Intra-EU emergency bordering in Coronavirus: laying bare the burden of ‘free’ mobility

Published 27 April 2020 / By Polina Manolova

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

On 18 March 2020, nine Bulgarian citizens were detained upon arrival at Frankfurt airport after failing to produce proof of a German address registration or a valid employment contract. The personal identification documents of the three women and six men were seized by the German Federal Police and they were required to report at the airport police station three times per day while awaiting their return back. The detainees were pressured into signing a Refusal of Entry document which stipulated their denied admittance and scheduled return on the grounds that they constituted a ‘threat to public policy, internal security and public health’ as per Schengen Borders Code regulations.

In this case the German Federal Police applied, either purposefully or by mistake, the EU Commission’s temporary restrictions on EU-external arrivals to Bulgarians by miscategorising them as ‘third country nationals’ (rather than EU citizens). The coordinated closure of the EU’s external border from 16 March was a measure intended to re-establish the unobstructed mobility within the Union. Germany, however, has not only sustained the controls it had already introduced along its borders with France, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Denmark but has also extended travel bans to all non-German nationals. EU citizens and their family members, similar to those coming from outside the Union, are by rule allowed entry only if they can prove legal residence in the country and/or legitimate reasons for travel. Thus, Germany, together with other EU states, is implementing severe intra-EU bordering policies that effectively suspend free mobility for certain categories of people on the basis of unspecified criteria and non-transparent ‘ad hoc’ implementation – a practice that goes against EU legislation on free and unconditional movement for EU citizens.

Shrinking spaces of EU citizenship

This episode represents but a snippet of the multi-faceted techniques of emergency bordering that have manifested across the EU with the onset of the Corona pandemic. ‘Border situations’ like the ones described above have demonstrated the existence of multiple grey areas of regulation enforcement, the deployment of oppressive state tactics and most importantly the readiness to suspend EU free mobility regulations for particular groups of workers and their families. The intra-EU emergency bordering, the most repressive manifestations of which we are currently witnessing in German airports and on land borders, develops along a permanence/temporariness opposition where the right to move is fully guaranteed to nation-state citizens and is only conditionally granted to others.

This ‘emergency’ implementation of free movement as defined by permanence serves as a magnifying glass that exhibits the systematic production of vulnerability and impermanence that has been entrenched by EU internal migration management practices throughout the past decade. Therefore, our discussion of ‘temporary bordering’ practices amidst a global pandemic needs to turn to the long-term trajectory of retrenchment of EU citizenship rights and the neoliberal instrumentalization of free mobility. The global economic meltdown of 2007-2008 and the onset of austerity policies in Europe have triggered a gradual but persistent transformation of EU citizenship rights along market-based rationales. In the midst of ‘benefit tourism’ debates, in Germany, the UK and Belgium (among others) a number of legislative changes were introduced to limit EU citizens’ access to welfare (see Alberti 2017Riedner 2017). These restrictive policies have been particularly punitive for the most vulnerable categories of EU migrants – those outside regular employment, without a safety net to fall back on and those providing for dependent family members.

Bureaucratic bordering

There is, however, another layer of  EU migration management which operates in the immediate post-arrival stage of migration and concerns the administrative procedures that regularise the EU ‘free mover’ status.

Upon arrival, migrants are thrown into a web of bureaucratic dependencies that they are unable to navigate on their own and that often disable them from exercising their EU mobility and labour rights. For example, in the UK, migrants can procure a National Insurance Number only if they can produce a proof of address in the form of a rental contract or a utility bill in one’s name. At the same time, the newly arrived have no access to regular rental markets which are themselves premised on a substantial degree of regularised permanence and require high deposits, stable employment and background checks. Faced with such ‘bureaucratic bordering’, those without pre-arranged employment or with little financial resources often find themselves trapped in informal jobs and accommodation.

Permanent Temporality

The two-layered workings of the EU migration regime described above – restrictive social policy changes and informal exclusionary bureaucratic practices– have created a precarious labour force that has no footing in formal labour markets and social security systems. Their livelihood is predicated on their ‘on-demand’ readiness to crisscross national borders in search of economic opportunities. None of the nine Bulgarian detainees in Frankfurt Airport was a first-time arrival. They were all returning workers, some have been living in Germany for months and even years, but with no prospects of escaping the trap of informality.

At first sight, the emergency bordering across the EU prompts our indignation with the violent suspension of freedom of movement and raises concerns with the end of Europe as we know it. An in-depth look however begs our realisation that Europe has always functioned as a bordered space. The EU citizens who have been separated from their families and whose precarious livelihoods have been brutally disrupted by Corona bordering will not remain immobilised for long. Their mobility is now re-directed through various loopholes to satisfy the ‘essential’ demands in agricultural and care industries of western economies. East European workers are boarding charter flights to agricultural farms, care homes and hospitals in Germany, Austria and the UK. This time, exercising their freedom of movement poses a direct threat to their health and endangers their lives.


Polina Manolova is a Postdoctoral Researcher at  the University of Tuebingen (Germany) and a co-convenor of the Diaspora, Migration and Transnationalism study group of the British Sociological Association.