception and first reception facilities in the frontline Member States, with the active support of Member States’ experts and of EASO, Frontex and Europol to ensure the swift identification, registration and fingerprinting of migrants (“hotspots”) (European Council 2015).

So far, eleven hotspots have been designated, five in Greece and six in Italy. Especially the hotspots in Italy confirm Charles Heller’s and Lorenzo Pezzani’s observation that the scaling up of maritime border operations such as Mare Nostrum and its successor Triton have been accompanied by a scaling down of registration and accommodation efforts on the land, which went hand in hand with the subversion of the Dublin system by the Italian state. The situation is similar in Greece, with EU interior ministers having complained for about a decade that the Greek state is not playing its role in the Dublin procedures. While the “hotspot approach” may use both the language of humanitarianism and support for the “frontline Member States,” it is in fact a massive vote of no confidence concerning the ability, and even willingness of these states to conform to the European rules, as unfair and biased they may be.

Greek refugee hotspots
Identified “hotspots” in Greece as of December 10, 2015 (European Commission 2015b, Annex 4)
Italian refugee hotspots
Identified “hotspots” in Italy as of December 10, 2015 (European Commission 2015b, Annex 5)

With the establishment of the hotspots, this raises important questions about their legitimacy and their internal mechanisms. The concept of the “hotspot” refers to the slight democratisation of the borders that Hirsi vs. Italy brought about; the concept legitimizes it through a humanitarian guise. The initial concept of “hotspots” takes a shortcut and avoids these issues since, nominally, all actions taken in “hotspots” are to be carried out by national officials, thus leaving national sovereignty in these matters intact. The intervention of the European institutions and agencies is supposed to merely consist of an advisory role.

Here again, the specific modes of European government in the Euro-crisis come to mind, where nominal advisory bodies such as the Troika were in fact writing laws and policies to be adopted, and that were only formally, in haste and without proper deliberation, voted into power by the national parliaments. While in May the “hotspot approach” was still predicated on a request of the respective member state, the December EU summit called for a mechanism to deploy these institutions; additionally, it called for a yet to be created European Border and Coast Guard (European Commission 2015c), even against the will of the affected member state. The Commission explicitly spoke of a “shared responsibility” for managing the external borders of the EU.

Governing Europe and Migration

That this is not a fictional scenario became quite clear during the run-up to the December EU summit, when substantial rumors circulated that the EU was preparing steps to exclude Greece from the Schengen zone of passport-free travel unless the country was willing to accept the extended deployment of Frontex at its borders (Fotiadis 2015). Of course this threat eerily resembles the threats of a Grexit, i.e. the exit of Greece from the Eurozone, which was used as leverage this summer to ultimately force through the Third Memorandum.

Thus emerges a new pattern of governing Europe: in ever more policy fields, a declaration of a crisis, of an emergency, legitimates the intervention of European institutions, be it the Troika in the case of the Euro-crisis, or Frontex in the case of the “refugee crisis.” We should note, however, that this is not simply a new chapter in the discussion about the “United States of Europe.” European intervention is now always described as temporary, and confined, and to last only until normalcy is restored. The mechanisms employed are those of the state of exception, though they are always confined to specific and limited spaces. The many quick fixes and patches that already characterise the EU border regime threaten to become the ubiquitous modus operandi of government in the EU. If this is an emerging governmental pattern, it is sidestepping the necessary but long neglected debate concerning the democratic legitimacy of the measures taken.

The parallels between the Euro-crisis and the “refugee crisis” offer insight into the particular and curious case of Germany’s political stances over the course of 2015. Chancellor Merkel has been globally lauded for her seemingly pro-refugee stance, and she has continued to defend it, time and again, against critics both within her conservative party and from other parties. However, this cannot be attributed to a change in policy, since the current German government had already implemented the most severe restrictions on asylum of the last 20 years, and it plans to continue to do so in the near future. Merkel’s steadfast refusal to declare an upper-limit of admitted asylum seekers in Germany per year – a particularly popular demand even in her own party – mirrors the statement of ECB president Mario Draghi during the Euro-crisis. In June 2012 Draghi declared that the ECB was prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. Just as central banks constitute the so-called Lender of Last Resort, Germany has – this summer – taken on the role of Refugee-Receptor of Last Resort. This statement is not intended as praise. It simply means that the possibility of an implosion of the European project is very real; it may merely hinge on the question of whether Germany closes its border or not. For this action would trigger a chain reaction of EU member states adopting the Hungarian model.

The migrations of this summer have exposed the coercion and contradictions at the core of the European project. It seems as if we are confronted with the false choice between either a Europe that would return to the nationalisms of the past or a more centralised EU-architecture that would wield substantial powers of intervention. Neither can be seen as acceptable, lest we overlook the necessity of far-reaching democratization – not only of the borders, but also of the European project writ large.


Avramopoulos, Dimitris. 2015. “Annex I: Explanatory Note on the ‘Hotspot’ Approach.”
Balibar, Étienne. 1999. “Le Droit de Cité Ou L’apartheid?” In Sans-Papiers: L’archaïsme Fatal, edited by Étienne Balibar, Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, and Emmanuel Terray. Sur Le Vif. Découverte.
Domokos, John, Mustafa Khalili, Richard Sprenger, and Noah Payne-Frank. 2015. “We Walk Together: A Syrian Family’s Journey to the Heart of Europe.”
European Commission. 2015a. “A European Agenda on Migration. COM(2015) 240 Final.”
———. 2015b. “Managing the Refugee Crisis: State of Play of the Implementation of the Priority Actions Under the European Agenda on Migration. COM (2015) 510 Final,” 14 Oct.
———. 2015c. “Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European Border and Coast Guard. COM (2015) 671 Final.”
European Council. 2015. “European Council Meeting (25 and 26 June 2015) – Conclusions. EUCO 22/15.”
European Court of Human Rights. 2012. “Case of Hirsi Jamaa and Others V. Italy. Application No. 27765/09.”
Fotiadis, Apostolis. 2015. “Kicking Greece Out of Schengen Won’t Stop the Refugee Crisis.”–greece-schengen-
Frontex. 2015a. “Annual Risk Analysis 2015.”
———. 2015b. “Western Balkans Quarterly. Quarter 2, April – June 2015.”
Heller, Charles, and Lorenzo Pezzani. 2016. “Ebbing and Flowing. The EU’s Shifting Practices of (Non-)Assistance and Bordering Across Land and Sea.”
Kasparek, Bernd. 2015. “Complementing Schengen: The Dublin System and the European Border and Migration Regime.” In Migration Policy and Practice: Interventions and Solutions, edited by Harald Bauder and Christian Matheis. Palgrave Macmillan.
Kasparek, Bernd, and Marc Speer. 2015. “Of Hope. Hungary and the Long Summer of Migration.”
Leaders’ Meeting on refugee flows along the Western Balkans Route. 2015. “Leaders’ Statement.”
Mezzadra, Sandro, and Brett Neilson. 2013. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. Duke University Press.

Recommended citation: Kasparek, Bernd. “Routes, Corridors, and Spaces of Exception: Governing Migration and Europe.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Passage Through the Balkans

In 2015, thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, including children, took up the long journey through the Balkans in the hope of finding safety in Europe.

The movement of people on the Balkans route has put the European political stability around the issue of asylum application and reception at risk. The situation prompted Amnesty International to declare in July that “Serbia and Macedonia have become a sink for the overflow of refugees and migrants that nobody in the EU seems willing to receive.” Hungary, with its anti-immigration policies, has invested more than 100 million euros in blocking entry of refugees and migrants on the Balkans route. In mid-September Hungary completed a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia and introduced strict border-control measures prohibiting illegal entrance to the country. In so doing, Hungary set off a domino effect which lead thousands of people shift towards the Serbian border with Croatia in a desperate search for another way into the heart of Europe. However, Croatia also struggled to deal with the flows, and Europe was once again faced with its inability to find a solution and safe passage for thousands of people fleeing war and persecution.

These images were taken on September 15, 2015, on the Balkans route and as Hungary closed its border to the refugees.

Also by Alessandro Penso: “Onboard the Bourbon Argos

Recommended citation: Penso, Alessandro. “Passage Through the Balkans.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Eastern Europe, the Moral Subject of the Migration/Refugee Crisis, and Political Futures

The recent sequence of crisis in/of Europe suggests that every crisis produces Europeanness anew.1 In the midst of the sovereign debt crisis in Greece in the summer of 2015, now so powerfully overshadowed by the migration/refugee crisis, Greek Europeanness came to be questioned, because Greece refused to behave like a responsible economic subject.2 Instead of willingly tightening belts, cutting the state budget and restructuring debt, Greece’s left-leaning politicians and citizens protested the austerity measures proposed by European and international financial institutions. The measure of Europeanness that emerged in the midst of the crisis was not formal membership in European political institutions, but morally infused economic conduct.

A line forms at a crowded refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece
Crowded refugee camps in Lesbos, Greece provide the only legal means to travel further in the European Union, but little more. (Alessandro Penso)

Besides positing a juxtaposition between failed Europeans, exemplified by Greece, and proper Europeans, exemplified by Germany, the Greek sovereign debt crisis also opened the opportunity for not-quite-Europeans, such as Eastern European states and peoples, to assert their Europeanness. For example, following its own financial crisis of 2008, Latvia emerged as an exemplary economic and European subject, because the government led by Valdis Dombrovskis implemented severe austerity measures. Several years later, in the context of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, Latvia reasserted this hard-fought Europeanness, when politicians, civil servants, intellectuals and members of the general public converged in aggressive criticism of Greek irresponsibility and lack of willingness to ‘play by the rules.’

However, this hard-fought Europeanness was fragile. It dissipated in the midst of Europe’s migration/refugee crisis, when it was Eastern Europeans, including Latvians, who emerged as rogue subjects refusing to “play by the rules.” When it was recognized in public and political discourse across Europe that a crisis was afoot and that something had to be done to cope with the large numbers of migrants/refugees trying to enter Europe through Greece, Italy, and Hungary, many of them dying en route, the European Commission proposed refugee quotas to distribute the burden between the European Union member states. Most Eastern European member states opposed refugee quotas. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia agreed to voluntarily take in small numbers of refugees. Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland announced that they would only take Christian refugees, while Hungary mobilized troops, prisoners and the unemployed to rapidly build a fence on its border with Serbia (Koranyi 2015).

After the quota plan was approved in the European Parliament in September 2015, envisaging the resettlement of 120,000 refugees within the next two years, the government of Slovakia threatened to contest the decision in court. Following the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, Poland, which had initially supported the plan, refused to carry it out. The President of Latvia, in turn, stated that Latvia will not accept any more refugees until Europe’s border security can be assured.3

In contrast with older European Union member states, Eastern European states did not have significant numbers of residents with Middle Eastern, African or Asian background and were determined to keep it that way. There were protests in many Eastern European cities against accepting refugees. Arguments against accepting refugees that came forth from Eastern European member states voiced concerns about cultural incompatibility, racial and religious difference, security threats, inability to distinguish genuine refugees from economic migrants, negative experience with integration in other European Union member states and localities, lasting socialist legacies of population resettlement that continued to undermine post-socialist polities, poor economies, impoverished populations and imposed solidarity by Europe that invoked memories of directives from Moscow. The left and liberal print and online media on both sides of the Atlantic and within Western and Eastern Europe filled with commentaries that accused Eastern Europeans of lacking compassion and tried to shame them into moral maturity and, by extension, agreeable politics.4

Despite historical and political differences between Eastern European member states, Eastern Europe emerged as an ideal type – an unsympathetic not-quite-European subject mired in racialized paranoia about foreigners, exaggerated concerns about self-determination and self-preservation, and timeworn claims of historical suffering. Different pasts and presents were obfuscated by a moralizing discourse. Disagreeable politics and attitudes were traced to moral failures, which amounted to failed Europeanness. The failed Europeanness of Eastern Europe was juxtaposed to Europe proper, once again exemplified and led by Germany, and thus the moral goodness of Europe was reasserted.5 This goodness was characterized by compassion as a political virtue that demands and legitimates emergency humanitarian measures, which, as Didier Fassin (2001) has argued, go hand-in-hand with the increasingly repressive European migration regimes.

In these preliminary reflections on an emerging situation, I analyze the call for compassion directed at Eastern Europe in relation to public reasoning about the migration/refugee crisis in one Eastern European member state, namely Latvia. I do not take Latvia to stand for the ideal-type subject of Eastern Europe, nor am I interested in tracing its historical difference from this ideal type. Rather, I treat the Latvian case as a dynamic set of arguments through which to analyze the construction of the morally deficient Eastern European subject, as well as the limits of liberal politics of compassion.

I argue – along with other critics of compassion as a political virtue (e.g. Ticktin 2011, Fassin 2001, 2011) – that humanitarian politics enable and reproduce Europe’s migration regimes and that the accusation of Eastern Europe as lacking compassion is yet another manifestation of Europe’s civilizing mission.6 However, I attempt to go further and ask whether more subversive articulations of politics as ethics open alternative ways for thinking about the migration/refugee crisis and political futures in Europe.7

In this essay, I draw on the articulation of “diasporic ethics” and “ethics of cohabitation” in the work of Judith Butler (2015, 2013). These articulations of politics as ethics question hegemonic forms of power that strive for certainty by embracing the uncertainty of living with others as generative of other futures without giving these futures concrete form. However, it seems that in the current historical moment the certainty that modern political forms, such as the nation-state, strive for is becoming more elusive than ever. For example, Wendy Brown (2010) has argued that political sovereignty is becoming detached from the nation-state even as many nation-states are building walls around or through them. Dimitris Papadapoulos, Niamh Stephenson and Vassilis Tsianos (2008) have suggested that it is not nation-states that govern today, but rather multi-scalar “governing aggregates.” Ivan Krastev (2015), in turn, has argued that representative democracy is in crisis and that this is evident when people in squares around the world do not articulate political demands or offer solutions, but rather assert that “the people exists and is angry.” In conditions when sovereignty, governance and politics are in an increasingly uncertain relationship with modern political forms, there is a pressing need to link thinking about politics as ethics with thinking about concrete forms that other political futures can take.

Becoming Compassionate, Becoming European

Compassion deployed in the context of the migration/refugee crisis is not a “private sentiment” (Arendt 1990, Canovan 1992). It is a political virtue expected to extend to kin and strangers alike. However, according to Hannah Arendt, the private sentiment of compassion risks turning into pity when brought into the public arena, thus preventing engagement with fellow “men” [sic] as political equals (Arendt 1990). Compassion as a political virtue – not unlike tolerance as a political virtue – does not posit such equality (Brown 2006, Dzenovska n.d.). Instead, it posits a hierarchical relationship between the subjects and objects of compassion. Public compassion is about both proximity and distance. It can be extended to strangers (“they are almost like us!”) and to the members of a marginalized group (“they are not really like us!”).

