Newest ESI report on Saving Visa Free Travel

Dear friends,

2013 could be a big year for visa free travel in Europe, with important decisions upcoming concerning Turkey and Moldova. It could also be a disastrous year for the cause of free travel if visas are reimposed on the Western Balkans.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the first report ESI publishes in 2013 – on 1 January to be precise – deals with this very question. You will find the full report on our website later this week, but if you want an advance copy right away let me know (write to Below you find for now the executive summary and some of the most interesting findings as exerpts from this report. We also recently presented these findings to senior officials in Rome, Berlin, Brussels and Stockholm.

In the meantime the whole ESI team and your Rumeli Observer wish you a happy and productive 2013!

NEW ESI REPORT – 1 January 2013

Saving visa-free travel – Visa, asylum and the EU roadmap policy

Executive Summary

Since the visa requirement was lifted for Western Balkan countries in 2009, there has been a sharp increase in claims for political asylum by citizens of the region. Barely any of these applicants qualify for asylum. Rather, they are benefitting from national
asylum rules that provide relatively generous benefits during the application process.

Since 2010, EU leaders have demanded that Balkan governments take measures to stem this tide of asylum seekers. In fact, the problem lies with ‘pull factors’ inside the EU. Now, EU policymakers find themselves under increasing pressure to address the problem directly by suspending visa-free travel for Western Balkan countries. Such a draconian measure would undermine the credibility of the EU’s whole approach to visa liberalisation – not just in the Western Balkans, but also in Moldova, Kosovo, Turkey and the Ukraine. But it is by no means the only solution available.

In the world of justice and home affairs, clear-cut solutions to complex issues are generally hard to come by. There are inevitable trade-offs to be made between controlling borders and allowing the free movement of people; between protecting individual liberties and safeguarding the public. When it comes to visa liberalisation in the Balkans, however, there is a clear solution that reconciles the concerns of all the different constituencies involved. The solution is to make it less attractive for those who clearly do not qualify for asylum to submit speculative or bogus claims.

Under EU rules, all member states provide asylum seekers with financial and material support while their applications are being processes. But there is a sharp difference between two groups of countries: those that take many months to process their asylum
claims, and those that dispose of them within a few weeks. It is the lengthy processing times found in Germany, Sweden and other EU members (up to 8 months with appeals) that acts as the magnet for unjustified asylum seekers. The EU members able to deal expeditiously with asylum claims face a significantly lower numbers of applications.

This paper proposes two possible solutions. One is to address the problem at the national level. Those states that have seen a sharp increase in applications from the Balkans could radically shorten their procedures. They could follow the example of Switzerland, which has recently introduced a 48-hour procedure for applicants from safe European countries like the Balkans. The other option is to tackle the problem at the EU level. The EU should label countries that have completed a visa liberalisation process as “safe countries of origin”, allowing for lighter and quicker processing procedures. We believe that the ideal response would be to pursue both solutions in parallel.

Such a solution would not close off the rights of genuine refugees to apply for and receive asylum. The statistics reveal that countries with shorter procedures in fact accept a higher proportion of their asylum applications. It would, however, help to weed out speculative claims and bring down the costs for European taxpayers. It would also safeguard visa-free travel for the Western Balkans, which has proved a critical step in giving hope and a sense of direction to a troubled region on the EU’s borders.

Update: the full report is now available on our website

Land borders in Europe. A dramatic story in three acts

Progress achieved in making European borders less onerous for travellers has long been seen as one of the most tangible successes of European integration. In recent months this progress has been been put into question, however, leading some to wonder whether the very basic ideas behind Schengen and various visa liberalisation agreements are likely to survive a rise in mistrust. This has serious implications; for citizens of Schengen member states, but also for all those Europeans who are still on the outside looking in, envious of the ease of travel that has been created in half of their continent, and wondering if the European border revolution of the last quarter century is already in retreat before it ever reaches them.

On 14 June 1985, the Schengen Agreement on the gradual abolition of checks at the common borders between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, was signed on board the cruise ship 'Princesse Marie-Astrid', moored at Schengen, Luxembourg. Photo: On 14 June 1985, the Schengen Agreement on the gradual abolition of checks at the common borders between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, was signed on board the cruise ship ‘Princesse Marie-Astrid’, moored at Schengen, Luxembourg. Photo:

Today most Europeans move more freely across their continent than at any time since modern borders and passports were first invented. In the rhetoric of many far right parties the vision of a borderless Europe has always, however, been less a dream than a nightmare. There is Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Popular Front, demanding that France “leave the Schengen treaty. It is obvious: massive anarchic and uncontrolled immigration is one of the breeding grounds of insecurity.” There is the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Karl Heinz Strache, calling for more national border controls to be put in place, “following the recent example of Denmark.” This is not a new position, of course: Strache, and others like him, also opposed all previous enlargements of the Schengen area, and indeed the European Union itself. It is only recently, however, that the wider debate appears to be moving in their direction. If even the Danes call for a reimposition of national border controls, why not French, Finns or Austrians as well?

