The bigger picture: Fortress Europe and the Buffer Zone


The bigger picture: Fortress Europe and the Buffer Zone

The imperialist legacy of E.U.

The European Union is an association of some of the most powerful countries in the world. The governments of Western Europe (especially Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, Belgium and Holland) between them used to directly rule almost the entire rest of the world, after centuries of trying to outdo each other through imperialist wars beginning in 1492, when Christopher Columbus invaded Cuba.

In the twentieth century these old empires were challenged by the rise of Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States as economic powers with imperialist ambitions, leading to two world wars in which the United States and Soviet Union took sides with the Western European empires against Germany, in order to secure control of most of the rest of the World for themselves. By the 1970’s almost all former European colonies in Africa, Asia and Latin America (regions which came to be known as the “third world”, “developing world” or “postcolonial world”) were formally independent. They had their own flags, national anthems and governments made up of native people (usually from whichever ethnic group the European powers had made dominant). But their economies were still largely controlled by European or US corporations and financial interests, and their governments were largely forced to obey the demands of either the United States or the Marxist-Leninist dictatorships of the Soviet Union or China.

The Western European governments increasingly realised that they had to work together to maintain the high levels of wealth they had enjoyed from their histories of imperialism. The United States government also pressured them to integrate more together, so that US corporations would have a wealthy, united European market to exploit. This was why the European Union was created.

The process of creating the E.U. began with various agreements about trade which removed border controls between European states for commodities (consumer goods or raw materials) and capital (money used for investment). These agreements mainly benefitted rich capitalists, who need to be able to move commodities and capital around easily in order to make profits, which is why they and their representatives in governments are always arguing for what they misleadingly call “free trade” and “free markets” (whereas they actually mean trade and markets controlled by rich capitalists).

Since then the E.U. has developed many characteristics of a nation-state in it’s own right, though it is still made up of officially separate countries. It has it’s own Parliament and executive branch, which as in the case of most nation-states has given power to print the common “Euro” currency to a privately-owned central bank (the ECB), great news for the rich capitalists which own the European Central Bank as they can now manipulate the economic fortunes of almost an entire continent. The E.U. has become a force to be reckoned with in global politics, and like most nation-states, or human societies in general, it defines itself by who it excludes.

The E.U. and borders

The “Schengen Agreement” (named after the place it was signed in Luxembourg) signed in 1985 but implemented by different European countries at different times afterwards, started to remove border controls for human beings as well. This agreement creates the “Schengen Area”, covering most of Europe, in which people no longer have to show passports to cross borders. This is also of benefit to rich capitalists, as workers within Europe are able to migrate to where capitalists need them most, and when they are from poorer European countries these migrant workers are usually able to be paid less, or made to work harder for the same pay. Nevertheless for people who are against border controls between nation states, such as ourselves as part of the No Borders network, the creation of the Schengen Zone, in itself, could be seen as a good thing.

When looked at as part of a broader process, however, a different picture emerges. At the same time as the borders inside Europe are disappearing, border controls at the edges of the EU are getting tougher and tougher. This is creating a situation in which an essentially racist division between European and non-European peoples is being maintained and strengthened by increasingly violent military structures, paid for by European taxpayers themselves.

The member states of the EU have created an organisation called FRONTEX (short for “external frontier”) to coordinate border controls in all E.U. countries that are at the edges of Europe. This organisation has a multimillion dollar budget which it spends on some of the most high-tech border surveillance systems possible, including (and I’m not making this up) “T.A.L.O.S.” unmanned robotic armed vehicles to patrol land borders, and the “S.I.V.E.” radar systems capable of detecting a human heartbeat from kilometres away, to monitor sea borders. They also have plenty of funding for more traditional security measures: guns, handcuffs, prison cells and 18-meter high fences topped with razor wire, surrounded by CCTV cameras.