Compassion as a political virtue has been widely criticized.8 In the last decade, scholars such as Miriam Ticktin (2011) and Didier Fassin (2001, 2011), among others, have analyzed compassion as an apolitical sentiment deployed within a humanitarian framework that mitigates, but does not challenge the increasingly repressive state migration regimes. States continue to categorize people on the move as economic migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants with different sets of rights and protections – or lack thereof – attached to each category. The deserving few are allowed to stay, while others are to be deported. Compassion-fueled humanitarianism mitigates this sorting of humans by allowing some of those who would otherwise be deported to stay, because they require medical care (Ticktin 2011), and treating the others humanely and with compassion, as their deportation is arranged (Hall 2012).

Miriam Ticktin (2011) has pointed out that the politics of humanitarian care requires that the deserving subject – the one to be protected rather than deported – be recognizably vulnerable and suffering. As Ticktin writes, “the imagined suffering body is a victim without a perpetrator – a sufferer, pure and simple, caught in a moment of urgent need. No one is responsible for her suffering; those who act to save her do so from the goodness of their hearts, out of moral obligation” (2011: 11). The centrality of the suffering body for the politics of compassion in the context of the migration/refugee crisis is well evident in the public outrage in both Western and Eastern Europe. The public is scandalized that the refugees coming to Europe have iPhones, that they are not sufficiently grateful for food and clothing, and that they are largely strong young men. Where are the vulnerable women and children, the proper object of European compassion?9 Insofar as the deserving refugee is supposed to be vulnerable or suffering, he/she remains in the subordinated position of an object of compassion. Overcoming vulnerability and suffering, in this context, risks withdrawal of protection, yet it is necessary if one is to become a political equal rather than remain a human in need.

In the context of the migration/refugee crisis, it is not only refugees, but also the Eastern European subject that is caught up in this dilemma. For example, after the collapse of Soviet socialism, Latvia and other former Soviet republics-cum-European Union member states, demanded recognition that the injury inflicted upon them by the Stalinist regime, such as mass deportations and killings of those deemed suspect by the regime, was equivalent to crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime. This injury was thought to have affected not only concrete individuals and their families, but also the nation, insofar as its numbers were depleted and about 1.5 million migrants from other Soviet republics were brought in. In the Latvian national imaginary, this was a deliberate Soviet policy aimed at “mixing populations” in order to create Soviet people out of national subjects. About half of the Soviet-era incomers remained living in Latvia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is often noted that the proportion of Latvians in pre-World War II Latvia was 77%, whereas in 1989, on the cusp of independence, it was only 52%.10

Recognition of this injury in the international arena was not sought solely for symbolic purposes, but also to legitimate domestic policies aimed at mitigating it. Latvia, restored in the post-Soviet period as a national state, that is, as a state established for the purpose of ensuring the flourishing of the cultural and historical community of Latvians, has long used this particular argument to justify restrictive language and citizenship policies directed at its Russian–speaking residents, many of whom arrived during the Soviet period and stayed after the collapse of the Soviet state. In the national imaginary, the presence of Russian-speakers in Latvia is a continuous reminder of the historical injury to the nation and a threat to its present and future. It is this sense of embattlement that informs current debates about migration in Latvia, including debates about the migration/refugee crisis.11

While this narrative of historical injury has enabled political claims, it has also produced Latvia – and other Eastern European states making resonant, if different claims – as not-yet European. In the context of the migration/refugee crisis, Latvia is expected to show compassion towards the suffering of others – the refugees – rather than claim that it cannot do so because of its own injurious pasts’ claim on the present and the future. Insofar as it is unable or refuses to do so, it is perceived as post-socialist and not European. But how is one to become European? Judging from the commentaries directed at Eastern Europe, it means leaving the past behind, while at the same time learning from it. The past has to be left behind in the sense of ceasing to make political claims on the basis of historical injury. At the same time, one must learn from the historical experience of victimhood and/or complicity with crimes against humanity that Europe embraces as its painful heritage.

For example, those commenting on Eastern European reactions to the migration/refugee crisis asked whether Eastern Europeans have no shame, refusing to accept refugees when thousands of their compatriots benefited from the kindness of others during the long 20th century (e.g. Hockenos 2015, Sabet-Parry 2015, Gross 2015). Examples provided of such acts of kindness include states in Europe, North America and Australia taking in post-World War II refugees fleeing the Soviet regime or refugees fleeing the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring or the Polish Solidarity movement. Overlooking the fact that some of these acts of kindness were entangled with an often-racialized sorting of people into fit/unfit or deserving/undeserving objects of kindness (e.g. McDowell 2005), these commentators wondered why Eastern Europeans could not see the irony in refusing assistance to those in need when they had received it themselves.

Becoming European in the context of the migration/refugee crisis means properly locating oneself in the post-World War II and post-Cold War terrain of suffering and compassion. A mature European subject is thought to be compassionate and extend assistance towards less fortunate others rather than privilege one’s own historical suffering. And yet, regardless of what one thinks of the asylum and immigration politics of Eastern European member states and of the attitudes of their citizens, requiring that they remake themselves from suffering into compassionate subjects is a move that needs to be carefully rethought. It is hardly the case that Eastern Europeans are less human in their capacity for compassion than their Western European counterparts. The difference seems to lie in the fact that they either do not use the sentiment of compassion as a basis for politics or limit its application to a particular nation, race or religion. Perhaps the difference that has emerged between Eastern and Western Europe in the context of the migration/refugee crisis opens an opportunity to understand and address the consequences of the political mobilization of compassion rather than its reassertion.

The Limits of Virtue

In Latvia, arguments against accepting refugees or for accepting a very limited number of refugees follow familiar tropes: Latvia cannot afford to accept many refugees due to continued legacies of the Soviet nationalities policy, poor economy, impoverished population, cultural incompatibility between the potential incomers and local residents, the evident failure of integration elsewhere in Europe, and more. It is these same arguments that, in an endless feedback loop, are taken as indicative of moral failure – of putting exaggerated and parochial concerns with self-preservation ahead of the moral obligation to prevent human suffering. There is one line of argument, however, that seems to fall out of this feedback loop, and it is that those who support intake of refugees do not have an argument. Let me elaborate with the help of an example.

In December 2015, Nicolas Auzanneau, a French-speaking translator of Latvian literature, published an article in which he challenged Alvis Hermanis, a Latvian theatre director, for siding with reactionary forces and against the forces of progress by equating refugees with the threat of terrorism (Ozano 2015). Auzanneau writes that Hermanis’ position is regrettable, because “we know that it is incomparably better to live in an open society, where there is risk of attack, rather than be stuck in the regime of endless hatred, foolishness, fanaticism and nationalism.” Shortly thereafter, Jānis Buholcs (2015), a lecturer in Vidzemes Augstskola, criticized Auzanneau for uncritically embracing narratives of progress rather than putting forth an argument.12 Buholcs goes even further and suggests that it is not only Auzanneau, but the whole debate about refugees that lacks arguments and is dominated by moralization or emotion: if the anti-refugee side exhibits unfounded fear, the pro-refugee side turns to moralization. For Buholcs, a moral argument is a non-argument, because it invokes normative imperatives without engaging with the concrete political contours of the situation.

An anti-migrant protest in Latvia
People protest against the arrival of migrants in Riga, Latvia on September 22, 2015. (Ilmars Znotins/AFP/Getty Images)

What, then, are some of the arguments deployed by the pro-refugee side in an attempt to convince Latvia’s residents that they should support accepting refugees? A review of commentaries published in Latvian and Russian suggests that, indeed, the main arguments for accepting refugees are moral. For example, the politician of the ruling Unity party Dimitrijs Golubevs (2015) appeals to Latvian folk wisdom (dzīvesziņa) reflected in folk songs and invoked as the canon of the cultural nation and to Christian values, both of which urge kindness towards strangers. Here, morality that is to lead to acceptance derives from resources internal to cultural and religious traditions dominant in Latvia.13

Philosopher Ilmārs Šlāpins (2015) suggests that Latvians cannot survive, if they isolate themselves from the world and not help anyone. He points out that the fact that Germany, France and Great Britain are accepting refugees suggests that they have matured as nations. With civilizing overtones, Šlāpins validates the Latvians’ concern with survival, only he suggests that survival is not possible by barricading behind national fences, but requires helping others.

While Golubevs and Šlāpins address a Latvian-speaking audience, Olga Procevska (2015), a Russian and Latvian-speaking entrepreneur with a PhD in Communications Studies, reviews the possibilities open for Latvia’s Russian–speaking residents who suddenly find themselves outcompeted by refugees and on the margins of the political problem-space. Procevska writes that the only pro-refugee position available to them is to simply try, but admits that this position is “utterly unfounded and based only on sighing and moralization. This sighing gestures toward hope that refugees will enable Latvian politics to step away from the endless rotation around the Latvian-Russian axis. The presence of refugees might introduce a new variable in the bipolar system, possibly eventually pushing political parties to position themselves not on the basis of ethnicity, but also on the basis of their approach to the tax system, resource distribution and international issues. In other words, on the basis of their ideological approach.”

The Russian-speaking political scientist Andrei Berdnikov (2015) put forth a rare argument, pushing against the limits of the pro-refugee stance from what he posits to be a more radical political position. While affirming his commitment to progressive thought, which remains undefined, and expressing the view that the refugee question could indeed unite progressive Russians and Latvians, he does not rush to join the activists who support refugees, for he finds their politics limited. He suggests that quite a few of them readily support LGBT rights, refugees and Ukrainian nationalists in Maidan, but dismiss the rights of Russian-speaking residents in Latvia, many of whom remain non-citizens.14

The Latvian language pro-refugee commentaries address the nation as misguided in its anti-refugee stance and try to incite positive attitudes towards refugees by drawing on untapped elements of the national tradition or by suggesting that the concern about survival central to the national imaginary cannot be addressed by keeping deserving people out. Berdnikov points to the limits of their politics insofar as it is not consistently applied to all excluded subjects and does not question the national state as a fundamentally exclusive formation. At the same time, Berdnikov does not consider how the minority group he defends – that is, Russian-speakers – might respond to his progressive politics towards refugees. There is sufficient indication that they do not necessarily look favorably towards refugees and that therefore their politics, too, could be deemed limited. This is precisely the site of intervention for Procevska, whose position seems most open for both Russian-speakers and Latvians – the answer is to try without good reason and without guarantees, if only because the “against” positions are unacceptable. She does not delineate traditions from which resources should be drawn or issue a call for inclusion, which would inevitably also be an act of exclusion. She seems to put faith in simply trying.

In a way, Procevska points to an excess within the compassion/repression regime: the people to whom protection is extended or denied, as well as the people in whose name it is extended or denied, are not without agency and do not always follow the script. They craft lives and try to live together, even if under constrained conditions. This presents a variety of challenges of cohabitation. Discussion of these challenges of cohabitation is currently dominated by voices unsympathetic to refugees, as the pro-refugee side seems to distance itself from this discussion out of fear of fueling right-wing sentiments. This is clearly evident in the currently raging debate about the “Cologne assaults” – multiple sexual assaults on and robberies of women by groups of what appear to have been men with immigrant/asylum seeker background on New Year’s Eve in front of the Cologne train station. The incident came to public knowledge 4 days after it occurred, allegedly because the authorities did not want to fan anti-migrant/refugee sentiment. Politically liberal voices commenting on the incident from afar have expressed concern that it is “Christmas come a week late” for the right (e.g. Hinsliff 2016), which makes it difficult to discuss the incident beyond urging the public not to succumb to racialized fears of migrants/asylum seekers/refugees at large and therefore to stop accepting refugees.

The Power of Numbers

It is noteworthy that there seems to be one legitimate argument against accepting refugees – or more refugees – for the liberal side of the political spectrum, and that is the argument of “too many.” For example, it has recently resounded in the media that Sweden’s ability to cope with refugees has reached a limit: there is a lack of housing and the system cannot cope with processing so many refugees (Kingsley 2015). As a result, Sweden introduced temporary border controls with Denmark.15 The Swedish limits are thought to be legitimate, because they are not ideological, but material – they are limits of infrastructure. Germany, too, seems to have reached a threshold, with Angela Merkel announcing that Germany will limit the intake of refugees after all, because “the chancellor knows that the ongoing arrival to Germany of up to 10,000 refugees every day is not sustainable.”16

“Too many,” an argument seemingly about numbers, can be measured in a variety of ways that are not necessarily numerical. For example, a local man in Boston, UK, told me that he had nothing against Eastern European migrants, but that there were simply too many of them.17 For him, it was not necessarily about infrastructure, though I did hear concerns about lack of doctors and nurses in Boston’s medical establishments, but rather about daily life. He said that he could no longer go to the shop in the morning, greet someone by saying “Good morning!” and expect to be greeted back in English. I heard a resonant argument from a Latvian woman living in Boston who was concerned about tensions between locals and newcomers. “There are too many of us,” she said. In turn, the inhabitants of Mucenieki in Latvia – a locality where the asylum seeker reception center is located – have begun to convey discomfort about being a minority in their locality. “Our children are afraid to go to the stadium, because there are too many refugees there,” inhabitants of Mucenieki wrote in a letter to Latvia’s Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma.18

The argument of “too many” assumes that a baseline form of life or quality of life must be retained, whether for the locals, the incomers or both. Some “too many” arguments can and do get easily dismissed as reactionary from within the liberal political frame. More often than not, those are the ones articulated through the trope of the nation or put forth by local communities, for they are thought to be manifestations of fear and prejudice. The kinds of “too many” arguments that are taken seriously across the political spectrum pertain to the state’s capacity to govern, such as the lack of infrastructure faced by Sweden or the lack of policing capacity with regard to the “Cologne assaults” in Germany.

It is worth considering, however, whether positing these different logics of “too many” as qualitatively different is entirely justified. Categories or logics of exclusion come to be mapped onto each other, reference each other and, in practice, tend to produce the same effects, namely keep the same bodies in place or out of place (M’charek et al. 2013). As I was told several years before the current crisis by a staff member of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in Latvia, “Latvians are afraid because of the past, and Russians are afraid that they [refugees] will come and eat their булочка [pastry, in Russian].” The effect is the same – both produce negative attitudes towards refugees. In other words, the “too many” arguments of the “unenlightened masses” or “not-quite-European” subjects are not radically different from the “too many” arguments of the liberal European state insofar as they converge in keeping the same bodies out.

Moral arguments for accepting refugees remain tied to state-based humanitarian frameworks that sort people into deserving and undeserving subjects, as well as introduce limits to how much humanism can be tolerated before states run out of the capacity to govern. But is it not the case that contemporary political forms, most importantly the nation-state, would have to be fundamentally reconfigured, if one were to take seriously the ethical obligation towards another beyond the reach of kin and nation and regardless of the state’s capacity to govern? In conditions when more and more people are fleeing unlivable lives – whether destroyed by war, contemporary forms of capitalism, or the environment, what would it mean for political forms to correspond to an ethical obligation towards another as a foundational aspect of humanity(Butler 2015, 2013)? Finally, how can commitment to such an ethical obligation make sense of the existential concerns of embattled communities – for example, the cultural community of Latvians – without rendering them parochial and thus implicitly reproducing the civilizing mission of the politics of compassion?

