The Renationalisation of Politics

An interview about the refugee crisis with Sandro Mezzadra, an expert on migration and Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna.

Maria Jaidopulu Vrijea: The concept of ‘crisis’ is being widely used in Europe. First, people were talking about a ‘refugee crisis’ and now they are talking about a ‘migrant crisis’; a change in discourse can be noticed. If crisis is a governmental category, as you have mentioned, what are we dealing with in this case?
Sandro Mezzadra: Well, you are right that there is a kind of ambiguity in the reference to the crisis in today’s European public discourse. This is not something new; one could even say that the crisis is a constituent element of modernity, to make a very general statement. There is a kind of structural link between the notion of the crisis and the most important political concepts of modernity which has been investigated by many historians and political theorists, and this means that we have to handle the concept of the crisis with care. From this point of view, this concept is characterised by a specific productivity, which means that talking about the crisis usually implies, in very general terms, talking about possible solutions to the crisis.
What characterises the contemporary situation, particularly in Europe, is that we are continuing to talk about the crisis without seeing too many solutions. And this becomes very clear once we take into consideration the question of the economic crisis, for instance. Since 2007/2008, the economic crisis has been circulating in Europe as well as around the world. There still is no stable solution to this crisis on the horizon. This is important as far as Europe is concerned because – on the back of the refugee/migrant crisis that you mentioned – we have the economic crisis, the so-called sovereign debt crisis, and this crisis keeps on circulating in Europe. Just think of Finland and its position one year ago regarding Greece; now Finland is facing a severe crisis and the solutions that are proposed are the ‘usual suspects’: austerity programmes, cuts, etc. These solutions only form the basis for the reproduction of the crisis, in a way. I think that it is important to keep in mind the economic and financial crisis, even when talking about the current refugee/migrant crisis, because there is a clear link between these multiple crises. Only by considering them together will we be able to see that what we are actually facing is a deep crisis of the entire integration process in Europe.
The crisis in Greece and the clashes last year between the Greek government and the so-called Troika of creditors are particularly important from this point of view. In a way, some of the European elites were, of course, very satisfied with the ‘resolution’ of the Greek crisis last July and were apparently thinking that this ‘resolution’ could form the basis for a deepening and a continuation of the integration process under the banners of austerity, monetary stability, and so on. Within a couple of weeks, these same elites were confronted with another crisis, with the beginning of what we today call the refugee/migrant crisis, and it was immediately clear that the EU was not able to form the basis for effective management of that crisis and that there was no legitimisation to confront such a crisis. So, I really tend to stress the concatenation between what happened in the first half of 2015 in Greece and what happened in the second half of the year regarding migrants and refugees. And I do that in order to emphasise the fact that the real crisis nowadays is a crisis of the European integration process.
Just think of the geographies of integration in Europe. During the Greek crisis, we were confronted once again with the North-South divide, which, of course, has its own history but has become dramatic over the last five or six years. Well, during the so-called ‘migration crisis’, another divide emerged, which also has its own history but was politicised in a different way: the divide between East and West. The European integration process has always been predicated upon a variable geography, with different, heterogeneous geographical scales; just think of the Europe of the euro, the Europe of Schengen, the regional processes fostered by the EU, the logistical spaces emerging in Europe over recent decades. So, there are different kinds of geographies but, to cut a long story short, the idea was that this variable geography was in itself productive; that there was a specific productivity in terms of the deepening and strengthening of the integration process connected to this variable geography. Nowadays, we are confronted once again with an implosion of these geographies – with a really deep geographical disruption of the integration process. And I think that this is an image that effectively combines the impression of the crisis of the European integration process that I addressed earlier.
Nevertheless, we are dealing with a crisis that, in a way, involves another player: the migrants and refugees. On the European level, the dominant response has been securitisation and a series of restrictive policies and practices of control concerning the EU’s external (NATO, Frontex) and internal (questioning the Schengen space) borders. What does this proliferation of borders mean? Do you think that we are currently facing the consolidation of a new border and control regime?
S.M.: Well, this is a crucial question and not a very easy one to answer in 5 or 10 minutes, but I will try to say at least a couple of things. The first has to do with what you just called ‘another player’ coming from ‘’the outside’, meaning migrants and refugees. I think that it is really very important to consider the migrants and refugees as active subjects and not merely as victims – victims of war, victims of the European border regime, victims of the smugglers, and so on. For me, this is a truly crucial point. I have been working on migration for more than twenty years now and this has been the most important point for me: to contribute to shedding light on the practices, the behaviours and the desires of people on the move, without, of course, concealing the objective conditions that force many of these people to be on the move.
