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We need to remove free movement from the vicious circle of security

While freedoms, such as the principles of equality and non-discrimination, the presumption of innocence and respect for privacy, undoubtedly still exist, they have been relegated to the margins.

lead lead Free spirit! Wikicommons/Pranjal Kumar. Some rights reserved.Freedom is that possession which permits the enjoyment of all other possessions”, wrote Montesquieu. Yet, today we are led to believe that the only way to enjoy personal safety within society, and guarantee our individual and collective freedoms, is through preventive security and reinforced controls.

How have we arrived at a situation where our reasoning has been so thoroughly turned on its head that the movement of millions of people is now being brought into question in case it might – owing to the way it is organised and its great speed – lead either to the departure of combatants abroad (so called foreign fighters) or the entry of clandestine groups with violent intentions?

How is it that, instead of regarding freedom as a principle on the basis of which state interference in terms of security needs to be limited, we have, like in a game of ‘Othello’, witnessed the development of a topsy-turvy rhetoric in which freedom has become nothing more than the limit-point of security, which has itself been redefined as a necessary and indeed vital level of suspicion? There is now an obligation to place everything under tight security.

There is now an obligation to place everything under tight security: our living-spaces, our cities, our transport systems, our movements, our bodies, our writings and our ideas. The constant anxiety that, whether outside our borders or among us, people are using freedom of movement and the trusting nature of a societal space in which the presumption of innocence (still) constitutes the guiding principle behind the social bond, is now deeply engrained in the ways in which we see and think about the world.

These perceptions are fed by ever-more catastrophic scenarios which present two equally sinister alternatives: the inevitable destruction of civilisation in the future, or the prevention of this coming danger in the present.

Complete coverage

When prevention is presented as the entire set of measures which aim not only to guarantee the integrity and continuity of institutions, but also maintain social order, then complete territorial and digital coverage, along with the targeting of whole populations and individuals alike, become its hallmark.

All those who move thus become somehow guilty by association, for moving too much, for creating flows that are becoming uncontrollable due to their scale, especially when they are fleeing or are prevented from travelling by air and instead arrive by sea or overland.

As Zygmunt Bauman pointed out, the face of the terrorist enemy has changed.[1] It is now not so much that of an infiltrating danger hidden among refugees and migrants, who are themselves under rigorous surveillance, but that of an infiltrator amidst the travellers and tourists that we ourselves are, the couples who have found love abroad and have brought their partner and family with them.

Whereas territorial security coverage focuses on a continuum of insecurity whose limits are determined by varying levels of alterity, in contrast, the logic of security which applies to movements and mobility focuses on the self, on the private, intimate sphere, on the untraceability of potentially violent intentions, as well as on the idea that we are consequently all suspects – on “probation”, as it were.

The masquerade that is the spectacle of the security apparatus at our borders and in our streets, which deploys a certain form of violence made entirely discretionary through its varied range of practices – but which prevents nothing and arrests and dissuades no-one – merely generates unease, transforming a potential danger into a permanent state of anxiety which is then relayed ad nauseam by the games of the media.

Restricting the limits of alterity, redefining nationalism using alarmist discourse and counter-measures which seek to purify a reinvented identity based on a traditional past, stripping individuals of their nationality as a means of preventive banishment, instead of subjecting them to surveillance, judgment and punishment – these are the ingredients of the political recipe now followed by right- and left-wing governments alike.

While freedoms, such as the principles of equality and non-discrimination, the presumption of innocence and respect for privacy, undoubtedly still exist, they have been relegated to the margins, to the limit-points of security, which seeks to be internal and external, repressive and preventive, protective yet discriminatory. This maximum level of security, which aspires to be global, total and unlimited, and projects itself into the future in order to forestall any uncertainty, is a political idea which has now usurped autonomy as a value.

The collateral effects of this relegation matter little, as they are perceived as negligible insofar as they only affect others, our enemies and not ourselves. This maximum level of security, which aspires to be global, total and unlimited, and projects itself into the future in order to forestall any uncertainty, is a political idea which has now usurped autonomy as a value.

Consequently, both the notion of freedom as the constitution of the self through the recognition of the other, his existence, his human rights, and the notion of security as a means of guaranteeing a harmonious dynamic amidst heterogeneity and the Brownian movement of an economy of differences have almost disappeared. In this latter perspective, freedom is replaced by the fact that the use of force remains always a possibility, even if it must be subordinated to the principle of justice. This balance between the use of force and its justification, its necessity and its proportionality has so far been upheld by judges, in those intermediary bodies which still believe in the separation of powers as a means of avoiding a form of despotic power spelling the end for freedom.

However, the simple fact is that more and more governments see themselves as tutelary powers which no longer have citizens, but rather subjects. Subjects who are beholden to their origins, to old ideas, to their home turf, and who no longer move around.

Remembering Schengen

However, what is increasingly being spoken of in terms of “genuine security” is in no way a necessity imposed by the ‘terrorist threat’ and an answer couched in surveillance and suspicion; it has a history that must be mobilised in order to recall the time, before this ‘voluntary servitude’; when a positive history of individual and collective freedom was still possible and desirable. It does exist, even though it is increasingly caricatured as a ‘constraint’.

Let us therefore cast our minds back over how, in the space of 30 years, our collective vision of free movement in Europe has changed profoundly. One no longer visits the European Union, but rather enters the Schengen area. Or indeed does not enter it. One can also be expelled or turned away from it. The little Luxembourgian village of Schengen, with its population of 600, can thus lay some claim to being the centre of attention since the signing in 1985 of the eponymous agreement which aims to establish a zone of freedom and security. Indeed, on the anniversary of the agreement in June 2015, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, reminded his audience that “Schengen may be a small village, but it is a big idea”. There can be no doubt that in Schengen, in the depths of rural Luxemburg, on the banks of the Moselle and not far from the German and French borders, Europe in 1985 became more than an economic reality by embracing the political dimension of free movement. So how is it that the glowing pages of the history of free movement within the European Union have dulled over time, and the realities and practices of the Schengen area, together with our thinking on it, are now being articulated through a grammar of security rather than one of freedom?

