Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers

Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers

by Ruben Zaiotti

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Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers by Ruben Zaiotti

In recent years, a number of European countries abolished national border controls in favor of Europe’s external frontiers. In doing so, they challenged long-established conceptions of sovereignty, territoriality, and security in world affairs. 

Setting forth a new analytic framework informed by constructivism and pragmatism, Ruben Zaiotti traces the transformation of underlying assumptions and cultural practices guiding European policymakers and postnational Europe, shedding light on current trends characterizing its politics and relations with others. The book also includes a fascinating comparison to developments in North America, where the United States has pursued more restrictive border control strategies since 9/11. As a broad survey of the origins, evolution, and implications of this remarkable development in European integration, Cultures of Border Control will be of interest to students and scholars of international relations and political geography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226977881
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/15/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 768 KB

About the Author

Ruben Zaiotti is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University in Canada.

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Cultures of Border Control

Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-97787-4

Chapter One


Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel throughout the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants. Anxious to strengthen the solidarity between their peoples by removing the obstacles to free movement ... the Parties shall endeavour to abolish checks at common borders and transfer them to their external borders.

—985 Schengen Agreement, preamble and article 17

Europe, Border Control, and the Emergence of a New Common Sense

Margaret Thatcher's 988 "Bruges Speech" is considered the political manifesto of British skepticism toward Europe. In her notoriously trenchant language, the then prime minister traces an indissoluble link between borders and security and argues that national governments (as opposed to supranational institutions) should be in charge of this issue. She also contends that the triad of borders/security/national governments is so ingrained in our collective understanding of what border control means as to not require further explanation ("a matter of plain common sense").

What is interesting (and generally overlooked) in this speech is that, in order to make the case for a "nationalist" reading of border control in front of her Continental partners, the Iron Lady couches her argument in collective terms (hence the references to "we" and "our citizens" in the text). The aim is to present this interpretation not just as the latest expression of British golden isolationism, but as part of a sensus communis also shared by the United Kingdom's partners across the Channel. This rhetorical move seemed well founded. Indeed, it was in Continental Europe that the modern "national" conception of borders first emerged (Anderson 996). According to this conception (which has its roots in the early phases of the modern state-system in seventeenth-century Europe), borders are continuous territorial lines marking the outer limits of a state's authority and a key foundation around which the principle of sovereignty in the international system is built. Borders represent the very essence of statehood (delimiting its authority in the international system) and one of its most visible embodiments (its "skin," according to an often used biological metaphor). At the same time, borders are a powerful symbol of identity and historical continuity, both for the state as institution and for the peoples they contain. Their protection is therefore a matter of "national security" and the exclusive responsibility of central governments.

This perspective has long imbued official arguments and practices in the border control domain in Europe (and elsewhere), and it has been widely accepted by both decision makers and the population at large. Thatcher's take on border control should have resonated well with a European audience. But it didn't. On the contrary, while she was delivering her speech, something extraordinary was under way in the heart of Europe. Since the mid-980s, a group of European countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) had been taking the first steps toward the abolition of controls over their shared frontiers. The goal of the emerging border control regime (which would be known as "Schengen," from the name of the Luxembourg town where the founding agreement was originally signed) was the creation of a common space where not only goods and capital but also individuals would be free to circulate. Schengen did not imply that borders were to completely disappear or lose importance. In order to compensate for the perceived security deficit stemming from the elimination of controls at common frontiers, the regime envisaged the relocation of controls to the external perimeter of the Schengen area, while other, more diffuse types of controls would be undertaken both within and beyond this area.

Borders thus have remained a central feature of Europe's political landscape. Yet the premises upon which the Schengen regime is based clearly clash with Thatcher's vision and with what was, until the 980s, the dominant nationalist approach to border control across the Continent. First, by joining the regime, a national government has to renounce its absolute power to control the movement of people across what used to be national borders and now are Europe's "internal" frontiers. These controls can only be reinstated in exceptional circumstances, and other partners should be informed of the decision and give their consent. Second, Europe's external borders, while maintaining the function of barrier from potential threats, are no longer purely "national" as had been the case before Schengen. All members share the now-common perimeter defining the Schengen area, even if they do not physically contain it. An individual entering Italy through its sea frontier with north Africa can move freely to Belgium, for example. Hence, the border s/he has crossed is not just Italy's, but de facto also Belgium's. Third, since the external borders are shared, new questions regarding their governance have arisen, questions that were relatively unproblematic when borders were the sole responsibility of individual countries. Who should now be in charge of Europe's external borders? only governments of countries whose territory includes them? or should others be involved? The solution envisaged in the Schengen regime is a hybrid system of governance consisting of a mix of supranational and intergovernmental features. Issues of border control have become a matter of multilateral negotiation. These negotiations now involve all countries in the Schengen area and, to a minor extent, future members. The system also entails the partial relocation of the locus of decision-making power over borders. Key decisions in this domain are taken within regional institutions composed of both governmental and supranational actors. Finally, Schengen involves a redistribution of responsibilities among national governments with regard to policy implementation. each Schengen member must transfer part of its prerogatives related to border control to other partners, while at the same time assuming new undertakings on their behalf. Overall, such a governance system could be described as a kind of "intensive transgovernmentalism" (Wallace 2000:33).

