3. Juni 2021

Where are Europe’s borders? The EU border externalisation policies discussed

When we discuss EU migration and border policies, we need to look beyond the EU’s actions within its own territory. The EU is systematically externalising border functions to third countries by invoking the notion of “partnerships”. To understand these border politics, we need to rethink the notion of borders altogether.

A Comment by Amelie Gätjen and Pauline Fritz


Border externalisation & the New Migration Pact

The EU has over the past years increasingly externalised its borders outside its own territory. Externalisation in a nutshell denotes the relocation of border controls and other border functions to the territory of so-called third countries. In practice, that means that individuals, especially migrants and asylum seekers are exposed to certain types of border controls long before they actually reach EU territory. This practice is reflected in the EU’s New Pact on Migration adopted in September 2020. 

The Migration Pact has several shortcomings and does little to change the status quo. For example, it does not address the immense pressure on southern border states to “process” asylum seekers. The humanitarian situation remains dire as these states are failing to provide proper shelter, health services and legal pathways for the large number of refugees still “stuck” on the EU border.  Instead, the pact reiterates notions of common responsibility and solidarity that have little programmatic value, and focuses on increasing the speed of asylum procedures, strengthening Frontex and enforcing returns. Moreover, the EU is setting aside substantial amounts of money to encourage third countries to limit migration to the EU. 

By setting these topics at the center of discussion, the EU clearly portrays that its focus is set on the prevention of migration rather than responsibility sharing, the right to asylum and efficient migration mechanisms within the union. Secondly, it links these priorities with the goal of establishing “mutually beneficial partnerships” with third countries. To conjure up mutual benefits and then mostly discuss irregular migration as if that is the main shared concern is at best naive, and at worst an indicator that the EU is very much aware of its disproportionate negotiating power.

The immense amount of funds for humanitarian assistance, development programmes and training for security forces, such as the EUBAM in Libya, are at the basis of these “mutual benefits”, and are included  in the EU Trust Fund For Africa as well as CSDP missions (Common Security and Defence Policy). The “real” interest of third parties cooperating with the EU on border control varies from state to state. Allegations of the misuse of EU funds may hint at the financial benefit of such partnerships, particularly if the exact destination of funds is unclear. 

Border externalisation is a form of outsourcing its functions to other countries. Potentially the most infamous example of this is the EU’s collaboration with Libya. By cooperating with a fractionalised government and private militias who are known to torture and detain migrants and refugees in undignified conditions, the EU is in fact not participating in a “mutually beneficial relationship”. It therefore tolerates human rights violations in the name of EU border policies. 


The EU “Partnership” with Libya

Indeed, the Libyan Coast Guard plays a key role in making sure whoever is on the other side of the Mediterranean sea stays there. Since 2015, when the EU created the Trust Fund For Africa, in order to “contribute to safe, secure, legal and orderly migration”, it has been paying the Libyan Coast Guard to control its borders. What is termed “cooperation” and “training” for “voluntary returns“, in reality means intercepting boats on the Mediterranean sea and making sure they do not reach Italian or Spanish shores. 

The problem is not only that Libya has been a failed state since 2011, and that there is little to no oversight of who has actually received the 318 million euros from the EU, but that the European Union is de facto violating the international principle of non-refoulement. The principle protects asylum seekers or migrants from being returned to a country where they may be in danger. 

By externalising its border into North Africa, the EU is creating a type of buffer zone, which has direct consequences for the right to asylum. People fleeing war, armed conflict or persecution in their home countries have a right to seek safety. That implies on the other side a responsibility to offer international protection to people in this situation. By externalising border protection to neighboring countries in North Africa and the Middle East, the EU is paying its way out of that responsibility. 


Securitising non-European migrants 

The double standards applied to this policy area are revealed when comparing the previous examples to the approach to intra-EU migration and mobility. Free movement within the EU is encouraged while migrants and asylum seekers from outside the EU are being refused entry. Securitisation seems to be the underlying force behind this double standard. Securitisation is the process by which migration, or migrants themselves, are framed as a threat. This threat is then treated as a security issue and met with “defensive” policies, i.e. increased border control and cooperation with third countries and pushbacks. 

However, the movement of people is not in itself a security issue, as European member states have agreed to allow mobility across their borders and create the Schengen Area. For many young Europeans, border control is a rather unknown phenomenon that has just recently reappeared due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. This trust is not granted to the rest of the world. Indeed, some EU member states like Italy believe that the European principle of free movement only works with strong protection of the European external border. In a letter to the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, then Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (Democratic Party) stated in 2016 that “the external dimension of migration policies is fundamental for the survival of Schengen.”

Italy has thus decided to act independently and signed several bilateral agreements with North African States. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Italy and Libya in 2011 emphasised the need to strengthen cooperation in combating the smuggling of migrants and terrorism. A renewed agreement from 2017, granted direct assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard for the control of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Italian border is simultaneously a national and a European border. The solo run of the Italian government can thus be deemed a move for national interests but also a response to the pitfalls of the European asylum regime. On the one hand, the issue seems to be the inability of the EU to come up with a common responsibility-sharing mechanism and lift the burden off of the border states (Italy, Spain, and Greece), while on the other hand, member states show an unwillingness to give up some of their sovereignty in managing migration.


(De)Constructing borders

Borders define who is in and who is out. But how this decision is made in the EU is not only a question of migration law but also of EU border policies and everyday practices. Borders are not a fixed line, they extend inwards and outwards, and externalisation is just one example of how the EU border is a much larger construct than we might think at first glance. 

Borders can decide over people’s future, borders can kill. The least we can do is question the function of the EU’s borders, both external and internal, whether geographical, social or political. These are some of the themes we want to explore in our blog series Border Talks soon


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments solely express the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via unsplash


Amelie is a member of the management team for Polis180’s Migration Programme. She studies International Relations in Berlin and focuses on migration and conflict studies, as well as feminist and postcolonial theory in IR.

Pauline is a student at the Paris School of International Affairs and focuses on Human Rights, Migration and Security. She has been involved in humanitarian work in refugee camps at the European External Border and joined polis180 as a contributor in March 2021.


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