Protecting the European way of life?

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On November 1st the new European Commission’s President will take office. Even before starting in her official role, Ursula von der Leyden has already caused quite the commotion by changing the job title of the European commission vice-president in charge of migration and skilled labor into the vice-president for ‘protecting the European way of life’. Although the incoming president was heavily criticized for her statements and suggestions were made to revise the job title, the proposal to create such a position is very telling for the current crisis that Europe seems to find itself in – not so much the ‘migration crisis’ that politicians speak of, but more so a crisis of how to manage mobility and a crisis of identity. By means of othering and bordering tactics, Europe – or better said, the Schengen area within Europe – was never meant to be an area where everyone could move around freely without being subjected to internal border checks. On the contrary, the principle of free movement – often considered as one of the most important pillars of the union – was from the onset only meant for bonafide travelers from within Europe and preferably from within Western Europe. Ironically, the establishment of an area without borders, the Schengen area, has effectively stimulated border control, since the notion that European integration via the opening of internal borders would lead to an increase in crime and criminal organized groups became the shared belief underpinning Schengen. In the past few years, it has become even painfully clear that it is exactly the free movement of people that was created through the signing of the Schengen Treaty, the mobility of migrants, that has put the social fabric of solidarity within the EU to the test.


The liberal paradox

As rightly noted by Jabko and Luhman (2019), the arrival into the EU of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Syrian conflict in 2015 engendered a humanitarian crisis and threatened two institutions of border control: the “borderless” Schengen Area and the Dublin Convention. The Dublin convention governs how asylum seekers are registered upon entering EU territory. Under Schengen and Dublin, states retained the right to unilaterally re-introduce border controls and to return asylum seekers to the first country of entry in order to protect an “essential aspect of sovereignty”, i.e. control over frontiers.  In 2015 however, the Dublin system ceased to be effective. Many member states lacked the capacity or the will to process so many asylum applications and even the most refugee friendly states responded by closing their borders.

The so-called migration ‘crisis’ in Europe highlighted the ever present tension between the opportunities and the risks that are inherent to the openness that Europe, and in particular the Schengen area, aims to represent. The sense of crisis has led to various kinds of mobilizations of the most regressive and reactionary features of ‘Europeanness’: the protection of the national or supranational territory, the protection of the European people – read white European  – as well as rejection of the non-European other. This tension means that Europe is ‘caught’ in the need to simultaneously manage the opportunities and the risks of openness, which is also referred to as the liberal paradox. According to Hollifield, the liberal paradox operates ideologically in the politics and policies of Fortress Europe through two commonplace logics or recited truths.  The first is that freedom in Europe is inherently vulnerable and must thus be approached as a security question. The second is that some people’s uses of freedom are particularly risk-prone: those people are the non-European and potentially dangerous ‘others’ against which protection is necessary.


Protecting national sovereignty and national identity

In response to this liberal paradox, various European member states have resorted to implementing different bordering policies and practices: increased levels of policing at the border, building fences, increased forced returns and expulsions, etc. These policies and practices are to be seen as an important expression of state sovereignty. By means of these practices, the state demonstrates its claim to power and signals its ability to fulfill its duties.  Expending significant political, material, and ideological efforts on border policing regimes is rightly regarded as the heart of the regulatory effort to sustain national sovereignty.  But border control is much more than a business card of state sovereignty. Border control and bordering practices are also seen as an important defense mechanism to ensure the survival of national cultures. National identity can only be established through contradictions and exclusions. Border zones, or frontiers, are therefore sites of social sorting and delineate who belongs and who does not. Bordering and othering go hand in hand as both serve the clear goal of identifying and creating clarity on who belongs to the in-group and who doesn’t. Both through ‘harder’ and more clear acts of bordering and border policing (being stopped in a border zone or at a border) as well as through ‘softer’ and more or less subtle bordering practices (categorizing and ordering people on a discursive level), unwanted (groups of) individuals are being hindered in their mobility at the internal and external borders of the Schengen area. It is through the securitization and the reduction of ‘non-European’ bodies that these ‘non-European’ bodies are being made into a ‘necessary other’ that comes to bear the brunt for uncertain risks to national security and national identity.


Intra-EU othering and bordering

What is interesting is that these bordering and othering practices do not just seem to affect non-European bodies, but also European bodies. The other within is enacted and constructed by and with EU citizens through the securitization of certain faiths, bodies, and practices. In discussing and problematizing the existence of a European identity, Ammaturo (2018) observes that although whiteness has been the historically predominant framework of reference in terms of racial and ethnic identity of the continent [1], at least from colonial times onwards [2], within the same framework of whiteness, there are internal articulations of ‘otherness’ focusing in particular on Eastern [3] and Southern European countries [4]. These post-colonial and neo-colonial dynamics within Europe are reflected by the imposition by some western European member states of restrictions on the social welfare rights of immigrants from recent accession states in eastern Europe as well as the growing number of intra-EU deportations and transfers, as citizens from Eastern European states are forcibly removed from the West [5]. In recent years, the securitization of Islam has also led to the ethnicization of Muslims [6], who have been represented and categorized as another ‘other’ and “enemy” within the EU [7]. As demonstrated by the Brexit vote in the UK as well as the overall rise of Islamophobia within Europe, these differentiations between ‘core’ Europeans and ‘other’ Europeans, where the latter are also seen as unworthy, have an important effect when it comes to narratives about intra-European migration [8]. These differentiations essentialize and normalize what is a heavily ideological – in fact, heavily racialized and gendered – construct, namely that all people are inclined to excessive uses of freedom, but some more than others. Tsianos and Krakayali have argued that “since the 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam of the European Union, there has been a process of the creation of a ‘European Border Regime’, where the word regime appears to be closely associated with practices of bargaining and negotiation. (…) Deprived of their immediate geo-political significance, borders and bordering practices can become an epistemological device that serves the purpose of laying the groundwork for the construction of coherent narratives of ‘Core Europeanness’, catalyzing specific forms of knowledge to the detriment of others.” [9]


