Céline Cantat: Migration struggles and the crisis of the European project

This post is part of a series on migration and the refugee crisis moderated and edited by Prem Kumar Rajaram (Central European University).

In April 2015, when four boats carrying almost two thousand people consecutively sank in the Mediterranean Sea, with a combined death toll estimated at more than 1,200, the idea that Europe was experiencing a “migrant crisis” came into currency. Over the next few months, a series of border disasters captured the attention of the European public, sometimes successfully if temporarily reversing the increasingly dehumanizing rhetoric of a “migrant crisis” by giving way to the notion of a “refugee crisis.”

The exceptionality of these border casualties is, however, only apparent: as Manuela Bojadžijev and Sandro Mezzadra argue, the deathscape at Europe’s borders, and in particular the turning of the Mediterranean Sea into a collective grave for illegalized migrants, have been at work since at least the mid-1990s, which coincides with the reinforcement and securitization of the external borders of the Schengen Area, a corollary to the dissolution of its internal borders. The profound inequalities of mobilities produced by Europe’s borders expose how the European Union is embedded in a transnational politics of labor disciplining along racialized lines that produces and relies on complex contradictions and inequalities, and is integral to global capitalism. The human tragedies unfolding at Europe’s borders thus reveal a deep crisis not only of the European immigration policies but also of the European political project itself.

Crisis of state power
The hesitation between depictions of a “refugee crisis” and a “migrant crisis” reflects the reliance of public and media discourses on what is seen, and thereby reinforced, as the legitimate state authority to hierarchize and separate different human mobilities. As highlighted by Raia Apostolova, until the state has decided, after an arduous process within a European asylum system designed to reject a majority of applicants, which mobilities are legal—because those exercising them are considered to hold credible claims as refugees—and which remain illegalized and undesirable—insofar as they were enacted by “economic migrants”—all illegalized travelers are submitted to the same border violence. They participate in the same struggle to exercise their freedom of movement against states and their borders.

Philip Marfleet notes that the instability of mainstream representations of human mobility is a contemporary phenomenon intimately linked to the nation-state project. Before the emergence of the modern state in its territorial and national definition, “migration was broadly acknowledged as part of human experience and was referenced in a vast range of literature” (2013: 16–17). Excising episodes of mobilities from mainstream narratives, or including them within selective frames, is thus “a corollary of the national character of most modern historical writing” (17). This provides a key insight into the ways the categorization and containing of different forms of human mobility work toward the stabilization of the (capitalist) state and interstate system.

The rhetorical uncertainty regarding whether what is at stake is a crisis of “migrants” or “refugees” reveals the epistemic instability of the categories upon which the international system of governing human mobilities relies, as observed by Nicholas De Genova. The sheer power of migration in its autonomy and the multiple reasons for which people decide or are forced to engage into cross-border journeys can never be captured by state categories of mobility classification and valuation. States’ attempts at ordering, hierarchizing, and containing diverse forms of, and motives for, human mobility are always exceeded by the very movements they try to regiment. The proliferation of often-contradictory discourses regarding a “crisis” that is at times imputed to “migrants” and at others to “refugees” only serves to illustrate the permanent instability of the state in its territorial definition before the struggles of mobile humans exercising their fundamental right to movement across borders.

In other words, as De Genova argues, the historical movement unfolding before our eyes is not a crisis: it is a struggle. A struggle between (capitalist) states and their regimes of (labor) im/mobility and the never-fully-controllable power of human movement on a global scale.

In this context, as remarked by Prem Kumar Rajaram, it is crucial to see that the crisis narrative is a productive one. It calls for the deployment of “exceptional” responses to the “emergency” it creates and provides a convenient stage for the redeployment of aggressive bordering strategies. It conceals that the responsibility for border deaths lies in the proliferation of borders by the EU and its member states and that the reinforcement of border policing will continue to orientate illegalized travelers toward ever more perilous routes. Hence, the naming of a crisis participates in the re-naturalization and re-stabilization of territorially defined state power under threat by the potentially destabilizing struggles of migrants over its bordering strategies.

Crisis of “Europe”
Over the past months, the battlefront of this confrontation has shifted from the Greek–Macedonian to the Serbian–Hungarian borders, then deeper into “Europe” to the Hungarian–Austrian border, and back to more peripheral sites of what is now routinely described as the “Balkan route.” As various European member states engaged in disparate tactics of border reinforcement, the contradictions and unevenness of the project of border harmonization of the European Union exploded. In mid-September, after a brief opening of its borders in the face of the spontaneous and autonomous march of refugees, Germany introduced checks at its national borders. This was immediately imitated by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria and later by the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden. Meanwhile, in Hungary, fences were erected on the borders with Croatia and Serbia, and unauthorized entry became a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. By early December, a proposal that border controls might be reintroduced for two years inside the Schengen free movement area was put forward by the EU’s Luxembourg presidency. Eventually, in mid-December, in order to “save” Schengen, the European Commission proposed the creation of a European Border and Coast Guard, which would inherit from and considerably extend the powers held by the current EU border agency, Frontex.

