Context of research

European migration and border politics have gained much public attention in recent years. Being characterized both by free movement of people within the Schengen zone and an increasing securitization and deterrence of its external borders, the European border regime is currently facing the most profound crisis since its invention about 30 years ago. More than 1 million refugees have crossed Europe’s external borders last year, showing both the instability of the often proclaimed ‘Fortress Europe’ and the failed attempt to deter ‘unwanted’ movements beyond its outer limits. However, governing, controlling and/or stopping undocumented migration and refugee movements at maritime and land borders is not the only task the European border regime is supposed to perform. Equally, it also addresses cross-border movements of EU citizens and third country nationals, who regularly or irregularly travel through established ports of entry and border control posts at airports, seaports, along train routes and roads. But also with respect to these forms of mobility European border control has been problematized in recent years. Against the background of increasing numbers of travellers, Europe’s borders suddenly seemed to be outdated and inefficient, even posing an obstacle to desirable movements and cross-border flows.

Against this background of a perceived need of modernization, in early 2013, the European Commission proposed a new legislative framework – thereupon referred to as the Smart Borders Package –, which shall transform European borders into technologically sophisticated, digitized and highly efficient filters, able to reconcile security and speed. These proposals aimed at installing a registered traveler program in order to accelerate the border crossing of pre-screened and trustworthy frequent travelers at the EU’s external borders and supplement it with an Europe-wide biometric entry-exit-database in order to monitor the presence of third-country nationals in the EU and to detect visa overstayers. Stating that “travel flows at the external borders of the EU are increasing and are expected to increase even more in the future” and that “this will result in longer delays and queues for travellers if border checking procedures are not modernized in time”, the European Commission promised that these systems would “lead the way towards a next generation of border checks relying on new, much more effective technologies”.

Since then, the proposals and both the digitization of border control and the increasing differentiation of travelers they strive for, have triggered numerous political and technological controversies. At the political level, the proposals are fiercely contested between the European institutions and other involved parties, almost leading to a break-down of negotiations in 2014. But also at the rather mundane level of technical development, private IT companies, Research & Development units and EU-funded research projects continuously grapple with realizing a full-fledged biometric border control system, as an Europe-wide pilot project has revealed in 2015.

Research questions, theoretical approach and chosen methodology

In my PhD, I trace this ongoing preparation and development of one new facet of the European border regime. I put special emphasis on the political negotiations, the socio-material processes of emergence and on the practical assemblage of smart borders on several levels and I follow the various actors that are involved in making biometric borders work. I argue that smart borders and their evolving biometric technologies should not be understood as omnipotent instruments of control, but as unstable and precarious attempts to order a diffuse world in motion. Seen from this perspective, technical innovations like biometrics no longer appear as self-evident solutions, but as precarious and always contested accomplishments that are imbued with inherent failures and instabilities and need constant ‘technological work’ in order to get realized, maintained and fixed. Thus, I refrain from taking the functioning of new border control technologies for granted from the outset, as this would overstate their coherence and power. On the contrary, I try to turn the take on border controls technologies and particularly biometrics upside down, start with assuming its malfunction and reveal how it is set in motion and how it might fail. Thereby, I focus especially on the numerous political, economic and technical negotiations, controversies, and tensions that characterize this border assemblage in-the-making.

On a theoretical level, I encounter two approaches and try to combine them with each other. On the one hand I draw on concepts and ideas stemming from Michel Foucault’s lecture series on governmentality and subsequent scholarship called studies of governmentality. I use these approaches in order to examine the rationalities, political technologies and forms of knowledge at work in my example. On the other hand I utilize ideas and concepts from post-humanist theories, resorting to relational materialism, actor-network theory as well as science and technology studies, which ask for tracing the contested socio-material emergence of new technologies in situ and in-the-making. On a methodological level, I conduct multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation at various locales of border work (political institutions, research laboratories, workshops, fairs and exhibitions, pilot projects at airports, etc.) and combine this research with extensive document analysis and interviews with involved actors, thereby following the methodological approach of an ethnographic border regime analysis.

Expected results

In stark contrast to previous research on biometric borders, which has mostly stressed the depoliticizing effect of technologized and digitized means of border control, my study, with its in-depths insight into the process of smart borders’ emergence, shows that this process has rather opened up new spaces of contestation and fostered techno-political controversies, which nearly led to the projects failure. However, my study also sheds light on the specific effects smart borders would generate, which indeed alter the way cross-border movements are governed. Despite its provisional and contested character, and even if it remained incomplete, the registered traveller program would fundamentally reshape the selective and differential distribution of rights of free movement and create new and privileged subject positions, thus illustrating the productivity and inventiveness of newly emerging forms of governing migration and borders. Meanwhile, the envisaged entry-and-exit databases would create a considerable amount of knowledge on cross-border movements, on which the governance of migration so heavily relies. Statistics on the national distribution of visa overstayers might be taken into account in negotiations on visa liberalisation, and gaining insights into individual travel histories might further include migration routes into the governing of borders.

Beyond that, my research strategy of tracing the contested socio-material emergence of smart borders allows to better engage in its contentious politics as it makes the political facets of biometric bordering even more visible. Developing one of the largest biometric databases in the world, which would enrol about 100 million travellers per year, has rightly invoked human rights and privacy concerns. But my analysis also shows, given the highly technologically mediated character of the development in question, that the most powerful counter-strategies have rather aimed at demystifying its technical feasibility. Various actors have revealed its gaps, fissures and inherent contradictions, reflecting that biometric bordering will remain a fragile and highly contested matter.