Fortress Europe

The EU's colonial-era external borders: Spain & Morocco

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Migration control has been at the forefront of European policy for years. Currently, there is ongoing debate regarding whether the EU is seeking to build “Fortress Europe” to maintain its European roots and deter further migration. Critics of the EU’s migration agenda have argued that the EU’s external borders, along with their extreme security measures, have introduced colonial-era borders that uphold the ideals of “Fortress Europe” at the expense of the lives of migrants and refugees; and when one uses the lens of migration politics between Spain and Morocco, it is hard not to come to the same conclusion. The Schengen agreement and the Frontex agency re-established the concept of “Fortress Europe,” reinforced by the EU’s funding of a corrupt Moroccan government that shows clear disregard for human lives.


Fortress Europe 

Historically, the term Fortress Europe, originally the German Festung Europa“[was] used for the part of continental Europe occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II and the envisioned defensive fortification of all of Nazi-occupied Europe against British and American invasion.” More recently, “Fortress Europe" is used to refer to the way Europe controls its borders and detains immigrants. It is legitimized by negative public attitudes towards immigration and associated with much of the inhumane treatment done to migrants and refugees by European countries. Anti-immigration politicians and leaders have pushed "Fortress Europe” as a political agenda and have reinforced the idea through implementing or at least supporting strict anti-immigration policy.

Historical Developments that Strengthened “Fortress Europe” 

The Schengen Agreement

The Schengen Agreement was the first large step in legitimizing the notion of “Fortress Europe.” The free movement of goods and services first became an idea in the 1930s, after Europe’s economy crashed because of the Great Depression The signing of the agreement in 1985 abolished internal borders and allowed the free movement of EU citizens and many non-EU citizens within the Schengen area. The agreement upheld border checks for travelers entering from countries outside of the defined area. In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam incorporated Schengen into EU policy as the Schengen Acquis

The initial formation of Schengen, with the elimination of internal borders, was presented as a bold and progressive act, and portrayed Europe as ahead of its time. The free movement of goods, services, and people became a core value of the EU. However, “this conception of free movement of persons has created a distinction between internal borders and the external European Union.” While Schengen’s distinction between external and internal borders has reinforced the idea of “Fortress Europe” it simultaneously has established the EU as the second wealthiest and largest economy in the world. For this reason, it is difficult to re-establish the progressive narrative that Schengen has established for Europe due to its contributing economic wealth. Schengen protects Europe’s wealth while keeping Morocco, for instance, at bay. However, the shift to the inhumane treatment of migrants has reframed some of these formerly progressive narratives and has allowed for further insight into the contributions that Schengen has played in “Fortress Europe.”

Schengen: A Restrictive Policy with a Progressive Front   

To enforce these new borders and monitor people within the Schengen area, the EU created the Schengen Information System (SIS) which went into operation in 1995. According to the European Commission, the system shares information for security and border management in order to make Europe safer. The SIS system was one of the first larger border control initiatives and created a gateway for the expansion of border control agencies, funding, programs, and further efforts. 

In 2004, the EU founded Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which works with member states to manage external borders. As the main source of border control for the EU, the agency has seen a huge budget increase in recent years. The budget started at 6 million euros in 2005 and has since increased to 543 million Euro in 2021. The agency has faced criticism due to serious allegations that range from human rights to international law violations. Their largest scandal was a report that accused Greek authorities of pushing back EU-bound migrants coming from Turkey, a violation of international law. 

Case Study: Spain & Morocco

Migration dynamics between Spain and Morocco serve as an exemplary case study for the EU’s desired “fortress.” One of the largest entry points for migrants and refugees into Europe connects Spain from Morocco via two small Spanish enclaves, Melilla and Ceuta. Politically, these are both areas of Spanish territory in North Africa, but as a border control crisis unfolds, many Moroccans are pushing to recover these enclaves. Yet, in the meantime, Moroccans face inhuman conditions and treatment, perpetuated by EU funding.

Inhumane Conditions

Spanish and Moroccan forces police large border fences that span the perimeter of each enclave separating Morocco from Melilla. In Melilla, there are three ways for migrants to enter the enclave: by car, boat, and by jumping the fence. Hundreds to thousands of migrants prepare to jump the fence each day. They sleep in camps near the fence and attempt to storm the fence in large numbers to overwhelm the police. Moroccan police, backed by EU funding, have raided migrant camps, burned and destroyed people's belongings, raped women, and beat migrants by targeting their hands and feet to deter attempts to jump or climb the fence.

Inhumane Treatment 

The inhumane conditions and treatment directly contradict the EU’s proclaimed values. EU law states that once a migrant reaches European soil, they have the right to legal assistance and an interpreter. Therefore, handing them back over to Moroccan police is illegal. Yet, after jumping the fence into Spanish territory, many have been illegally pushed back to Morocco, denied medical attention, and refused translators. The Guardia Civil, or Spanish police, has brutalized migrants in other ways too. For example, in February 2014, they fired rubber bullets at migrants trying to swim to Spain. At least a dozen died and many more were injured. 

Border Policing & Moroccan Government 

The EU, especially Spain, have coerced Moroccan authorities into sharing responsibility for their migration agenda. Morocco has received more than one hundred million dollars in financial and technical aid from the EU in return for helping Europe tackle migration. The collaboration, which occurs through blurry bilateral agreements, creates a long list of problems and forces Morocco to play a dirty role in EU border control. 

This funding directly contributes to the corruption that encourages many people to migrate in the first place. In 2021, Morocco scored a 39/100 on the Corruption Index; 0 meaning highly corrupt and 100 meaning very transparent. Systemic corruption in the country has endangered democracy and human rights while police brutality has become apparent during COVID-19 lockdowns and border control. Consequently, the support provided by Spain and the European Commission has funded the Moroccan government and security forces that are directly responsible for this corruption and abuse. This directly contradicts the European Union’s policies on the importance of human rights, democracy, and rule of law. 


What are borders? What are their true purposes? In the case of Spain and Africa, “borders are walls that seek to block out a gross inequality between Africa and Europe constructed during colonialism and perpetuated by European economic and political policies today.” The external border programs are a form of border colonialism that allows Europe to maintain its sovereign prerogatives to preserve the “fortress”. Europe must remove the continued control over its former colonies and address its Western responsibility to abide by their own policy on human rights, democracy, and rule of law. To do this they must remove their support for corrupt and authoritarian governments or rulers, companies causing climate change, and their inhumane border practices. The question is not whether Europe can do this, but does it want to. Europe’s border colonialism reflects a larger global conversation that needs to happen concerning Western responsibility and colonial violence. 

About the Author

Haley Widom is a senior, graduating in May and studying public health with minors in international relations and environmental science. During her time at AU, she worked as a COVID-19 contact tracer admits the pandemic and completed multiple internships while maintaining a part-time job. Most recently during the fall 2021 semester she studied abroad in Madrid, Spain where she completed an internship working with the physical rehabilitation department of a bilingual elementary school. Upon graduating she hopes to find a public health job and work for a year before going back to school to obtain a masters and potentially a PhD.