From this brief sketch it is apparent that the creation of the Schengen regime represents more than a mere policy shift, as unprecedented as it might have been. It signals instead a fundamental break from the traditional nationalist approach to border control that had characterized European politics for centuries. As one participant in the initiative put it, "Talking about freedom of movement (in the 980s) was considered by many as a profession of faith" (Hreblay 998: 6). Indeed, just contemplating the idea of a postnational approach to border control while the Berlin Wall was still standing was a courageous act. The same argument, however, could be applied to the post-1989 period. The material and symbolic importance of borders is as great today as it was in the past when borders were the object of contention and, periodically, of overt conflict. While they have lost control of other key policy domains (e.g., trade), national governments still consider border management one of the last bastions of their autonomy in the international system. The same could be said for increasingly anxious domestic constituencies who are worried about the negative fallouts of globalization and who still consider well-protected national borders a reassuring presence against external threats. From this perspective, the U.S. government's decision to create ex novo a department of homeland security, and to increase the resources and personnel to patrol the country's territorial frontiers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, can be read as a spirited attempt to reassert both the country's violated sovereignty and the government's own authority (Andreas and Biersteker 2003). The idea of national governments divesting control, even partial, over their borders is therefore controversial and politically risky, more so than in other issue areas where questions of state autonomy are involved. This is also true in Europe, even if some relevant state prerogatives, such as trade and monetary policy, have already been delegated to a supranational institution such as the European Union.

Not surprisingly, Schengen had to endure a long and tortuous gestation before it established itself as the new official approach to border control in Europe. The regime began as an intergovernmental initiative elaborated by a small group of countries outside the institutional framework of the European Community (later the "European Union"). This situation changed in the late 990s. With the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty in 999, the Schengen regime was incorporated into the EU. By then the number of participants had increased from the five original proponents. Today the regime includes all EU members—with the notable exceptions of Great Britain and Ireland—plus non-EU countries such as Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland (see figure 1.1).

Thanks to the regime's institutionalization and expansion, the term "Schengen" has entered the everyday vocabulary of European politics. Although not free from periodic challenges, its underlying assumptions are broadly accepted by European policy makers. More and more European citizens are also becoming accustomed to the new approach to borders, thanks, above all, to the newly acquired freedom to travel across the Continent without the hassle of passport checks. Schengen has thus become the symbol not only of a sui generis entity on the region's political map (sometimes referred to as "Schengenland"), but also of a new way of thinking about and practically managing Europe's borders. In other words, Schengen is today—pace the Iron Lady—the new common sense across the Continent.

The goal of this work is to explain how this epochal development occurred. How did the new postnational common sense about border control emerge and take root in Europe? How was it possible to go against what, until recently, represented the established order throughout the Continent? Why did European governments collectively assent to relinquish part of their sovereign authority on a sensitive issue like border control? Why did they embrace the new common sense? And can similar developments occur outside Europe?

Explaining Schengen: From "Logical Response" to "Normative Shift"

Given their distinctive and constantly evolving features, Europe's borders have, of late, caught the attention of political scientists and other scholars across a variety of disciplines. The literature on the topic is thus burgeoning. 7 Despite the interest, theoretically grounded works specifically focusing on the emergence of Schengen as a new type of governance of borders are rare (Wiener 1999: 442). Accounts by practitioners directly involved in the process represent a valuable source of information on the topic, yet these works mention only en passant the factors that made Schengen possible, and do so without inserting them into a coherent analytical framework.