At the same time as FRONTEX is making it harder for people without official permission to cross into Europe from elsewhere, other E.U. policies and institutions are making it harder for them to get these documents in the first place, and Governments throughout the E.U. are adopting similar policies of creating quotas for how many immigrants they will allow into their territories as workers, and how many people they will accept as “asylum seekers”. In all E.U. countries, governments have created prisons which they call “detention centres” in order to keep migrants while they are waiting either to hear if they have been granted permission to stay, or if they will be deported. They are also adopting tougher and tougher policing and surveillance policies in order to catch people without papers and take them to these detention centres. E.U. countries are also all becoming more willing to deport people to countries even if they face danger or death. These similarities in policies are not coincidental, they are the result of common agreements made between these countries as part of the EU structures.

For all these reasons, the metaphor of “Fortress Europe” is often used to describe E.U. immigration policies, fortresses being defined spaces in which movement is closely observed and controlled, defined by external borders made of military defences which are designed to restrict unauthorised entry.  But what lies just beyond the walls of the Fortress?

The Buffer Zone

In 1995 in Barcelona, a conference was held between E.U. leaders and the leaders of other countries in the Mediterranean, including North African and Middle Eastern states. This was the beginning of the “Barcelona process”, which is all about creating a “buffer zone” in between the external borders of Europe and the regions where most people trying to get into Europe come from: Sub-Saharan Africa and various regions of Asia.  The E.U. regularly pays these “buffer zone” countries millions of euros to try to prevent migrants passing through them on the way to Europe, and basically to protect the E.U.’s border with a level of violence that would be embarrassing for the European countries to have to use themselves.

The “Barcelona Process” is also about creating, one day in the future, a Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area (EMFTA), which would remove all barriers to trade between the E.U. and the North African, Balkan and Middle-eastern states on the Mediterranean. This world probably have the same effect as the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) had: the economies of the poorer countries outside the E.U. would be flooded with consumer goods produced in Europe with E.U. subsidies. This would cause millions of small farmers and other productive industries to go bankrupt, so that they could be cheaply bought up by European corporations, who would also have a huge supply of cheap workers. This would mean even more poverty, not only for in the poorer non-E.U. countries, but in Europe as well, because even more industries would be shut down and moved abroad, causing more unemployment. All of this has happened with Mexico, the US and Canada as a result of NAFTA.

But despite the terrible consequences EMFTA would have for workers and poor people in the whole Euro-Mediterranean region, the upper classes of all these countries would stand to benefit enormously, as they are in a position to buy shares in all the companies that would be making profits out of the situation, and those of them in State office would be able to make even more money out of good-old-fashioned corruption. Removing trade barriers would benefit some big companies in the non-EU Mediterranean countries as well, as they would have more access to E.U. markets.  Therefore the promise of EMFTA is a big incentive for the non-EU Mediterranean countries’ leaders to cooperate with the EU’s anti-immigration policies.


The rest of this text focuses on just one of the countries that is part of this picture, Morocco, which is one of geographically most important countries that people pass through to get to Europe, because it is where the smallest sea crossing between Africa and Europe is, the Straits of Gibraltar. There are also two cities on the North shore, Ceuta and Melilla, which are officially part of Spain, an E.U. country. This means that Morocco is also the only place in Africa and the Arab world with a land border with the E.U. The Moroccan State has been given millions of euros by the E.U. over the past two decades to cooperate with their migration policy.

Morocco is run by an extremely repressive State compared with most EU countries. It is an absolute monarchy where the King, currently Mohammed VI, has total power, and it is illegal to publicly criticise him.  Police have a lot of arbitrary power over the people, and the court systems are not very good – it is difficult to get a fair trail. In a huge part of the territory that the Moroccan state claims as it’s own, known as “Western Sahara”, there has a direct military occupation and martial law for decades, because of war between the State and an armed independence movement called the Polisario front.

Human rights, therefore, are respected even less in Morocco than in the E.U. This is especially the case for migrants passing through Morocco to the E.U. who mainly come from West African countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and others. Many of these migrants end up staying in Morocco for years, trapped by the border security measures taken by the Moroccan state and E.U.

We will now take a closer look at three specific aspects of this border situation, and the sometimes deadly consequences they have for migrants.

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