Recent months have seen quarrels between Italy and France linked to refugees from North Africa; the blocking of the Ventimiglia frontier by France on 17 April; acrimonious debates on the accession to the Schengen treaty of Romania and Bulgaria, once again postponed; the announcement by a Danish government of plans to restore controls along Danish borders; and concern about the increase in asylum applications from Balkan countries, after these countries were granted visa free travel. Even EU foreign ministers sounded warnings about the looming collapse of Schengen. All of this took place against a background of growing anxieties about the future of the Euro and the European project itself.

And so questions were raised: is the project of a “Europe without borders” another expression of technocratic hubris, another idealistic vision thought up by over-enthusiastic jet-setting elites, not actually supported by the majority of citizens fearful of its unintended consequences? Or is the real issue diminishing trust among European elites, as the Polish interior minister put it recently in the context of debates about Romania and Bulgaria, which, he noted, had been promised to be accepted into Schengen once they met all requirements:

“Today, two member states made it impossible to make a decision on Schengen enlargement. This takes us to a sad conclusion about mutual confidence between member states … We’ve known since April that they have met the requirements. Today, the promise was broken.”

As the Economist put it in April:

“The euro zone and the Schengen area depend on trust: that each member will run sound public finances, and that each will control its borders. When trust breaks down, integration is in trouble.”

The Danish border with Germany The Danish border with Germany

When even Danes and French fear open borders with Germany or Italy, respectively, and when even Romania and Bulgaria, EU members since 2007, cannot rely on promises made to them solemnly by other member states: is it wise to expect any further bold steps towards freedom of movement from such a Union? Or does this deprive all those who do not yet enjoy freedom of movement in Europe of the hope that things will ever change?


Schengen as a never-ending crisis

And yet: sometimes even a seemingly obvious conclusion – “Schengen is in crisis because Europe is in crisis” – is still misleading. Schengen is not in fact facing an unprecedented crisis. It is highly unlikely to ever be dismantled and most likely to continue to expand.  It is also likely that this process will be challenged and hotly debated every step of the way. All of this reflects the way Schengen has actually developed for more than two decades: incrementally, slowly, focused on security concerns in the light of public anxieties, in a process shaped strongly by European ministries of interior.

Schengen was not perceived by those promoting it as a matter of prioritizing freedom over security, or of idealism trumping realism. It was always defined as serving (also) national interests.  Progress became possible when ways were found to demonstrate that more freedom could coincide with increased security for existing members. Progress was therefore slow or came to a halt when argument was made in purely abstract terms and not in terms of actual security concerns.

Arguably, Schengen was “in crisis” from the very moment it was created. As Ruben Zaiotti put it in an illuminating recent essay (The Beginning of the End? The Italo-French Row over Schengen and the Lessons of Past ‘Crises’ for the Future of Border Free Europe) “the current crisis’ patterns and dynamics are consistent with the trajectory that Schengen has followed in the past.” (for a video presentation Ruben made for a recent ESI event on this topic, please go here).

Looking back shows the patterns Ruben Zaiotti refers to. There is France, a founder and, together with Germany, inventor of the Schengen concept, having serious doubts about actually implementing the very protocol it co-drafted and which was ratified in 1993. Relying on article 2.2. of the Schengen Implementation Convention, French politicians declared throughout the 1990s that they would be forced to maintain control over land borders with Belgium and Luxembourg in the interest of national security. As Herve de Charette, French foreign minister, put it in September 1995: “If it seems, as it is the case, that our citizens security depends also on the border controls, it is understood that we have to keep them.”

There were debates about the “Schengen Flop” in 1994: as one report at the time noted:

“the entry into force of the Schengen Implementing Agreement has been postponed for the third time and sine die … squabbling among the member states following the announcement of the postponement indicates that political and commercial rivalries exacerbated by a lack of institutional and public control inherent to the Schengen process, are more likely to be at the root of the debacle. “

Schengen, a debacle before it had even begun to be put into place?!

This was followed by further debates in 1996, as France continued to hold out in its increasingly isolated skepticism. More than a decade after the Schengen declaration was signed in 1985 there were still French border guards checking travellers from Belgium!  There was also a serious risk in 1996 that Norway would not accept Schengen and that this would sink all Scandinavian participation in the project.

The reason France did eventually lift border controls with Belgium was not due to an infection with Euro-idealism or to the sudden absence of right-wing challenges. As the father of Marine Le Pen, Jean Marie Le Pen, put it in 1998, when he was riding high in the polls: “Schengen opens the doors to drugs and insecurity as well as to immigrants and refugees from all over the world.”

There was never a golden age in which Schengen was not contested. But in the end, despite serious debates, the French, Norwegians, Swiss all decided that it was in their national self-interest to belong to this club. Real progress became possible in the end because it became obvious even to cautious (French and other) policy makers that wherever Schengen had been put in place, it actually worked: the benefits were real for French citizens and the risks manageable. The fact that, following the lifting of border controls with the Benelux, France was not flooded by drugs helped build confidence. Similar experiences changed perceptions in Germany and other countries worried about the  effects of abandoning national border control.