The neglect of Schengen in the EU studies literature is more surprising. The analysis of the emergence of postnational forms of governance is arguably the defining feature of this academic subfield. Part of the reason for this lacuna is that many EU specialists now look at the European Union as a fully fledged political system, examining its characteristics and functioning, rather than considering it as something unique whose emergence and specificity needs explanation (Hix 994; Majone 994). From this perspective, border control is just one of the various domains of the European Union polity. The argument is appealing, but the EU as a polity is still under construction, particularly with regard to its "political" dimension (as opposed to its economic, which is well advanced). The question of why Schengen emerged is thus still significant. A second reason for the topic's neglect stems from the fact that some authors (generally in the international relations [IR] field), although still interested in the origins of the EU and its supranational dimension, have treated Schengen as just a variation of the traditional intergovernmental game characterizing world politics. Moravcsik is a good example of this "business as usual" attitude (Moravcsik 1998). The analysis of the implications of the new regime for borders, and the EU as a whole, that was presented in previous paragraphs should have shown that this "business as usual" argument is both theoretically and empirically untenable.

Neglect does not mean complete oblivion. Schengen's origins have indeed been addressed in the literature. When this has occurred, most commentators have relied on what I call a "logical response" hypothesis. This hypothesis is not always expressed in an explicit and consistent way. It is, however, based on a relatively coherent set of tenets that renders it a distinctive line of argument. Theoretically, most authors relying on this hypothesis use as a frame of reference the insights of what, in EU studies, are known as rationalist and intergovernmental approaches (Steuneberg 2002; Dowding 2002; Rosamond 2000, chap. 6).

In brief, a logical response hypothesis suggests that the emergence of a new regional approach to border control in Europe is the result of a negotiated compromise among key European governments who, acting rationally according to their self-interest and political leverage, were trying to address common problems characterizing the border control domain in the region during the 980s and 990s (from growing migratory pressure and international crime and terrorism to the obstacles to transnational economic activities across the region). These problems in turn stemmed from either "external" or "internal" contextual factors (Europe's geopolitical position vis-à-vis its neighbors and the creation of a regionwide Common Market, respectively).

Although only peripheral to his work on the European Community, Moravcsik (1998) offers one of the most cogent expressions of this approach. In his "economistic" perspective, Schengen emerged because France and Germany, worried about each other's growing protectionist stance, pressed for a bilateral arrangement to simplify and eventually abolish border controls (ibid., 359–360). The French and German leaders then agreed to include in this arrangement the members of the Benelux Customs Union (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) because of economic concerns. The idea was "to create a 'Super EEC' (European economic Community) promoting trade liberalization" (ibid., 359). The negotiation phase that followed then was a typical instance of intergovernmental bargaining. This bargaining was part of a strategic game in which France and Germany used the Schengen initiative as "a threat of a two-tier Europe," a threat mainly directed toward the United Kingdom (ibid., 360). According to Moravcsik, economic constraints related to the emerging Common Market shaped European countries' interests and thus contributed to the emergence of Schengen. His model, however, does not preclude the possibility that other noneconomic, more strictly "political" considerations, such as national security, played a role.

other authors adopting the logical response hypothesis relax some of Moravcsik's intergovernmental assumptions and offer a "bureaucratic" explanation of the emergence of Schengen. This is the case with Monar's "incrementalist" approach (2001) and Guiraudon's "garbage can" model (2003. From their perspectives, the policymaking process leading to the creation of Schengen was more complex and messy than the sole focus on bargaining at a high political level would suggest. Schengen's policymaking was characterized by "various interests, institutions, ideas, problems and solutions which appeared in the process in no preordained sequence, [and yet], the order in which each element appear[ed had] a bearing on the eventual outcome" (Guiraudon 2003: 266). The actors involved (who include not only high-level decision makers, but also other national, trans-, and supranational groups) actively attempted to seize upon the new opportunities offered by the regionalization of the border control domain to pursue their self-interest. In their activities, however, they followed a bounded rationality logic ("do only what suffices to solve a given problem"). Schengen was not, therefore, necessarily an "optimal" outcome.


Excerpted from Cultures of Border Control by RUBEN ZAIOTTI Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

References Index Nine / Beyond Europe: Toward a New Culture of Border Control in North America? Ten / Conclusion: After Schengen Eight / Consolidating the New Culture of Border Control: Schengen in the European Union Six / Selecting a New Culture of Border Control: Brussels Seven / From Selection to Retention: Schengen’s Incorporation into the European Union Four / The Pursuit of New Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and Brussels Five / Selecting a New Culture of Border Control: Schengen One / Introduction Two / Accounting for Schengen: Cultures of Border Control and Their Evolution Three / Westphalian Culture of Border Control: From Maturity to Contestation Contents List of Illustrations Preface

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