Concluding remarks

The ever-growing nationalist and anti-immigration political and public discourse, combined with low harmonization, weak monitoring, low solidarity, and lack of strong institutions in EU migration policy, has created an environment in which “core” Europeans seem to be able to move more freely through the Schengen area. As Van Houtum already rightly noted in 2010, the EU has failed in its agenda of “producing a zone of peace and comfort ruled by law and order” [10] and is now an actor which engages in a “self-proclaimed war on illegal migrants and has created a border industry that constructs more, not less, ‘illegality’, xenophobia and fear”.[11] An observation that only rings more true in the current day and age based on the way in which the European Union has dealt with the so-called migration crisis.

Although these exclusionary tendencies and processes can be traced back to the very beginning of the European Union, the processes of bordering/othering have enhanced and intensified as a result of the current migration crisis. It almost seems as if a large part of the European population was not fully aware of the increasing liquidity, fluidity, and the forces of globalization and deterritorialization until the onset of the said “crisis”.  This has led to a fundamental and profound questioning of the concept of European citizenship and European identity. As Ammaturo puts it: “Mediated by the notion of crisis, this triangular dynamics [between migration, ‘bordering/othering’ and notions of European identity, MW] is effectively shaping Europe as a continent continuously characterized by points of criticality, uncertainty and forms of defence and strategic retreat into national(ist) conceptions of belonging”.  The proliferation of bordering practices reveals intricate connections between identity, citizenship, penal power, and social exclusion. These connections may be equally or even more pronounced in societies that are traditionally considered to be less punitive and less committed to human rights.  It is therefore not surprising that various countries in (North-) West Europe are the most active in monitoring and managing mobility in their intra-Schengen border zones by carrying out police and immigration checks under article 23 of the Schengen Border Code or even by temporarily reintroducing actual border checks (under article 29 of the Schengen Border Code).

In the weeks after the initial proposal to install a commissioner for the protection of the European way of life, both the incoming president as the appointed commissioner, Margaritis Schinas, tried to defend and explain what the job entails. In their various attempts, both Schinas and Von der Leyden ‘define’ what they see as the ‘European way of life’ in the light of article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty that states that the Union “is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” As beautiful as this sounds, it is also an excellent example of how the law in the books doesn’t reflect the law in action. As this essay aimed to highlight, the European Union has a fundamentally exclusionary foundation, and it is important to ask whose values and whose rights and interests the Lisbon Treaty refers to – those of all Europeans or just those of the core Europeans? The fact that several populist EU leaders have hailed the new position, including French far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen, illustrates the ambivalence of the terminology and the fact that the discourse of ‘the European way of life’ can be easily appropriated by the powerful nationalist and populist propaganda machine.



Maartje van der Woude is professor of Law & Society at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance & Society of Leiden Law School, the Netherlands. This work is part of the 5-year research project “Getting to the Core of Crimmigration” (project number 452-16-003), which is financed through the VIDI research scheme by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). The author is project coordinator and principal investigator.





[1] Ammaturo, Francesca Romana. “Europe and Whiteness: Challenges to European Identity and European Citizenship in Light of Brexit and the ‘Refugees/Migrants Crisis.’” European Journal of Social Theory 22, no. 4 (November 2019): 548–66. doi:10.1177/1368431018783318.

[2] Bonnett A and Nayak A (2003) Cultural geographies of racialisation: the territory of race. In: Anderson K, et al. (eds) Handbook of Cultural Geography. London: Sage, pp. 300–12., 202

[3] Kuus M (2004) Europe’s eastern expansion and the reinscription of otherness in East-Central Europe. Progress in Human Geography 28(4): 472–89

[4] Zaccaria P (2015) (Trans)MediterrAtlantic embodied archives. Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies Journal 8: 1–18.

[5] Barker V (2017) Nordic vagabonds: The Roma and the logic of benevolent violence in the Swedish welfare state. European Journal of Criminology 14(1): 120–139.

[6] Rachel A. D. Bloul (2008) Anti-discrimination Laws, Islamophobia, and Ethnicization of Muslim Identities in Europe and Australia, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 28:1, 7-25, DOI: 10.1080/13602000802011036

[7] Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski (2011): European Identity Making and IdentityTransfer, Europe-Asia Studies, 63:6, 935-955

[8] Ammaturo, Francesca Romana. “Europe and Whiteness: Challenges to European Identity and European Citizenship in Light of Brexit and the ‘Refugees/Migrants Crisis.’” European Journal of Social Theory 22, no. 4 (November 2019): 548–66. doi:10.1177/1368431018783318.

[9] Tsianos and Krakayali (2010:374)

[10]   van Houtum, H. (2010). Human Blacklisting: The Global Apartheid of the EU’s External Border Regime. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(6), 957–976., page. 957

[11] Id






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