Ethical Obligations, Existential Concerns, Political Futures

It has been well established that the politics of compassion reproduces rather than challenges the political order of the day. In conclusion, I would like to put forth some very preliminary thoughts about the relationship between invitations to remake individual and collective selves vis-à-vis ethical obligations towards others, the migration/refugee crisis and existential concerns of historical communities, such as that of Latvians.

From within the “ethics as cohabitation” perspective, concerns with survival and self-determination that animate Latvian politics cannot but be dismissed as reactionary and unethical (Butler 2015: 108). Is there a way, however, that a historical community’s wish to exist vis-à-vis a particular substantive tradition, such as, for example, the Latvian way of life, can be reconciled with an ethical obligation towards another? Moreover, is the incompatibility between an ethical or a political problem? Or, to put it another way, how do modern political forms, such as the state, facilitate this incompatibility?

In a recent book, Judith Butler (2013) sets out to rethink conceptions of Jewishness that inform the Israeli polity. Wishing to “depart from communitarian moorings,” Butler proposes that Jewishness can be rethought as constituted through an ethical relationship with alterity, which she terms “diasporic ethics” and which derives from unchosen conditions of cohabitation. For Butler, this ethical relation, this self-departure, holds the potential to rethink the Israeli polity. In another essay, building further on this argument and drawing on Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt, Butler (2015) elaborates the notion of “ethics of cohabitation” as a more general condition of ethical obligation toward another that precedes the self and is not constrained by communitarian commitments and concerns with self-preservation (Butler 2015). Communitarian commitments and concerns with self-preservation are inevitably exclusionary and therefore both unethical and unfree.  Both of these lines of argument – one challenging the polity at the foundation of the Israeli state and the other positing ethical obligation toward another as always already non-communitarian – seem to leave the state intact by not engaging with it.

In a sympathetic critique of Butler’s work, Julie E. Cooper (2015) suggests that Butler misunderstands the Jewish Zionist project as based on Jewishness rather than political action against historical forms of anti-Semitism. Cooper further criticizes Butler for not considering how the Zionist project of self–determination that derives from this historical-political motivation could be pursed in a re-territorialized manner, that is, outside the confines of the nation-state. One can conclude from Cooper’s argument, it seems, that the problem with the Israeli state is not that it is based on a narrow conception of Jewishness, but rather that it articulates the Zionist project of self-determination with the modern political form of the nation-state. The question that follows is this: if the Zionist project of sovereignty does not require a territorial state, how should one think of organizing life in a particular place? What remains of the state, if the sovereignty of a historical community is disarticulated from it?

I have become interested in similar questions as a result of my research on Latvian outmigration following accession to the European Union and the emergence of diaspora politics as a way to govern the trans-territorial nation (Dzenovska 2015). I have come to think that Latvian diaspora politics entail a pursuit of sovereignty within a framework of recognition (Markell 2003), that is, as a project of knowing oneself as embedded in a substantive tradition in relation to similarly embedded others. Moreover, that this pursuit of sovereignty requires subjects who conduct themselves as Latvians regardless of where they live. Given that a large number of such subjects live outside the territory of the Latvian state, pursuit of sovereignty as knowing oneself among others is increasingly re-territorialized, that is, stretched across the boundaries of different actually existing states. The territorial state still remains crucial for this project, for up until now pursuit of sovereignty has been unimaginable without a state, but it is possible that – at least within the political space of the European Union – the relationship between political sovereignty and the state will come to be reconfigured.

These are preliminary reflections, but they do raise some interesting questions. Julie E. Cooper urges diasporic thinkers to think political agency outside the nationstate. I want to supplement Cooper’s invitation by asking what remains of the state when the project of political self-determination of a historical community, whether civic or ethnic, is separated from it? How is the state to be conceived? Moreover, if pursuit of self-determination is re-territorialized in this way, torn away from the state, who is the subject of ethics of cohabitation? Who is called upon to recognize ethical obligations to the other outside communitarian confines – those living in place or those pursuing the re-territorialized project of sovereignty? Or, to put it another way, is the call for ethics of cohabitation entangled with particular territorial imaginaries? If so, how does it shift if concerns with survival and self-determination become re-territorialized?

Finally, how is the subject called upon by ethics of cohabitation related to the actual bodies engaged in a variety of political practices that prefigure futures, whether on the square, within migrant networks or elsewhere? Contemporary political imaginaries – of the kind that aim to challenge the established order rather than reproduce it – are increasingly turning to prefigurative practices in search of sites and subjects of politics appropriate for the current historical moment, a moment without grand narratives or revolutionary subjects. Political potential tends to be located in a sociality that produces ephemeral collectivities and political hopes, for it is not institutionalized and cannot be institutionalized (e.g. Butler 2015, Dzenovska & Arenas 2012, Harcourt et al. 2013).

And yet, in a situation of crisis, when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci 1971: 556), is there a need to think not only about subversion and hope, but also about concrete forms of political futures? Can politics as ethics be deployed for the project of giving form to the future?

I thank Milad Odabaei and Michel Feher for their useful comments on an earlier version of this essay. 


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Dzenovska, Dace. 2015. “You are the state”: Latvian diaspora politics and the re-territorialization of sovereignty and state. Invited lecture, SOAS. October 16.
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Recommended citation: Dzenovska, Dace. “Eastern Europe, the Moral Subject of the Migration/Refugee Crisis, and Political Futures.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

On Governing the Syrian Refugee Crisis Collectively: The View from Turkey

According to UNHCR, of the 235 million displaced people in the world today, 60 million are forced to leave their countries to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. About 80% of this forced migration is destined to arrive in other developing countries, which, in addition to their own social and economic challenges, struggle to develop policies and services to host these vulnerable populations. The Syrian refugee crisis is no exception in that, while we started to hear about the so called “European Refugee Crisis” only in the Summer of 2015, over four million refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria have been hosted by the neighboring countries of Syria since the beginning of the war in 2011. Currently more than half of these 4 million displaced Syrians live in Turkey while the other half is dispersed mainly throughout Lebanon and Jordan.

Even though the number of Syrians arriving in Europe and seeking protection continues to increase, it still remains low as compared to the frontier countries, with a little over 10% of refugees seeking safety in Europe. The number of Syrians in Europe is estimated to be about nine hundred thousand, most of which have arrived in 2015 predominantly through Greece. The map below illustrates the distribution of the Syrian displaced population comparatively and emphasizes the disproportionate burden on the frontier states of the conflict.

Map of Syriann refugees in Europe
Syrians in neighboring countries and Europe (Source: BBC graphic/UNHCR data)

Since the beginning of the crisis, the need for building an international response to this continuing disaster has been widely discussed and yet, has failed to materialize with any tangible results. Even though the international community has acknowledged the humanitarian and legal responsibility for assisting the victims of the conflict, what is meant by this international burden-sharing, and how exactly it can be pursued, has not been elaborated. The pressing need for a collective response only became evident to the international community with the large influx of refugees who moved from these frontier states to the European Union member-states in the summer of 2015, and with the spread of haunting images showing the dead bodies of infants sweeping the shores of countries like Turkey and Greece. What this so called European Refugee Crisis involved was in fact an overflowing of asylum seekers in the frontier states bordering the EU. Subjected to several push and pull factors, these refugees had been largely denied official entryways into Europe and thus forced to relocate.

Some of these factors relate to the worsening economic and safety conditions in the host countries. For one, in the case of Turkey, the number of displaced Syrian people almost doubled in 2015 after the intensification of the conflict south of its border. This means that already crowded Turkish refugee camps could not host more people, and that the already exploitative working conditions of Syrian refugees have worsened. The inability to find employment and make a decent living, in addition to several problems pertaining to social integration, constitutes a major push factor for immigration – as is evidenced by the results of a UNHCR survey conducted with Syrian refugees in various Greek islands. For this survey, a total of 1,245 Syrians were interviewed between April and September 2015 in an attempt to gather data on their demographics, as well as past and future migration plans. The survey first revealed that contrary to what many believe, educationally, refugees are some of the most advanced members of their country: 86% say they have secondary school or university education with significant skills such as engineering, computer programming, and teaching. These data show a highly-skilled population on the move.1 Considering the informational and financial resources necessary for taking this dangerous and expensive route, such a finding is hardly surprising. Equally important are the survey’s results as to what drove these refugees to Europe in the first place. Close to two thirds of the arrivals have indicated that they resided in a third country before coming to Greece, and not surprisingly, that for the great majority, accounting for more than half of the arrivals, this country was Turkey. The interviewees’ main reasons for leaving their previous locations were the lack of non-exploitative employment opportunities that matched their skills, financial needs, concerns for security and protection, search for better opportunities for their children, and the hope for educational opportunities.2

These results also support the view that one of the easiest ways to build a collective response to a crisis of this kind and to prevent it from spilling over into various territories is simply helping the countries at the frontlines in their efforts to cope with the influx of people and develop policies to integrate them, thereby eliminating some of the factors which further push refugees away. While international organizations struggle to sustain humanitarian aid to the displaced communities, the continuation of the crisis calls for a far-sighted approach that looks beyond crisis management and toward socio-economic integration. As many Syrians try to adapt to their new lives in host countries, as they become part of the latter’s urban, economic, and social life, and as their children require educational and psycho-social support, what kind of institutional solutions might give these vulnerable populations the necessary tools to cope with their prolonged transitional status?

At this point, it is important to look deeper into the Turkish experience in terms of the policies that have been developed for integrating the displaced Syrian population and for moving from a security-focused approach to immigration to one that is focused on governance. First, with respect to the international as well as the domestic legal framework surrounding the refugee crisis, Turkey is a party to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Signed and ratified by 144 nations, this Convention is the preeminent authority on the manner in which host countries are to receive and treat refugees.3 Nevertheless, Turkey raised a geographical limitation when it signed and ratified the Convention and accordingly, only defines persons of European origin as refugees.4 As a result of this geographical limitation, which was once common but now applied by only four signatory states, Syrian refugees in Turkey are not part of an asylum regime. Instead, they are given assistance and resettled in third countries under the status of “temporary protection.” Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011, Turkey – estimated to host over two million Syrians – has maintained an emergency response of a high standard, predominantly upholding an open-door policy and ensuring non-refoulement. This approach, however, has had a major shortcoming given the prolonged stay of Syrian refugees: the temporary protection regime does not grant any working rights to those who are granted protection (the implications and potential developments in relation to employment will be further evaluated below).

In order to provide assistance – housing, humanitarian aid, education and health services – to Syrian refugees, 22 state of the art camps (soon to be 24) were set-up. Equipped with high standard facilities compared to many refugee camps across the world, these camps host about 217,000 people5 which only accounts for about 10% of the Syrian population in Turkey. The remaining 90%, as indicated earlier, are mostly voluntary urban refugees, seeking to survive and take care of their families outside the camps with much less assistance but with more freedom of movement and less isolation in comparison to the camps.

While the data on this off-camp population is limited, one obvious challenge for this group of refugees relates to employment. While under the temporary protection scheme, Syrians in Turkey can have access to health as well as some education and social services, the lack of an existing legal framework for integration into the labor market constitutes a major shortcoming. The Turkish state officials acknowledge this limitation and point to the internationally well received new draft law which is set to allow the Syrian population the right to apply for work permits within the industries selected by provincial governance boards. As it stands, however, most Syrians practically need to work without a legal framework in order to survive. This has led to the creation of a dual labor market where refugees are willing to work for two-thirds of the wages paid to locals. Furthermore, with the arrival of more and more refugees from Syria, refugees face a fierce competition with other refugees for jobs, leading to a race to the bottom with regard to paid wages. This situation has also resulted in various exploitative practices, lack of any social security scheme, as well as inaccessibility of high-skilled jobs to the refugees. With the new draft law soon to be passed, it is hoped that refugees’ integration into the labor market will be more effective and less of a reason for secondary immigration.

Nonetheless, there is another important barrier to the refugees’ entry into the labor market as well as their access to education: language. In the words of the Syrian refugee activist Lina Sergie Attar of the Karam Foundation: “The challenge is that our southern neighbors, with whom we are culturally more similar and share the same language, do not have the economic capacity to host us; and in Turkey, the country that has the adequate infrastructure and a stable economy [to host us], people speak a different language.”6 Currently, in Turkey, many state, municipal, and non-governmental agencies offer free language education to overcome this barrier. Almost all 330 respondents I surveyed as part of a needs assessment conducted for the International Red Cross, the Red Crescent Federation, and the Turkish Red Crescent, indicated that they absolutely need to learn Turkish, and that the Turkish language is essential to get jobs. This study also shows that a considerable part of this population has above-basic school training and some skills that are quite scarce in the region – the Syrian refugees include a sizable number of electricians, language teachers (mostly English), and mechanics. As a result, overcoming the language barrier will better enable their integration in the labor market.7

Today there is an increasing reliance on community centers that are built across Turkey to address refugees’ barriers to labor market integration. These centers offer services that range from psychological counseling and cultural activities to language courses and vocational-skills training for free. Some of these centers are supported by central or local governing bodies, while others are supported by international organizations or local NGOs and include those formed by refugee groups themselves. A study I recently conducted in the Turkish city of Şanlıurfa, the border city with the highest Syrian refugee population, illustrates that community centers are a great resource for vocational skills training, as a sizable majority of the displaced Syrians are seeking employment for the first time. Rojen, a 35-year-old widow from Aleppo with 5 kids, currently gets paid nearly $8 per day – if she can find work – which is just enough to pay her $120 monthly rent for a mold-infested room. Even a minor improvement in her working conditions will increase the entire family’s living standards considerably. In addition to language, Syrians are interested in skills required for hairdressing, tailoring, textile, manufacturing, and information technologies.8 Most of these professions are also jobs much needed in the area and could address the skills mismatch, as stated by the members of the Şanlıurfa Chamber of Commerce and Industry in separate interviews. Employers also pointed out that for the blue-collar industry jobs in the area, which are not popular among the local population, an expedited training and job placement of the eager Syrians is imminent.

In addition to serving as buffer and training zones facilitating the integration of refugees into the labor market, these community centers have programs for attracting disadvantaged groups, thereby addressing another important aspect of integration. Children are in imminent danger due to their prolonged displacement; most of them suffer from major war trauma and about 70% of them do not take part in any formal education. There are no restrictions on their admission to schools but the hassle of providing the necessary paperwork, lack of language skills, low household incomes, lack of resources and uncertainty concerning the future, are some of the reasons why enrollment is not higher. The psycho-social counseling and various social activities offered by the community centers address these very problems, though in a modest way. For 15-year-old Hala from the eastern Syrian city of Deirez-Zor, who now lives in a household of 9 people, the community center is the only place for socialization as well as education. Even though she had been going to school in Syria, had finished 8th grade and speaks a little English, today she spends most of her time at home. Her family does not have the resources for her education. There is one thing she loves in Turkey, and that is attending drama classes once a week at the IMPR community center established in partnership with the Danish Refugee Council and with donations from the US State Department, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.9

Magician performing for migrant children
Acrobatics and magician performance at IMPR Urfa Community Center (courtesy of IMPR Urfa Community Center).

