Tag Archives: European Union

Non-citizens, aliens in their own country


Non-citizens, aliens in their own country

They were citizens of a country that does not exist anymore. They are not stateless, nor foreigners. They are called “non-citizens”. Today in Latvia, about 280,000 peo­ple have this complicated status, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The issue is representative of the integration problems of the country’s Russian minority.

“In 1993, I lost my citizenship. I couldn’t work for the Riga City Council any­more. I couldn’t buy a land anymore. I couldn’t work in a political party anymore. I understood that I was a cit­izen of second-class.” Aleksandr Gaponenko has been living in Latvia for sixty years, but is considered a “non-citizen” in his home country. Having this status means that he has no politi­cal rights, and some professions related to the public and judiciary sectors are prohibited to him. Apart from these exceptions, he enjoys the same rights as every Latvian citizen.

A complex identity

His identity has multiple roots. It is torn between his mixed family background, the Russian culture he grew up with, and Latvia, his homeland—where he has always lived. He identifies himself as Russian first.

Others consider themselves as Latvian and Russian. This is the case for Elizabete Krivcova, who co-founded the Non-Citizens’ Congress with Aleksandr Gaponenko—an NGO promoting full democratic rights for them. She naturalised in the nineties, in order to be a lawyer.

“The exam is very ideological”

These multiple and complex identities are an obstacle to naturalise as their Russian heritage is in contradiction with the Latvian one. To receive the Latvian citizenship, non-citizens have to pass a test of flu­ency in Latvian and a test of knowledge about the national anthem, significant facts of history and the basic principles of national constitution. It is considered to be un­fair by many non-citizens.

DSC_0138 “The exam is very ideological. You have to recognise that Latvia was occupied by Rus­sia. The question about Soviet times are only about its dark side. Concerning the econo­my, it’s about industrialisation and forced collectivisation in the  agrarian sector. When it’s about people life, then it’s about repres­sion. A friend of mine explained me how he prepared it. He said, ‘I know what I think about the history but for the exam I have to think exactly the contrary to have the cor­rect  answers’,” explains Elizabete Krivcova.

For Aleksandr Gaponenko, who always refused to naturalise, taking the Latvian citizenship means complying with the policy of the government. “To pass the examination it is necessary to confirm that I agree with this model of society, and  I com­pletely disagree. I don’t want to accept that Latvia is only for ethnic Latvians.”

Valerij Komarov is also a former non-cit­izen who naturalised when his first child was born, about ten years ago. “Passing the exam meant that I recognised that I was an immigrant, even though I’m born in Latvia and I have always lived  there. It is not my fault if the geopolitical situation changed. So I did it for my son, to avoid him getting this status as well,” he says.

 The influence of Russia

The naturalisation process is even less enticing since the Russian government decided to offer visa-free travel to Russia to non-citizens in 2008—an attractive offer for some of them, who still have family in Russia. The influence from the East is also indirectly revealed through a difference in retirement system and economic benefits granted to Russian citizens that push non-citizens to opt for Russia. Since 2010, it has exceeded the number of those receiving Latvian citi­zenship and has continued to rise. Al­though, there is no research about the rea­sons why non-citizens choose the Russian citizenship rather than the Latvian one, the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs admits that earlier retirement age may be the reason. According to Gaponen­ko, it is also a form of protest against the policy of the Latvian government towards the Russian minority.

An issue in deadlock

Today, the issue remains unresolved as the government doesn’t consider non-citizens legitimate enough to automatically receive the citizenship of Latvia. In almost twenty years, the number of non-citizens has decreased from 730,000 to 280,000. It is mainly due to death as only 140,000 have been naturalised since the creation of the status. Karlis Eihenbaums, the Foreign Minister’s Press Secretary, explains why the issue is not as easy to solve.



Even if the automatic naturalisation is out of the question for the Latvian government, it con­tinues nevertheless to encourage non-citizens to apply. Throughout the years, the Latvian language and history exams have been simplified and the Citizenship Law amended in order to facilitate the procedure. The naturalisation fee has been reduced several times for some peo­ple (low-income, unemployed, retired) and abolished for politically repressed and dis­abled persons.

But the Non-Citizens’ Congress wants much more than an easier naturalisation process. A material compensation, an­other policy towards ethnic Russians and less restrictions regarding professions would be the first step. Yet the dialogue is totally cut with the Latvian government. People working in this organ­isation even have the conviction that it “is waiting for the death of all non-citizens.”