Helmut Kohl and Romano Prodi
Helmut Kohl and Romano Prodi

The difficulties Romania and Bulgaria face in joining Schengen are also not unprecedented. When Italy, a member of the G7 and a founding member of the EU, formally applied to join Schengen in 1987 it took a decade (!) for its application to be approved by its partners, especially the ever skeptical Germans. Germany’s interior minister (and the influential Lander ministries) at the time had serious concerns about Italian laxness. Germany also insisted on the drafting of detailed questionnaires to be filled out by all applicants, including Italy, in order to assess their state of preparedness. Even after Italy met all conditions, Germany remained reluctant to give its approval. As Romano Prodi told me earlier this year in an interview in his hometown Bologna, he appealed directly to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at a meeting in Innsbruck in July 1997, going over the head of Kohl’s interior minister. Nor were Germans easily prepared to entrust their Austrian neighbours with managing Schengen’s external border on their behalf. As the interior minister of Bavaria at the time, Gunther Beckstein, recalled in a meeting in Munich this summer, it took a serious effort for Austrian leaders – and their “clever initiative” to invite Bavarian border police to help their Austrian colleagues in preparing for Schengen – to build trust and make German leaders feel at ease.  Today Beckstein, looking back, leaves no doubt that Schengen did not come at the price of German insecurity and constitutes an important success. It is also, in his view, very hard to reverse along the German-Austrian (or any other long) border: the German border police has been completely transformed. Countless new border crossings have emerged for citizens to take advantage of their new freedom to move.  Schengen Europe has become part of a new reality, accepted by police as well as by ordinary citizens in their daily lives.

Güther Beckstein
Günther Beckstein

How about the recent Danish proposal? The Danish insistence on restoring border controls, announced in spring, shocked many of its European partners. Again, some saw in this a sign of a wider unravelling of Schengen. EU officials expressed “extreme concern.” This triggered a fresh debate about the conditions under which member states could “temporarily” restore border controls. In the end, this debate lead to a proposal, presented by the European Commission a few weeks ago. It suggested that in the future imposing temporary national border controls, beyond the very short term, would require European Commission approval. This, together with a regulation to further strengthen the European frontier agency FRONTEX, recently adopted by the European Parliament, would in fact mark another step towards further supranational governance of all land borders in the Schengen area.

It is unclear whether such a proposal can actually be accepted today; it may not be. What is clear is that the debate is not one about dismantling Schengen. A new Danish government has also, in the meantime, decided to refrain from restoring border controls. The new government’s common policy (Regeringsgrundlag) emphasised both Denmark’s commitment to the Schengen Agreement and the intention to cooperate with other EU countries on border controls on the basis of EU treaties and rules. It concluded that “the plans from May 2011 to erect new control systems at the Danish borders will not be implemented.”


Measuring Europe’s border revolution

Denmark has less than 70 km of land borders; this made threats to reimpose border controls more credible than similar announcements would have been if made by most other EU member states. To put recent debates on European borders in a wider historical context it is helpful to quantify some of the dramatic changes which have taken place on the continent and which have transformed its borders.

The first act in the recent European border story was the creation of new borders. In 1989 European land borders had a total length of 25,032 km. Then, following the collapse of former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the total length of land borders in Europe went up to 37,409 km. This increase reflected the dramatic politics of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Most new borders were the result of a peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, but some were contested and fought over bitterly. Even today some borders in the South Caucasus and in the Balkans – such as the border between Serbia and Kosovo, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or within Georgia – remain contested, with future outbreaks of violence always a possibility. These borders remain what borders have traditionally been in European history: a razor’s edge “on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death of nation” (Lord Curzon), a source of tensions and conflicts.

The second act involved the removal of old borders. In 1985 a pioneering group of five countries first agreed on the aim to “abolish checks at common borders and transfer them to their external borders.”  (Schengen Agreement). It then took another five years to agree on the Schengen Implementation Convention. Ratification of it lasted until late in 1993 and in march 1995 the Convention finally entered into force. Since then the area covered by the Schengen agreement has grown dramatically. The result is that since 1995 physical border controls have been dismantled on European land borders totaling 16,447 km. (see the table below for all Schengen borders in Europe today)

The third act is in fact still unfolding: it involves testing the limits of the vision of a borderless Europe on a continental scale. This is a vision of breathtaking ambition; it is obvious that it can only be brought about through incremental steps over a long period of time. It consists of both the ongoing enlargement of Schengen to the East (to all existing and future EU members) and of the process of linking the prospect of visa liberalisation for other European states with reforms and close security cooperation of these states, turning them over time into competent partners of the EU in addressing common security concerns.