Syrians escaping the civil war in their country first need basic humanitarian assistance.  However, as indicated by another interviewee, Abdullah, 28, an electrical technician from Al-Raqqah: “The conflict is not going to be over tomorrow, and in the meanwhile, I do not want to sit around in a camp the whole day in idleness and wait for food. I want to make an honorable living with my labor and take care of my family.” With little assistance in language and vocational skills – for those who need it – refugees can learn to become autonomous and better integrate the societies they live in. Hence, one of the best ways to help refugees is to support those developing countries that host 80% of the world’s asylum seekers in their efforts to devise policies such as those underway in the Turkish community centers.

In the past four years, the challenge represented by the Syrian crisis has also led Turkish authorities to create new state agencies involved in immigration-related issues. These agencies bring together the ministries of the Ministry of National Education, Labor and Employment, as well as Family and Social Policies, and promote an approach that is predicated on governance – rather than on the perception of refugees as “guests” or as a population presenting a security challenge. Yet, despite such a state-led effort at social integration, and despite the absence of major incidents stemming from inter-group conflict thus far, public perceptions regarding the reception of refugees is still a cause for concern. The majority of the Turkish population opposes further migration,10 objects to extension of economic and social rights to Syrians, and maintains a high degree of social distance from them. Considering that integration is a two way process, still more work needs to be done to assuage the economic concerns of the host population stemming from realistic conflicts and competitions, and to eliminate prejudices by promoting better social and economic interaction among the different groups.

Practical and financial efforts notwithstanding – it is estimated that the Turkish government has spent over nine billion dollars on Syrians in the country since the beginning of the civil war – as indicated earlier, the social, economic, and legal integration of Syrians in Turkey is far from perfect. This condition constitutes a major push factor for the vulnerable Syrian population to take on a risky journey to the perceived lands of opportunities in Europe. According to the Missing Migrants Project by the International Organization for Migration, 3,771 of those who attempted to reach Europe in 2015 are now dead or missing.11

Map of migration flows into Europe
Migration flows into Europe across the Mediterranean, 2015 (Source: International Organization for Migration)

At once swamped by the influx of Syrians, for the first time since the beginning of the crisis, and haunted by the images of dead bodies sweeping the shores of Turkey and Greece, European political circles have entered into intense discussions about the responsibilities of the international community and the issue of burden sharing. In that process, EU policy makers have come to a new appreciation of the urgency of assisting Turkey in its efforts to deal with Syrian refugees. Their decision to work with Ankara on the migrant crisis – which has also provided a new impetus to the long-stalled EU-Turkish negotiations for EU membership – has been made manifest in the revised “EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan.” The latter was announced on October 15, 2015 during the visit of a European Commission delegation to Turkey and further supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when she traveled to the Turkish capital, on October 18.12 However, as will be argued below, despite its expressed ambitions, the Plan may neither elicit a significant burden sharing mechanism nor a commitment to resurrect the EU-Turkey membership process due to its focus on securitization of migration and its lack of credibility with regard to other issues.

According to the current Joint Action Plan, Turkey is expected to enact a much debated re-admission agreement within a year, which includes actions in seventy-two issue areas. In particular, Turkey is expected to increase its border control missions and ensure that the re-admission centers are fully functioning and can receive all “irregular” migrants that arrive in Europe after having transited through Turkey. According to the Plan, Turkey can send this group of displaced people back to their respective countries of origin under the conditions that they are not fearing persecution and that it is not possible to provide them with basic necessities such as housing, healthcare and education services.13 At least one third of the three billion euros to be provided to Turkey by the EU is expected to be allocated for the necessary infrastructure that ensures the EU’s frontiers with non-Europe are secured. The initial plan stated that the remaining funds had to be spent on existing Syrian refugees in Turkey, which is approximately equal to only 900 euros per Syrian refugee.14 However, as the EU member-states finalized the payment of the funds on February 3, 2015, it was stated that the remaining funds were to be spent on building refugee camps for the re-admitted refugees instead.15 In other words, the EU’s main expectation in return for financial assistance and for rejuvenating the Turkish accession process is not policies aiming at Syrian refugees’ integration directly, but those that further securitization with increased border controls and containment in camps. Though hardly consistent with the proclaimed intent of the Plan, the fact that it actually focuses on making the EU even less hospitable to refugees is far from surprising in light of the reactions that the arrival of asylum seekers has generated across Europe – to wit, the galvanization of xenophobic feelings and their worrisome politicization as evidenced by the rise of extreme right parties.

In addition to a promise of financial support that is conditional upon reaching vague and potentially impossible targets, such as a fully functioning re-admission system, the EU also pledged to revisit and add momentum to the Turkish candidacy to the EU and grant Turkish citizens a visa-free entry to the Schengen zone.16 The credibility of this commitment is also questionable due to two potential issues. One relates to the ongoing accession process of Turkey, which has been stalled due to the parties’ inability to open new chapters of acquis communautaire in the aftermath of the accession of Cyprus. Because of Turkey’s reluctance to extend the Customs Union it has signed with the EU to a party it has long been in conflict with, namely Cyprus, the commission froze eight chapters of the acquis. Furthermore, Cyprus put a veto on opening six more chapters. Considering that, for their part, the remaining chapters are already open and being negotiated, the only possible way of moving forward in the accession process is either the Commission or the Cypriot government lifting their veto: developments that cannot be counted on at this stage.17 The visa free regime to be granted to Turkey faces a similar challenge: to become a reality, such an agreement needs to be ratified by all member-states of the Union, including those that are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of Turkey’s integration in the EU. The reluctance to any rapprochement with Turkey, on the part of European countries, is further heightened by the rising Islamophobia in many European countries, a tendency that goes back at least half a decade but has been further heightened by the Syrian refugee crisis.

Finally, the credibility of the EU’s revival of the negotiation process with Turkey is also questionable as it follows a long period when the Union told Turkish authorities that they were failing the requirements of membership in the areas of human rights, and the rule of law. Just before the general elections last November, the European Commission announced, quite unexpectedly, that it had postponed its annual progress report on Turkey, amid a key visit of the Turkish officials to Brussels during which the refugee crisis was at the top of the agenda.18 Released five days after the elections, the report elicited a very strong criticism of the Turkish government’s commitment to a democratization process, human rights, an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech.19 Nonetheless, the EU attempted to reinvigorate membership talks along with collaboration on refugees, thereby lending support to the governing AKP party right before the elections.20 Such inconsistencies prompt many observers to argue that the EU’s tactical move toward Turkey’s membership either destroys its capacity as a rules-based, normative power in foreign policy or, alternatively, casts doubt on its actual commitment to Turkish accession.21

All things considered, this essay has illustrated the challenges raised by the Syrian refugee crisis to the members of the international community, and more specifically to the relations between the European Union and Turkey, which is both a candidate to EU membership and the main recipient country for Syrian refugees. Our argument has been that one way of establishing a fair burden sharing mechanism for this humanitarian crisis, one that is geared toward facilitating the well-being and socio-economic integration of this vulnerable population, involves supporting the frontier countries in their governance-oriented policies. Despite the existing political will and the allocation of financial resources, Turkey cannot govern this process alone. Any shortcoming in this realm is reflected in the secondary migration of refugees further to Europe. Having illustrated various challenges posed by the arrival of refugees and observing several policies adopted by Turkey that involve a move away from securitization and towards socio-economic integration of the refugees, there are reasons to believe that supporting these efforts can be quite fruitful. As things stand, the “danger” to which European authorities associate the movement of Syrian refugees toward and through Turkey certainly improve the chances of collaboration between the EU and the Turkish government. However, the roadmap that both parties have adopted seems far from ideal both in terms of assuring the wellbeing of refugees and of putting the future of their relationship on the right track. Indeed, the unrealistic and vague goals delineated by the Joint Action Plan are likely to undermine its credibility in the near future, whereas the mechanisms on which it is predicated fail to provide long-term solutions to the needs of the refugees and the problems that they face.

Recommended citation: Yavcan, Basak. “On Governing the Syrian Refugee Crisis Collectively: The View from Turkey.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”

A collaborative project of collective writing

coordinated + edited by:
Nicholas De Genova + Martina Tazzioli

co-authored by:
Soledad Álvarez-Velasco, Nicholas De Genova, Elena Fontanari, Charles Heller, Yolande Jansen, Irene Peano, Fiorenza Picozza, Lisa Riedner, Laia Soto Bermant, Aila Spathopoulou, Maurice Stierl, Zakeera Suffee, Martina Tazzioli, Huub van Baar, Can Yildiz

Note on Authorship: For each of the specific keywords, the first listed name indicates the keyword’s lead author, whereas the names that follow are simply listed alphabetically to affirm the parity of contributions by the co-authors.

Europe / Crisis: Introducing New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”


“Migrant Crisis” / “Refugee Crisis”

Numbers (or, The Spectacle of Statistics in the Production of “Crisis”)

“Humanitarian Crisis”


(The Crisis of) “European Values”


Europe / Crisis: Introducing New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”

Martina Tazzioli + Nicholas De Genova

It has become utterly banal to speak of “the crisis” in Europe, even as there have proliferated invocations of a veritable “crisis of Europe” – a putative crisis of the very idea of “Europe.” This project, aimed at formulating New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe,” was initiated in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January 2015, and has been brought to a necessarily tentative and only partial “completion” in the aftermath of the subsequent massacre in Paris on 13 November 2015. Eerily resembling a kind of uncanny pair of book-ends, these spectacles of “terror” and “security” (De Genova 2011; 2013a) awkwardly seem to frame what otherwise, during the intervening several months, has been represented as “the migrant crisis,” or “the refugee crisis,” or more broadly, as a “crisis” of the borders of “Europe.” Of course, for several years, the protracted and enduring ramifications of global economic “crisis” and the concomitant policies of austerity have already been a kind of fixture of European social and political life. Similarly, the events in Paris are simply the most recent and most hyper-mediated occasions for a re-intensification of the ongoing processes of securitization that have been a persistent (if inconstant) mandate of the putative Global War on Terror (De Genova 2010a, 2010c). Hence, this collaborative project of collective authorship emerges from an acute sense of the necessity of rethinking the conceptual and discursive categories that govern borders, migration, and asylum and simultaneously overshadow how scholarship and research on these topics commonly come to recapitulate both these dominant discourses and re-reify them.

As a network of scholars in critical migration and borders studies, we have been particularly concerned to defy the intellectual and political ghettoization of these topics in relation to the ordinarily unquestioned manifold and transversal reality of the multiple “crises” that coexist alongside the purported “migration” or “refugee crisis” in (and of) “Europe.” How indeed may the “crises” associated with border control and asylum and immigration law enforcement be apprehensible as co-constitutive of what is otherwise so ubiquitously known simply as “the crisis” (the economic crisis), as well as the related “crisis” of “Europe” itself (the political, juridical, and institutional crisis of the European Union, and particularly such “European” institutions as the Schengen zone of passport-free travel that has reconfigured the borders of “Europe” by sustaining an “internal” space of [relatively, albeit differentially] free mobility)? Likewise, this critical angle of vision on “the crisis” in and of “Europe” must be further situated within the context of our global historical moment: the recent and ongoing proliferation of wars, civil wars, military interventions, and neocolonial occupations across the planet in which European powers are and have long been profoundly implicated. This perspective illuminates the dire necessity of radically unsettling any self-satisfied European discourse on “migration” or “refugees” as the de facto human refuse of “crises” constructed to be strictly “external” to the presumed safety and stability of “Europe,” erupting always “elsewhere.” In other words, starting from the dramatic increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum in EU-rope because of the violent convulsions and disruptions of war, but also in light of the preemptive unavailability of any other route for migration to Europe for the vast majority of the world’s population, what is at stake here is a rigorously postcolonial critique of the governmentality of migration and asylum and the misleading opposition between “genuine” or “legitimate” refugees and ostensibly“economic” migrants (Garelli and Tazzioli 2013a; Tazzioli 2013; 2014). These contrivances of the global government of human mobility intersect substantially (and consequentially) with the analytical categories that discipline academic research and scholarship. Furthermore, and related to these intersections surrounding human mobility, this project similarly inquires into how these manifold and interconnected “crises” might signal a larger epistemic crisis regarding some of the central and defining categories of thought and action surrounding the contemporary (postcolonial, post-Cold War, neoliberal) constitution of a place called “Europe.”

The aspiration and intended purpose of these New Keywords is to effectively “hijack” the dominant discourse surrounding and superintending how we speak of and think about the conjunctures of “Europe” and “crisis.” Specifically, we posit our interventions into this contradictory problem space from the distinctive critical vantage point enabled by our engagements with the perspectives and experiences of migration and borders. Hence, the primary motivation behind our collaborative work has been to engage in the kind of theoretical dialogue and debate that aims to interrogate and disentangle the multifarious articulations of “migration” and “crisis,” highlighting that the so-called “migration crisis” in fact supplies a crucial lens for grasping the wider dynamics of “crisis” in and of “Europe” and the European border regime (see “Border Regime” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015).

Nevertheless, while we seek to problematize the very language of “crisis,” it is imperative to underscore that this collaborative intervention arises also amidst the horrific spectacle of migrant and refugee mass deaths that has been produced as a consequence of the European border regime. Far from downplaying the frequently tragic dramas of the migrants and refugees who have braved the violence of Europe’s extended and expansive borders – and the monumental fact that 2015 has been the single most deadly year on record for illegalized migrants and refugees seeking to cross these borders, especially across the Mediterranean Sea – let alone the protracted travails of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants repeatedly blocked during their “long march” across numerous borders through the Balkans, this project nevertheless emphasizes the generalized crisis of the government (and control) of human mobility instigated for the European border regime by autonomous migrant and refugee movements that have defied the borders and appropriated the space of Europe.

On November 18, 2015 all the borders from Slovenia to Macedonia-FYROM were closed to the refugees who were not from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Refugees from other countries were subsequently stranded at the border for 22 days. (Lisa Hamou-Mamar)

The multiplication of borders and border-zones (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013) within and around the amorphous “European” space is seen here as a cascade of reactive responses put into place by a diverse variety of formations of sovereign power. These heterogeneous state formations include the European Union (and various subsidiary agencies such as Frontex, the EU’s border policing operation), as well as particular EU member nation-states, European states that are not EU members, as well as the junior partners in the peripheries of “Europe” who have been variously sub-contracted to police the borders of EU-rope, such as Libya prior to 2011 or Turkey now (albeit with much greater and more complex strategic geo-political and military stakes). Despite their significant differences and inequalities, all are substantially dedicated to disciplining migratory movements that objectively challenge outright the regimes enforcing selective access to the “right” of cross-border mobility and the exclusionary criteria of the “right” to asylum. In the face of militarized border police brutality, including rubber truncheons, stun grenades, and tear gas, as well as razor-wire fences, and the ever-present horizon of interdiction, prolonged detention, and deportation, we are reminded nonetheless of migrant and refugee mobilizations, such as the ad-hoc protest march that departed from Budapest’s Keleti train station and occupied a six-lane highway heading to Austria, chanting “Freedom!”

After three days of camping in front of the Keleti train station in central Budapest, hundreds of refugees decided to take matters into their own hands and walk over a 150 km to the Austrian border.