These re-bordering tactics are reactionary in that they come as responses to forms of human mobility that exceed states’ regimes of control. They follow logics that are both state- and EU-centered. Where Western European states waive or reintroduce border control in a spectacularized assertion of their sovereignty, other countries from the European peripheries merely act in the role of border guards of Europe’s external borders that they have been assigned within the highly hierarchized European regime of border policing. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly stated that his country was repelling migrants in order to “protect this continent” and to “preserve Europe for Europeans.” Ironically, Hungary has been reproved by some of its European counterparts for its ill treatment of migrants, and told by French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius that building walls at its borders “did not respect Europe’s common values.” While this illustrates a crisis of European immigration policies, it also unveils some of the insoluble contradictions riddling the European political project as a whole.

That references to Europe and its presumed “identity” and “values” are mobilized toward such apparently contradictory discourses and objectives puts fundamental questions before us: what and where is Europe? Who is European? While hardly a week passes without the European political project making headlines in the context of repeated crises and ongoing instability, essential issues regarding the nature and ideology of the new “Europe” largely go unasked. It is above all through a series of confrontations, from the struggle of the Greek people against the Troika to that of migrants fighting over Europe’s borders, that the official rhetoric of a united and postnational Europe promoting peace and internationalism reveals its fallacies. These struggles expose that there is no such thing as a homogeneous Europe: the movement of people through spaces considered European (Greece or Hungary) in order to leave again and to re-enter “Europe” in places where it is deemed closer to the fiction of the Europe they seek could not illustrate better the inconsistency of the discourse and project of Europe.

Over time, “Europe” has been the name of various projects, which all endeavored to project a monolithic identity as “European” while invariably working toward the advancement of particular interests, often of a national nature. Crucially, as highlighted by Gerard Delanty, the contradictions underpinning projects of Europe and discourses of Europeanness have historically been contained through the conjuring of shared figures of otherness. With the construction of the EU project, similar mechanisms have been at work: from the mid-1970s, in a context of global economic recession and of increasing neoliberal reorganization (or complete dismantlement) of traditional economic sectors and state welfare, a fear emerged that further European integration might be compromised in the absence of popular identification (and at times outright popular hostility) toward the European project. The idea that there existed a European “legitimacy deficit” that only a sense of “European identity” could remedy became an object of anguish among politicians of the European Community and its member states. As stated by one of the key architects of the Union, Jacques Delors, “people do not fall in love with a common market”: concerted efforts were deployed toward producing a “European identity.”

The project of fomenting “Europeanism” has relied on a notion of “Europeanity”—the idea that fundamental differences separate “Europeans,” who share particular sociocultural characteristics and a common civilizational heritage, from “non-Europeans.” Europeanity performs a politics of difference comparable to that of discourses of national identity, with similarly exclusionary implications for those deemed as not belonging to the new Europe. Simultaneously, new racialized internal alterities have been identified, among whom the Roma figure prominently. Their illegalized mobility in the face of ongoing (structural) violence and persecution has been framed as a threat to the fictional stability of Europeanity. The process of differential valuation of various people against a racialized scale of “Europeanity” starts within the borders of the new Europe.

Europe’s borders are manifestations of the social and political relations participating in the production of this separation between imagined “inside” and “outside.” They are enmeshed in the politics of global neoliberalism and capitalist labor discipline, as well as in a politics of racialized difference production integral to neoliberal capitalism. The crisis of the European border regime is thus the European manifestation of a moment of crisis of the global capitalist system and its associated racialized regime of cross-border labor mobility—in other words, a crisis of the European project itself, in the face of the struggles of migrants over its borders.

Migrant struggles are not limited to physical borders. The EU has been a laboratory for the elaboration of new, diffuse bordering strategies: migrants and their supporters have witnessed for decades how border enforcement is rooting itself into everyday existence. Immigration checks are activated when people attempt to access health care, to open a bank account, to enroll for college, and to rent a flat, turning us all into potential border guards.

For decades, resistance to bordering injunctions have been developing. Solidarity movements with refugees and migrants, opposing EU border policies and exclusionary discourses of European belonging, have emerged across the EU and beyond. In recent months, in spite of the emergency narrative and of laws increasingly criminalizing solidarity, citizens have engaged in countless acts of support, and sometimes true civil disobedience, through donations, hosting people in their homes, and facilitating movements across borders.

Transnational solidarity with migrants who confront the borders of territorial states and of the EU reveals the failures of attempts at inculcating people of the EU member states with a sense of common Europeanity against undesirable Others. It expresses a rupture between parts of the European public and the elites governing them. In this way as well, migration struggles are central to the political crisis of neoliberal Europe.

Céline Cantat recently obtained her PhD in Refugee Studies from the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging at the University of East London. During the 2014–15 academic year, she was a Marie Curie INTEGRIM Fellow at Migrinter, Université de Poitiers. Her work focuses on pro-migrant mobilizations in the context of the construction of the European Union and its borders.


De Genova, Nicholas. Forthcoming. Introduction. In N. De Genova, ed., The borders of “Europe”: Autonomy of migration, tactics of bordering.

Marfleet, Philip. 2013. Explorations in a foreign land: States, refugees, and the problem of history. Refugee Survey Quarterly 32 (2): 14–34.

Cite as: Cantat, Céline. 2015. “Migration struggles and the crisis of the European project.” FocaalBlog, 18 December. www.focaalblog.com/2015/12/18/celine-cantat-migration-struggles-and-the-crisis-of-the-european-project.