José Manuel Barroso, President of the EC, took part in the celebrations for the enlargement of the Schengen area which were held in Zittau, a town on the border of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic on 21 December 2007. Photo:  European Commission
José Manuel Barroso, President of the EC, took part in the celebrations for the enlargement of the Schengen area which were held in Zittau, a town on the border of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic on 21 December 2007. Photo:  European Commission

In the most optimistic scenario, based on recent experiences, more European countries will one day follow the Polish path. After shacking off communist rule Poland first signed a readmission agreement (agreeing to take back illegal immigrants passing through its territory) in March 1991. It did this at the time with the small group of five original Schengen members. Following this Poland was granted visa free access to all of these states on 8 April 1991. In 2004 Poland joined the European Union; finally, in late 2007, Poland joined the Schengen zone as a full member. With this step the Polish land borders with Germany, but also with the Baltic states, became invisible.


The basic dynamic

If Schengen is not actually facing a “new” crisis, the same could be said about the wider European border revolution – including further visa liberalisation.  The best reason to be confident that it will continue is the fact that the basic dynamics which has made this policy a success until now remain in place: a desire by outsiders to participate in a success story and an interest by EU member states to obtain cooperation in managing common problems. But in the future as in the past this will require serious confidence building and efforts on the part of non-EU countries.

Already today the promise of visa liberalisation as a long-term result of visa dialogues with the EU is triggering reforms among some members of the Eastern Partnership process, such as Moldova. The same approach has worked successfully to bring about domestic security sector and border reforms in all Western Balkan states after 2007. Such trends make policing the external borders easier, and extend the EU justice and home affairs acquis further.

It is only as part of a vigorous debate on how this border revolution is actually making Europe safer that it is going to be politically viable and likely to continue. But then, this has never actually been different from now.


Further reading:

I strongly recommend a book by Ruben Zaiotti on the changing culture of border control in Europe: Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers.

A few weeks ago ESI and Erste Stiftung also recently organised a public debate in Vienna. For this event Ruben also prepared a presentation, which you can watch here:  Freedom of movement in Europe – dream or nightmare in a populist age? (the whole debate can be listened to online)


Taking the measure of Europe’s borders


European Land Borders length in km Schengen status in 2011
Land Borders in 1989
1 Spain – Portugal 1214 Schengen border
2 Spain – France 623 Schengen border
3 Spain – Andorra 63,7
4 Andorra – France 56,6
5 (France – Monaco) (4,4)
6 France – Italy 488 Schengen border
7 France – Switzerland 573 Schengen border
8 France- Germany 451 Schengen border
9 France – Luxembourg 73 Schengen border
10 France- Belgium 620 Schengen border
11 Belgium – Netherlands 450 Schengen border
12 Belgium – Germany 167 Schengen border
13 Belgium – Luxembourg 148 Schengen border
14 Luxembourg – Germany 138 Schengen border
15 Switzerland – Germany 334 Schengen border
16 Switzerland – Italy 740 Schengen border
17 Switzerland – Liechtenstein 41 Schengen border
18 Switzerland – Austria 164 Schengen border
19 (Italy – San Marino) (39)
20 Italy – Austria 430 Schengen border
21 Italy – Slovenia 199 Schengen border
22 Austria – Liechtenstein 35 Schengen border
23 Austria – Germany 784 Schengen border
24 Austria – Czech Republic 362 Schengen border
25 Austria – Slovakia 91 Schengen border
26 Austria – Slovenia 330 Schengen border
27 Austria – Hungary 366 Schengen border
28 Germany – Czech Republic 646 Schengen border
29 Germany – Poland 456 Schengen border
30 Germany – Denmark 68 Schengen border
31 Germany – Netherlands 577 Schengen border
32 Czech Republic – Poland 615 Schengen border
33 Slovakia – Poland 420 Schengen border
34 Slovakia – Ukraine 90
35 Slovakia – Hungary 676 Schengen border
36 Hungary – Ukraine 103
37 Hungary – Romania 443
38 Hungary – Serbia 166
39 Hungary – Croatia 329
40 Hungary – Slovenia 102 Schengen border
41 Montenegro – Albania 172
42 Albania – Macedonia 151
43 Albania – Kosovo 112
44 Albania – Greece 282
45 Greece – Macedonia 246
46 Greece – Bulgaria 494
47 Greece – Turkey 206
48 Turkey – Bulgaria 240
49 Turkey – Georgia 252
50 Turkey – Armenia 268
51 Turkey – Azerbaijan Naxcivan exclave 9
52 Macedonia – Bulgaria 148
53 Serbia – Bulgaria 318
54 Serbia – Romania 476
55 Romania – Bulgaria 608
56 Romania – Moldova 450
57 Romania – Ukraine 538
58 Ukraine – Poland 428
59 Belarus – Poland 605
60 Lithuania – Poland 91 Schengen border
61 Russia (Kaliningrad exclave) 432
62 Norway – Sweden 1619 Schengen border
63 Norway – Finland 727 Schengen border
64 Norway – Russia 196
65 Sweden – Finland 614 Schengen border
66 Finland – Russia 1313
67 United Kingdom – Ireland 360
Total land borders in 1989