Beyond such dramatic and overtly politicized mobilizations, however, migrant struggles to appropriate movement and claim space – to enter Europe, claim asylum, and move onward to northern countries in the quest for safer and more promising places to stay – are visible in any European border zone, from Lampedusa to Lesvos, from Melilla to Nicklesdorf, from Ventimiglia to Calais (see “Migrant Struggles” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015).

“We are not going back. The situation is bad. We need freedom to pass.”

In the face of the “migration crisis” and the “crisis of Europe,”therefore, we are reminded of what Sandro Mezzadra has depicted as “the politicality of migration movements” and must begin to contemplate the politics of “the crisis” from the critical standpoint of what he designates a “Border-Europe,” a “Europe” constituted by the proliferation of borders and border struggles (Mezzadra 2016).

Thus, the collaborative work compiled here operates at a significant distance from the current proliferation of discourses about the “migrant” or “refugee crisis,” challenging the taken-for-granted meaning of the term “crisis” by looking at the productive dimension that the declaration of a state of “crisis” of “emergency” generates. In the face of the epistemic crisis of both state and other institutional actors (as well as academics) in taking stock of the heterogeneity of practices of migration towards and across “Europe,” we seek here to re-craft some of the most commonplace taken-for-granted categories undergirding the dominant discourse from the standpoint of a constitutive struggle over mobility and space. That is to say, these New Keywords respond to the urgency of producing a collective counter-discourse about migration and refugee movements and the purported “crisis” that ensues, starting from an epistemological destabilizing and theoretical questioning of the very meaning and function of certain key concepts and categories, such as “humanitarianism,” “refugee,” “migrant,” “mobility,” and so forth. By focusing on the (at least) two-fold “crisis” that has dominated the media spectacle and the discourse of the political establishment – “the (economic) crisis” and “the migrant/refugee crisis” – and by refusing the systematic separation of these and other related figures of “crisis,” we hope to direct critical scrutiny toward the frameworks and practices of governmental intervention enabled and energized by the proliferation of“crisis.” Likewise, yet still more importantly, we aim to call attention to the new spaces produced by the diverse manifestations of the autonomy and subjectivity of the migrants and refugees themselves. The politics of austerity, acutely affecting southern European countries in particular, coupled with border enforcement strategies that preemptively illegalize mobile people seeking asylum, together impact upon both “Europeans” and “non-Europeans” – citizens and migrants alike – and thereby simultaneously re-fortify the “obscene inclusion” (De Genova 2013b) of war refugees and other illegalized migrants into the socio-political fabrics of local “European” economies.

Reflecting upon and engaging with spatial and political transformations that are still underway, however, we are notably confronted with the methodological problem of keeping up with the ongoing border struggles and the concomitant reconfigurations of the mechanisms of capture and control that are at play in governing human mobilities, in the dizzying context of the diverse array of recent events in Europe that have directly affected our areas of inquiry. In particular, we must mention the various closures of EU internal borders in the securitarian aftermaths of both the arrival of large numbers of refugees and migrants in the second half of 2015 and the violent events in Paris on 13 November 2015. We must likewise note the moral panic erupting over the sexual assaults in Cologne/Köln during the 2016 New Year’s Eve festivities, which have authorized a new round of debate over the criminalization and prospective deportation of “asylum-seekers.” Consequently, ours is necessarily an intrinsically tentative and always-incomplete grappling with the immanent task of theorizing the contingencies and irresolution of socio-political conflicts and struggles in which we are still immersed. Hence, while these interventions can in no way pretend to provide any semblance of an exhaustive account or comprehensive analysis of the recent political transformations occurring in “Europe,” the keywords that we have chosen – “Crisis”; “Migrant Crisis”/ “Refugee Crisis”; Numbers (or, The Spectacle of Statistics in the Production of “Crisis”);“Humanitarian Crisis”; “Mobility”; and (The Crisis of) “European Values” – each of these signal broad rubrics that allow us to repeatedly tackle anew, and from somewhat different critical angles of vision, the larger over-arching question of the relation between (the government of) migration and (the government of) the wider multiplicity of apparently disparate and divergent formations of “crisis” in Europe today.

It is perhaps self-evident, but particularly noteworthy, that these texts have emerged amidst the still-unfolding and unpredictable repercussions of the securitarian and military responses–within Europe and abroad – by numerous EU authorities and member states to the attacks in Paris of 13 November 2015, which will continue to have multiple impacts upon human mobility at large. These ramifications are particularly consequential for the social and political conditions of refugees and migrants, both for those within the space of “Europe” as well as for those beyond the borders who may yet seek entry to “Europe.” Nonetheless, and very importantly, this is also true for EU-ropean citizens – especially those racialized as “Muslims” or “Roma” or other supposedly “non-white” (“non-European”) “minorities” (De Genova 2010c; De Genova and Tazzioli 2015; van Baar 2016b). On the one hand, all migrants and refugees may now be newly figured as always-already “suspect” – potential “terrorists” who have infiltrated Europe alongside the influx of “genuine” refugees.

Stranded at the border between Greece and Macedonia, refugees chant “we are not terrorists.”

Moreover, Syrian refugees and migrants, in particular, who hitherto have widely enjoyed a distinctly preferential treatment over and against others seeking asylum in Europe, have now been abruptly re-fashioned as inherently suspect and thus, special candidates for the dubious status of “bogus” refugees, albeit now re-figured as potential “secret agents” with the nefarious mission of entering Europe only to perpetrate “terrorist” atrocities. On the other hand, the repeated and successive closures of various internal EU borders have simultaneously accelerated the “crisis” of the Schengen area of “free” mobility (long celebrated as a paramount achievement of European integration), while nonetheless summoning new formations of still more enlarged powers of integrated sovereignty to be configured at the EU-ropean scale. Therefore, simultaneous with the “crisis” of Schengen, we seem to be witnessing its re-fortification through an aggressive push for the unprecedented securitization of the EU’s external borders, specifically targeting EU citizens.

The New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe” emerged from a workshop convened by Nicholas De Genova and Martina Tazzioli at King’s College London on 25–26 June 2015. Notably, this is the second iteration of the “New Keywords” endeavor, and follows an earlier but related dialogue that culminated in the analogous project of collective authorship and collaborative publication, coordinated and edited by Nicholas De Genova, Sandro Mezzadra and John Pickles, which appeared in print as a Special Thematic Section on “New Keywords: Migration and Borders” in the journal Cultural Studies (Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Both of these experiments in thinking and writing together stem from the meetings of a multi-disciplinary research network on “The ‘European’ Question: Postcolonial Perspectives on Migration, Nation, and Race,” initiated by Nicholas De Genova and Sandro Mezzadra with migration and borders scholar-activists and activist-scholars from the UK, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Latvia, and the Czech Republic, as well as Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Ecuador.

Therefore, this interrogation of the conjunctures of “Europe” and “Crisis” is also a contribution to reformulating and expanding the purview of what Nicholas De Genova (2016) has called “the ‘European’ Question” – contending that we must recurrently and unrelentingly ask: What indeed is “Europe”? and Who may be counted as “European”? Posited first and foremost from the conjoined perspectives of migration and race, the “European” Question demands a persistent attention to the postcolonial dimension of the borders of “Europe” and the boundaries of “European”-ness at the core of our analysis. Fundamental not only as a vital corrective against the (re-)bordering of would-be critical reflection within the academic boundaries of migration and refugee studies but also for problematizing the vexed politics of race, national identity, citizenship, migration and asylum in “Europe” today, the “European” Question has supplied a defining framework for debate among the contributors to these New Keywords. Extending this interrogation of “Europe” through the critical lens of “crisis” – the multiplicity of invocations of “crisis” in and of “Europe” – including of course the rationale of “economic crisis” as the presumptive authorization of austerity and reactionary populist backlash – these interventions around “the crisis” therefore emphatically remind us that what is at stake is nothing less than the very question of “Europe” itself. Situated, as we are, in discrepant relations to “Europe” and “European”-ness, we nonetheless seek to seize hold of our moment of “crisis” as a moment of opportunity through which it may be possible to think and act differently in the aspiration to make the place where we live into a place where life is worth living, together.

Essay series continues on next page…


Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”


Charles Heller, Nicholas De Genova, Maurice Stierl, Martina Tazzioli + Huub van Baar

Over recent weeks, months, and indeed, years, there has been an astounding proliferation in public discourse of the word “crisis,” particularly in the European context. Most recently, we have seen the repeated invocation of a “refugee crisis,” alternately labeled a “migrant crisis.” Similarly, this same phenomenon has been depicted in terms of a “humanitarian crisis” while nonetheless depicted always also as a “crisis of the asylum system” and a “crisis” of Europe’s borders, which is to say, a “crisis” of “border control” (simultaneously signaling a “crisis” of enforcement and policing and a “crisis” of refugee “protection”), and thus, a “crisis of the Schengen zone.” Notably, alarmist reactions to the multifarious “crises” relating to the (“unauthorized”) movement of people – particularly across and within the EU’s borders – have largely served to justify the necessity of new “emergency” policies and the deployment of new means of control. Nonetheless, migration is sometimes figured as the necessary “solution” to what is often depicted as Europe’s “demographic crisis.” Furthermore, this particular conjuncture of “crisis” talk (and crisis-mongering) cannot be separated from the more pervasive discourse of “the crisis”: “economic crisis,” “financial crisis,” “debt crisis,” “crisis of Euro-zone,” “banking crisis” and the attendant recourse to a widespread promotion of the notion that “austerity” is necessary and inevitable. Within this wider framework of austerity policies, moreover, we likewise have become attuned to a more or less permanent “housing crisis.” Alongside this more narrowly economistic (neoliberal) repertoire of “crisis” discourse, therefore, we have been subjected to a parallel invocation of a “crisis of European institutions,” associated with the perennial problem of the European Union’s “democratic deficit” and thus also a “crisis of democracy,” sometimes equated even with a “crisis of the idea of Europe.” As scholars of critical migration and refugee studies, we propose that the so-called “crisis” – currently mobilized in the face of the horrific effects of the EU-ropean border and immigration regime and visa policies by the mass media, politicians, policy makers, and other state as well as non-governmental authorities – can provide a prism for unpacking and interrogating these numerous interlocking “crises.”

Notably, it is another “crisis” – a “crisis” of “the Arab world” or “the crisis in the Middle East” –which is figured as the source of an inordinate portion of the illegalized migrants and refugees entering EU territory through its external borders. Syrian nationals fleeing the civil war have been particularly prominent, but the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, previously one of the advance outposts of the externalized EU migration regime (see “Externalization,” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015), has consequently enabled illegalized migrants from across Africa, the Middle East, and beyond to cross the country’s porous frontiers in their quests to access Europe by braving the European border zone in the Mediterranean Sea. Libya’s “failed state” thus reappears now as one of the “weak links” in the chain of “European” border control. Thus, the “migration crisis” is often discursively and analytically represented as a byproduct of “the crisis in the Middle East,” the labeling of which is inseparable from justifications for renewed military interventions in an amorphous geo-political region from Afghanistan to Somalia to Mali (with repercussions even further afield, as in Nigeria and Cameroon).

Indeed, it would appear that the externalization of “the migration crisis” has become a key strategic objective of the EU. Insinuating that the “crisis” itself has been, in effect, inflicted upon “Europe,” the highest ranking figures in the EU have concurred that it is the proper role of the states in its wider “neighborhood” to solve the “crisis.” Accordingly, under the cloud of this abnegation of EU-ropean responsibility, the EU and numerous African states engaged in a two-month long tug of war, culminating on 11–12 November 2015 in the summit in Valetta, Malta. The Valetta negotiations reiterated a well-worn managerial concern “to address the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement,”1 and declared a new “advance” with respect to “returning persons who are not entitled to stay in Europe,”2 a very tired euphemism for the obligatory neocolonial collusion of “sending countries” in the deportation of their nationals from EU-rope. Despite the proclamations of mutual “interdependence” between “Europe” and its African “neighbors,” therefore, Valetta exposed the extent to which the ongoing “migrant crisis” has served to authorize anew the protracted (post-)colonial struggle over dominance and power. Hence, EU-rope’s highest ambition has been to find ways to export its “crisis” to its poorer “neighbors,” and thus has sought to convert its “crisis” into a neoliberal test of postcolonial “responsibility,” whereby the ostensible legitimacy and sovereignty of African nation-states is presumed to derive from dutiful service to the mandates of re-fortifying the borders of “Europe.” Nonetheless, despite these rhetorical gestures and extortionist power plays, the Valetta Conference appears to have produced little substantive action: at present, no African country has any “readmission” agreement in force with the EU (Bunyan 2015).

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the attacks of 13 November 2015 in Paris and the resultant proclamation of a “state of emergency” in France – although virtually all of the alleged culprits in this attack appear to have been EU citizens – multiple European authorities have resorted to calls for the reactivation of internal borders within the EU, in an abrupt departure from the Schengen agreements, as well as an unprecedented securitization of the Schengen area’s external borders. In fact, over the last year, we have repeatedly witnessed the alternation of the opening and closure of various EU border-crossing points – between Greece and Macedonia, between Croatia and Slovenia, between Italy and France, between Sweden and Denmark, among many others – and the temporary suspension of Schengen in the name of “emergencies” associated with what has come increasingly to be represented as a twofold “human threat”: a bewildering and uncontrollable “mass influx” of refugees escaping war zones, and an amorphous “invasion” of migrants or refugees re-figured as potential “terrorists.” Furthermore, following the moral panic over sexual assaults during the 2016 New Year’s Eve festivities in Köln/Cologne – allegedly perpetrated by unruly “North African or Middle Eastern” young men (purportedly including “asylum-seekers”) – newly arrived, “culturally alien,” “unassimilated” (and by implication, unassimilable) “Muslim”/“Arab” “asylum-seekers” are similarly re-figured now as potential “criminals,” and particularly as “sexual predators” and “rapists,” prone to dangerous and violent types of “deviancy,” to be rendered deportable and expelled. Hence, the “emergency” associated with the uncontrolled arrival of migrants and refugees has quickly become not only a matter of border enforcement but also mundane policing, and signals an incipient “crisis” of social order.

