Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Unravelling the Drivers behind EU Border Militarization



Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, postdoctoral research fellow, Centre for Advanced Migration Studies, University of Copenhagen. Martin’s postdoctoral project ‘Between Asylum and Security’ has received generous funding from the Carlsberg Foundation and the Institute for Media, Cognition and Communication (MCC), University of Copenhagen. This post is the second installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Blog Series on the Industry of Illegality organised by Ruben Andersson

During the 2015 refugee crisis European politicians have insisted that human smugglers bear complete responsibility for the appalling fatalities at the external EU borders. Rather than looking at the systematic closure of legal refugee routes (and thus at how refugees have been forced to rely on smugglers), the continent’s leaders have preferred to project all responsibility outwards, labeling smugglers as modern-day slave merchants―and receiving fierce academic criticism for this self-serving argumentation by more than 700 migration and slavery scholars.

By now, EU politicians have reached the reduction ad absurdum of this logic: attacking the only actors left who will aid refugees in escaping war zones―in order to protect the refugees! The EU Navfor Med operation, a military intervention against Libyan human smugglers, is now at stage two (of three), which entails deploying vessels, helicopters, drones, and submarines―as well as up to 950 German soldiers―in order to destroy smugglers’ boats. Even though existing research indicates that harsher border control practices actually bolster smuggling, and even though military networks predict a high risk of collateral damage to refugees, EU leaders have still embraced these plans for military action.

However, while there has been much discussion of the smuggling industry, the effects of another industry have been all but ignored by European politicians even though it’s intimately connected to the expansion of smuggling networks. This industry involves private security and military companies (PSMCs), which since the early 2000s have viewed border control as an emerging market. Companies such as British BAE Systems, Italian Finmeccanica, French Thales or Airbus and Boeing are aggressively pursuing and competing for new contracts for border control in a highly lucrative market, estimated by the analysis group Frost & Sullivan to globally be worth €25.8bn in 2012, reaching €49.6bn by 2020.

In 2003 the European Commission invited the CEOs of EADS (later Airbus), BAE Systems, Thales, and Finmeccanica to participate in a ‘Group of Personalities’ (GoP) tasked to outline the EU’s future security research agenda. The predictable result of this forum was a 2004 report stating that time was of the essence if Europe was to remain at the forefront of defence technology, research, and competitiveness. Even before the release of this report, the Commission had launched the Preparatory Action for Security Research, distributing €65m to 39 PSMC research & development (R&D) projects on security and border control technologies between 2006 and 2008.

After the launch of the European Security Research Programme in 2007, part of its €1.4bn budget was spent on subsidising a further 35 R&D projects in 2008―and 78 more such projects in 2009. Similarly, European PSMCs have played a key role in the European external border surveillance system (EUROSUR). In 2006, Thales was awarded the main contract to conduct a feasibility study, after which it subcontracted several other European PSMCs to co-develop this ‘system of systems,’ which came to include satellites, radars, sensors, and drones. This is but one example of how the European military industry is aggressively pursuing such contracts. As EU forums invite these actors to partake in policy formulation, the resulting border policies may have more to do with supply determining demand than the other way round.

In the run-up to the launch of EUROSUR in late 2013, the EU’s external border agency, Frontex, also paid sums from €30,000 to €198,000 to security companies for demonstrations of drone and maritime surveillance technologies at Frontex workshops. The European Commission estimates the overall cost of EUROSUR at €338m, but a study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation has argued that a minimum of €874m is more realistic.


The political and commercial interests in militarizing EU borders thus predate the current refugee crisis, only they’re not presented as such. Instead, politicians often frame militarization as an efficient response to recent tragedies. The 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, for instance, was used to frame EUROSUR as a life-saving system, even though the plans for it had been in the pipeline for seven years and it had always been ‘sold’ as ‘fighting illegal immigration.’ Similarly, the April 2014 drowning of 1,200 people off the Libyan coast has been used to promote plans for the current military intervention in the Mediterranean.


Besides the political desire for tough immigration controls and the industrial desire to maximize profit, a further reason exists for the border control expansion: the economic system within which European states, EU institutions, and PSMCs find themselves. Behind PSMCs we find international financial actors including banks, investment firms, hedge funds, and stockholders which provide and circulate the capital underpinning European border control.

Finmeccanica is but one example. National authorities and international banks such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs own stocks in the defence company, and in 2009 the European Commission and the European Investment Bank granted a Finmeccanica subsidiary a joint €500m loan for the production of aeronautical components also used in border control aircraft. Meanwhile, national export credit agencies have used taxpayers’ money to provide guarantees for PSMCs exporting control equipment to Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East―and the international banking sector is also instrumental for these processes. In 2010, 24 credit institutions, coordinated by BNP Paribas and including actors such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of America, Unicredit, Barclays, Citigroup, HSBC, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs, guaranteed Finmeccanica a five-year revolving credit line worth €2.4bn. Through such stock purchases, loans, and credit lines, major financial actors are essential supporters for the industry reconfiguring European borders today.

A worrying implication is therefore that the militarization of border control isn’t only about political desires for protecting nations by excluding vulnerable people; it’s also pushed by borderless financial interests. A foreseeable problem then becomes this: even if European politicians―belatedly―were to embrace a more realistic policy on mobility, they would face what is called the ‘lock-in effect,’ that is, an entire high-tech, integrated border control infrastructure which is geared towards a militarized fight against unwanted people, and not towards precise differentiation of flows of people, their reasons for escape, or their needs for humanitarian protection. Consequently, the question becomes: who are in the driving seat of European border control policies?

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Lemberg-Pedersen, M. (2015) Unravelling the Drivers behind EU Border Militarization. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/10/unravelling  (Accessed [date]).

With the support of