(without San Marino and Monaco)

New land borders since 1989
68 Czech Republic – Slovakia 197 Schengen border
69 Croatia – Serbia 241
70 Croatia – Bosnia and Herzegovina 932
71 Croatia -Montenegro 25
72 Croatia -Slovenia 455
73 Bosnia and Herzegovina – Serbia 302
74 Bosnia and Herzegovina – Montenegro 225
75 Montenegro -Serbia 124
76 Montenegro – Kosovo 79
77 Azerbaijan Naxcivan exclave – Armenia 221
78 Armenia – Georgia 164
79 Armenia – Azerbaijan 566
80 Georgia – Azerbaijan 322
81 Georgia – Russia 723
82 Azerbaijan – Russia 284
83 Macedonia – Serbia 62
84 Macedonia – Kosovo 159
85 Kosovo – Serbia 352
86 Ukraine – Moldova 940
87 Ukraine – Belarus 891
88 Ukraine – Russia 1576
89 Belarus – Russia 959
90 Belarus – Lithuania 680
91 Belarus – Latvia 171
92 Lithuania – Russia (Kaliningrad exclave) 227
93 Lithuania – Latvia 576 Schengen border
94 Latvia – Russia 292
95 Latvia – Estonia 343 Schengen border
96 Estonia – Russia 290
TOTAL new post-1989 land borders 12378
TOTAL pre and post 1989 land borders in 2011 37409
TOTAL Schengen borders in 2011 16447


Map of Schengen countries

A few words on methodology:

“European” land borders refers to the land borders of all European countries with each other.  “European” are all countries eligible to become or already members of the Council of Europe. This means that we counted the borders of Turkey with its European neighbours in the Balkans and in the South Caucasus, but not with Iraq or Iran. The same is true for Russia: we counted its European borders in the East and South, but not its borders with Central Asia.

One conceptual difficulty is posed by micro-states which are placed within EU member states: Monaco, San Marino, the Vatican. We decided to leave them out of the calculation, since even before 1989 there have been no real border regimes in place.

Andorra is not a member of Schengen.

In the case of Lichtenstein the border was traditionally managed by Switzerland, which is why we counted the border with Austria (but not the Lichtenstein-Swiss border).

Please do submit your comments and suggestions, however, how to improve the table and calculations, either here as a comment or to We would be most grateful.

Special thanks to my colleague Melissa Panzi, who was with ESI in Istanbul and is currently studying the relationship between the US and Mexico along their land borders at the university in Monterrey.

Amexica and other reflections on border wars

There was a time not long ago when pro-globalization authors argued that the forces of international economic integration would soon make national boundaries redundant. Recently, others have suggested the opposite: that globalization is making national boundaries, at least those between rich and poor societies, all the more impenetrable. In fact, reality is more complex and more interesting than any of the latest grand theories would suggest. When it comes to policing their borders, rich societies face real choices; these choices can produce very different outcomes. Comparing the choices made in recent years by the member states of the EU with those made by the US has been the topic of a seminar held this week at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The seminar, co-organised by ESI, featured Europeans, Americans and Mexicans, lecturers on Mexican politics at Harvard, experts in border management and technologies, columnists, officials working for Mexican institutions, and private sector representatives. Our opening question was: can anything be learned from comparing the EU and the US approaches to border management? Our hypothesis, based on our work in Southeast and Eastern Europe, is that there is plenty that the EU and the US can learn from each other. Joseph Nevi - Operation Gatekeeper Let me start with the conventional wisdom embraced by many of those who study trends along the US-Mexican border since the early 1990s. In a world without strong boundaries, migration pressures cannot be contained, the argument goes. In response to illegal migration pressures and the threat of organised crime, the militarisation of boundaries between rich and poor countries becomes the natural political response to popular feelings of insecurity. As Joseph Nevi writes in Operation Gatekeeper – The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the US-Mexico Boundary,

“Intensified policing efforts are taking place along a variety of international boundaries between South Africa and Mozambique, Spain (Ceuta and Melilla) and Morocco, and Germany and Poland. Such efforts are parts of a war of sorts by relatively wealthy countries against ‘illegal’ or unauthorized immigrants. Yet at the same time, these same countries are increasingly opening their boundaries to the flows of capital, finance, manufactured goods and services.”