Notably, the European “debt crisis” also seems to be deeply intertwined with the “migration crisis”: among the countless criticisms of fiscal “irresponsibility” leveled against Greece (now more than ever severely debilitated by EU austerity policies), for instance, it is crucial to recall the allegation regarding the Greek state’s apparent incapacity to “manage” the influx of an estimated three-quarters of a million refugees and migrants who arrived on its shores in 2015 alone, leading to threats to suspend Greece’s inclusion in the Schengen zone “unless it overhauls its response to the migration crisis.”3

The wild proliferation and continuous eruption of the language of “crisis” evidently commands some critical scrutiny (see Roitman 2014 for the most comprehensive review of the relevant literature and a very instructive critical discussion of Koselleck 2006; Shank 2008; Starn 1971; Parrochia 2008, in particular; cf. Agamben 2013; Béjin and Morin 1976; Foucault 2007; Klein 2007). First of all, if the term “crisis” is commonly used to denote a situation of disruption of the norm within a prior situation of presumed stability (Roitman 2014:4), and thereby associated with imminent danger demanding immediate action, we must recognize that – regarding illegalized migration into and across Europe – the very distinction between (and separation of) what is ostensibly “stable” and “in crisis” is altogether tenuous, indeed, dubious. Illegalized migration in Europe arises as a very predictable and inevitable effect of a migration regime that forecloses mobility for the great majority of people from most of the world. The illegalized migration regime is geographically heterogeneous and extensive and temporally enduring. Furthermore, it operates through the putative “failure” of multiple states to prevent the exit or entry of migrants and refugees who have been effectively denied any legal right to access these various states’ territories. A state of “crisis” with regard to illegalized migration across the EU’s frontiers is therefore the norm rather than the exception, and the convulsive but plainly routine government of illegalized migration appears to both operate through “crisis” and yet to be in a permanent crisis itself. Likewise, the global financial “crisis” of 2007–08 and its continuing repercussions within the EU and the Euro-zone are best understood to be unsettling, destructive, and violent features of the normal functioning of capitalism, rather than some unforeseen or unfathomable anomaly. As David Harvey demonstrates, “crises are essential to the reproduction of capitalism. It is in the course of crises that the instabilities of capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about” (Harvey 2014:ix). Furthermore, the ongoing turmoil of war and civil war across multiple regions of the globe, and particularly in the Middle East and Africa, can only be adequately comprehended as the very predictable result of colonial and neocolonial occupations and military interventions during not only the last several years but rather over the last century or more (Gregory 2004). Hence, we can only ask: When was the Middle East not “in crisis”? When was Africa not “in crisis”? Or, to put the question more precisely, we may ask with Janet Roitman: “how can one think about Africa—or think ‘Africa’ [or indeed, ‘the Middle East’]—otherwise than under the sign of crisis?” (2014:98n6), which indeed is to say, “otherwise than in terms of pathology” (2014:114n76). While we must be wary of recapitulating well-worn colonialist and Orientalist tropes attributing violence and volatility to these regions, it is imperative to draw attention not to any supposedly inherent proclivity toward violence or incapacity for selfgovernment but rather to the contradictory legacies of conflict and the enduring realities of social and political fracture that originate with European (and Euro-American) imperialism and their deeply destabilizing effects.

Hence, it is doubtful whether the “crisis” label can serve to clarify anything, and rather more likely that it serves instead to further obfuscate. As Roitman (2014:5) cautions, “through the term ‘crisis,’ the singularity of events is abstracted by a generic logic, making crisis a term that seems self-explanatory.” It is therefore instructive to recall the political uses that “crisis” may be pressed to serve. Labeling a complex situation (such as that of the contemporary dynamics of mass migration and refugee movements) as a “crisis” and therefore as “exceptional” tends to conceal the violence and permanent exception that are the norm under global capitalism and our global geo-politics, and may serve to perpetuate the conditions that have led to the purported “emergency” in the first place. Reinhart Koselleck (2006) offers a useful genealogy of the term “crisis,” underscoring that the concept originally evokes decision and judgment, helping to draw our attention to the new spaces of intervention and government that discourses about the (multiple) European “crises” have opened up.

Indeed, the proclamation of “crisis” consequently serves the ends of particular forms of governmental intervention, usually through the deployment of authoritarian measures: a situation of “crisis,” after all, appears to demand immediate responses that cannot afford the more prolonged temporalities of democratic debate and deliberative processes, or so we are told. In this regard, Giorgio Agamben (2013) has incisively remarked:

The concept ‘crisis’ has indeed become a motto of modern politics, and for a long time it has been part of normality in any segment of social life . . . ‘Crisis’ in ancient medicine meant a judgement, when the doctor noted at the decisive moment whether the sick person would survive or die. The present understanding of crisis, on the other hand, refers to an enduring state. So this uncertainty is extended into the future, indefinitely. It is exactly the same with the theological sense; the Last Judgement was inseparable from the end of time. Today, however, judgement is divorced from the idea of resolution and repeatedly postponed. So the prospect of a decision is ever less, and an endless process of decision never concludes. Today crisis has become an instrument of rule. It serves to legitimize political and economic decisions that in fact dispossess citizens and deprive them of any possibility of decision.

As if to illustrate Agamben’s contention, the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles De Kerkove, glibly remarked to the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee in a meeting following the Charlie Hebdo shootings: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”4 Here we confront the well-worn sensibility that has always informed the most reactionary political forces as well as the most parasitic forms of disaster capitalism (Klein 2007; Loewenstein 2015; Mirowski 2013) – that “crisis” always signals “opportunity.”

What “crisis”? Whose “crisis”? Who gains, and who loses, from the labeling of the present conjuncture as “crisis”? These are the urgent and critical questions that we must ask every time we encounter the word “crisis.” If we are skeptical of the language of “crisis” in analytical terms and critical of the political consequences that this rhetoric facilitates, we nevertheless certainly cannot deny that we have been confronting a period of momentous transformations in and around Europe, which is still unfolding rapidly before our eyes, and for which we are at pains to provide an account. Following Roitman, we may reaffirm: “ The point is to observe crisis as a blind spot, and hence to apprehend the ways in which it regulates narrative constructions, the ways in which it allows certain questions to be asked while others are foreclosed” (2014:94). If the term “crisis” can be of any use, then, it is in recalling its etymological meaning, from the Greek krisis (from krinein): “to separate, decide, judge, a distinctive force” (Starn 1971:3; cf. Agamben 2015; Koselleck 2006; Roitman 2014:15-16). A crisis, rather than referring to an external and objective state of affairs “out there,” would instead point to a moment of deep change that challenges our capacity to judge and make sense of it. If there is in fact any use in naming any crisis at all, therefore, it may be first and foremost an epistemic crisis – a crisis of knowledge and the categories of knowledge — or in Roitman’s words, an “epistemological impasse” claimed or invoked in order “to found the possibility for other historical trajectories or even for a (new) future” (2014:4).

How do we, as scholars of borders and migration, propose to contribute to the considerably more expansive collective task of producing a critical “history of the present” (Foucault 1984), in a way that would be grounded in our particular field of inquiry but extend beyond it? How might we, in Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson’s terms (2013), use borders and migration as “epistemic devices” to interrogate our contemporary historical and sociopolitical conjuncture? Some of the conceptual repertoire that has been developed to critically analyze borders and migration may be instructive, we propose, for making sense of some of the wider socio-spatial recompositions at work in the present historical conjuncture. Migration and borders undoubtedly serve as “political seismographers” of sorts, registering, through their movements in time and space, some of the deep transformations affecting the wider historical and geo-political scene, in this instance, “Europe” and its vicinity. However, the movements of migrants and refugees themselves are not simply “moved” by deeper or greater forces, and rather must be understood to constitute subjective and autonomous motive forces of social and political change in their own right (see “Subjectivity” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015).

Furthermore, it is crucial to note that the proliferation of a “crisis” of borders and migration “in” Europe also involves a kind of spatial proliferation that makes it impossible for any of these phenomena to be neatly confined within the presumed parameters of “Europe”: we cannot “contain” our analysis within “European” (much less, EU-ropean) geo-political boundaries (see “Counter-mapping” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Indeed, the very borders and boundaries attributed to “Europe” are unsettled by the transnational dynamics and inter-continental scale of migrant and refugee movements, and therefore by the spatial multiplication of socio-political interconnections among and across these different but interrelated “crises.” Moreover, the prevailing focus on the “problems” that these “crises” cause for and in “Europe,” or on how these “problems” would appear to have been caused somewhere “outside” of “Europe” or on its “margins,” persistently portrays these “troubling” movements as chain reactions that originate somewhere “external” to “Europe” (or at least outside of its “core”). Affiliated thus to what always seem to be endemically chaotic borderlands or warzones – and only worsened through the opportunism of “smugglers” or “corrupt” government officials in these spaces ostensibly marred by lawlessness or, at best, a deficit of the “rule of law” – such illegalized migrant and refugee mobilities are depicted as moving always through regions that are insufficiently policed, finally to end up in “Europe.” Apparently compounding lawlessness with still more lawlessness, defying the “rule of law” with their blatant “illegality,” these “irregular” migrants and refugees can apparently only corrode the socio-economic, cultural, political, legal “order.” Such imaginings and representations of contemporary illegalized migration suggest not only that “Europe” is confronted with a “crisis” that originates “elsewhere,” therefore, but also that “Europe” is a kind of “victim” of unfathomable conflicts erupting elsewhere, derived from the incapacity or incompetence of (postcolonial) “others” to adequately govern themselves. By implication, the “unwashed masses” who flee such places similarly can be presumed to be essentially incompetent for properly “modern” (“democratic,” self-governing) citizenship (De Genova 2013b). Likewise, such representations insinuate that “Europe” (with its multiple contradictory regimes of citizenship, security, and border and migration management) is somehow an “innocent” bystander, not implicated in the “causes” of these “foreign” conflicts and “crises,” whether in direct and immediate socio-economic, developmentalist, and (geo-)political senses, or in the more complex and mediated historical sense (Walters 2010).

Thus, critically analyzing the “European” border “crisis” involves repudiating at the same time the sort of methodological Europeanism (and methodological Eurocentrism) that sustains many analyses about migration and borders “in” Europe, by refusing to uncritically assume “Europe” (or indeed, EU-rope) to be the singular or primary spatial referent of these multiple crises (Garelli and Tazzioli 2013b; van Baar 2016a). What is more, from the point of view of sheer numbers, the “refugee crisis” has a far greater magnitude in other places, particularly in the immediate borderlands of the various conflict zones, and thus, represents a far more dire “crisis” for many countries of the so-called Global South. Nevertheless, the current transformations have in common the distinguishing characteristics of profound spatial upheaval both in Europe and beyond, and involve a veritable re-drawing of borders and other spatial boundaries (see “Counter-mapping” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Again, to make sense of what otherwise presents itself as a “crisis” of border control for the various sovereign powers implicated in the heterogeneous and externalized superintendence of the European border regime, the primacy of the autonomy and subjectivity of human mobility is paramount.

Let us briefly examine two illustrative and instructive examples:

Migration and “the Arab Spring”: The series of Arab uprisings that ensued from the catalytic events in Tunisia, which culminated in the fall of the Ben Ali regime on14 January 2011, eventually included the fall of regimes in Libya and Egypt and situations of severe political unrest in other countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, as well as protracted civil wars in Libya and Syria. Not unlike the protracted formations of migrant and refugee movements from Afghanistan and Iraq, the plight of Syrians fleeing violence since 2012 exemplifies the paradigm of migration as a mere “reflection” (or byproduct) of wider global geo-political dynamics, since we may perceive these mobilities as “determined” by the successive phases of the conflict. However, such an account fundamentally fails to account for the collective movement that these migrants and refugees constitute, overcoming each and every border that has been erected to obstruct their pathways and impede their trajectories, and therefore apprehensible – objectively speaking – as one of the most important instances of mass transnational civil disobedience in recent history. Perhaps in hindsight, we may one day regard these mass global movements of border defiance as we now understand such historical events as the Salt March led by Gandhi or the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King. The migration of nearly 30,000 Tunisians in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Ben Ali regime allows us to think further about the articulation between migration and revolutionary processes, rather than conceiving of migration as merely a secondary effect of an apparently more primary political process that may be imagined to be strictly confined spatially and delimited temporally to an “elsewhere,” ostensibly outside of Europe (Garelli et al, 2013; Garelli and Tazzioli 2013a; Tazzioli 2014). Tunisians seized the opportunity of the temporary power vacuum in January 2011 to cross the sea to Italy in broad daylight, often to the sound of songs and the beating of drums. By seizing their freedom to move across the borders that had been sealed to them through the collaboration between the Ben Ali regime and the EU, they indicated that their aspirations to freedom and justice were directed not only in opposition to the way their country was governed within, but also against the way they were governed by the EU’s violent and discriminatory migration regime from beyond (but also encompassing) Tunisia’s borders (Garelli et al, 2013). Once they arrived on Italian territory, Tunisians succeeded in evading controls for a time, sending a crisis of control rippling through the Schengen zone – with particularly de-stabilizing consequences between Italy and France. In the summer of 2011, having arrived in Paris, Tunisian migrants occupied a building and posted banners audaciously announcing their own spirit of revolutionary generosity toward a Europe wracked by “the crisis”: “We’ve come to help you do the same.” Notably, European social movements contesting the imposition of austerity policies thereafter resorted to the repertoire of occupying the central squares of their most important cities, often explicitly invoking the inspiration that came from their counterparts during the dramatic events of the so-called “Arab Spring.”

Migration and the EU’s Uneven Geography: The European “debt crisis” and the “crisis of the Euro-zone” have been both the product of EU’s uneven geography and a catalyst further aggravating this unevenness (Gambarotto and Solari 2014; Hadjimichalis 2011). As Étienne Balibar (2012) has incisively noted, “one part of Europe is transforming another part into an internal post-colony” through a process of “zoning” in which “the inequalities of globalization reproduce themselves” in the heart of these countries and regions. However, “the limits between the zones,” Balibar continues, “are blurry, unpredictable,” contributing to the destabilization of “historical nations”: it is difficult to anticipate “between which countries will they pass, or within which country, between which regions.” It seems to us impossible to apprehend the current rippling effect of the “crisis” of migration and borders without inscribing it as a volatile force coconstituted with these shifting zones, the moving contours of which can be partly read through the very mobilities of migrants and refugees. Migrants and refugees have crossed the sea or trekked across the Balkans, but have consistently sought to move further onward from their ports of arrival or border crossings by land in the southern and eastern European “peripheries,” and aimed for northern and western countries where they may have better prospects of receiving legal protection and social benefits, as well as finding jobs or linking up with already existing migratory networks. Migrants’ movements thus register and maneuver among the increasing differentials within EU-ropean territory – not only in terms of narrowly economic gaps between standards of living, but also with regard to social welfare provision, legal protection, and so on – and thus constitute a kind of “rating agency from below”5: migrants are not only “voting with their feet” through “strategies of exit” (Hirschman 1970), but also “rating with their feet,” downgrading or disqualifying countries that they deem to be not sufficiently “European” – not fulfilling their ideal of “Europe” as an obscure object of desire. However, these aspirations defy the Dublin regulations – according to which the first EU member state to register an incoming migrant/refugee’s petition for asylum is responsible for processing the individual applicants’ claim, and to which the “asylum-seekers” are thereafter to be spatially confined. Thus, migrants and refugees’ desires have instigated a deep political crisis at the level EU institutions as well as between member states, as exemplified by the tense situations at the borders between Italy and France (Ventimiglia), between France and the UK (Calais), as well as between the numerous countries of Eastern Europe and their more prosperous neighbors to the west and north, such as Germany and Sweden. Both in terms of the comparative attraction for migrants, and in terms of the lines of conflict surrounding the different states’ duties and competencies for border enforcement, an increasing core-periphery dynamic is at work within the space of the EU. The pressure being currently exerted on the so-called “frontline states” (the member states located at the EU’s southern and eastern borders) further confirms that the uneven geography of “Europe” is continuously being reconfigured. Hence, we are observing forms of internal externalization (see Heller and Pezanni, in their adjoining contribution to “Near Futures Online”), reminiscent of the processes of externalizing migration enforcement and border control to various non-EU countries since the beginning of the 2000s (see “Externalization” in Casas-Corte et al. 2015). In the process, the increasing role of Frontex calls for new EU-level border policing and asylum processing agencies, and the more general pressure of states such as France and Germany on member states at the “front lines” of the European border regime, demanding greater vigilance and dedication to the ceaseless task of controlling human mobility, begins to more and more resemble the troikaization of migration control.

