Post by Federica Infantino FNRS/Université Libre de Bruxelles. Federica Infantino is FNRS postdoctoral research fellow at ULB. Her work focuses on migration and border control in practice. Her main research interests focus on the practices of migration and border control in comparative perspective, transnational actors and dynamics of policy change, the involvement of non-state actors in governments’ functions. She is also the author of the book ‘Outsourcing Border Control. Politics and Practice of Contracted Visa Policy in Morocco’, Palgrave MacMillan.

The book Schengen Visa Implementation and Transnational Policymaking is the result of an in-depth ethnographic study of the practices that put EU visa policy into action. It focuses on the consulates of Belgium, France and Italy in Casablanca. The research was aimed at uncovering the ways in which officers make decisions on visa applications, having in mind that a legally binding and self-executing EU law – the Visa Code – regulates the ways in which the policy should be implemented. Overtime I have come to realize that university students, the media, and the wider public tend to perceive bureaucratic agencies as enigmatic. Often I have heard that bureaucracy is biased, arbitrary, or worse corrupted, especially in the case of bureaucracies that issue the hotly desired ‘Schengen visaa sticker on a passport issued by a consulate that authorizes entry to the Schengen Area for up to three months. I think opaqueness of bureaucratic practices reinforces those kinds of perceptions. My book finally sheds ethnographic light on day-to-day practice, therefore making sense of bureaucratic action and migration control on the ground. The Schengen visa aims at controlling migration away from the border and before the actual arrival on the territory. It has been eloquently defined as a ‘Europeanized’ instrument of ‘remote control’ (see work by Guiraudon and Zolberg). It reflects a widespread logic of our contemporary society, which is risk management. The daily task of visa officers consists in assessing the migratory ‘risk’ most notably in a country like Morocco whose citizens are considered to be posing that kind of risk.

Photo: Federico Infantino
I approached the consulates of Belgium, France and Italy in Casablanca to ask these two main questions: What does migratory risk actually mean? What are the determinants of cross-national variations in implementation practice? I also wanted to know how local practice takes account of national and European, implicit and explicit guidelines. I called that a ‘Comprehensive Implementation Approach’. Therefore, I followed the making of EU visa policy not just in local venues but also in national and supranational settings. Direct observation of daily work and life in the Belgian, French and Italian visa sections and interviews of front-line workers as well as high-ranking staff have been coupled with interviews of high-ranking civil servants in charge of visa policy in national ministries (Brussels, Paris/Nantes, Rome) and interviews of key policy officers in the Visa Unit, Directorate General Migration and Home Affairs, European Commission. The empirical part of the research took two years. I have been in the consulates first. I have observed all kind of tasks including the interviews of applicants, the processing of applications, the decision-making on applications. During interviews, I seized the ways in which consular staff understand and make sense of their job.    

Such a rich empirical material, and such an intense and immersive personal experience requires some time, on the one hand, to put ‘the field’ at emotional distance, and on the other hand, to process and analyze ‘data’. During this process, I realized what sociologist Howard Becker means by claiming that the epistemological distinctness of qualitative research is the condition of openness to the unanticipated. The ethnographic and inductive approach resulted in unexpected findings. Let’s focus on two of them.

Photo: Federica Infantino
The first finding is about the operational meaning of the migratory risk, which tends to be associated with the risk of undocumented migration. On the contrary, organizational action reveals a concern towards potential lawful migration. A major concern is what I termed the ‘juridical capital’ of visa applicants that can be characterized as the ability to mobilize laws and if necessary, courts and jurisprudence, to obtain the right to residency, citizenship, to marry somebody, and/or to enjoy welfare benefits once arrived on the territory of the foreign country. Organizational action translates a specific yet widespread idea -migration as such is a problem- into practice. This understanding of the migratory risk as the risk of a lawful settlement is more familiar to the Belgian and French consulates rather than the Italian one. Historically, the Belgian and French consular offices understand the objective of their job as the assessment of the risk of lawful settlement. In the case of Italy, the very notion of migratory risk is novel. Visa policy has never been associated to the assessment of the risk of lawful settlement.  Italian actors are particularly uncertain about how to put visa policy into practice. They are adjusting their practice, adopting novel work routines and novel understandings of what visa policy should do. They are changing the ways in which they make decisions more than their Belgian and French colleagues who follow a path inscribed in history. So, the second finding is that cross-national differences in the decision-making on Schengen visa applications are diminishing through informal interactions at the local level and because Italy is changing most. The analysis of actual practice contradicts some hypothesis on Europeanization that would classify Italy (like other EU member states) as pertaining to ‘worlds of neglect’ or a group of non-compliant countries (see work of Falkner and Treib). Although several factors account for cross-national differences (the vagueness of law, policy narratives, policy legacies, path dependencies, organizational conditions), these actually diminish when policy is put into practice. Participation to the Schengen Agreement has transformed implementing personnel into a ‘community of practice’: Implementing personnel consider informal interactions with colleagues from other national contexts to be a way to solve problems related to their day-to-day tasks. In doing so, they develop the practical knowledge that is required to undertake their daily tasks. I called this overlooked process of policy transfer at the stage of the implementation ‘Transnational Policy-Making from Below’.

Photo: Federica Infantino
The analysis of day-to-day practice refines our understanding of migration and border control on the ground. Most recently, a great amount of scientific literature has been contributing to such an endeavor (see the special issues: Border Security as Practice, Contested Control at the Margins of the State. See the books: Migrants Before the Law, Points of Entry) This book contributes in particular to policy studies, migration studies, the sociology of public action and scholarly literature interested in the making of the European Union. In doing so, it gives voice to front-line workers, consuls, civil servants and policy officers. While migrants’ motivations, itineraries, and incorporation occupy the stage of scientific research, those who manage international movements remain too often understudied.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Infantino, F. (2019) Schengen Visa Implementation and Transnational Policymaking. Available at: (Accessed [date])