This is only an apparent contradiction, Nevin argues. It is natural that rich states seek to increase the benefits and limit the costs of transnational integration. This then leads to the creation of fortresses (‘Fortress America’ or ‘Fortress Europe’) and ‘gated communities’ of wealthy societies. A good illustration of this trend is, of course, the increase in the number of border agents in the US, which has gone from 450 in 1925 to 1,110 in 1950, 1,803 in 1975 and 9,212 in 2000 (Operation Gatekeeper, p. 197). Edward Schumacher Matos estimates that today it is close to 20,000. What these numbers show is that the effort to control the southern boundary of the US is a relatively recent phenomenon. One hundred years ago there was no serious concern about unauthorized entry across the US-Mexican border. Along the Arizona-Mexico border in 1900, one expert notes, “there was no need for coyotes, guides to sneak illegals through the border; there was no border markings (save a few stone pillars here and there), no immigration control and thus no illegals.” (OG, p.26) Today, the situation has changed considerably. The stretch of boundary between San Diego and Tijuana, writes Nevins, “is perhaps the world’s most policed international divide between two nonbelligerent countries.” For unauthorized migrants, the US-Mexican border is harder to cross now than at any point in history. At the same time, trade between the US and Mexico has grown sharply. Increasing commerce and more militarised boundaries – in an age of global insecurity, claims Nevins, such is the global trend. Except, of course, that this is not the case. Not only is there no militarised border between Germany and Poland; today, there is no physical boundary at all. When Poland joined the EU’s Schengen zone in 2007, border installations were dismantled. When Romania joins Schengen sometime in 2011, Germany’s external boundary will de facto shift from Poland’s Eastern border to the Prut River between Romania and Moldova. (To be admitted into Schengen, Romania has had to make significant investments in its ability to control its Eastern boundary.) Having crossed the Prut, you will be able to travel all the way to Gibraltar in southern Spain. One of the most interesting trends in the past year has been the acceleration of reforms in small and poor Moldova (the poorest country in Europe), carried out in response to a European promise of increasing freedom of movement for Moldovan passport holders. The promise is simple, and it has been made to other countries before: if Moldova carries out reforms that enhance the ability of Moldovan institutions (police, border guard, the ministries of justice and interior) to partner with EU institutions in fighting common threats, the EU will lift its visa requirements. Turn yourself into a partner, the logic goes, and your citizens can travel to the EU much more easily. It is important to underline that every one of these steps has been controversial, debated, and held up by concerns about security (this includes the next big step, the expansion of the Schengen area to Romania and Bulgaria, currently put into question by France). Likewise, the debate on visa free travel for Turkish citizens promises to be intense. At every stage, Europe’s border revolution has been contested; and at no stage can further progress simply be taken for granted. However, those who focus on the political debate of the moment would do well to look at the trajectory of Europe’s border revolution. Very soon after Schengen was created by five European countries in 1985, concerns increased in France. The fact that the idea of a borderless EU core (which led to Schengen) had been a Franco-German brainchild did not stop France from delaying implementation of the Schengen convention for many years even after it officially entered into force in September 1993, with French leaders citing concerns about the security implications of letting people enter France from Belgium or the Netherlands as late as in 1996. The fact that Italy had been a founding member of the EU did not make it any easier for it to join Schengen: the process actually lasted for over a decade, from Italy’s application in 1987 to its eventual entry in 1997. It is also useful to reflect on what has happened in Albania in the past two decades. At our seminar at Harvard, I began my presentation with a video clip of Albania’s collapse into chaos in 1997:

Anarchy in 1997. © 2008 pre tv. All rights reserved.

Remember, I told participants, until recently Albania was known throughout Europe only for its total collapse in the 1990s, the illegal migration of hundreds of thousands of its people within a few years to neighbouring Italy and Greece, and the vast profits made by organised crime syndicates, which controlled the speedboats that crossed the Adriatic by night. Now, however, many Albanian smugglers are out of a job: at the end of 2010 Albanian citizens will have obtained the right to travel to the EU visa free.

To qualify, Albanians had to carry out far-reaching reforms, however. And which country threatened to vote against Albania receiving visa free travel at the very end? You might have guessed it: France. And yet, after registering its concerns, France went along in the end.

It is not only Albanians but also the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina who will enjoy the right to visa free travel in coming days for the first time in almost two decades. Bosnia-Herzegovina? In the early 1990s Ed Vulliamy was a reporter there, covering the country’s collapse into war, and then writing up his experiences in Seasons in Hell. At the time, Bosnia was the scene of massive ethnic cleansing, genocidal violence and collapsing institutions, and Ed’s book captured the sheer horror of it in Central Bosnia:

“By the middle of the Saturday afternoon, more than 30,000 escapees from the bloody mayhem left behind in Jajce – and the pitiful ramshackle remnants of an army, some 7,000 soldiers -had crossed the new, retreated Bosnian front at Karaula and now jammed every square of Travnik … The soldiers wandered aimlessly among them and their beasts and wagons, as lost and destitute as the civilians. It was like some woeful landscape from Tolstoy, or a war from another time: the life of a country town and its surrounding villages uprooted and driven out by war, with all its flotsam and jetsam. And another 15,000 were still out there, trapped by gunfire on the front … “

Since then Bosniaks have returned in significant numbers to Jajce; Travnik has a multiethnic police; and Bosnia’s crises are political and non-violent. Bosnia’s crime rate is below that of the Baltic states (which joined the EU in 2004); its police forces work; and its citizens feel safe crossing the former frontlines. These lines – which many had expected in 1995 to harden into Cyprus-style militarised internal boundaries – have since become basically invisible to the traveller. A decade ago, Bosnia did not control its own boundaries. Since then it has received ample praise (including by the US State Department) for its record on fighting human trafficking.