It is impossible to understand the current rapidly shifting trajectories of illegalized migrants and refugees, and the volatile bordering practices that are desperately aimed at containing them, short of articulating them within these wider socio-economic and political processes. Nevertheless, as these examples show, migration and borders are deeply enmeshed and participate in the wider transversal transformations affecting the meta-“European” region, and conversely provide a productive and indispensable perspective from which to interrogate them. Through the critical lens of migration and borders, therefore, “the crisis” in and of Europe – ramifying across the full spectrum of economy, politics, law, and policy – may be revealed in a radically new light.

Essay series continues on next page…


Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”

“Migrant Crisis” / “Refugee Crisis”

Nicholas De Genova, Elena Fontanari, Fiorenza Picozza, Laia Soto Bermant, Aila Spathopoulou, Maurice Stierl, Zakeera Suffee, Martina Tazzioli, Huub van Baar + Can Yildiz

Mass media news coverage has vacillated remarkably between depictions of a European “refugee crisis” and the implicitly more derisive label “migrant crisis.” It is a telling fact that literally every BBC News article related to these topics posted is accompanied with a kind of disclaimer: “A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.” In short, in this example and many others, the epistemic crisis related to migration and refugee movements is deflected and displaced: the vexed question of how most appropriately to characterize people on the move without “authorization” across nation-state borders is deferred to a presumed eventual decision on the part of the “proper” governmental authorities, the ostensible “experts,” who purport to manage Europe’s border regime by assessing asylum claims and adjudicating the matter of who may qualify as a “legitimate” and “credible” refugee (see “Politics of protection” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Until such a day of reckoning, however, all refugees may be reduced to the presumed status of “mere” migrants. Indeed, in the discourse of the “migrant crisis,” it would seem that the term “migrant” in fact refers exclusively to “illegal” migrants, and therefore is profoundly implicated in the rendering of “migration” as inextricable from a global / postcolonial politics of class and race. Here, we are reminded furthermore that the very term “asylum seeker” is always already suggestive of a basic suspicion of all people who petition for asylum within a European asylum system that routinely and systematically disqualifies and rejects the great majority of applicants, and thereby ratifies anew the processes by which their mobilities have been illegalized (De Genova 2002; 2013b). As the outcome of the exclusionary politics of asylum, the current “refugee crisis” is in fact producing an enormous expansion of the rejected refugee population in Europe, and thus recomposing their “migrant”/(rejected) “refugee” “illegality” in relation to new formations of class and race inequalities (see “Migrant labour,” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015).

To begin with, it is crucial to highlight the fundamentally misleading and unstable character of the opposition of the terms “refugees,” “asylum-seekers,” and “migrants.” Unlike “refugee,” for instance, the term “migrant” does not strictly correspond to a specific legal status and by implication does the work of consigning various people on the move to the nebulous category of presumptive “irregularity” or “illegality.” Nonetheless, as suggested above, the more rarefied term “refugee” can tend to relinquish any analytical substance to the narrowly juridical (and highly exclusionary) determinations of governmental authorities. Meanwhile, the term “asylum-seeker” overtly signals the subjection of people on the move to the asylum application procedure, but commonly encompasses both those who will and will not ultimately be granted the status of “refugee,” as well as various intermediary juridical categories of partial recognition and provisional (often precarious) “legality.” Yet, “asylum-seeker” in no sense adequately describes the complex historically specific social and political trajectories of those who find themselves compelled to apply for asylum in the absence of any other “legal” routes for mobility and access to Europe.

Furthermore, migrant subjects who come to be officially recognized as “refugees” and find themselves in possession of a temporary “legal” status nonetheless experience the precarity that is produced by the EU’s exclusionary politics of asylum. Indeed, the contradictory polices of abandonment and control that are deployed by governmental authorities (both EU institutions and national states) in order to govern asylum are characterized by a profound ambivalence that generates various absurd hybrids for those who inhabit “the margins of the state” (Das and Poole 2004), who come to resemble “half-citizens” or “illegal citizens” (Rigo 2007). Subjected to contradictory legal conditionalities, these semi-“legal” migrant/refugee subjects are sometimes trapped in protracted conditions of precarious “legality” and legally enforced immobilization, while at other times, the uncertainties of their juridical condition compel them to move restlessly across state borders under conditions of illegalized mobility and irregularized (temporary) residence (Picozza n.d.). For example, some refugees (originally from sub-Saharan African countries, who had been living and working as migrant workers in Libya for years) escaped persecution and civil war in Libya in 2011, and upon arrival in Italy, were treated as “asylum-seekers” or “temporary refugees” under the North Africa Emergency plan. Then, after enduring homelessness and unemployment in Italy, sometimes for more than three years, when they decided to abandon their destitution and move on in search of better life prospects, crisscrossing Europe, they were abruptly converted into “illegal migrants.” Those who have been registered as “asylum-seekers” or granted tentative “legal” statuses in an EU member state, such as Italy in this instance,fall under the EU’s Dublin regulation: hence, when they relocate to other EU countries to temporarily live and work “irregularly,” they are re-illegalized (reduced to the status of mere “migrants”), and upon apprehension by authorities, may be deported back to Italy. A juridical instability and a geographical hyper-mobility results, which can be understood as an effect of the tensions and conflicts between migrant subjects’ attempts to freely move and make their lives in Europe, on the one hand, and the efforts of EU and nation-state authorities to control and manage these contested mobilities. “Europe” thus emerges as a space of competing practices where borders are continually contested, negotiated, and re-defined, with the vexed question of asylum figured as a central contradiction of the taxonomic power and mechanisms of border control and migration “management” (see “Politics of protection” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). This condition of subjection to the Dublin regulation is in no sense unique to this example, however (Brekke, J. and Brochmann 2015; Kasparek 2015; Picozza n.d.; Schuster 2011a,b), and increasingly reveals how thoroughly the EU-ropean asylum system works effectively as a machine for the production of migrant “illegality” (De Genova 2013b).

Germany’s much-celebrated putatively “humanitarian” response to the dramatic influx of refugees and migrants, implemented over the summer of 2015 – effectively opening its borders (albeit very selectively, primarily for people from Syria) and notably, partially suspending the Dublin regulation – has to be understood as a retroactive adjustment to the fact that migrants and refugees have been crossing these same borders for at least two years and have been living “irregularly” on German territory in ever-increasing numbers. Moreover, in Germany as elsewhere, this sort of de facto “amnesty” (masked as a “humanitarian” policy) has been accompanied at the national as well as EU levels by the implementation of new restrictive asylum policies for other (illegalized) migrants and refugees. With the summary designation of various states as “safe third countries,” for instance, a policy of relative “welcome” for some has allowed for the preemptive exclusion of other refugees based only on their national origins, as well as the prospective deportation of many more refugees who have been petitioning for asylum in EU-rope for several years.1 Such national-level measures must be seen alongside the new forms of EU-level border control and migration management, such as the proposals for a new system of asylum-seeker allocation and distribution among member states – the so-called “quota system” – which would impose new forms of coerced mobility as well as forms of forced immobilization, analogous to those long instituted through the Dublin regulation, for migrant subjects.

Indeed, over the course of 2015, European responses to the arrival of people in search of asylum has been increasingly characterized by a politics of containment, aiming to block migrants and refugees prior to entering the territory of EU member states, at the “pre-frontiers” of “Europe.” The bilateral agreements signed by the European Union with Turkey at the end of 2015, as well as the EU military operation European Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNavFor-Med) to “fight migrant smugglers,” have resulted in increasing numbers of refugees and migrants halted in Turkey or Libya. Yet, the politics of containment has been enforced within the “European” space as well: with the creation of new detention camps – the so-called “hotspots” – points of entry such as Greece and Italy have been transformed into spaces of detention, sorting, and deportation, where the crude criteria of nationality has commonly become the main distinction utilized for partitioning those who are permitted to enter EU-rope to seek asylum and those who are blocked or illegalized (see “Differential inclusion/ exclusion” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Thus, an expedited asylum procedure is meant to also serve the ends of expedited deportations for all those who are disqualified.

As a new and ambiguous form of detention center, “hotspot” emerges as the name for a new strategy for the capture of migrant mobilities: they reconfigure the demarcation of borderzones at the external frontiers of EU-rope (and also within the “European” space) that trace exclusionary partitions among migrants and refugees, giving some a pass as “legitimate” while illegalizing others as “unworthy” of asylum. The “hotspot” system, first launched in May 2015 and officially implemented in September in Italy and Greece, represents the restructuring of mechanisms of capture and identification in response to the migration “turmoil” at the external frontiers of Europe. According to these “hotspot” logics, Greece and Italy should operate as border zones for the enactment of a sort of pre-selection process, identifying and fingerprinting as quickly as possible all new arrivals and partitioning them as either “genuine” prospective refugees and all others, who promptly become deportable. Lampedusa and Lesvos will hereby function increasingly as island prisons, where the supposedly accelerated temporality of fast identification procedures – conducted “on the spot” – is combined with an indefinite detention (and protracted immobilization) for any migrants or refugees who refuse to be fingerprinted.

October 2015: While the weather deteriorates, refugees wait for registration without adequate shelter, food, medical care or sanitary facilities in the Moria “Hot Spot” in Lesvos, Greece.
September 2015: Moria Refugee Camp in the Greek Island of Lesbos. (Anadolu Agency)

In December 2015, 250 Eritrean refugees organized a protest on Lampedusa, demanding to be released from the camp where they had been detained for two months for refusing to give their fingerprints.

“No Fingerprint!”

Thus, centers of first “reception” in EU-rope become spatial traps for migrants. Likewise, the so-called “military-humanitarian” modes of border government are transformed into a police function, performed by EU-ropean actors (such as the border enforcement agency, Frontex) alongside humanitarian ones (such as UNHCR).

These new forms of bordering only exacerbate the uneven geographies of “Europe,” however. For example, on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Samos, local governments have largely acquiesced and accepted the transformation of their islands into “hotspots,” welcoming the arrival of assorted humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR, the Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders. In striking contrast, the local governments of other prospective Greek island “hotspots,” such as Kos and the small island of Agathonisi (near Leros), have persistently refused the implementation of “hotspot” camps and the installation of humanitarian NGOs, claiming that both the border policing and humanitarian functions will merely convert these islands into magnets attracting the arrival of more migrants and refugees on their shores and, consequently, damage the local tourism-driven economies. Hence, in the context of the economic “crisis,” authorities and many other local interests on these islands perceive the EU-ropeanization of their management of the “migration” and “refugee crisis” as simply another manifestation of a larger “European threat” that has devastated Greece’s economic viability, more generally. From the standpoint of some of EU-rope’s beleaguered borderlands, therefore, the deepening integration of military tactics and humanitarian techniques reappears not as a “solution” to the “crisis” of the border but rather as one more series of measures that will further escalate the (double) “crisis.”

Furthermore, transit zones such as the Eidomeni camp at the Greek-Macedonian border – where the deeply consequential partition between “refugees” and “everyone else” is made on the crude basis of nationality (such that only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed to cross) – or the makeshift self-organized refugee/migrant camp at Calais near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel leading into Britain – where many migrants are periodically apprehended and deported by French authorities – operate informally as de facto “hotspots.” Reacting to the practices of mobility and the spaces of transit instigated by migrant subjects, these official and informal “hotspots” are simply among the most prominent signs of the new compulsion for EU and nation-state institutions to re-organize their responses to the autonomy and subjectivity of migration, in a feckless effort to sort, rank, and manage these human mobilities – all the while callously eroding any presumed “right” to asylum, and re-instituting the larger mechanisms for the preemptive illegalization of cross-border mobility on the part of the majority of humankind.

The multiplication of borders and the heterogeneity of border zones (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013) have been the hallmark of the ongoing “crisis” of migration in Europe. The perfunctory and euphemistic expression “mixed migration flows” is increasingly used by policy makers to reflect the veritable impossibility for states and migration agencies to fully domesticate and discipline the unruly practices of mobility that constantly exceed the boundaries of existing governmental categories and criteria for partitioning distinct formations of human mobility. What is commonly called “the migrant crisis” or “the refugee crisis” actually reflects the frantic attempt by the EU and European nation-states to control, contain, and govern people’s (“unauthorized”) transnational and inter-continental movements. Indeed, the naming of this “crisis” as such appears to be precisely a device for the authorization of exceptional or “emergency” governmental measures – and then their normalization – toward the ends of enhanced and expanded border enforcement and immigration policing. It could be said, then, that the “crisis” itself operates as a critical moment that allows governments to push through controversial policies while citizens are too intellectually distracted, emotionally manipulated, or otherwise paralyzed by the border spectacle to organize any adequate or consequential form of resistance (De Genova 2002; 2013b; see also “Border Spectacle” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015; cf. Klein 2007). The ongoing “crisis” therefore corresponds above all to a crisis of sovereignty and the exercise of a power over classifying, naming and partitioning the “migrants”/ “refugees.”

Notably, the very terms “migrant crisis” and “refugee crisis” tend to personalize “crisis” and relocate “crisis” in the body and person of the figurative migrant/refugee, as if s/he is the carrier of a disease called “crisis,” and thus carries the contagion of “crisis” wherever s/he may go. Most importantly, the figure of the migrant/refugee hereby threatens “Europe” with its incurable and contagious malady. Whether this figure of personified “crisis” appears in the Mediterranean or Aegean Seas, or at the barbed-wire barricades on land – from Calais to Ceuta to the small border towns of Hungary or Bulgaria – the illegalized migrant or refugee’s physical presence and transgressive mobility delivers “crisis” to the amorphous symbolic membrane surrounding amoeba-like “Europe,” whenever and wherever it is “violated” by “foreign” bodies. Some of these embodiments of “crisis” are literally converted into figures of death as the corpses of migrants and refugees become spectacularly visible through the proliferation of images of dead bodies floating in the sea or washing upon the shores of “Europe”; others are hunted, wounded, exhausted, covered in dust and mud, or depicted in frenzied crowds, charging fences or climbing through the windows of trains – like cockroaches, commonly likened to a menacing “invasion” or catastrophic “floods,” if not outright “infestations” or “swarms”: wherever they are heading, they appear to bring “the crisis” with them. These spectacles sterilize Europe and divorce it from its “umbilical connection” (Hall 2008) to the diverse regions from which illegalized migrants and refugees come, and thus systematically dissimulates Europe’s precisely (post-)colonial interest in the natural resources and human labor of these (usually) formerly colonized lands. Migration thus presents itself as a disruptive manifestation of the postcolonial heritage of Europe (De Genova 2010c;2016). The terms “migrant” or “refugee crisis” therefore seem to be aimed at compelling us to imagine a “crisis” embodied in the human beings who, through their illegalized mobilities, now come to be racialized as “migrant.” In this context, the migrant struggle slogan, We are here, because you were there! continues to afford a resounding understanding of this phenomenon called “crisis” inasmuch as it invites us – indeed, requires us – to recognize Europe’s role in the very production of this “crisis.”

