The powerful image of thousands of migrants marching together on the motorway between Budapest and Vienna, in the first week of September, is one of those images capable of symbolizing a turning point. It made visible the utter failure of the European policies on immigration and political asylum, while symbolizing the ongoing open contestation of the borders of Fortress Europe. As a part of this contestation, thousands of volunteers have organized a convoy of private cars to drive refugees away from Hungary — where they risk detention in unsafe and overcrowded camps — across the Austrian border: an act of solidarity that is at once an act of defiance, for under European law the initiative could be considered an instance of human smuggling.

The European policies on immigration, in addition to the deportation of migrants and refugees, have been based on a number of bilateral agreements with African and Middle-East States with the goal of “externalizing” the European borders and establishing juridical, economic, and physical barriers to prevent migrants from even arriving to the doors of the fortress. One of the main consequences of such policies has been a steady stream of shipwrecks and deaths in the Mediterranean Sea: 2760 migrants dead in 2015 alone. In the last few years the routes of migration flows have begun to change, with a significant increase in the number of refugees coming from Syria and Afghanistan by land, rather than by sea, and crossing the Balkans in order to arrive to France, Italy, UK, and especially Germany. This new route contributed to the failure of the Dublin Convention, which regulates the relations among European States concerning asylum seekers. As a consequence, national governments are facing migration flows in reciprocally contradictory and inconsistent ways. The European Union has ceased for the moment to be the institution mediating among national interests, and national governments are acting only in their own political, social, and economic interest. The dramatic vicissitudes of the Greek crisis in the past months had already displayed the ongoing crisis of EU institutions. The migrants’ march across the borders — as well as the volunteer convoy of cars — has deepened this crisis. This crossing of borders reminds us of the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, who answered Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise by standing up and starting walking without uttering a word. The paradox lies in the fact that while the European Union is a political-financial institution created in large part to face collectively — at a European level — political, social, and economic emergencies, it systematically undergoes a crisis whenever these emergencies actually arise. In contrast with its free circulation of commodities and capitals, the European Union is neither able nor willing to allow the free circulation of people.

As the migrants’ emergency is once again revealing the deep crisis of the EU, European governments are redefining the relations of force among themselves as well as resculpting the face of Europe for the time to come as they attempt to manage this emergency. In this situation, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is playing a most intelligent game. After having lost credibility and prestige during the negotiations with the Greek government, the German government is now regaining international acclaim for its display of openness to the refugees. In an interview published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della sera on September 6th, philosopher Markus Gabriel argued that Germany is now acting in a manner consistent with its cosmopolitan legacy, and that Kant and Habermas are in this moment the key inspiring reference points, at the expense of nationalist philosophies of the past, including Heidegger’s. While there may be an element of truth in Gabriel’s analysis if we look at the wonderful display of solidarity by thousands of people welcoming the refugees at German train stations, the reference to the tradition of Enlightenment tells us little about the main factor motivating Merkel’s openness or the actual nature of this alleged openness.

During the same days in which she declared Germany ready to welcome 800,000 Syrian refugees, Merkel urged Italy to implement harsher controls at its borders and gave little to no assurance that migrants from countries other than Syria will be welcome. Not by chance, some days later, Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere declared that Germany has reinstated controls at the borders and halted train traffic with Austria — which equates to a de facto suspension of the Schengen agreement — arguing that refugees cannot simply choose their host countries. A recent UNHCR report states that 39% of Syrian refugees to the Greek islands hold a university degree and 45% a high school degree, and moreover that most of them came from Damascus and Aleppo. Several among them were middle class, had strong professional skills and qualifications, and had been employed in their cities of origin. They are an ideal labor force for the fragmented German labor market. Immediately after Merkel’s move, Cameron joined her by stating that UK is available to welcome 15,000 Syrian refugees, chosen directly from refugee camps in Syria or Lebanon. This happened only a few days after the Minister of Interior Affairs, Theresa May, declared that she intended to close the borders to all those who are unemployed, including European citizens. Thus both Germany and UK welcome migrants, but only those selected on the basis of nationality and professional skills.

The rest of the European countries are divided on which policy to pursue. On the one hand, countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Czech Republic, supported by the Baltic countries, want simply to close the borders. On the other hand, France, Italy, and Spain are in a tricky position: if the German and British strategy succeeds, they would end up managing the migrants that Germany and UK have rejected. As a matter of fact, the current migrant flow has become a key factor in the redefinition of the political relations and relations of force among European States.

In “What is a Border?,” Etienne Balibar writes:

The idea of a simple definition of what constitutes a border is, by definition, absurd: to mark out a border is, precisely, to define a territory, to delimit it, and so to register the identity of that territory, or confer one upon it. Conversely, however, to define or identify in general is nothing other than to trace a border, to assign boundaries or borders … The theorist who attempts to define what a border is in danger of going round in circles, as the very representation of the border is the precondition for any definition.

Balibar’s consideration can be applied today not only to the definition of the borders among States, but also to redefinition of the borders among “kinds” of migrants. In fact, further contradictions will emerge in the coming months as the current migration flows, caused by wars of variable intensity, economic crisis, social crisis, and authoritarian regimes in various areas of Africa and Asia, make it increasingly more difficult to distinguish between asylum seekers, “economic” migrants, and migrants who want just to claim a “right to escape,” to use Sandro Mezzadra’s words. Who is going to decide their political and juridical status, and on the basis of what criteria? What kind of citizenship rights will they have once they’ve arrived to Europe? One thing is certain: the protagonism of migrants and anti-racist activists — or the lack thereof — will be a determining factor in the times to come.