It was quite clear, as the 1980s went on, that this idea of a political Europe underpinned by the free movement project, was accompanied by misgivings on the part of certain states which perceived the opening of borders as a renunciation of the very idea of sovereignty. While certain agencies – chief among them customs officers – were worried about the future of their professions, Schengen also marked the concrete realisation of one law-enforcement dream, namely the ability to pursue individuals from one side of the continent to the other in an entirely legal manner, no longer having to rely on networks of discreet connivance and cooperation between different national agencies. Schengen is also the visa document which bears its name, that magic key which filters, opens or blocks the doors of the European Union and represents the crystallisation of the latter’s efforts to control immigration, including, and indeed especially beyond European borders, far from our eyes and from any possible legal recourse or even any legal protection. Schengen is, finally, the ambiguity inherent in this culture of security which has come with the project for the free movement of capital, goods and people, these compensatory measures which aim to strengthen external border checks just as free movement has been established within the zone. Almost as if we were frightened by the project, we were willing to give with one hand while taking away with the other, offering concessions on the security front in order to make swallowing the excessively libertarian pill of border-free movement that bit easier.

The official history of the Schengen area is worded in such a way that this concern for security, presented as an inevitable corollary of the end of internal borders, is essentially taken as read, glossed over in summary fashion. A Europe of free movement is a fine aspiration, but a borderless Europe is necessarily weak and vulnerable. Is it not therefore logical to compensate for this vulnerability with greater internal cooperation and a strengthening of external borders?

This idea of a deficit needing to be compensated, of vulnerability needing to be nursed, is more than just the flipside to the implementation of free movement. It is in fact the core maxim, the very epicentre of the Schengen area, around which those who cherish the fundamental freedoms, the rights of individuals and the right of free movement, are forced to contort themselves. This maxim takes the metaphor of a set of scales, weighing security against freedom, as both its raison d’être and its ultimate realisation. In 2001, Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords, elegantly invoked this metaphor when he declared that it was necessary to find “the right balance between the need for security and the protection of liberty” (Bigo-Tsoukala-2008). Surely greater freedom requires greater security, as the scales must be kept in balance? It matters little that this metaphor is erroneous and contributes to producing profound shifts in our relationship to the political sphere and the notion of citizenship. For it has set down permanent roots deep in our collective imagination thanks to its simplicity – after all, who would be foolhardy enough to argue against a theory based on balance and proportion? Weighing up civil liberties in response to violent events is a calculation based on short-term political gain. How many absurd decisions were taken in reaction to 9/11?

Yet this metaphor is dangerous and dishonest, for the representation it promulgates undermines those very civil liberties which, in the context of our liberal democracies, are fundamental and non-negotiable. Civil liberties are essentially and fundamentally normative, providing a framework for state legal systems, and are not subordinated to the whims of events, no matter how violent or frightening these may be. Weighing up civil liberties in response to violent events is a calculation based on short-term political gain. How many absurd decisions were taken in reaction to 9/11? “Exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures,” we are increasingly often being told. This is a maxim based on raison d’état and, while it undeniably possesses a strong rhetorical appeal, it is in truth little more than a piece of off-the-shelf, default policy for whoever wishes either to show themselves to be capable of reacting in the face of adversity, or to reinforce practices of suspicion towards, or outright refusal of the liberal practices of our liberal regimes.

Rejecting the metaphor of the tipping scales is one thing, but is it not more urgent to first repudiate all of those interpretations which are cast from a mould of catastrophic extinction and a heuristic of fear? A fear of what might happen, first of all, of a continuing escalation of violence that is always possible in which each new attack would act as the harbinger of the end of days. Then, a fear of numbers, as successive waves of migrants and refugees crash against the gates of Europe, each bringing its share of corpses. Finally, a more general fear of the Other, in which we all retreat into our little nationalistic bubbles, breathing new life into the weird idea that some identities and cultures are naturally compatible, while others are not.

Free free movement

We need to remove free movement from the vicious circle of security. Whether we are talking about tourism, programmes to assist mobility among students and trainees, legal protection or victims’ rights, the Europe-wide harmonisation of legal aid for the most vulnerable individuals, or the setting of a ceiling on telephone charges throughout the European Union, free movement is an opportunity. We need to remove free movement from the vicious circle of security.

An opportunity, and also a virtuous circle. Surely, reinforcing free movement would create an opportunity for curiosity and, by doing so, help open minds? What else is the driving principle behind free movement if not the concrete demonstration that diversity is not a problem but, in a very real sense, a solution? In our toxic political climate, fearful and inward-looking as it is, the free movement of people and ideas could very well contribute as much to the fight against radicalisation as it could to the fight against selfish nationalisms, truly the most important political issue for all of our futures.


[1] Zygmunt Bauman, “From Pilgrim to Tourist – or a Short History of Identity”, in, Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity, London, Sage publications, 1996, pp.18-36.

About the authors

Didier Bigo is Director of the Centre for Research on Conflicts, Liberty and Security (CCLS) and professor of war studies at King’s College, London.

Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet is professor in International Relations, Université Saint-Louis (Brussels, Belgium), Researcher at the Centre de Recherche en Science Politique (CRESPO, Brussels - Belgium) and associate researcher at Centre d'Etudes sur les conflits, Liberté et Sécurité (CCLS, Paris - France)


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