The European elections, next hope

The next hope for changes are on the European side. But as Aleksandr Gaponenko points out, “as a non-citizen without political rights, I can’t influence this.”

This article was originally hosted on Euroviews. The author is Camille Petit.



Finger pointing and missed opportunities in Europe

Credit: Abd allah Foteih

SO THE RESULTS are in and the finger pointing has already begun. David Cameron has said that these results show the British population is thoroughly ‘disillusioned’ with the European Union. Nigel Farage, the guffawing leader of UKIP claims to have caused a ‘political earthquake’ and established the party as the third force in British politics.

If this is the case it is a worrying development for all political parties – the Conservatives now have a genuine challenger on their right and traditional left votes are being won by a strong anti-EU party which wants the UK to leave the European Union.

Across Europe the pattern was largely the same. Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France also topped its domestic poll with 25 per cent of the vote. While Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party failed to perform as well as predicted in the Netherlands other Eurosceptic parties in Greece, Hungary and Denmark performed well.

Irritating neighbour

But who’s really to blame? The European Union certainly must take some of the blame for the failure to explain its relevance to people across Europe. However, national institutions need to take stock of what’s happened here and must seriously rethink their strategies on Europe, not in favour of Euroscepticism, but in favour of better education about both national and European politics.

This doesn’t mean to suggest that voters are stupid or acted purely out of spite towards the EU. When we talk about education we need greater civic understanding about what politics actually does for us and how these decisions are incredibly important. In the UK there is still an emphasis in education on Britain’s place in the world as a former super-power with a special relationship across the West.

In effect, Europe is an irritating neighbour which historically has brought us nothing but grief. The only time this is challenged is either when students take History as a further education module, either at college or university. Fundamentally, people only learn more about Britain’s place in the world if they choose to do so.


Furthermore, teaching young people about what different political parties stand for and something as simple as the voting system to Parliament shouldn’t be confined to the textbooks of further education. This is something that needs to change throughout society, starting at the grass-roots.

Despite the strong showing for Eurosceptic parties, it must be remembered that they aren’t a homogenous group who will form a strong grouping in the European Parliament – they differ both in ideology, some being anti-Europe and others being openly racist, and in strategy – Le Pen wants to destroy the EU from the inside while Farage wants to simply withdraw the UK from the EU. Furthermore as this evidence from ampp3d shows, more people voted for pro-EU parties than Eurosceptic parties in the UK on Friday.



However there’s no getting away from it. This is an embarrassment for the European Union, but it is a bigger embarrassment for national politicians who have failed to inform people about its importance and instead have pushed them to the extremes. Until this is changed at the grass-roots opportunities will continue to be missed.

Words: Greg Bianchi

Photo credit: Abd allah Foteih

Central and Eastern Europe: Ones to watch

Yanni Koutsomitis

Yanni Koutsomitis

AHEAD OF THE European elections results tomorrow, eastern Europe has a number 0f seats up for grabs. However, despite the on-going criticism of the EU in western Europe it appears that there are fewer Eurosceptic parties in eastern Europe. One factor explaining this may be the fact that eastern European countries have only recently acceded to the EU, with the accession of the A8 countries in 2004 and the most recent member, Croatia, joined less than twelve months ago.

Many eastern European countries have important domestic elections coming up in the coming years and therefore it has been suggested that these EU elections are in effect opinion polls on national governments and a chance for citizens to protest against domestic policies which they disagree with, rather than voting on European issues, a trend which affects the entire union.

There have been a number of important factors which help to explain the current voting trends in eastern Europe however, most notably the growing influence of Russia and the issues of military and energy security that the crisis has brought to the fore.


Piotrek Rabaltowski

Piotrek Rabaltowski


Poland is arguably one of the few places in central and eastern Europe which has a mainstream party which can be described as ‘Eurosceptic’ in its rhetoric and beliefs. The Law and Justice party is currently in opposition in Poland and is part of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament  – the same group as the British Conservative Party. Poland has four major elections coming up between now and Autumn 2015.

The Law and Justice party were set to do well in the upcoming European elections, however have been caught out electorally by the ruling Civic Platform party over the issue of Ukraine. Civic Platform, and its leader Donald Tusk, performed well in portraying the Ukraine crisis as a grave threat to Polish interests and were highly visible in their attempts to appear strong in the face of Russian aggression against its neighbour. The Law and Justice Party were wrong-footed by this and lost their electoral lead. However, with a combination of stronger rhetoric over Ukraine and criticism of the actions of Civic Platform, the polls have narrowed and the election is likely to be split between the two main parties.

