In October 2022 Josep Borrell committed a revealing gaffe. When addressing an event in Bruges, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy referred to the continent as “a nice small garden surrounded by high walls in order to prevent the jungle from coming in”. The outrage over this comparison prompted an apology from Borrell, who acknowledged the implicit “colonial Eurocentrism” of his metaphor. Yet quite aside from the ill-advised wording, his comments were notable: for what he was setting out in that statement is precisely the logic of Europe’s security today.
The continent is surrounded by instability. In the east, the front line in Ukraine has barely moved and civilians are bracing for renewed Russian bombardments over the winter. In the Caucasus, the dissolution of the enclave Nagorno-Karabakh and the flight of more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians could presage a larger conflict, with growing fears that Azerbaijan will now move to invade the south of Armenia.
In the Levant, thousands have been killed in and following Hamas’s murderous attack on 7 October, and the prospect of a bloody Israeli ground invasion of Gaza looms. Moving south and west: we find ongoing atrocities in Ethiopia, civil war in Sudan and, in July, a military putsch in Niger.
Europe’s response to the disorder across these regions has indeed been to build “high walls”. Nato’s eastern flank is being reinforced following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a process accelerated by decisions taken on budgets, capabilities, readiness and military presence at the alliance’s summit in Vilnius in July. And Fortress Europe’s migration policies in the Mediterranean have left many would-be refugees and migrants at the mercy of people smugglers.
An important feature of those walls is a ring of what might be called “bulwark states”: countries that, with some degree of European support, act as bastions shielding the continental’s core from all the chaos. Perhaps the most prominent is Ukraine itself. Had Kyiv fallen in the first days of the invasion, there is little doubt that Russia’s sights would have trained on the next target, perhaps Moldova or the Baltics.
Turkey is another, quite different sort of bulwark state. The country’s relationship with the EU is much more transactional. Under a deal forged during the refugee crisis of 2015-16, Ankara agreed to take back migrants who have entered the EU via Greece, in return for billions of euros and visa liberalisation. Comparable arrangements have been reached with Maghreb states, most recently Tunisia.
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Other examples include French-led efforts over recent years to prop up the governments battling jihadists in the Sahel, and the EU’s attempt to tighten relations with the oil-rich Azerbaijan since February 2022, in order to shore up its imperilled energy security.
Two emergent bulwarks are particularly urgent today. France is now sending military equipment to Armenia in anticipation of a new Azerbaijani offensive: a reflection of concerns about a comprehensive breakdown of order in this especially geopolitically sensitive part of the European neighbourhood.
Then there is Egypt. At the time of writing Brussels was scrambling to finalise a new support package for the country, already an important turret in the Fortress Europe migration regime, and the front line of the worsening humanitarian crisis across the militarised Rafah border crossing in Gaza. The circumstances and relationships vary, but the underlying motivation is consistent: Europe is paying states on its fringes, democratic and otherwise, to hold back the turmoil.
Just as new instances of this pattern emerge, however, we are also seeing growing evidence of the limits of the strategy. Architecturally, a bulwark is typically a reinforced part of a defensive wall, one that strengthens the whole. But most or arguably all of Europe’s bulwark states are showing signs of weakness.
Ukraine’s valiant self-defence still depends on US military support of questionable durability. A growing anti-immigrant mood in Turkey puts the future of the money-for-migrants arrangement there in doubt. A renewed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia could render the EU’s balancing act in the Caucasus untenable. Coups have toppled European allies in the Sahel, most recently Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, previously dubbed “France’s partner of last resort” in the region. Egypt – with its soaring inflation rate, ballooning external debt, and significant exposure to the renewed Israel-Hamas conflict – is a particular concern.
This was precisely the point Josep Borrell was making with his poorly phrased remarks in Bruges last year. Far from hailing those “high walls” as a long-term guarantee of Europe’s security, he was arguing that these are “not going to be a solution”. The veteran Spanish politician went on to say at the time: “The jungle has a strong growth capacity, and the wall will never be high enough in order to protect the garden.”
If you ignore the metaphor – ugly and freighted with prejudice though it certainly was – his underlying assertion is correct. A Europe that assumes it can largely outsource its security, and a significant part of its humanitarian responsibilities, to pliant outsiders will be rudely disabused of that belief soon enough.
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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War