Seasons in Hell Amexica – War Along the Borderline

Ed Vulliamy: from Bosnia to Amexica

I mention Ed Vulliamy not only because his book is a useful reminder how far Bosnia (and the Balkans) have come since the 1990s, but also because Ed has since moved to the US and written a book about a very different war. As he tells his readers in Amexica – War Along the Borderline (2010), “I have been a reporter on many battlefields, yet nowhere has violence been so strange and commanded such revulsion and compulsion as it does along the borderline.” The borderline Ed writes about is that between the US and Mexico; the war he refers to is the “narco war” wreaking havoc on communities from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico.

While Europe has dismantled and made more porous thousands of kilometres of borders (by taking apart the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, abolishing border controls within the Schengen system, lifting visa requirements for Central Europeans, extending Schengen to the East, and, most recently, lifting visa requirements for the Balkans), the US has done the opposite. As Ed writes,

“In 1994 the United States initiated Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, and another similar operation in the Rio Grande Valley. Since then … the border has become, and continues to become, a military front line, along which run more than six hundred miles of fence enhanced by guard posts, searchlights, and heavily armed patrols. In places where there is no fence, there are infrared cameras, sensors, National Guard soldiers and SWAT teams from other, specialist law enforcement columns, like the Drug Enforcement Administration … from the other side, apart from the tidal wave of drugs and migrants smuggled across the border, there are the killings …”

Vulliamy takes his readers to Ciudad Juarez, “the world’s most murderous city”, on the Mexican side of the border opposite El Paso. Juarez saw 2,657 people killed in 2009 (the total number of people killed in Mexico since President Calderon launched a military offensive against the drug cartels in December 2006 has now exceeded 23,000).

Vulliamy notes that one in five Mexicans either visits, or works in, the US at one time in his life. He describes the economy that has developed around the narco-trade and the gun shows in Arizona and Texas. He estimates that there are more than 6,700 arms dealers within a half day’s drive from the border in the US (three dealers per mile of frontier) and that between 90-95 percent of weapons seized in Mexico’s narco war originate from the US. As a June 2009 report by the US Government Accountability Office notes, although the violence in Mexico “has raised concern, there has not been a coordinated US government effort to combat the illicit arms trafficking to Mexico that US and Mexican government officials agree is fueling much of the drug-related violence.” Ed also writes about the paradoxical effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has seen business ties increase and the border harden.

Death in North America

Not long ago every book or article about the Balkans started with references to killings and cults of irrational violence. The same is true today in descriptions of the US-Mexican border. One book Operation Gatekeeper starts with a description of the owner of a gas station/cafe in Ocotilio Wells, 90 miles east of San Diego in California:

“On one bulletin board he had tacked up photographs of seven or eight cadavers: all of them young Mexican men he had discovered in the arroyos between Ocotillo Wells and the nearby Border. … “They was all shot. In the back.”

Dead in their Tracks - Crossing America's Desert Borderlands in the New Era

Another book by John Annerino, Dead in their Tracks – Crossing America’s Desert Borderlands in the New Era (2009) includes a “comprehensive border death toll” (2003: 336 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border; 2004: 214; 2005: 241; … 2007: 237). It opens with a glossary of key terms for the border:

“I have used the terms bajadores (bandits, take-down crews or kidnappers), bandidos (border bandits), burreros(drug mules), caza-migrantes (migrant hunters), contrabandistas (smugglers), coyotes (people smugglers), narcotraficantes (drug traffickers), pistoleros (gunmen), polleros (“chicken dealers” or people smugglers) and raiteros (drivers who shuttle imigrants from pickup points).”

Annerino also points out just how lucrative smuggling people across the border has become, describing the scene in the Mexican border town of Altar:

“This afternoon I count roughly 500 people walking the streets and church plaza, so I start running the numbers … If the crossing fee is closer to $ 2,500 per person, or the coyote increases the $ 1,500 fee to $ 2,500 or more during the border crossing which I am told is common, get out your calculator and do the new border math. A recent Associated Press report put Arizona’s human smuggling revenues at $ 2.5 billion a year.”