There have been a number of new parties emerging in Poland in recent years, however many of them are fragmented. The party most likely to breach the five per cent threshold for representation in the European Parliament is the Congress of the New Right under its eccentric, and controversial, leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke. He is strongly Euro-sceptic and has a strong online following which has increased his popularity. This party is likely to make a breakthrough in these elections but it is unclear whether they will remain a potent influence in the future.


Much the same as in other European nations, these EU elections are seen as an opinion poll on the ruling government – Hungary recently had a General Election and the ruling Conservative Party continued its dominance. Fidesz, the Conservative party, is not expected to do as well electorally as it did in 2009, but is still expected to retain a number of its MEPs. The concerns over Ukraine have been less prominent in Hungary and the opposition social democrats and leftists in general has remained fragmented. However, there is a chance that the Greens may win a seat.

Leigh Phillips

Leigh Phillips

However, one major political issue is the continuing presence of the far-right, ultra-nationalist Jobbik party. The party emerged  in the last European Parliament elections where it won two out of the 22 seats on offer in Hungary. The party has links to other  radical nationalist European parties such as the British National Party (BNP) in the UK. Polls have suggested that Jobbik may  improve on its 2009 turnout and come in second place in these elections with over 20 per cent of the vote.


Ukraine has proven to be a concern among many Romanians ahead of these European Parliamentary elections. Furthermore  there has been a growing awareness of EU relations following the controversial coverage and political rhetoric in the UK about  the movement of migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania.

Much like many other eastern European states, Romania has a significant election in the coming year – the presidential election  in November 2014. In addition to this the ruling coalition government has split. A censure motion within the government has also been declared and will be debated on Monday following the announcement of the European Parliament election results.

European themes have been brought into the debate in Romania, especially about the growing influence of the EU over the country. However, many are looking at these elections in the build up to the presidential election.

The Popular Movement party, which is a splinter group from the Liberal Democrats, has emerged as a potential vote-winner, however on the whole the election has been fought by mainly mainstream parties – smaller parties have been less prominent. The Social Democrats and Liberals are the main parties and it is expected that the Social Democrats will do well in these elections.

An interesting protest movement has emerged in Romania called the ‘United We Save’ movement which is encouraging people to boycott the European elections on 25th May or alternatively spoil their ballots.

Czech Republic



The traditional parties of left and right in the Czech Republic have begun to decline in their influence. The ‘Ano’, centre-right political party has been increasing its vote under the stewardship of Czech-Slovak millionaire Andrej Babis. This party looks set to take some seats in the upcoming European elections after a strong showing in last year’s Czech parliamentary elections.

The Social-Democrats are performing well but are described as ‘treading water’ in terms of the votes they attract. The Communist Party is expected to retain its four seats that it won in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections.


The dominance of the centre-left in Slovakia has continued. The current party of the Prime Minister lost the presidential election, however the ruling Direction – Social Democracy remain popular with many Slovak voters. However, the far-right may pick up one seat among some disenchanted voters.


Slovene politics has been characterised by fragmentation and division, as such there is no dominant party. The centre-right are expected to pick up three of the seven seats on offer. The left has been increasingly fragmented between five different parties and one of these groupings may win a seat.

Slovene politics has been characterised by a number of issues in recent years with senior politicians becoming embroiled in corruption allegations. The main centre-right leader has recently been charged with corruption allegations and is facing possible jail-time.

The ‘I believe list’, which has been formed by the former head of the Slovene audit agency  has started to generate some support among voters and may have an influence in these elections.


The most recent addition to the European Union will be participating in its first cross-continental elections since its accession last year. The country joined the EU with a moderate majority and has been divided between right and left rule since its independence.

Martin Deutsch

Martin Deutsch

The current government under the Social Democratic party is increasingly unpopular and the HDZ has reformed itself quite a bit  in recent years. The Social Democrats have been accused of leaving their traditional leftist, worker-based support behind which  could open the door for more leftist parties to gain recognition among voters in these EU elections.

 Baltic states

The majority of the 25 seats in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will most likely go to parties established in the  1990s. However, much like many other countries in eastern Europe, the European Parliament elections will likely take a back- seat to national elections; Lithuania’s presidential election takes place on the same day as the European Parliamentary elections.

