Guest post by Ivan Josipovic. Ivan is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban and Regional Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He holds a master’s degree in political science and is active in the research area of European migration politics.

The so-called refugee crisis of 2015 marks a critical moment in public political discourse on border management and migration control in Austria. In 2015 alone, 85,505 persons lodged an application for international protection in the country. In relation to the total population, Austria ranked third among all destination countries of the EU. The political reactions of the federal government ranged from complete inaction during the summer of 2015 to pragmatic crisis management by mid-September to highly restrictive legal measures by early 2016. Faced with the considerable political and legal complexities of reforming the national and European asylum system, governmental actors were quick to resort to one issue: the notion of ‘open borders’ and the question of how to restore faith in nation-state sovereignty.

Should borders be closed? Can borders be closed?

During the summer of 2015, as growing numbers of asylum seekers arrived at Austria’s borders, the federal government refrained from any particular legal or administrative actions. In September 2015, when Hungarian authorities tolerated the onward journey of thousands of asylum seekers towards central and northern Europe, Austria’s government sharpened its rhetoric but adopted a highly pragmatic approach. It drew on Schengen exemption provisions to re-install systematic border controls at major checkpoints towards Slovenia (in Spielfeld) and Hungary (in Nickelsdorf). However, in coordination with Germany, it continued waving through newly arriving asylum seekers, as the (already dysfunctional) Dublin regime had been informally suspended. In the face of a looming humanitarian crisis and a critical situation in Hungary’s refugee camps, Austrian authorities organized large-scale public transportation for asylum seekers’ onward journey to the German border. By early 2016, a technical fortification system and a wire-netting fence were in place in Spielfeld. The federal minister of interior spoke of ‘an orderly, controlled entry into our country, not about shutting down the border’. Indeed, Austrian authorities neither systematically prevented applicants from entering federal territory, nor systematically registered asylum seekers.

In spite of this pragmatic approach, the Austrian federal government later went on to embrace the label of ‘closed borders’. Ironically, key politicians such as Austria’s then Foreign Minister and now Chancellor Sebastian Kurz fostered this label through a juxtaposition to what was constructed as an ‘open border policy’ in Germany. Yet, as the former German interior minister Thomas de Maizière recently pointed out, a German border closure would have led to a ‘Greek Idomeni on Austrian soil’ in 2015. This is to say that if Germany had blocked asylum seekers from entering and had demanded their registration in Austria, this would have led to a massive congestion in border areas and the creation of inhumane mass camps.

Political discourse on ‘shutting down borders’ doubtlessly received broad public support as it became apparent during the 2017 national elections when a conservative-right-wing coalition was voted into office. However, while one may consider border controls to be a good or a bad thing, the talk on ‘opening’ or ‘closing’ borders seems to be based on an even more fundamental premise. This discourse carries the assumption that sovereignty lies within the nation-state and that its government has both the practical capability of detecting unwanted migrants and enforcing their exclusion as well as the moral right to place this interest above liberal democratic values.

Imageries of nation-state sovereignty

Long before the ‘refugee crisis’ and the rise of Donald Trump, philosopher Wendy Brown pointed out how walling, fencing or the spectacle of ‘protecting borders’ are symbolic acts which ostentatiously demonstrate nation-state sovereignty in a globalized world, where sovereignty has in fact moved to new repositories. The performative dimension of border controls is argued to produce an imagery of a society that is firmly lodged within a territorial container and which the state aims to protect against perceived threats from the outside. In this way, governmental actors can demonstrate that they are in charge. Thus, while borders have come to be governed bi- and supranationally, leading to a de-territorialisation of migration control, nation-state borders have retained some of their aura.  

As the Austrian case shows, measures to restore faith in nation-state sovereignty can go far beyond the public affirmation of closing borders. One example is the introduction of a unilateral annual quota for the admission of persons to the asylum procedure in 2016. Although the maximum limits have not been reached as of today, the measure sent an implicit signal to European institutions and neighbouring Member States: Austria would not admit more than 37,500 asylum seekers per year – regardless of which institutions or individuals have to carry the remaining burden. Perhaps the most overt expression of this symbolic play of power became apparent during a 2018 public simulation of mass immigration at the Spielfeld border checkpoint. For the purpose of training a new border police unit, the Federal Ministry of Interior carried out a broadly mediatized exercise including 500 police officers, 220 soldiers and 200 background actors playing insurgent migrant crowds.

Graphic by Ivan Josipovic

Pragmatic cooperation meets national threat mantra

Apart from these ongoing spectacles, Austrian lawmakers continue to deploy a myriad of pragmatic means to achieve territorial exclusion of unwanted migrants. Under a European border regime, where borders have come to work like channels filtering out unwanted migratory flows and redirecting these outwards, Austria is still heavily reliant on cooperation with neighbouring and third countries. For example, recent treaties fostered cross-border policing with Hungarian and Italian authorities. Likewise, the federal government enhanced administrative and political capacities for forced removals through national and European readmission agreements as well as new obligations on migrants’ cooperation. Austria also increasingly uses FRONTEX joint return programs.

Devising control over migration flows prior to their arrival on federal territory and returning irregular migrants is the every-day political business of interior ministers and requires a lot of collaboration. However, sharing sovereignty with other states and European institutions is barely suitable to politically demonstrate a separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Amidst a Common European Asylum System that is in urgent need for reforms, the Austrian government continues to display a two-faced approach. Far from breaking EU law, it seizes opportunities for cooperation and promotes the development of restrictive EU migration policies such as during its Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018. On the other hand, it keeps close attention to deficiencies of the EU border and asylum regime that are apt to demonstrate nation-state power to the domestic public. In recent months this has come in the form of repeated warnings about a potential immigration wave via a new Western Balkan route and yet another prolongation of internal border controls due to a ‘latent threat of terrorism’.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Josipovic, I. (2019) Border Politics in Austria: Beyond Imageries of Nation-State Sovereignty. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/05/border-politics (Accessed [date])