Temporalising difference, spatialising time, in/securing the Mediterranean

This was previously published at: the King’s College Research Centre on International Relations forum  30/10/2013

Recent immigrants deaths on the coasts of Italy have, once again, brought Mediterranean as a source of in/security to European Union’s agenda. As member states discuss what needs to be done to better ‘secure’ European borders against immigrants, the more complex questions about ‘how’ and ‘why’ immigrants travel from southern to northern shores of the Mediterranean are seldom asked. Needless to say, it is not only the European Union gives such securitised responses to arriving immigrants; we observe similar responses in other parts of the world including Australia and the United States, albeit in different ways. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of immigrants’ journeys from the southern to northern shores of the Mediterranean reveal complex relationships that cannot be reduced to everyday simplifications: ‘they’ are lagging behind ‘us’ and therefore want to come here to make use of the benefits ‘we’ extend to ‘our’ citizens.

While such statements fail to capture the complexity of dynamics involved they are nevertheless helpful in revealing the following: In the past decade or so, various European actors (including but not limited to EU bodies) have increasingly adopted security practices vis-à-vis the Mediterranean that portrayed insecurities of the South as a passing phase in search for security and justified violent practices (as with rendition, violation of the non-refoulement principle, and intercepting boats in the Mediterranean in a way that puts individuals’ lives at risk) and turning a blind-eye to human rights violations by Southern Mediterranean regimes of their own citizens. What warrants such portrayals and justifications is temporalising difference and spatialising time.

Through temporalising difference, one’s own contemporaries are relegated to a past where security dynamics are presumed to work differently. Through spatialising time, one’s contemporaries living in some other parts of the world are relegated to a past world. These twin processes have implications for in/securing peoples in different parts of the world. Temporalizing difference and spatialising time allows portraying insecurities of some people in some other parts of the world as a passing phase in search for security, and overlooks the need for investigating alternative presents and futures. Insecurities experienced in the South are rendered explicable as trials and travails of shaking off ideas and institutions of that past world. Interventions of various kinds are, in turn, warranted as the only available remedy in addressing such challenges (see Jabri 2013).

Needless to say, it is not only European actors whose practices deserve scrutiny. Over the last decade or so, with unfolding security cooperations between the North and South, some Southern Mediterranean regimes have increasingly become enforcers of European security policies vis-à-vis their own citizens and other immigrants in-transit to the EU. Some South Mediterranean leaders (some of whom not survived the Arab Spring) have also made use of the context of the “global war on terror” to pursue their own security agendas at the expense of their citizens’ security.

Aforementioned practices constitute a break with European Union’s own outlook toward security in the Mediterranean -not in terms of temporalising difference, it has to be said, but in terms of reflecting on violence incurred.

Although the European Community (EC) began to formulate policies towards the South Mediterranean countries in particular and the Middle East in general as early as the 1970s, it was in the 1990s, with the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) that the European Union first adopted a concerted effort toward the Mediterranean. At the time, concerns regarding increasing immigration from the South of the Mediterranean, aggravated social unrest and instability in the EU’s southern neighbours, and the possible radicalisation of South Mediterranean diaspora in the EU ranked high among EU priorities. About a decade later in 2004, the European Union launched the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in a political context characterised by the failures of the EMP in meeting its objectives, a heightened sense of insecurity in the EU in relation to irregular immigration within the context of the “global war on terror”, and global ambitions of the Union itself.

From EMP to ENP, one can identify two principal ways in which European security practices have rested on assumptions of temporalising difference and spatialising time. The EMP had emphasised political and social reforms as security policy, thereby relegating the South of the Mediterranean to Europe’s past, while at the same time allowing for the Mediterranean to “grow up” and become more like ‘us’ by following the EU example. The ENP, however, allowed South Mediterranean states to address their own insecurities at their own pace, while engaging in security cooperation with Southern regimes with worrisome human rights records. This shift in policy signalled how European actors viewed the South as belong to the past and deserving of security policies that are deemed “appropriate” for that past world.

While both approaches betrayed little reflection on the production of insecurities as such, the ENP was influential in warranting a set of violent practices that would not be considered appropriate for EU citizens but deemed appropriate when adopted toward the citizens of Southern Mediterranean countries, immigrants in-transit and asylum seekers. In terms of specific security practices, as part of the transition to ENP, more violent instruments of security have increasingly begun to be used by the EU or member states when cooperating with the Southern neighbours. Such de-differentiation involved the training of military and police forces of Southern Mediterranean countries, the training of immigration officers, and the transfer of surveillance and control technology. Over the years, through a variety of policies, including the ENP, the EU and member states have sought to address challenges externally through highly technologised and sometimes violent means and/or subcontracted Southern Mediterranean regimes, before those “external” challenges became “internal” security concerns for Europe. Implications of European security practices for citizens of Southern Mediterranean countries and immigrants in-transit included abuse of fundamental rights allowed by the secrecy surrounding the endemic in/security practices of some Southern Mediterranean regimes, irregular migrants being directed to more dangerous routes and violent treatment of immigrants by human smugglers, persistently high levels of human deaths in transit, and the fading of asylum-seeking as a strategy to escape repression.

Such maltreatment of immigrants on the road to the European Union, in turn, is not unrelated to endemic insecurities in the South of the Mediterranean, namely, the limits of respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. Indeed, it is not only immigrants and asylum-seekers but also citizens of some Southern Mediterranean countries who were in/secured through North-South security cooperation. In the run up to the “Arab Spring” and in spite of the European Commission’s concerns, some anti-democratic practices of the Egyptian government were overlooked by the EU, including the state of emergency, which was renewed in 2006 and again in 2010. In other South Mediterranean contexts such as Tunisia, torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, and the imprisonment and torture of Sahrawi activists in Tunisia were reported to have been overlooked (Amnesty International 2010).

What we observe in the EU in recent years, then, is what Bigo (2001) has referred to as “a growing interpenetration between internal and external security”—“internal” security in the EU is increasingly sought outside its boundaries in collaboration with non-EU actors; “external” security, in turn, is pursued at home through recourse to surveillance techniques and data mining. That said, while “internal” and “external” has been increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another, EU policies have increasingly distinguished between “insiders” (EU citizens) and “outsiders” (immigrants and asylum-seekers) in designing policies toward the Mediterranean. In doing so, policies were embedded in assumptions of temporalising difference (by way of relegating to the past those who are considered different) and spatialising time (by relegating to the past who reside to the south of the Mediterranean).

Pinar Bilgin is Associate Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at War Studies, King’s College London. She is the author of Regional Security in the Middle East: A Critical Perspective (Routledge, 2005).

This short piece is based on research conducted as part of FP7 project IN:EX (http://www.inexproject.eu). Fuller report on the findings of the project on the Mediterranean are available here. A fuller treatment of the argument here is forthcoming in Anna M. Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian, eds., Time, Temporality and Violence in International Relations: (De) Fatalizing the Present, Forging Radical Alternatives (Routledge).