However, it remains crucial to underscore that the current “crisis” of border control and migration “management” is instigated, first and foremost, by the sheer autonomy and subjectivity of human mobility itself, and arises as an effect of the multifarious and entangled reasons for which people move across state borders without “authorization” or, alternately, find themselves stranded en route, stuck someplace along the way in their migratory trajectories. In this regard, in the face of the proliferation of alternating and seemingly interchangeable discourses of “migrant” or “refugee crisis,” the primary question that must be asked is: Whose “crisis”? In fact, this is fundamentally a “crisis” of (postcolonial) state power over the transnational human mobility of those whose movements are otherwise presumptively disqualified as “illegal” (effectively, on the grounds of global class, race, or nationality inequalities). Thus, we may begin to appreciate that this “crisis” is really a moment of governmental impasse that is being mobilized and strategically deployed for the reconfiguration of tactics and techniques of border policing.

This “crisis” therefore must also be seized as an opportunity for re-thinking and re-inventing border struggles toward the ends of reinforcing and enhancing the elementary human freedom of movement (De Genova 2010b). In particular, it is crucial to call attention to the new spaces of “transit” opened up by the migrants and refugees themselves, and consequently the ways in which these “irregular” human mobilities have scrambled and re-shuffled the social and political geography of “Europe.” Furthermore, we must begin to recognize and theorize the convoluted (un-mapped and potentially un-mappable) migratory routes that correspond to migrant and refugee movements across the European space that do not abide by the unidirectional (Eurocentric) arrows of the hegemonic cartographic representations of “the crisis” propagated by Frontex or the IOM (see “Counter-Mapping” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). In this respect, the “crisis” of the European border regime provoked by the myriad autonomies and subjectivities of human mobilities presents us with a moment replete not only with as-yet unresolved conflicts but also unimagined potentialities.

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Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”

Numbers (or, The Spectacle of Statistics in the Production of “Crisis”)

Maurice Stierl, Charles Heller + Nicholas De Genova

A significant practice deployed to instill a sense of “crisis” with regard to contemporary movements of people into “Europe” is the constant circulation of accounts of dramatically rising numbers of recent migrant and refugee arrivals. In short, there is a politics of numbers that is crucial for any critical migration and borders scholarship or activism to expose. This numbers game, exploited by national governments, EU institutions, and international organizations, as well as fear-mongering news media and right-wing populist political parties, routinely serve to fortify the more general staging of a spectacle of “invasion” or “inundation” conjured by images of seemingly desperate “foreign” (orientalized) masses seeking entry to places where they ostensibly do not belong, have no legitimate claim, and are presumably unwelcome. The Mediterranean Sea in particular has long been a space for the staging of continuous “border spectacles” (De Genova 2002; 2013b) where migrant vessels arriving on European shores evoke phantasmatic imaginaries of “siege.” Alongside this proliferation of images and discourse, an incessant circulation of numbers thus plays a crucial role in the production of a “crisis” of migration and borders.

The strategic use of statistics generates the homogenized and aggregate representations that are decisive for erasing the individuality and political subjectivity of people on the move as well as effacing their collective struggles and hardships, and thus for portraying “unauthorized” border crossers as a menace. Some political collectives, such as United, have offered counter-counts, emphasizing the urgency of circulating data and other information with respect to those who have lost their lives braving European borders, but whose tragedies have largely gone uncounted by state authorities and border policing agencies such as Frontex. Here, we seek instead to interrogate how the discourse and sense of “crisis” is produced through the politics of counting, or, what we will call the spectacle of statistics.

Notably, the imaginary and rhetorics of migrant “invasion” seem reserved for the countries of the so-called Global North – the EU, the United States, and Australia, in particular. However, the statistical graphs and maps representing numerical data quantifying the supposed “mass influx” of migrants or refugees into the sacrosanct space of “Europe” – themselves echoed by the wave shape that high and low points of interceptions predictably produce in graphs – conceal as much as they reveal. In the first place, by focusing exclusively on the movement of people across the frontiers of the EU, they by definition leave out the reality that countries neighboring conflict zones have borne the inordinate burden of providing safe haven for people fleeing violence, taking in hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of refugees, usually for several years if not decades. Of the millions of Syrians who have fled their country since 2011, more than 2 million re-settled in Turkey, more than 1 million in Lebanon (where Syrians now make up roughly a third of the total population), more than half a million to Jordan, and several hundreds of thousands to Iraq and Egypt. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees and about half a million South Sudanese refugees have relocated to Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. The same is true for the disproportionate number of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, who have primarily moved into neighboring countries. That some among these untold millions of displaced people would also seek to move toward Europe cannot be surprising. Any of these countries of the so-called Global South would surely have far greater grounds to speak of a “refugee crisis” than the EU. Indeed, by contrast, British politicians and news media began to refer to a “crisis” at Calais in the summer of 2015, when the border barriers were charged by only several hundred (or at most, two or three thousand) migrants and refugees, whom the British Prime Minister himself depicted as “swarms.” Moreover, it is also vital to recognize that European wealth, power, and prestige have long been deeply implicated in the imperial domination and pillage of the same countries and regions of the so-called Global South from which these migrant and refugee movements originate. Such European implicated-ness of course includes not only histories of direct colonial plunder and domination, but also various manifestations of past and present interference, investment, and intervention as well as disregard and malign neglect that have contributed to violent postcolonial instability and the consequent dislocations that have “uprooted” migrants and refugees in the first place. Thus, refusing the methodological Europeanism (Garelli and Tazzioli 2013b) of this statistical spectacle allows (and requires) us to ask: Whose crisis is this?

Challenging the ways in which numbers are deployed is not to suggest that the changing number of migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe is in any sense politically insignificant. The year 2015 has indeed been a historic and monumental year of migration for Europe precisely because disobedient mass mobilities have disrupted the European regime of border control. As critical scholars of migration, maintaining a “critical distance” from this numbers game in our own research is important in itself, but what seems all the more urgent is a more elementary general skepticism toward the spectacle of numbers in favor of questioning how, why, by and for whom, and to what ends these acts of (official) counting are performed. As Nando Sigona (2015) has pointed out, for example, the release of figures on migrant and refugee arrivals plays a crucial role in framing and generating public debate. In that knowledge, therefore, the European border agency Frontex released data suggesting that, as of September 2015, 710,000 “migrants” had entered the EU. However, comparing these numbers to those collected by the IOM and the UN (which differed substantially), Sigona detected that Frontex had in fact been double-counting: they elided the difference between multiple entries (or attempted entries) by individual migrants with the specter of a multiplicity of migrants, repeatedly counting the same individuals who had each crossed into EU territory several times as so many distinct “migrants.” Likewise, the de facto “uncountability” of many of the newly arrived has equally been instrumentalized in discourses calling for heightened “border protection.” The “crisis of the Schengen system,” largely provoked by the inability or unwillingness of many governments to register “asylum-seekers” desiring to simply transit through their countries in order to reach central and northern EU member states, have thus exacerbated imaginaries and rhetorics surrounding “the uncounted” (and thus uncontrolled) “illegal” migrant as a purportedly “dangerous” other within Europe.

Statistics then, beyond their seeming “objectivity,” play a crucial role in framing a given phenomenon as a seemingly self-evident “problem,” and similarly are instrumental for shaping affective and political responses to it. The border spectacle that Nicholas De Genova (2002; 2013b) has incisively analyzed is therefore at work in the very production of statistics but it is also further generated and sustained through the mobilization of the resultant numbers: statistics of interceptions on land or at sea appear to quantify an otherwise elusive and amorphous “threat,” which only becomes “real” and “objective” to the extent that it is measurable. Once counted, then, the alleged “problem” is effectively objectified, and its “reality” appears to be verified. Ironically, this “threat” thus seems to materialize only in the moment of its neutralization through capture by the police power of the state. Through the production of such numbers and the spectacle of statistics, then, it is simultaneously the fetishized menace of “illegal migration” and the securitizing work of states and their border policing agencies that are made visible and given a semblance of “reality.” Hence, alongside other border spectacles, the spectacle of numbers assists in the construction of illegalized migration as “the problem” to which border and other immigration law enforcement measures must be addressed, while the political disorder and economic catastrophes that migrants and refugees have fled are relegated by implication to the status of a mere externality, someone else’s responsibility “elsewhere.” Furthermore, the European border and immigration regime itself, which directly produces the illegalized condition of these migrants and refugees in the first place, appears to simply need further fortification. Hence, the statistical construction of the magnitude of the “problem” of migration predictably leads merely to more securitized and militarized tactics of border control (see also De Genova 2011; 2013a).

Notably, a spectacle of statistics is comparably at work in relation to the “debt crisis,” “the financial crisis,” and all the related avatars of “the crisis” in which the graphic representation of quantitative data (such as credit ratings, currency ratings, growth rates, and so forth) proliferate in the daily news – as if they communicated anything meaningful about our actual economic conditions (Antoniades 2012). The statistics that otherwise might allow us to discern the deeper dynamics that led to the “debt crisis” – specifically, who has benefited from or been devastated by them – almost never enjoy such spectacular prominence. For example, the dramatic surge in the shares of aggregate wealth and income monopolized by the richest 0.1% of the population that was enabled by the turn to neoliberal strategies of accumulation beginning in the 1970s, while real wages and living standards plummeted for the great majority, would suffice to point to an epochal “restoration of class power” (Harvey 2005). Likewise, other statistics – for example, showing the differential expenditures of EU states over time, state revenues from taxes, and the inequalities of tax structures – would allow us to see that it is not that EU states that are imprudent “spendthrifts” but rather that through neoliberal reforms and tax cuts for those with higher incomes, a significant portion of wealth has been increasingly kept in (or returned to) private hands. For years, increasing public and private indebtedness was facilitated and manipulated through financial markets, and thereby made vulnerable to speculation. In the wake of the 2007–08 financial crisis, however, the speculative logic of these markets (through which debts had come to be financed) increased public debt exponentially, to the inordinate benefit of banks and financial services corporations but to the excruciating detriment of social welfare (Attac 2011: 46–62). Thus, we may detect again that the spectacle of numbers in the production of “the migration crisis” – where statistics are also persistently mobilized to generate the specter of onerous public costs in the form of social welfare spending for “opportunistic” migrants and “undeserving” refugees – must be made legible alongside the perfect opacity of the statistics that otherwise conceal the extent of our deepening generalized immiseration through neoliberal strategies of capital accumulation.

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Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”

“Humanitarian Crisis”

Martina Tazzioli, Nicholas De Genova, Elena Fontanari, Irene Peano + Maurice Stierl

Beyond the ongoing disputes and unresolved debates among politicians, policy-makers, advocates, journalists, and scholars over the validity or usefulness of the labels “refugee” or “migrant” for designating those who have come to Europe over recent months or years seeking asylum, what is plainly at stake today in the border regions of Europe is a mass displacement of people fleeing the violence and disruptions of life arising from wars, occupations, insurgencies, and civil wars. It has become convenient politically to attribute much of the current “crisis” to events in Syria (where there continues to be a pertinent question of continuing, renewed, or expanded military intervention by various global or regional powers), but the mobilities of people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Mali, among many other countries of origin, immediately raise the specters of warfare, invasions, and protracted military occupations perpetrated by various European powers (albeit usually alongside the United States). In short, the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe has its origins to a significant extent in areas of severe conflict that have been instigated or aggravated directly by strategic European geo-political and economic interests across the globe.

Thus, it is indispensable to identify the war-migration nexus as an essential part of what today needs to be deeply investigated both for re-thinking a politics of asylum beyond the well-established exclusionary criteria and for revitalizing a critique of the larger European border regime (see “Politics of protection” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Over the last few years, the government of migration in the Mediterranean Sea in particular has been characterized by military-humanitarian interventions intended to simultaneously “rescue” and “interdict” migrants. Operations such as Italy’s Mare Nostrum and Frontex’s Triton, focused on the task of intercepting migrant vessels even prior to their distress at sea, have directly contributed to this sort of militarized humanitarianism. Through this equivocal politics of “rescue,” and of course always as a result of the restrictions imposed by EU-rope’s Schengen visa regime, subjects “in need of protection” have been effectively forced to convert themselves into shipwrecked lives to be saved at sea. Meanwhile, a concomitant politics of preemptive containment has involved preventing migrants from even leaving Libya’s shores to come to Europe to seek asylum, and has been enacted through the negotiation of various bilateral agreements with so-called “third countries” in order to fortify the “pre-frontiers” of Europe. Furthermore, the launch in the summer of 2015 of the EU military mission EUNavFor-Med has been officially promoted as a “war against smugglers” and as a militarized strategy for protecting migrants from “traffickers,” but in fact signifies the coordination at the EU level of efforts to contain migrant and refugee mobilities and forcefully obstruct and disable the logistics of migratory crossings at sea. Meanwhile, increasingly during the second half of 2015, the “politics of rescue” has been substantially replaced with enforcement policies aimed at either blocking or repelling refugees and migrants at the eastern borders of EU-rope. Simultaneously, new measures are underway to install asylum processing centers in Turkey in order to circumvent the continued intrusion of the “refugee crisis” onto “European” territory. In this respect, notably, not only border policing as such but also the asylum system itself becomes implicated in the further externalization of the EU’s border controls (see “Externalization” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015).

Humanitarianism has thus been conscripted to play a crucial role in re-framing the governmental rationale of “migration management” and border control amidst an escalation of border deaths: refugees and migrants, or rather, “people in need of protection” – in striking contrast with those who were previously suspected of being “fake” or “bogus” refugees – have increasingly come to be represented in the mass media and governmental discourses as vulnerable and desperate persons to be “saved” from the perils of maritime crossings on unseaworthy boats, and thereby “protected” from their own migratory aspirations as well as the real or imagined predations of “criminal” syndicates of migrant “smugglers.” Nevertheless, refiguring these migrants and refugees thus as “victims” in need of protection and rescue has not in any substantial way undermined the simultaneous socio-political and legal construction of them as “illegal” (and hence, undesirable and unwelcome) “migrants,” finally susceptible for detention and deportation. On the other hand, the humanitarian purview of border control re-institutes the implicit opposition between “refugees” and (“economic”) “migrants,” routinely invoked to legitimize the former and stigmatize the latter. By implication, unlike “mere” migrants (figured as opportunistic and lawless), “refugees” (figured as innocent victims) deserve to be rescued.

However, particularly in the aftermath of the spectacle of terrorism, with France’s proclamation of a “state of emergency” in reaction to the 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris, and in the wake of the moral panic over sexual assaults during the 2016 New Year’s Eve events in Cologne/Köln – along with the various re-establishments of EU internal border controls in the face of the more general “refugee crisis” – the refugee has been recently re-figured as the potential “terrorist” who surreptitiously infiltrates the space of Europe, or as the potential “crimin