Across the Wire - Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border

And as another author, Luis Alberto Urrea, describes in Across the Wire – Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, focusing on the Tijuana region, paying this amount does not guarantee safe passage:

“If the coyote does not turn on you suddenly with a gun and take everything from you himself, you might still be attacked by the rateros. If the rateros don’t get you, there are roving zombies that can smell you from fifty yards downwind – these are the junkies who hunt in shambling packs. If the junkies somehow miss you there are the pandilleros – gang-bangers from either side of the border who are looking for some bloody fun. They adore “tacking off” illegals because it is the perfect crime: there is no way they can ever be caught”

Now, beyond the sheer human tragedy in all these descriptions, there is a poignant policy question raised by all these accounts: is this border regime, are these changes – the militarisation that has taken place in recent decades – actually in the interests of those in the US who are concerned about security? Just take a look at a recent article in the New York Times from summer 2010 for another horrific description of trends along the border (The Mexican Border’s Lost World):

“Never a particularly pretty place, the border is at its ugliest right now, with violence, tensions and temperatures all… on high. Once thought of by Americans as just a naughty playland, the divide between the United States and Mexico is now most associated with the awful things that happen here. In towns from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, drug gangs brutalize each other, tourists risk getting caught in the cross-fire, and Mexican laborers crossing the desert northward brave both the bullets and the heat. Last week, a federal judge in Arizona blocked portions of new far-reaching immigration restrictions that she said went way too far in ousting Mexicans. Meanwhile, National Guard troops are preparing to fill in as border sentries. All these developments are unfolding in what used to be a meeting place between two countries, a zone of escape where cultures merged, albeit often amid copious amounts of tequila. The potential casualties at the border now include a way of life, generations old, well-documented but decaying by the day.”

After all, European citizens are as concerned about illegal migrants as those in the US. There are right wing parties in many European countries. The amount of illegal drugs entering the EU is comparable (in fact, according to UN figures, even higher) to those that enter the US.

And yet, in a process driven by interior ministers and focused on increasing security, the EU’s response to concerns about events on the other side of its Eastern border has been very different from that pursued by their US counterparts. This has been the European border revolution of the past three decades, which ESI has set out to analyse and understand.

This was not a project of humanitarians … it was a conscious decision that new thinking was required to ensure security in an age of globalisation. It was a process controlled by interior ministers, in which critical questions were asked at every stage. As French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, put it in September 1995, explaining France’s unwillingness to lift its controls at the Belgian (!) frontier:

“If it seems, as it is the case, that our citizens’ security depends also on the border controls, it is understood that we have to keep them.”

In the end, however, the dramatic transformation of Europe’s border regimes continued.

Is any of it relevant to debates in North America? Certainly the consensus at the Harvard seminar was that it is worth exploring in more depth. At the very least it suggests that even under conditions of globalisation policy makers have choices – and that there is more than one way in which to think about creating secure borders.

PS: Next steps forward

The Harvard seminar turned into a very informative meeting, and out of it emerged an agenda for further steps.

First, it is necessary to establish a network of scholars and policymakers in the US and in Mexico who had worked on the border issues, including those who had done any comparative work. (If you read this and if you are interested in becoming part of such a network please write to and

Alexander Schellong, Rodrigo Garza Zorrilla, Edward Schumacher-Matos, Mary Hilderbrand, Omar del Valle Colosio, Philipp Mueller, Gerald Knaus, Pedro Lichtle, Jose Luis Mendez, Javier Lichtle, Adriana Villasenor
Alexander Schellong, Rodrigo Garza Zorrilla, Edward Schumacher-Matos, Mary Hilderbrand, Omar del Valle Colosio, Philipp Mueller, Gerald Knaus, Pedro Lichtle, Jose Luis Mendez, Javier Lichtle, Adriana Villasenor

Second, there is a need to present the complex politics and security logic behind the recent EU border revolution; this was not after all a humanitarian transformation, nor was it at any moment easy. In fact, the revolution is far from over, as the dramatic events in recent months along the Greek-Turkish border have made clear (not to mention the EU’s Southern border). How will the EU respond to the challenge of Turkey when it comes to freedom of movement and travel?

Third, there is a need to better understand the US policy process, the politics as well as the technocratic arguments which most shape the debate.

Fourth and most importantly there is a need to understand how the current status quo along the US-Mexican border is working and how it is failing; and for whom it is working and who is losing.

Particularly the comparison in relations between the US and Mexico and the EU and Turkey promises to be revealing in what it tells us about US and European soft power, about the choices facing rich countries and about the politics behind border management. For more, watch this space; and stay tuned to the ESI “Border Revolution website”.

A few facts as background to inform a serious debate on comparative border experiences. Look at GDP per capita (in PPP) in 2009 according to the IMF. On the one side of the border wealthy countries:

USA (46,000 USD per capita)
Germany (34,000 USD per capita)

On the other side poorer countries:

Poland (18,000 USD pc), which has joined the EU in 2004
Mexico (14,000 USD pc)
Turkey (12,000 USD pc)
Romania (12,000 USD pc), which has joined the EU in 2007
Albania (7,000) USD pc), which has visa free travel since end 2010

As for the relative size of the populations concerned:

USA: 311 million vs. Mexico: 112 million
EU 15: 398 million
EU 27: 500 million
Poland: 38 million (visa free access since the early 1990s)
Eastern Balkans (Romania/Bulgaria): 30 million (members of the EU since 2007)
Western Balkans: 25 million (visa free travel since late 2009 and 2010)
Turkey: 73 million