Irregular migration has become one of the top issues on the European Union’s (EU) security agenda in terms of securing external borders, protecting the cultural and ethnic identity of EU Member States, safeguarding their socio-economic welfare systems, and combating terrorism and organised crime. However, despite countless political exclusionary discourses, media cover-ups, policy efforts and drastic practical measures to impose strict controls and manage the flow of irregular migrants within the EU, the results have been close to disastrous.

The freedom of movement within the European Union has been heralded as a hallmark of successful integration and a privilege exclusively reserved to EU citizens. Alongside such advancement within the EU, there have also been extensive practices of external bordering that lead to the creation of a so-called ‘Fortress Europe.’

While extremely efficient and successful at first analysis, the increased cooperation between Member States in terms of border management and the harmonisation of policies and processes in regards to irregular migration and asylum seekers have concomitantly generated negative results. There are countless instances in which migrants’ basic human rights have been infringed upon and relegated to second order status when border security priorities have taken precedence.

Fortress Europe

The discussion about the meaning of the EU’s international identity and global actorness has been and still is an on-going bone of contention, extensive efforts are being invested by policy makers and academics alike to conceptually capture the EU’s fleeting political will and identity. In Armstrong’s and Anderson’s edited book, Geopolitics of European Union Enlargement The Fortress Empire, the EU is labelled as a ‘fortress empire,’[i] the authors drawing a geopolitical complex picture that contrasts and complements two correlative concepts, border (Armstrong) and territoriality (Anderson).

By proposing a controversial signifier for what they term as the ‘Enlarged European Union’, namely a ‘fortress empire,’ the book is concerned with the current thorny quest for the appropriate terminology for the EU’s unparalleled sharing of sovereignty and international presence. The core critical argument about the concept of ‘Fortress Europe’ revolves around the notion of the border, seen metaphorically as a point d’entrée for the several interpretations of the EU’s body politic.

It is primarily constructed by the inside-outside or self-other dichotomies, which are furthered into the homeland versus external security debate. Accordingly, the current EU borders reflect the values, attitudes and beliefs of the society they encompass and the effectiveness of the society is measured against that of its borders which act as either barriers or bridges to the outside world.

The existence of ‘fortress’-type barriers at the EU’s periphery is but reflective of the EU’s internal inadequacy and its lack of real commitment to the goal of global borderlessness. Indeed, a citadel-type European Union, nesting on its own values and bien être behind fortified walls, could run the risk of becoming what is conceptually termed as a ‘fleet in being’ (this idea is based on the flawed assumption that a fleet is relatively safe in its port, even if near the enemy). And the current European migrant crisis is symptomatic of the EU’s incapacity to prevent, manage, control, and secure more than a million migrants and refuged crossing into Europe in 2015.

FRONTEX and Drones

Smart borders or technological borders[ii] have become essential components in the ‘Fortress Europe’ debate. They are touted as cost-effective solutions for the EU’s plan for irregular immigration control, with FRONTEX as the EU’s border agency to utilise cutting edge technologies as key tools in its border management activities. Integrated border management is actually prioritised, by strengthening the functional aspects of FRONTEX – The European Agency for the Management of External Borders in terms of improved usage of information, border surveillance and new technologies through the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR). The FP7 programme was heavily utilised to fund the development and demonstration of new technologies for the EUROSUR system.

Moreover, hybrid aerial surveillance drones for maritime surveillance and for combating irregular migration have been considered by FRONTEX, due to the fact that they circumvent the EU laws prohibiting unmanned drones from flying in civilian airspace. To uncritically insert drones into an existing security framework could have unforeseen or even negative consequences, more so than not using them at all.

FRONTEX has already started looking into the viability of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) for providing enhanced surveillance coverage of expansive maritime and sea frontiers. In this respect, the agency has organised practical demonstrations and equipment tests as regards the deployment of RPAS for European border surveillance, going as far as paying for demonstrations of Israeli drones described as the ‘ultimate solution for Over The Hill reconnaissance missions, Low Intensity Conflicts and Urban warfare operations.’

