‘Winning Back Control’: Migration, Borders and Visions of Political Community

Published date01 April 2021
Date01 April 2021
Subject MatterArticles
International Studies
58(2) 150 –167, 2021
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/00208817211002001
‘Winning Back Control’:
Migration, Borders
and Visions of Political
Oliver Schmidtke1
This article focuses on the governance of migration and borders as key issues of
Brexit in a dual sense: as a contested political issue centrally fueling the Brexit
debates and as an area of policy formation. First, the article addresses how Brexit
has changed free movement as a key principle of the European integration project
and transformed cross-border mobility between the European Union (EU) and
the UK in a post-Brexit European border regime. Second, it discusses how the
politicization of migration during the Brexit campaign has accentuated competing
visions of political community. With a view to the effects of Brexit on the
governance of migration and borders in Europe, the article demonstrates how
the Brexit debates have emphasized the prominence of exclusionary nationalism,
while they have simultaneously created new opportunities for the EU to launch
a major reform of its migration and asylum policies.
Brexit, borders, migration, European Union
Issues of migration and borders speak to the core of Brexit and its political
ambitions. Most directly, the decision of the UK to leave the European Union
(EU) was critically driven by popular concerns about migration and cross-border
mobility. The control over who can enter and reside in the country was central to
the ‘Vote Leave Campaign’1 and, according to most observers (Dennison &
Geddes, 2018; Hobolt, 2016), a key driving force behind the successful 2016
1 Professor, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Corresponding author:
Oliver Schmidtke, Centre for Global Studies, Departments of History and Political Science,
University of Victoria, British Columbia V8P 5C2, Canada.
E-mail: ofs@uvic.ca
Schmidtke 151
referendum. The centrality of cross-border mobility in the Brexit campaign also
signals how the contested nature of migration-related issues has proven
instrumental in attacking the European integration project and its underlying
political vision. The principle of free movement across national borders is a
foundational pillar of the EU. It encapsulates the idea of a European citizenship
status (De Witte, 2019; Kostakopoulou, 2018) and a political community with a
substantial degree of supranational authority as its defining feature or, as Linklater
(1998) put it in ambitious philosophical terms, as a community defined by the
‘ethical foundations of the post-Westphalian era’.
Exploring the significance that the issue of migration and borders has taken on
during the Brexit campaign and implementation process, this article examines
migration in a dual sense. First, as an area of public policymaking and, second, as
a contested issue in public debate that encapsulates some core political ambitions
of the Brexit project at large. Regarding the first aspect, it is worth underlining
that cross-border mobility and migration emerged as a central issue in the Brexit
negotiation process between the UK and the EU from the beginning (Lutz, 2020).
Setting the agenda for a lengthy Brexit negotiation process, Liam Fox (at the time
Secretary of State for International Trade) ominously stated in 2016 that the status
of EU citizens living in the UK could be considered a ‘main card in the negotiation
process’.2 At the time of writing this article, there was a great degree of uncertainty
over what form the exit of the UK from the EU will take. In this respect, the rights
of EU nationals in the UK and of British citizens in one of the EU member states
(combined a group of about five million people) are still being determined amidst
growing concerns about how these changes could negatively impact those whose
permanent residence status might change as a result of Brexit.
The second focus of this article is the way in which migration and cross-border
mobility have been politicized over the past years and how this process is likely
to continue to affect migration and border policies in the UK and the EU. What the
political dynamic of the Brexit process illustrates is how intimately the governance
of borders and migration is tied to the popular perception of, and reaction to,
European integration. One seemingly paradoxical picture is immediately apparent:
while the freedom of movement for EU citizens is one of EU’s most significant
achievements, it has also become one of the most contentious issues driving
scepticism towards Brussels across the continent. The debate surrounding the
Brexit process has accentuated these tensions and formed the particular political
constellation shaping the opposing Leave and Remain campaign, respectively.
Arguably, the opposition against a European border regime has allowed for
Britain’s deep-seated Euroscepticism to find a reinvigorated and momentous
voice in the contemporary political arena (Vasilopoulou, 2016).
Assessing the impact of Brexit on the policies of the EU, I argue that the way
in which the issues of borders and migration were politicized in the wake of the
‘Leave campaign’ has provided the vital discursive environment for policy
initiatives in the field (Donmez & Sutton, 2020; Seaton, 2016). Theoretically, the
article is based on the idea that public discourse shapes policy formation by
framing particular issues in a way that limits the options on how they can be
addressed politically and in policy terms (Schmidt, 2008). In this respect, I

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