The same goes for Latvia where national elections are on the horizon. Estonia is the exception as it doesn’t have national  elections for quite some time.

The on-going crisis in Ukraine and the resurgence of Russia as a geopolitical power is an important factor in these elections. There are divisions between more pro-Russia parties and those who favour further European integration.

By Greg Bianchi

Special thanks to CEPSI round table at UCL-School of Slavonic and East European Studies 

How influential are the Greens?

Green Party 4

IN A NUMBER of European countries the Greens are an increasingly influential political movement. They have been part of power-sharing agreements to form governments and have been involved in legislating at both the national and supra-national levels.

However, despite these electoral successes the Green movement in Europe, and beyond for that matter, seems to be caught in a state of limbo – more influential than grass-roots and protest groups, but never a realistic electoral prospect for acting as more than a minor party in national power-sharing agreements.

The popularity of Green politicians is often overlooked. It’s hard to think of a more genuinely popular politician in the UK than Caroline Lucas, who of course managed to win a seat in the UK Parliament – a remarkable achievement for such a small party in a First Past the Post system of voting.

However, while Ms Lucas has been able to maintain her presence throughout her time in Parliament, even appearing in court after being arrested at an anti-fracking demonstration, the party is unlikely to stamp its authority on the General Election in 2015, although polls do suggest increasing support for the Greens.

In Europe the Greens are more influential. As Hannah Odenthal of the European Green Party points out in her interview with Lisanne Oldekamp, the Greens are becoming more influential in countries such as Spain as well as Germany and France. Therefore, the appetite for voting Green is there among European voters.

However, despite this support, the Greens still form one of the smaller groups within the European Parliament, and the expected increase in support for anti-EU parties might mean that it becomes even less significant. This seems to defy logic at a time when Europe is largely beginning to accept that it needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and fuel imports – most notably as a result of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. In addition to this the Greens are often portrayed as being a diverse group recognising all European interests.

This may be the problem for the Greens.

While they can rely on a certain amount of support, in effect they often are perceived as campaigning on a single issue platform – namely the environment. However, this is less and less the case. The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament also represents a number of progressive-nationalist movements, most notably in the form of Scotland and Catalonia.

If the Greens want to press forward in Europe they need to address this image and sell themselves better to voters. They are a genuine alternative to the political establishment and while it can be argued some of their cause has been stolen by increasingly environmentally conscious mainstream parties, they should appeal to a wider population than they currently do.

One way of achieving this could be to attract an ever-growing disenfranchised young electorate – especially if they stand in stark contrast to the growing anti-EU rhetoric and political parties who look likely to drastically increase their vote in upcoming elections.

The real tragedy of these European Parliamentary elections is that the debate about Europe has changed from discussing and debating the benefits of Europe to the inadequacies of the European Union. The Greens have an opportunity that is afforded them by their outsider status and pose a genuine alternative.

Someone’s got to do it.

Words: Greg Bianchi

Photo: European Green Party

Swiss Immigration Lockdowns: Behind the Scenes



February 2014: Switzerland votes in a highly controversial referendum. The issue at stake – quota’s on immigration – shook up the continent. The outcome – in which more than half of the people voted  in favor of such a quota – did so even more. Myrto Vogiatzi investigates the situation for Pandeia.

There was uproar two years ago in Basel, when Coop, the second largest retailer of Switzerland, ran an advertising campaign using the high German word for ‘to barbecue’, grillen, instead of the Swiss German grillieren. The aim was to widen its target market, since more than a quarter of Basel’s foreign residents are Germans and another 36,000 commute from Baden-Württemberg , Germany,  every day.  Quite clever, one would think. However, the ad was harshly criticized by the local media, forcing the retailer to retract the posters and issue new ones.

What the company underestimated is the country’s insecurity towards mounting immigration. About 80,000 migrants settle in Switzerland every year, making up roughly one quarter of the country’s population. This means Switzerland has one of the highest proportions of immigrants in the world. Nearly 70 per cent are EU/EEA/EFTA nationals, mostly from Germany, Italy and France. This, after all, is the result of the Free Movement of Persons Agreement signed with Brussels in 1999.

It’s an agreement 50.3 per cent of the Swiss were willing to endanger just a little over a month ago, when they approved a referendum proposal against mass migration. The initiative, led by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, requires the reintroduction of quotas as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.

