Walls as a Danger to an Open Europe - A New Essay by Volker M. Heins and Frank Wolff

Another book about migration? About the recently so-called irregular migration? So much has already been said, lamented, demanded, invested.  In a recently published essay, authors Volker M. Heins* and Frank Wolff want to draw attention to a danger that, to a certain extent, lurks inside the debate on migration: the creeping erosion of open societies in Europe. The construction of walls, they argue, exacerbates a conflict that continues 'Hinter Mauern' (the German booktitle stands for 'behind walls') into the midst of such societies.

Walls serve as structures of protection. As building blocks for the worldview of fenced-in citizenship, they are effective on different scales, often within the community, such as those gated communities that mark differences in urban space. The US philosopher Wendy Brown has drawn attention to these zones, which are supposed to separate an orderly inside from a chaotic outside world while simultaneously reinforcing insecurity and fear within. Heins and Wolff want to go one step further. Walls are not only political  they have 'very concrete social and normative effects' that change the structures of European societies in the background of daily political excitement.

Heins and Wolff hold up a mirror to this particular vision of Europe. But what they see reflected there has two faces. This 'peculiar Janus-facedness of the European promise' (55) is due to the fundamental ambivalence of the promise of peace and security, which, as the authors say, has 'a threat mixed in'.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that Europeans promise peace and security only to each other, but not to outsiders who do not belong to this Europe. Quite the opposite. The EU states promise each other the use of ever more massive means of force to ward off unwanted migration. Ever more openly, the Union is threatening potential migrants from the East and South with the use of these means. Likewise, it ties good external relations with their countries of origin to their support for the policy of sealing them off. (our translation, quote from p. 55)

Here the authors argue with the European Charter against the current migration policy of the Union. The current decisions to transfer recognition procedures to non-European countries of origin, which are still pending in the European Commission, make this argument even more topical.

The book is particularly illuminating where the temporal dimension becomes perceptible. The freedom of movement that the European Community sought internally was tested early on. Citizens of Algeria, for example, were French citizens before independence. But this did not make them Europeans in the full sense of the word. The authors also see a strange polarity at work in the current migration debate. The plea for a 'promotion of our European way of life' argues with 'universal values' and becomes the flipside of a parallel armament of the border regime. The authors see in the tense relationship between the Commission (Ursula von der Leyen) and countries like Poland and Hungary 'to a good extent also a mirror relationship' (123). They identify trends in recent years that bring the inhospitability of borders inland, so to speak:

  • The expansion of border protection. The organisational and budgetary upgrading of FRONTEX as well as its extensive exemption from control formats and reporting obligations, the toleration of so-called vigilante groups in Bulgaria, Greece, Sweden or Slovenia, for example.(114)
  • a creeping erosion of the rule of law, such as the use of the military against migrants, the restriction of freedom of the press and emergency medical care, but also a change in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has recently declared pushbacks to be legitimate on several occasions. (119)
  • The authors see a further tendency in the increasing stigmatisation and criminalisation of assistance and support, including church asylum. Assistance in border regions is increasingly branded as aiding flight, helpers are equated with traffickers. There is talk of an 'anti-refoulement industry' (A. Dobrindt). (129)

But there is also the example of the French olive farmer Cèdric Herrou, who took in a family from Africa at the Italian-French border in 2016, took care of several migrants in a similar situation and was convicted. The story sparked a national debate, to which the French Constitutional Court contributed with a remarkable ruling in 2018, stating that the freedom to provide humanitarian aid derives from the 'revolutionary principle of fraternity … regardless of the legality of the residence of the person helped on French territory.' (132) Time and again, the judiciary plays that trend-independent role that one so much wants it to play.

We found two other remarkable arguments. Heins and Wolff argue that it is precisely the continued failure of the institutional border regime that provides an opportunity to stage threats and increase budgets. They make an interesting comparison. In software development, one speaks of bugs, errors of the program and its features; the intended performance characteristics of a given program. Often the bugs are deliberately built-in features. In the EU, the authors argue, it is basically the same, except that the crimes and human rights violations committed by border guards are excused as individual cases: bugs, not features. (79)

But what happens in the observer? The 'normative powerlessness of the factual' at the borders runs the risk of confirming the indifference of the viewers, who prefer to tend to their own gardens.  And so, at the end of a chain of arguments, there is also the question of what this development does to the characters, the 'neo-authoritarian subjects', who are so susceptible to the 'theatre of migration defence', so quickly offended and embittered, so quickly ready to demarcate and devalue. The neo-authoritarian subject no longer wants to conquer the world but to keep it at bay (according to Hartmut Rosa). (137 f., 151 f.)

So what remains to be done after reading this multi-layered, committed, quite frank and in a positive sense unprotected plea for an open Europe: not least the work on the subjects and the work of the subjects on themselves.

* Prof. Dr Volker M. Heins was the convenor for the policy field 'Global Goverance of Migration' at this Centre until 2022.


Review: Martin Wolf



Volker M. Heins und Frank Wolff (2023). Hinter Mauern. Geschlossene Grenzen als Gefahr für die offene Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Volker M. Heins

Volker M. Heins, born in 1957, is a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) in Essen. He has worked as a visiting scholar at Harvard, Jerusalem and Yale, among other places. His book Offene Grenzen für alle. Eine notwendige Utopie ('Open Borders for All. A Necessary Utopia'), nominated for the NDR Non-Fiction Prize, was published in 2021.

Frank Wolff

Frank Wolff, born in 1977, is a research assistant at the Department of History and the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies in Osnabrück. He is also a Research Associate at Bard College in Berlin. His highly acclaimed book Die Mauergesellschaft. Kalter Krieg, Menschenrechte und die deutsch-deutsche Migration 1961-1989 ('Die Mauergesellschaft. Cold War, Human Rights and German-German Migration 1961-1989') was published 2019.