Is Symbolism More Important than Pragmatism in Europe's Border Control?

Is Symbolism More Important than Pragmatism in Europe's Border Control?

The European Council seems to think so, given its stated recommendations and conclusions.


From the Hungarian-Serbian border to the Polish-Belorussian one, last year demonstrated that without fences it is almost impossible to mitigate the flow of irregular mass migration and implement effective border control.

After the illegal arrival into Europe of 330,000 people in 2022—64 percent more than in 2021—some politicians and experts sounded the alarm again, arguing for stronger border protection, including the erection of more physical barriers. Yet the conclusion of the recent special meeting of the European Council showed that the European Union and some member states are still strictly against fences, and they did not support the deployment of common funding for the construction of physical barriers.


The European resistance to border walls has strong historical and symbolic roots. The haunting memory of the Iron Curtain which divided Europe for almost fifty years and created a conservation area for authoritarian socialist regimes is still very strong among the generation that is currently leading the continent, as is the idea of an open and inclusive European Union. It is obvious if we read the words of Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who said during the Council meeting that the debate looks like “we want to build a great Berlin Wall around the European Union.” According to Politico, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz followed a similar argument when he tried to calm the mood, and asked whether the EU wanted to turn itself into a fortress, stated that “walls, simply put, do not work.”

Nevertheless, other member countries have different opinions—and, interestingly, they are mainly the front-line states on the EU’s external borders which have already experienced the effectiveness of physical barriers and who demand common EU-funding for their border protection. Their attempt was not new: in 2021, twelve member states—Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia—called for an update to the EU’s Schengen Border Code to allow “physical barriers” as border protection measures—without success. Before the recent European Council meeting, eight EU countries again demanded more effective border control, while others, like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer, explicitly argued for the financing of fences to “protect all of Europe.” Before the meeting of the Council, the president of the European People’s Party of the European Parliament, Manfred Weber—changing his previous opinion—also argued in an op-ed that “if we want to maintain free movement inside the EU, then people must know that the external borders are protected. In our view, this also means building fences wherever this may be necessary.” He later posted on Twitter that “fences, in exceptional cases, are not taboo for us. We must restore order at Europe’s external borders. As seen in Spain, Greece & Bulgaria, technical measures & law enforcement can be necessary.” 

Ye, because of the resistance of some member states, the potential breakthrough did not happen. Instead, Europe has decided upon half-measures. In their conclusions, the member states called on the European Commission to “immediately mobilize substantial EU funds and means to support Member States in reinforcing border protection capabilities and infrastructure, means of surveillance, including aerial surveillance, and equipment.” In other words, no fences. 

Listening to the arguments, it is hard to imagine why aerial surveillance is somehow considered a better border protection method. The only reasonable explanation is that some member states are still insisting on symbolism rather than pragmatic protection. Of course, posing with an unarmed drone is fancier than with barbed wire, and politicians do not like bad reputations. That is one explanation for why decisionmakers opposed to fences clothe their arguments in humanitarianism, sometimes with remarkable successes: the president of the jury awarding the UNESCO peace prize to former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who let at least 1.2 million migrants and refugees into her country in 2015, commended her at the ceremony for “your humanity, your spirit of solidarity and your keen sense of ethics and your inspiring leadership.” There is far less attention to the uncomfortable fact that only 49 percent of refugees that came to Germany since 2013 were able to find steady employment within five years of arriving, placing significant burden on the welfare system.

At the end of the day, effective border protection is not a matter of symbolism, but rather a practical thing: neither fancy photos, humanitarian symbolism, nor prizes will stop anybody from risking their life and coming to an open Europe. A drone will neither stop anybody from crossing between official ports of entry, nor will it slow down the movement of irregularly arriving migrants. Surveillance, of course, is an integral part of border protection and management, but only if the other pillars are implemented, including manpower, legal barriers, and, sometimes, fences. Neither in the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta, nor at the Polish-Belarussian border, nor at the Hungarian-Serbian one, was it the cameras and drones alone that mitigated the flow of illegal mass migration, but also well-protected fences. Without walls, border control would be impossible, as was demonstrated during the European migration crisis in 2015. 

Europe is under pressure, and it must keep and protect its values. But values are not equal to the empty symbolism of avoiding the word “fence.”

Viktor Marsai, Ph.D., is the Director of the Budapest-based Migration Research Institute, an associate professor at the University of Public Service, and an Andrássy Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC.

Image: Hieronymus Ukkel/Shutterstock.