From the CIAO Atlas Map of Europe 

email icon Email this citation


Securing Europe’s Peripheries: Border Guard Services in East-Central Europe

Alice Hills

Centre for Defence Studies, University of London

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000

That the securing of Europe’s peripheries is highly political is emphasised by the fact that two of Europe’s major problems are integration and differentiation, while the tensions between the associated discourse is often expressed through the ambivalent semantics associated with the location and management of Europe’s external borders.

Borders are an important attribute of sovereignty and are often equivalent to a national symbol, but every border also carries ambivalence because its existence is rarely completely unchallenged or unjustified. Thus ambivalence about Europe’s peripheral borders has been particularly marked in the wealthiest core countries, such as Germany, yet there is little ambivalence in the geographically peripheral former Soviet countries of East-Central Europe of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The fact that these countries consider themselves part of ‘Europe’, aspire to join the EU, and have experience of the Iron Curtain — an ambivalent border which promised security as well as danger — is indicative of the complex geopolitical nature of the identification and management of Europe’s peripheries. It is also indicative of the fact that the debate is less about defence than about internal security and its policing; that is, less about NATO enlargement and more about the European Union. This is the key. For EU membership is a major motivating factor for NATO membership amongst the so-called Visegrad countries, while the original EU countries focus more on the fact that the EU is now the major single recipient of the drugs, arms and illegal migrants smuggled through the region from the south and east. As Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban said last year, ‘The Iron Curtain has been replaced by the border of the European Union, where controls are being tightened.’ 1

The focus on border security regimes as a means of securing of Europe’s peripheries against illegal infiltration has (probably — the policing discourse is self-justifying) been made infinitely more difficult by the abolition of internal border controls within the European Community. 2 Even formerly peripheral countries such as Hungary are now a destination as well as transit country for illegal migrants. And the fact that the FBI set up its first office abroad in Budapest last year emphasises the growing concern in the US about Russian organised crime operating from Budapest. Both Louis Freeh, director of the FBI, and George Tenet, chief of the CIA, recently toured East-Central Europe. As a result of such pressures, the southern and eastern borders of the so-called Visegrad group of countries are set to become the outer frontiers of Europe when they join the EU, and their security services are being prepared for the change by means of intensive training and technology transfer programmes financed by the EU. A $7.2 programme to strengthen regional police collaboration against organised crime is financed, for instance, by the EU’s Phare programme.

The debate surrounding the securing of Europe’s peripheries was dominated (in international studies at least) by the expansion of NATO until last year whereas the criminal justice trends referred to above suggest that the debate is really about the quality of security Europe (as a political and economic entity) must have. It’s about integrating states on the edges of a political and economic ‘Europe’ as a means of building higher walls against the chaos and crime outside. It’s about the creation of the area of ‘freedom, justice and security’ announced by EU leaders at their October 1999 meeting in Tampere. It’s about ensuring that the hubs of vital trade networks (such as Hungarian railway network), traditionally linking substantial markets in the East, West, North and South of Europe, are protected from criminal gangs from the former Soviet Union. It’s about the fact that Hungary’s highly developed banking, transport and telecommunications facilities, combined with a comparatively liberal legal structure, has enabled transnational crime syndicates to derive huge profits from traditional Hungarian trading links with East and West. 3 It is less about building a fortress Europe (or Europeanisation as such) than about a process of fortrification which will enable the EU economic and security community to thrive.

Significantly, recent EU policy development has been accompanied by tighter controls on external EU borders, moves which cannot be considered in isolation from asylum policies. Indeed, it is likely that the issue will become more pressing over next 5 years as EU prepares to admit Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic whose long borders with Russia are difficult to police. For the general issue of European security is now effectively linked to maintaining the outer borders of the EU against organised crime and illegal migration. 4 This suggests that international studies must engage more closely with the concerns of international policing, understood here in terms of both the activity and the organisations associated with it (Schengen, Europol, the Association of European Police Colleges in Budapest and so on), if it is to understand the reality of securing Europe’s peripheries. Where such an awareness exists, attention has, not surprisingly, tended to focus on regional police co-operation. But the protection and policing of the geographical borders literally representing Europe’s peripheries is the responsibility of agents which so far, at least in the UK, have received insufficient attention: I refer to border guards, acting either in support of state sovereignty and internal security, of state political and economic health, or in support of NATO.