The party believes the high proportion of foreigners put an undue strain on the country’s welfare system, housing and traffic infrastructure. “Now we want the power back. The government must represent the will of the Swiss people in Brussels – the sooner the better”, stated after the victory Christoph Bloecher, vice chair of the SVP. Other recent victories of the SVP include the initiative against the construction of minarets in 2009 and for the expulsion of foreign criminals in 2010.

Collective suicide
The policy itself is not an extreme one; it simply means Switzerland can exercise the traditional sovereign right to limit its immigration intake . After all, the initiative doesn’t specify where the limit should be and most countries put limits to immigration.

However, it’s still unclear how the country can conform to the proposal the people voted for without breaking with the union. There is a bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the EU that neither of both parties can renew or denounce without the agreement of the other. Changing immigration laws without the agreement of the EU would be a violation.

“The single market isn’t Swiss cheese”, European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding told the Financial Times. “You cannot have a single market with holes in it.  I doubt that member states will be ready to accept renegotiating the free movement of persons agreement alone and not touch the other bilateral agreements the EU has with Switzerland”.

Taking a more strident stance, France’s industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, described the outcome of the vote as ‘collective suicide’, while Didier Bukhalter, Switzerland’s foreign minister, warned that the anti-immigration vote targets some of the biggest economic contributors. Trade with Germany, for example, was worth nearly 100 billion Swiss Francs in 2012, accounting for more than a quarter of the country’s total foreign trade.

As a result of the vote, the EU has already suspended Switzerland’s participation in its multi-billion-euro Horizon 2020 research program and its Erasmus student exchange scheme. It has also stopped talks on a cross-border electricity agreement. The block has also frozen the agreement to grant Croatian job seekers access to the country.

EU officials are, of course, not the only ones disturbed by the unexpected result of the referendum. The Swiss government and business lobby groups had urged a vote against the proposal, emphasizing that certain sectors – including banking, healthcare, construction and research- rely on foreign specialists: 60 per cent of employees at the pharmaceutical giant Roche are foreigners, while half of the doctors at Basel’s university hospital do not hold a Swiss passport.

Even the national football team would be left with only three players, as German television showed. In the long run, it could mean that companies invest and hire less in Switzerland, while fearing expansion. On the other hand, some Swiss firms see it as an opportunity to boost recruitment of people from outside the EU and become more competitive in Asia.

A clever strategy
The most intriguing question though remains to be asked: why did the Swiss feel the need to hold a referendum in the first place? Are they just too used to direct democracy? According to the website Travailler en Suisse (Working in Switzerland), there are currently no less than 110,000 vacant jobs in the country and more official languages than any other in Europe.

What’s more, the OECD shows that among arrivals from the EU between 2010 and 2012, 69 per cent were highly skilled. “People who come here have already been educated at the expense of other countries, and they are usually fairly young and healthy: they’re topping up Switzerland’s benefits system, but they’re not taking anything out,” George Sheldon, a New York-born academic at Basel University, told The Guardian a few weeks ago. In fact, as the National Bank SNBN said, newcomers helped output to exceed its pre-crisis level by 5 per cent, generating a gain of at least $5.44 billion annually.

Yet far-right or right-wing populist parties in Europe (including France’s National Front or UKIP’s Nigel Farage in Britain) suggest that the Swiss are fed up with immigration. What we should keep in mind is that the relationship between ‘objective’ economic factors and attitudes towards immigration is not always straightforward. The fact that many citizens used their vote to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s policy towards the EU should have been expected.

“A loss of trust in Switzerland’s business and political elite may be one of the reasons the alpine nations voted in favour of putting strict limits on immigration”, had stated Johann Schneider-Ammann, the Swiss Economy Minister, three days after the results. Indeed, this insecurity towards centre-right parties drove a considerable amount of voters to the SVP, which in turn adopted much more persuasive strategies.

Illustrating immigration as aggressive crows or a tree with monster-like roots crushing Switzerland on a campaign ad is definitely scary, and that’s the point. After all, “who could possibly be in  favor of mass anything?” said Sheldon, arguing that the most clever aspect of the SVP’s strategy was that they rarely specified what kind of immigration they were talking about.