Among activists who deal with migration and borders in Europe, there is a phrase that circulates as a kind of challenge to the governmental definition of the so-called ‘migration/refugee crisis’ and this phrase is the ‘Summer of Migration’, referring, of course, to what happened in July, August, September and throughout the autumn in Europe. The ‘Summer of Migration’ is, in my opinion, a very effective phrase insofar as it emphasises the subjectivity of migrants, the stubbornness of movements of migration that have ended up challenging and disrupting, at least for a short moment, the European border regime. And it is also important to add that this protagonist role of migrants and refugees has very often taken explicitly political forms in recent months: it was clear in Ventimiglia, for instance, at the border between Italy and France; it was and is clear in Calais; it is clear nowadays in Idomeni; it is clear wherever we are confronted with huge concentrations of migrants in what we can call ‘bottlenecks’ created by the European border regime. In all these instances – and in many others – migrants were very often able to articulate their claims and their demands in an explicitly political way, although in very general terms. I mean, they have claimed their right to access Europe, claiming a kind of appropriation of Europe as a space to live, to try to build a future, and so on. And it is important to add that this claim addressed Europe as a whole, not as individual nation states or EU member states.
I think that this is a very important fact. I mean, in recent months, I have often thought of the famous words of Frantz Fanon at the end of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’; you may remember the invocation of “leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets”. Well, if you keep these words in mind, what is happening today may be a kind of displacement because you see people coming from the former Third World – the same people addressed by Frantz Fanon in the early 1960s – claiming a right to access Europe. It would be interesting to reflect upon this kind of inversion or displacement, because it speaks of a kind of postcolonial predicament that we are living through today and it reminds us that migrants and refugees – with their movements, with their struggles, with their stubbornness – address Europe from at least two points of view that are equally important: on the one hand, they pose the question of, let’s say, the quality of social co-operation and social coexistence within Europe; on the other hand, they pose the problem of the relations Europe has with its multiple outsides. So, it is precisely the juncture between these two questions raised by movements and struggles of migration that makes migration itself such a crucial topic for the future of Europe. This answers the first part of your question.
The second part of your question concerns the current establishment of a new border regime in Europe and the proliferation of walls and fences, both at the ‘external borders’ of the EU and within the Schengen space. It is important to focus on this connection, because walls and fences have not merely been proliferating at the external frontiers of the EU. The Austrian government is planning to close the border between Austria and Italy; however, the Schengen system has undoubtedly been one of the most important and symbolic accomplishments of the European integration process. It also has important economic aspects and I think that a large number of the European elites are aware of this as well as the huge cost implied by the crisis and the possible end of free movement within the Schengen space. So, this is another important symptom and, at the same time, an undoubtedly concrete aspect of the crisis of the European integration process.
At the same time, we have to remember that what we call the ‘European border regime’ emerged precisely as a complex device of articulation between free circulation within the Schengen space and control at the so-called ‘external frontiers of the EU’. Nowadays, we are confronted with a crisis of both these aspects and the juncture between them. I belong to a strand within critical border studies, critical migration studies and migration-related activism that has always been kind of sceptical regarding the widely circulated slogan of ‘Fortress Europe’. I never questioned the effectiveness of this slogan – I have employed it in public debates and so on – but, from a descriptive point of view, I belong to those who said, “beware, this definition can be misleading”. It can be misleading, on the one hand, because it focuses our gaze on the control side of developments around borders and risks, obscuring the other side: the subjective challenge to the border continually posed by movements of migration. On the other hand, there was another reason why we were a bit cautious regarding the implications of the phrase ‘Fortress Europe’ and this has to do with the fact that migrants continued to access the European space. The best possible way to describe the way in which the European border regime has worked for a couple of decades is through the concept of ‘differential inclusion’, a concept that emphasises the fact that European border policies were not aimed at keeping migrants out of Europe in an absolute way, but rather were aimed at filtering movements of migration in very different, heterogeneous ways, which contributed to a deep heterogenisation of the positions of migrants themselves within Europe, within the European citizenship in general sociological terms, and within the European labour markets.