Border guard services represent an especially interesting expression of the securing of Europe’s peripheries. For they are effectively part of both police and military establishments, being expected to perform tasks related to border policing, border guarding and border defence. Hungary’s border services are reasonably representative of the situation. Hungary’s Home Defence Forces cannot be used to protect Hungary’s borders because there is currently no military threat to Hungary, but border guards can, as was seen during the conflict in Kosovo: ‘The Border Guard has reinforced the Hungarian-Yugoslav border by redeploying units from other parts of the country,’ Hungarian radio reported in March 1999. 5 Border guards (especially when strengthened by special units) are thus literally securing Europe’s peripheries.

Interestingly, the ambivalent rhetoric of borders extends to border guards too, for their position straddles both the defence and security of Europe’s peripheries. Hungarian border guard officer training is no longer conducted solely in the framework of the ‘land forces-all weapons command course’, for instance, but it does remain faithful to the principles of the national defence and an integrated defence concept derived from military science. 6 The potential tension associated with this suggests that two major themes associated with their contemporary role illuminate the reality of securing Europe’s peripheries: the continuing role of military science as understood in relation to NATO (and therefore intellectual) compatability, and trends in contemporary security:

First, military science remains a key factor in shaping the development of border guard services. Previously Hungarian border guards were an integral aspect of military defence and part of their training was dictated by the need to ensure that officers could command military units. Training is now less militarised. Border policing is still a military science but the border guard authority is currently answerable to the ministry of the interior and the civilian nature of policing is emphasised (indeed, the independent nature of the service is under threat from the police). Electric border architecture has been translated into green borders, and enforcement activities are now related to a criminalisation more directly related to an economically rather than politically motivated form of order.

However, NATO defence represents a primary factor shaping the service. Border guard training in Hungary emphasises the need for NATO compatatability, both operational and intellectual. Support must be provided to NATO border crossings and transport, for instance. And such activities must be underpinned by an understanding of NATO’s principles of conflict- and crisis management, in addition to knowledge of how NATO applies armed- and police forces in border areas, how NATO marks and encloses minefields, what the main principles of march execution with its troops are, and so on. Such requirements, combined with the inheritance of border guarding in Hungary, means that securing Europe’s peripheries retains a (military) defence dimension.

Second, the defence aspect is, however, offset by contemporary security concerns, and border guard services provide an opportunity to examine security trends such as the problems associated with transnational crime and illegal migration — in addition to existing problems of corruption within the services themselves.

The linkage between the two factors is to be found in the fact that joining NATO has more to do with Hungary’s proposed accession to the EU than to security or defence concerns as such. In other words, joining NATO is really about joining the EU: ‘they will look after us’. Indeed the link was recognised by Kurt Schelter, German secretary of state, who said at conference in Hungary last autumn that ‘Securing the outer borders of the EU is essential to the defence of the citizen’s freedom of movement and safety from organised crime.’

That border guarding is a fundamental factor in the securing of Europe’s peripheries is emphasised by the fact that the EU has allocated nearly 20m dollar to a technology transfer scheme to Hungary in order to allow her to confront illegal migration. This is not unjustified for there has been an explosion in the number of migrants intent on entering EU. Asylum applications to EU countries generally doubled in first three years after the end of the Cold War and asylum is now the principle means of entry to EU. More over immigration is perceived to be a destabilising factor within Hungary. But the necessary management measures are expensive; the full cost of modernisation on Hungary’s eastern and southern borders to meet the requirements of the EU’s Schengen Accords may be up to 40bn forints, about $160bn. (This must be seen in the light of the fact that the EU, which has just raised $2,8m to combat corruption and organised crime in the region, has also warned Hungary it must clamp down on corruption within its various security and judiciary services.) The explicit linkage between effect and response means that border guard services can provide a key to the rapidly changing nature such security issues because they are literally at the frontier and are functionally well-placed to pick up new trends.