Switzerland has three years in which to implement the amendment into legislation and renegotiate all the international treaties that contradict the new article. Reaching some kind of agreement could easily encourage other countries and euro skeptic politicians that the key principles of the EU are negotiable. But let’s not forget that Switzerland is one of the biggest importers of EU goods and its transport infrastructure provides a crucial link from northern to southern Europe. Refusing compromise is not in Europe’s interest.

‘Us’, ‘Them’, and the Walls of Order

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago this November, many believed that Europe’s final wall had come down. From then on, Europe would unite and borders would slowly disappear. Yet, the idea of Europe as a borderless continent is an illusion as Lisanne Oldekamp investigates for Pandeia: not to mention the rest of the world. 

Francis Fukuyama was perhaps the most optimistic: he announced the ‘end of history’ would shortly follow the end of the Cold War. He expected that there would never again be wars and that people would collectively move towards democracy and capitalism. In the 1990s, this optimism was quickly shattered. And although interstate wars, nowadays referred to as the ‘classic’ type of war, occur far less than during the Cold War, borders have by no means disappeared.

In fact, since 2001, walls have risen all across the world to form an obstacle between one nation and the other. The Dutch online medium De Correspondent devoted an extensive article on the topic, claiming that three quarters of the world’s border walls have been built during the last thirteen years.

Wall against Terror

3941892391_95f5ae330c_oMostly, the builders of these walls use one of two arguments: they are intended either to disable terrorists from illegally entering the country or to stop illegal non-terrorist immigrants. Both arguments are justified by the use or creation of a fear, claiming that those on the other side of the walls pose a threat. Whether they threaten national security or the economic opportunities of citizens within the walls, it is crucial to keep them out – and what better way than to build a wall?

It is commonly known that the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks were not from Mexico. Yet, as the Secure Fence Act passed US Congress, the wall on the border with Mexico was considered part of the defense strategy in the War on Terror. This War was used to counter moral objections in the debates on the building of other walls as well. In Israel, the final objections were evaporated by the argument that terroristic attacks would stop if access to Israel was made impossible. India used a similar sentiment while building a wall on its border with Bangladesh.

In Europe, the argument of terrorism is overshadowed by that of massive immigration. The idea of a continent flooded by gold diggers from Africa or Eastern Europe is very persistent in European discourse. The Italian island of Lampedusa has regularly reached the headlines as an example of these arguments. But it is not just the physical border countries of Europe that fear excessive immigration. Although The Netherlands are bordered only by fellow Western European countries, there has been a heated debate on the immigration of Eastern Europeans. After Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on January 1st, citizens from these countries were feared to massively (ab)use the Dutch social benefits system. A majority of the Dutch therefore rooted for closing their country’s borders for these immigrants, causing for opposition leader Geert Wilders to take a traffic sign to the Romanian embassy in The Hague, stating that the ambassador’s fellow countrymen were not welcome in The Netherlands. 8894994986_c8e07061a4_b

Symbolic politics

But are these border walls actually doing what they are intended for? Have terrorist attacks and illegal immigration actually decreased because of the walls? Many scientists argue that the walls are only partially effective, at best. Yes – in urban areas in the south of the USA illegal immigration has decreased. But on other parts of the border, where there is no wall (yet), immigration has only increased.

One clear effect of the border walls is that illegal immigration has undergone some significant changes. Since easier ways to cross borders have disappeared, immigrants cross borders more often in groups. This has lured the attention of human traffickers, who often ask a lot of money to transport groups of people to the other side of the border. There is of course no guarantee for success, and the high death toll of trafficking shows the dangers of these alternative ways of immigration.

Furthermore, since border crossing has become increasingly difficult, numbers indicate that more immigrants stay in the United States permanently – where before the closing of the border, they crossed back and forth. These numbers indicate that border crossing is not a one-way stream: foreign laborers often travel back and forth between the home country and the country they work in.

As argued by associate professor of Geopolitics and Political Geography Henk van Houtum, the fear of The Netherlands being flooded by economic immigrants is greatly overestimated. In an interview on Dutch radio in 2012, he argued that this fear was a ‘classic scapegoat theory’:

“Eastern-Europeans already have access to certain countries in Europe. The numbers show that those countries experience nothing even close to a flood of immigrants: only three per cent of the Romanian and Bulgarian labor force works in Italy and Spain.”