Well, from this point of view, the current European border regime is not working at all. What is happening in terms of the proliferation of walls and fences, in terms of the militarisation of borders, and in terms of the tightening of control does not seem to me to be a solution to the crisis of the European border regime we are currently being confronted with. Once again, there are large sections of the European elite – of people that I consider my political adversaries, to be clear – who are aware of that. I am also convinced that, for instance, the political decisions taken since late August and early September by Angela Merkel are influenced by this awareness. To put it simply: Europe needs migrants! And this is something people working in many ministries and policy agencies across the continent are perfectly aware of. Well, what’s happening nowadays does not address this European need for migrants and this is the reason why I think that there is no effective border regime emerging from the developments on the ground seen in recent weeks and months. The problem remains open. I mean, there are multiple possibilities to address these problems; some of them are nightmares – we have to be aware of that – but, at the same time, it is important to stress that the problem remains open.
Do you think that Europe is at a crossroads regarding its so-called basic values, such as human rights? Do you think that the actions of migrants and refugees have obliged Europe to take a certain stance? And what is the role of the solidarity movement and the Left in this?
S.M.: Well, Europe is at a crossroads from many points of view, also regarding its so-called founding values and the substance of the integration process’s values. Regarding migration and border controls, this has always been a kind of blind spot for European values. We cannot forget that, over the last 25 years, thousands of men, women and children have lost their lives in attempting to cross Europe’s so-called external frontiers, so this is not something new. Nowadays, we are facing a dramatic crisis and many people tend to think that this is new; well, no, there is a continuity, and looking at ‘European values’ from the borders of Europe has always meant to be confronted with a kind of nightmare: with the spectacle of the massacre of European founding values.
What is definitely true is that these kinds of developments have become even more pronounced and dramatic over recent months. One could say that the founding values, in terms of the acknowledgment of the legacy of human rights and so on, are nowadays disrupted and challenged not only at the borders of the European Union but also within its space and at its core, so to speak. I am, of course, thinking of the rise of all the new aggressive political forces of the Right that openly challenge this legacy. So, this is for me a very important question because it also points to deep processes of renationalisation of politics, both in terms of policies and in terms of political rhetoric, which are taking place all over Europe. Let me add that the response of the mainstream political forces – let’s say the European Popular Party or the European Socialist Party – to these processes of renationalisation of politics, in some way nurture these same problems. In France, the decision by the Hollande government to adopt crucial aspects of the National Front’s political programme under the banner of a ‘state of emergency’ is a very telling sign in this regard.
At the same time, there is an important point to be made in this respect, which is that I am deeply convinced that these processes of renationalisation of politics do not challenge the neoliberal core of the process of European integration. So, all the scenarios which we are called upon to take into account for the immediate future point to the rise of new combinations between neoliberalism and nationalism in many European countries. I mean, if you put all this together with what I was saying about the crisis of the European integration process, in a way we are confronted with the end of the European Union as we know it and as we have criticised it over the last two decades. But beware: a new European Union is perfectly imaginable, predicated precisely upon this combination between new forms of nationalism and a continuity of processes of neoliberalisation.
So, I am convinced that this is a crucial moment for us in Europe and the European Left, and that we urgently need a process of uprising against these scenarios. Is there a basis for such processes in Europe today? Well, I would say there is such a basis, so I am optimistic in a sense. In recent months there have been really positive experiences in many parts of Europe with people showing solidarity with migrants and refugees. I mean, I have been living in Germany for some months now and it is really astonishing to see the huge number of people who are engaged in solidarity networks – solidarity networks that go well beyond the boundaries of traditional forms of activism and involve many citizens. These days when people think of Germany, they associate it immediately with the rise of a new Right. AfD, for instance, the new political party of the Right, had amazing results at the last municipal elections in Hessen and even more so in the regional elections last Sunday (with an astonishing 24% of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt). That’s a fact. And it is a fact that acts of aggression and assaults continue to be committed against refugees and targeted at places where refugees live or are expected to live in the near future. But this is only one part of the picture, because what is really striking in Germany is in fact the polarisation of German society. And, on the other hand, you have these widespread networks of solidarity which, in many cities, have ended up posing fundamental questions regarding, let’s say, the right to the city. That’s Germany, but you also have similar experiences of solidarity in Hungary, for instance, just to mention one place which is, at present, not particularly advanced in terms of democracy and ‘European values’, to put it ironically. You know better than I do about the situation in Greece and I think that this is really astonishing; it is something that it is moving, in a way, really moving after the turmoil and social suffering of recent years. And this can be said for many parts of Europe and it is also a kind of basis to rethink Europe, in a way; to start rethinking and practically inventing a new Europe. What we need, of course, are forms of coordination and so on – a kind of political invention capable of connecting these experiences and relocating them at a different level, so to speak.
