Book Review: Matthew Carr, Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent (New Press / Hurst, 2012)
Posted by: MZ
* A version of this review is published in Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture (2013), 4(2), pp 201-3.
In 1957, the European Economic Community (EEC) was established with the six founding members – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, West Germany and the Netherlands. The Treaty of Rome left the door open to other ‘European’ countries that wished to become members to apply (Article 237). Exactly what constituted European in this context was ambiguous, subsequently defined more through practice than principle: countries tested out the boundaries of Europe through applying to be recognised as a part of it. Greece joined in 1981, Portugal and Spain in 1986. Malta applied in 1990 and joined only in 2004. Turkey applied for membership in 1987, but had to wait until 2005 to even begin accession negotiations and has yet to join. This question of ‘what it means to be European’ undergirds Matthew Carr’s exploration of the human costs of Europe’s measures to guard the latest incarnation of its territorial borders.
Since the implementation of the Schengen Agreement in March 1995, the European pursuit of a borderless internal space, even as it incorporated new member states and expanded its own political territory towards the Middle East, has been one of its defining features. The Schengen area now includes 4 countries that are not member states of the EU (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland), yet not all EU members are a part of the regime (UK and Ireland). The territorial entity that requires protection, this ‘Europe’, is thus a legal political space that is always under construction. The erosion of border control within this version of Europe, as Carr writes, depends ‘on a persistent hardening of Europe’s “external” frontiers’, a symbiotic relationship that he traces with historical awareness. As an investigative journalist, Carr travels to the frontiers of Europe to witness the impact of Europe’s contemporary interdiction measures. He interviews migrants and law enforcement agents on the edges of the expanded EU—at the borders of Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine; in the precariously situated Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa; and at the maritime frontiers of Malta and Italy. In two chapters primarily drawing on the UK as a case study, Carr also investigates a border internal to the EU: a second line of defence around an island member state. He details the extensive and intimidating efforts of countries to detect and deport irregular migrants, as well as to discourage and impoverish asylum seekers. The exploration of the ‘internalization’ of the border into everyday spaces of work and life poignantly depicts the claustrophobia and bleakness of the migrants’ plight.
At the heart of Carr’s work is a paradox: the idealism of the EU’s foundation on values such as ‘human dignity, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights’, and the ‘remorseless and often pitiless’ consequences of its attempts to secure and protect its borders, which in turn constitute its territorial identity. Many horrors are chronicled: would-be migrants shot as they attempt to scale the (literal) walls erected to keep them out and Europe pure; migrants left to die in the desert or the sea as Europe looks on; the brutal and sometimes lethal deportations with migrants restrained and gagged; failed asylum seekers with almost-unspeakable experiences of violence and persecution that are deemed ‘unpleasant’ but insufficient; individuals who have put down roots while they are slowly churned through the immigration machine, only to be uprooted abruptly. It is a credit to Carr that he presents these tales of tremendous tragedy with a measured, matter-of-fact tone. The unembellished accounts are a powerful yet understated critique of the all-too-real consequences of the EU’s policies.
As with many regimes of control and repression, there is resistance and subversion. Despite the EU’s considerable efforts and resources, determined, hopeful and sometimes naive, migrants have tried and succeeded to penetrate the fortress. In Part II, Carr takes a thematic approach, moving away from border interdiction practices to a broader examination of European responses to migration. There is more reason for hope here, as migrants are shown as not mere victims but political agents who have protested against their conditions and resisted a system that renders them abject. There are also stories of Europeans who risk fines, and even jail, in order to demonstrate solidarity with the unwanted migrants, helping them to survive and elude law enforcement agents.
But it is here that Carr’s argument is weakest: the complex and entangled issues of criminalisation and migration, the problems of trafficking and smuggling of people and goods, are hastily surveyed. Sections of the chapter entitled ‘Traffic’ seem anomalous in an otherwise focused and cogent study. Mixed migration flows of goods and people, the contradictory desire to lower transnational borders for some goods and people, while increasing vigilance against others is a necessary point. However, the nexus between transnational crime and immigration cannot be raised so cursorily. While Carr critiques the language of Frontex that treats irregular migration as a ‘security threat’, he fails to propose an alternative discourse that can both address the human rights of irregular migrants and the need to regulate migration across borders. Carr treads dangerously when he suggests that people smugglers provide a service to migrants who had ‘clearly made their own choices’.
Despite this quibble, Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent is a timely and important addition to the immigration debate. As the Syrian refugee crisis worsens, Carr's chief contribution lies in making flesh and blood the individuals who linger in the borderlands. Migrants and asylum seekers are creatures of the political, economic and legal shadowlands, squeezed between the increasingly high-tech interdiction methods funded generously by governments in a post-9/11 world and the painful global economic inequalities that breed aspirations but not opportunities. Vitally, Carr brings them to light.