But then at least the walls make a country a better place, right? Wrong. Terrorism is becoming more and more home-grown (Boston marathon; Oslo and Utoya; London subway). The discourse of fear for national security is countered by creating a sense of safety that is mostly illusionary, as argued by Reece Jones. In a phone interview with the previously mentioned Dutch online medium De Correspondent, he states that “there is no proof whatsoever that border walls have a more than marginal effect on terrorism”.

7439932002_72b534d64f_bImagined security

But why, then, have governments across the world grown so fond of wall-building in the past decade and a half? Experts argue that civilians’ sense of security is threatened by globalization. The increasing multiculturalism of (Western) societies has caused for an increasing need to underline a sense of belonging, of nationalism even. And inhabitants of these societies turn to their governments for protection.

But no government is able to eliminate all external threats (whether real or imagined). Therefore, they turn to methods that create an illusion of safety. In the case of the Indian wall on its border with Bangladesh, Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that the measure was as ineffective as it was genius. Since doing nothing would have been political suicide, and a military intervention would have created a massacre, “building a fence was the least harmful way of doing nothing.”

Aside from the many negative side-effects border walls have for those on the other side of the wall, this is perhaps their only function. It creates an imaginary sense of security for the people on the ‘right’ side of the walls. So sleep tight, tonight: Big Brother is walling you.

Photograph: Flickr, Creative Commons by Rakastajatar, Sweet Marjoram, Tal King Photographer, Scott Cawley

Europe: A Frack-tured future?

Fracking has been a controversial topic in Europe. While supporters point to its long term benefits, opponents have said that the environmental costs could be catastrophic. As Ana Escaso, Viral Shah and Rebecca Thorning Wine investigate, the answer could come from slightly further afield. 

Public discourse on Fracking has been suitably hardline with companies and governments vocally supporting the benefits to consumers while pressure groups have disputed reports and called for an alternative way to manage Europe’s energy needs.

Last October, European Commissioner for Environment Janez Potocnik and Matthias Groote Chair, from Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety were discussing the European strategy for shale gas in London. Other countries such as the US or China have integrated fracking in their energy policy a long time ago, as well as other countries in the world that are shifting new power balances in energy markets. Meanwhile in Europe, energy prices are higher in the midst of an economic crisis.

This has led to calls that energy policy and strategy must be taken into consideration wisely and accordingly among EU member states.

However, what is fracking?

Supporters of fracking claim that our energy resources are scarce. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking allows the release of shale gas injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into a well at high pressure. This fractures hard rock wells to increase fluid removal and obtain bubbles of gas embedded into rocks located underground.

In the European strategy of shale conference fracking was described as ‘a possible substitute for more polluting fossil fuels, such as coal and lignite, a better security of supply with less dependence on dominant energy suppliers from abroad, as well as a source of public revenues’.

Potential for environmental harm
However, opponents of this process have suggested that the use of chemicals in this technique is related to water pollution and air emissions. A small earthquake in the UK a few years ago was also blamed on fracking. The reason for this is that to achieve these tiny bubbles of gas, tunnels up to 5.000 meters have to be drilled, introducing pressurized chemicals and sometimes using small explosives. Even though the risk of inducing earthquakes is very low, microearthquakes (magnitudes below 2) are routinely produced as a result of fracking. According to Science magazine’s study, more than 10.000 wells have been subjected to fracking in recent years. Nevertheless, the largest induced earthquake was magnitude 3.6, considered too small to establish it as a risk. Contrary, Geology magazine published another article warning that the practice of clearing the ground from chemical substances could cause earthquakes up to 5.6 in the Richter magnitude scale.

In 2012 a joint committee (involving the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering) chaired by Professor Robert Mair from Cambridge University analysed the environmental, health and safety risks associated with shale gas exploration in Britain. Mair suggested, “risks could be managed effectively as long as operational best practices were implemented, and enforced through regulation”.
In addition to thus, another study from the UK government (Department of Energy and Climate Change) looked at the potential greenhouse gas emissions association with fracking. It concluded that a carbon footprint similar to conventional natural gas extraction is likely.

The Spanish citizen platform, Ecologists in Action, warned against the current negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TRIP), an economic treaty between the European Union and the United States ‘that would allow investors to act against environmental protection regulations and claim compensation in the private courts if they believe their interests will be affected.’

What is the current situation in Europe?