Their role and function also indicates wider political and security trends because the dynamics of the processes they represent are not necessarily one way; there is often an action-reaction loop from the peripheries to the European Commission, the administrative headquarters of the EU in Brussels, and back. Harmonisation in the restrictive control policies of policing inner Europe invariably causes a ripple of corresponding controls in Europe’s peripheries, while the concerns surrounding illegal trade and migration loop back to influence politics determined in the European Commission and elsewhere. Thus consideration of Hungarian border guard services illuminate the security role of East-Central Europe within the ‘European’ process because states such as Hungary represent a de facto buffer zone between inner and outer Europe. This should not be oversimplified for there are neither simple harmonisation or exclusionary processes at work here. It is rather that layered buffer zones (culturally, socially and economically) are being created.

The means by which the process — let alone borders, European identity or security — should be conceptualised is debatable. But we need to acknowledge the role of border guards within it, for they are positioned at a juxtaposition of security and defence trends. Fundamentally the issues underpinning the European political project for which they act as a preliminary filter is the search for a European identity (often achieved through an exclusionary logic) and an economic agenda based on material success. It is essentially about the EU, as was recognised by General Novaky, commander of the Hungarian border guards, who said (as conscription ended in April 1998) that his service would be responsible for controlling EU’s external borders.

But the integrity of the EU — and European security — cannot be divorced from the fact that defence remains a potentially significant issue. The expansion of NATO has meant a European/NATO border now exists between Hungary and Ukraine, for instance (as between Poland and Belarus). Furthermore these borders have effectively become the outer borders of NATO-controlled territory and thus assume a military function they would not otherwise have had.

The result is that, paradoxically, the debate concerning Europe’s peripheries emphasise the traditional security role of borders — and border guards — at the same time as control of EU borders has become an important aspect of internal security and an important laboratory for the management of the new security threats represented by economic migration and transnational crime. We cannot dismiss illegal migration and crime from security considerations because the well-being of the EU stands in contrast to the poverty and insecurity in the post-Warsaw Pact countries. In these circumstances, exclusion and resistance to migratory pressures have seemed necessary to maintain the relative prosperity and stability of the West. There is a tendency for these issues to be condensed and treated as a single multi-faceted problem of internal security yet the effective management of Europe’s frontiers is multi-dimensional. It depends on co-operation between state security services, EU assistance schemes, modernisation in terms of training and technology (such as that assisted by the FBI and the DoD International Border Security Proliferation Programme of 1997), and the defence identity promoted by NATO membership.

The current emphasis is for securing Europe’s peripheries by means of security, rather than defence, measures. This means various forms of policing. Barriers to transnational policing remain, but the outer defences of a fortrified Europe, policed by border guards, have now been established. This has occurred either by commission, such as tripartite agreements for operational co-operation between Hungary, Austria and Slovakia, or by omission, as in the case of borders with Ukraine where Cold War-era fortifications remain in place on Ukraine’s Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak borders. But the language is different to what it was 10 years ago, with the management of Europe’s borders now being expressed in terms of internal policing rather than external military defence. Policing rhetoric has not necessarily established itself as a substitute for defence, or as a solution to conflict and instability in contemporary Europe, but it has marginalised defence as a model for securing Europe’s peripheries.



Note 1: Financial Times 9 Dec. 1999. Significantly, the EU, as a social, political and economic entity, has expanded its authority and remit, claiming a degree of sovereign power to rival that of its constituent members. It has also begun to develop a formal role in policing far beyond that of any other international organisation.  Back.

Note 2: The so-called Schengen Agreement abolished internal border controls, allowing citizens to move freely within the EU. The UK still has border controls. How the Union will function after its enlargement from 15 to 25 or 30 countries is unclear.  Back.

Note 3: All such groups, including those from Central Asia and the Far East, rely on native Hungarian assistance. New police analysis of organised crime in Hungary identifies the Kosovo-Albanian mafia as controlling 85-90% of heroin transactions.  Back.

Note 4: Though corruption, theft and pilfering are probably the most costly problems facing the Visegrad region.  Back.

Note 5: In peace border guards perform a police function, whereas they form part of the defence forces in war.  Back.

Note 6: The current emphasis on their 'public administration' duties does not offset this.  Back.