For the moment, the choice is to be made between Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) and Optionally Piloted Aircraft (OPA) potential for European border surveillance and search and rescue (SAR) operations – the latter could be operated by remote control but could also avoid flight restrictions placed on drones in commercial airspace through the presence of a person on board. ‘If you are going to invest in this kind of equipment, you need to use it for the next 10 to 15 years,’ FRONTEX head of research Edgar Beugels stated about drones. For instance, the Austrian-based firm, Diamond Airborne Sensing, manufactures the Diamond Airborne Sensing DA-42, a twin-engine craft also known as the Guardian, which can be used both as a drone and as an OPA and it has flight autonomy of 12.5 hours.

RPAS would be incorporated, along with other radars, off-shore sensors, satellite tracking systems and imagery, into the broader surveillance arsenal for border management and thus becoming a key element of EUROSUR. The BSUAV project – Border Surveillance by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is a clear example in this respect: its aim was to understand the problems posed by various types of borders and to delineate realistic UAV-based systems to tackle such specific problems. Are the above mentioned initiatives an instance of a broader process of militarisation of border controls and subsequently, is technology per se a back door for pushing forward such a process?

High-Tech Fortress Europe

Critical voices have already been raised concerning the isolation of the human factor from the border management cycle and the transformation of the European Union into a high-tech ‘Fortress Europe’, especially in terms of investing EU money in policing hardware such as hybrid aerial surveillance drones. However drone-enthusiastic the European armament industry may be for lucrative projects, technology is not necessarily the best response to combating irregular migration generated by deeper societal and economic problems.

FRONTEX has been regularly taking part in forums dedicated to the securitization of border controls in the EU, alongside major industry lobbying groups such as the Aerospace and Defence (ASD) association, which promote their own corporate interests and the aeronautics industry as a strategic priority for the EU. Moreover, FRONTEX is now allowed the option to directly acquire equipment, making the agency an important new player customer the drone-producing arms industry. The EU’s Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen of the Joint Research Centre (IPSC) also takes part in the key EU-funded R&D projects involving border control drones and it has also played an important role in the BORTEC feasibility study for EUROSUR.

Conversely, FRONTEX has emphasized the humanitarian factor in the use of drones for border surveillance and the fact that drones could prove to become effective tools for search and rescue (SAR) operations at sea and consequently save more human lives. The agency’s executive director, Ilkka Laitinen, emphasized that FRONTEX is looking to expand its surveillance operations beyond the EU to develop a so-called ‘common pre-frontier intelligence picture (CPIP).’

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are much more cost-effective to deploy at sea for maritime surveillance so as to locate, for example, migrants or refugees in distress. It is expected that RPAS will become one of the many technologies employed by FRONTEX as a European wide border monitoring instrument. The idea is that RPAS are much more cost-effective and cheaper than manned aircrafts and consequently they have the prospective to expand the aerial surveillance of wide maritime and land areas. Nevertheless, the raw reality remains that the focus of European policy and decision-makes remains on exclusionary tactics, using technology and policing borders as the best solution for deeper security problems.


A high-tech fortress-type of European Union is only contributing to the criminalisation of immigration and the exploitation of unprotected refugees and migrants, than actually solving the root causes of the original problem.

The EU, by creating palliative safeguards such as smart borders and by increasing the border security measure, has actually caused migrants escaping from oppression and poverty to be dependent upon organised crime networks. Recent events have demonstrated that the EU Member States, while trying to regulate the erratic and growing migration movements, face increasing numbers in trafficking networks, partly due to their preventive measures.

Barbed wire, higher fences, top-notch surveillance equipment, better trained border guards, drones, or outsourcing migration to neighbouring countries, are such measures the best deterrents the EU can come up with for tackling the migration crisis?


[i] W. Armstrong & J. Anderson, eds., Geopolitics of European Union Enlargement The Fortress Empire (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

[ii] H. Dijstelbloem and A. Meijer, Migration and the New Technological Borders of Europe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).