Every EU member state has the right to plan their energy policy in the way they consider suitable. The hydraulic fracturing regulation landscape in Europe is quite diverse: governments and municipalities are delivering legislation and local zoning limitations at the same time. For instance, France has banned fracking in 2011 and other countries have placed a temporary moratorium on the practice.
Fracking opponents and petrol companies are having an ongoing fight where techniques of public relations are used from the companies’ side to counter drilling opponents and influence in the public debate.
Nonetheless, a set of common general principles and measures have been assessed about fracking regulation by the EU: clear and simple policies to understand and achieve; a certain degree of flexibility in terms of environment; national interpretations are becoming a challenge and internal energy market is being jeopardized; public acceptance must be tackled. Furthermore, the EU has an agreed climate-energy policy up to 2020 that must be reached.

The UK

The Conservative-led coalition government has promoted ‘fracking’ as an energy revolution to reduce the reliance on the North Sea oil and gas reserves. Shale gas drilling is currently in the exploratory phase in the UK. A number of companies are currently engaged in the process, with the largest known as Cuadrilla Resources.

All proposals for exploratory drilling require planning permission from local authorities. Some have already been embroiled in controversy – Kent County Council was discovered to own £153m worth of shares in companies actively involved in the fracking process. Elsewhere, Cuadrilla, which has been the subject of heavy protests from local residents and environmentalists, withdrew from a potential site near Blackpool, after causing earth tremors while drilling.

However, the company recently acquired a 30-year lease on a site in Balcombe, in West Sussex. The site was the focus of heavy anti-fracking protests in August, with the UK’s only Green Party Member of Parliament (MP) Caroline Lucas among those arrested, as protesters stopped Cuadrilla’s daily operations by stopping lorries entering the site.
British public opinion about the controversial process is divided, with 40% opposed to it happening near their homes and 40% in favour.


The Minister of Industry, Energy and Tourism Jose Manuel Soria, stated several times ‘Spain cannot afford to lose the race to obtain natural gas.’ Soria always defends fracking techniques combined with an environmental impact statement ‘that any energy exploitation needs.’

In Spain there are many granted permissions requested to investigate the potential gas. The industry estimates that fracking could cover the current Spanish gas needs for 70 years. In contrast, ecologists disagree and believe that it will not last for more than 30 years.

According to a report of Ecologists in Action, most of places allowed to be exploited are limestone aquifers, much more sensitive to this technique due to the ability of this rock for water to circulate. The industry, represented by Shale Gas Spain, ensures that the fracture hydraulic takes place much deeper than those achieved aquifers. They also confirm that the top is covered with steel pipes and high-quality cement to prevent contamination. Its spokesmen acknowledge that the recovered liquid is smaller than the percentage injected, but they sure it has no impact on the ground.

The Department of Energy of the U.S. concludes that Spain has only one-eighth of the amounts offered by the industry. Moreover, there are only potential resources in the Basque-Cantabrian area, not all eight geographic points identified by different companies.

The administration of Rajoy seems to ignore the danger of an energy bubble, as it has been already discussed in the U.S. Boreholes are exhausted and start to show that hydraulic fracturing is more profitable for the construction of infrastructures than for the production of gas. Two laws have been enacted in relation to fracking in Spain so far: the first one includes hydraulic fracturing into the hydrocarbons law and the second one established regulatory criteria for fracking.

The US: an example to follow?

The debate in the U.S. about fracking is as follows: does the environmental benefits of clean-burning natural gas offset methane leaks during drilling and production? Politically speaking, the debate is of disclosure laws and whether there should be state or federally mandated regulations.

30 years ago the Federal Government gave individual states the power to self-regulate fracking while retaining the ability to audit them. Under U.S. law, natural gas producers do not need to disclose what chemicals they use to drill. This is a huge point of contention as the lack of transparency makes it difficult to accurately assess the effects of fracking on drinking water and other environmental issues.

In 2012 President Obama had proposed actions that would require producers to disclose their fracking chemicals, in addition to higher standards for well construction in order to lessen runaway emission of methane. As well as a safer dispensing of the dirty water that accumulates to the surface after drilling.

As of 2015, the EPA (Environmental Protection Authority) will require drillers to control leaks during completions. It is believed, that when leaks are not under control that this is the major source of methane losses in fracking wells.

According to the Natural Resources Defence Council, more than half of the states with fracking activity do not have any sort of disclosure requirements. Although ten states do have some sort of form of disclosure requirements, none provide comprehensive disclosure, and enforcement of state regulations is uneven.

Image credit: Bosc d’Anjou