What do you think about the outcome of yesterday’s Summit?
S.M.: It is difficult to think that yesterday’s Summit [1] was able to propose effective solutions. You see this just by reading some of the statements made by European leaders at the end of the Summit; what Donald Tusk said yesterday: “the days of irregular migration to Europe are over”. OK, this means that nothing was achieved. Or what Cameron said: “all refugees who arrive in Greece will be returned to Turkey”. Can you imagine something like that? Think of the core proposal made yesterday by Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu, on the so-called ‘one in – one out’ proposal; it is predicated upon an image of movements of migration that is not at all realistic and I think that even the proponents of such a formula are perfectly aware of that. It can just point to a tendency, which sees Turkey become the new logistical platform of the European border migration and asylum regime. We can talk for hours about the dangers associated with such a tendency. This morning, I was reading an interview with Filippo Grandi, the UN Commissioner for Refugees, in The Guardian and he describes, in a very precise and concrete way, the dangers of this tendency, including the fact that even many Syrian refugees risk being sent back to war zones. We could talk extensively about the living conditions of refugees in Turkey and so on. And these are all crucial aspects, of course.
I just want to add a couple of points. Again, this is not new: this project to transform Turkey into the main logistical platform for the European border migration and asylum regime is in a line of continuity with a process of externalisation of the European border regime that has been under way since at least the early 1990s; since the time of the first pilot agreements between the German government and the Polish government that led to the invention of the concept of ‘safe third country’, and so on. Then, there was a multiplication of such agreements, both by individual member states and at the European level. If you look at the southern shore of the Mediterranean, you see a lot of countries that were all, in one way or another, involved in the management of the European border regime. A well-known case is the agreements struck by the Italian government with Gaddafi before 2011; and in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring was a crucial moment in the crisis of the European border regime, precisely because of the key role played by countries like Libya and Tunisia in externalisation. Even if you look more to the South, you will see that Senegal, Mali and other countries are also part of this border regime that, in a way, extends the borders of Europe. In the past, Turkey has also been involved in these processes of externalisation.
However, nowadays we have to ask a couple of questions about the meaning and the perspectives of the involvement of Turkey in such a strategic position within the European border regime. What is Turkey today? You asked a question earlier regarding European values and human rights. From this point of view, it is pretty clear that Turkey is not complying with European values and human rights, irrespective of how critically we speak of such values and rights. Just think of free press! Moreover, Turkey nowadays is governed – and you know this better than I do, of course – by a deeply nationalist government. We know what this implies from the point of view of the militarisation, for instance, of the conflict with the Kurds, but we also know what it implies from the point of view of the involvement of Turkey in Syria and its ambitions to play the role of a regional power in the Middle East. So, let me just say very plainly that, insofar as Turkey becomes a crucial country in the European border regime, this means that Europe legitimises what is going on in Turkey and the Turkish ambition to play the role of a regional power in the Middle East. And here you see again the connection between the quality of associated life, democracy and social co-operation within Europe, and the relation between Europe and its multiple outsides, as I was mentioned earlier. Of course, the Turkish government is playing the refugee card in order to get this legitimisation and a stronger position in the negotiations regarding Turkish access to the EU. Turkish access to the EU at this moment, under these political conditions, would mean a further contribution to the processes of renationalisation of politics that I described before.
So, to put it simply, I think that the crisis of the European border regime, which is not a generic crisis but rather a specific crisis, has not been solved by the meeting yesterday in Brussels; it is left completely open. And the role that is assigned to Turkey in the proposals that have been circulating over the past weeks and that were made public yesterday should concern us. Once again, the only problem that was discussed yesterday in Brussels is how to keep refugees at the border of Europe in order to facilitate a process of filtering these refugees. If we are not able to open up a different kind of perspective in Europe, a perspective that is really new and capable of reinventing Europe, starting from the so-called migration crisis, dark days lie ahead over the coming months and years. But this is just one more reason to multiply our efforts and dedication!
This interview was conducted by Maria Jaidopulu Vrijea (Nicos Poulantzas Institute, Athens) on 8 March and was revised by Sandro Mezzadra on 17 March 2016.

[1] Editorial note: On 7 March 2016, EU heads of state or government held a meeting with Turkey to strengthen their cooperation on the migration and refugee crisis. European Council President Donald Tusk chaired the meeting, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu represented Turkey.