At Europe’s edge: migration and crisis in the Mediterranean

This article was written by Vicki Squire, University of Warwick
This article was published on
Part of the coastline of Malta

On 29 April 2021, the BISA International Politics of Migration, Refugees and Diaspora Working Group held a Book Prize lecture for the winner of the group’s Best Book Award: At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean, by Dr Cetta Mainwaring (University of Glasgow). Cetta was joined by an engaged audience, including the working group convenors (Dr Foteini Kalantzi, University of Oxford and Dr Christian Kaneurt, University of South Wales) and the book panel judges (Dr Sara de Jong, University of York, Dr Myriam Fotou, University of Leicester and Dr Michael Gordon, McMaster University). Professor Alison Mountz (Balsillie School) and Professor Vicki Squire (University of Warwick) were also present to share their reflections on the winning book. Here, Vicki Squire presents some of her comments.

I would like to extend my warm congratulations to Dr Mainwaring – not only for winning the 2020 IPMRD working group prize, but also for writing a fantastic book! It was a real pleasure to sit down and read this text and I came away really impressed by the excellent scholarship and by the attention to detail. The book is accessible for people exploring the politics of Europe’s so-called ‘migration crisis’ for the first time, as well as for those of us already publishing in the area. It is also a book that policy makers, practitioners and activists will likely find of interest. At Europe’s Edge stands as a leading text in the field of critical border and migration studies and has been rightly recognised as such through the presentation of this award.

There is much to celebrate here, both in the book’s own terms as well as in terms of the way in which it highlights some of the strengths of scholarship in the field more broadly. Dr Mainwaring steps back from the discourse of Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ to unpack the ways in which this has been constructed as such over time. The analysis is deeply historical and engages a critical geopolitical sensibility. At Europe’s Edge pays attention to the longer duration and broader significance of the dynamics of power and violence that have emerged in Europe’s response to the so-called ‘migration crisis’. It does so by focusing on the case of Malta, a small state at the ‘edge’ of Europe, which the book convincingly demonstrates to be far from inconsequential.

Though Malta is a small state, Dr Mainwaring effectively brings it to the centre of the EU. The book shows how Malta has carved out its role as a gatekeeper of migration to Europe, in so doing perpetuating a discourse of crisis as a means to exert its political influence within the Union. At Europe’s Edge focuses in particular on the portrayal of the Mediterranean Sea as an empty space. It shows how, in spite of the complex and overlapping legal jurisdictions that carve the sea in multiple ways, its portrayal as mare nullius plays a broader role in masking the contradictions, tensions and fragmentation within the European project. Dr Mainwaring argues that this has been crucial in providing the illusion of Europe as a coherent, singular actor.

Importantly, the book does not privilege a statist perspective. At Europe’s Edge is grounded in people’s everyday experiences of migration and involves a sustained and carefully considered engagement with migratory testimonies. It develops a distinctive conceptualisation of migrant agency as involving negotiation and judgement, which emphasises that policy initiatives are never straightforwardly imposed on migrants. Rather than examining migrant agency in dichotomous terms as opposed to sovereign power, the analysis highlights ambivalent forms of resistance that emerge even in the most difficult of situations. From the ‘spaces of refusal’ that are produced through the engagement of migrants with border officials at sea, through to those produced through the evasion of fingerprinting in detention, Dr Mainwaring’s analysis importantly brings migrants to the centre of IR scholarship.

One aspect that struck me on reading At Europe’s Edge is the discussion of Malta’s situation as a postcolonial state. Malta was a British colony until 1964, but of course the island’s situation within the Mediterranean also brings to bear multiple histories of interconnection. While beyond the scope of the current book, I was curious on reading Dr Mainwaring’s text about how postcolonial scholarship and work on the Black Mediterranean might fit in here. I was also curious as to how Malta’s specific history and relations within and beyond the Union compare with other islands and states in the region. For example, Ranabir Sammadar argues that the EU is less a liberal union than it is a racialised imperial formation, and that Greece’s experience of the financial and migration crises needs to be interpreted in terms of Europe’s ‘postcolonial bind’. This raise the question as to what Malta’s position might be in relation to Europe’s postcolonial condition?

Another aspect that I found striking is the Appendix of the book, which includes a series of reflections on methods and ethics. Here we can read more about the timescale of the research, the methodological approach on which it draws, the sampling strategy and number of interviews on which the analysis is based, and so on and so forth. Yet we can also read more about the author’s personal and ethical reflections as to what it means to do research in this area as a (still) young, middle class, white woman. Born in Malta but growing up largely in North America, Dr Mainwaring emphasises the importance of her ability to play “both the insider and outsider” in the context where the research was carried out (page 173). This movement between the etic and the emic seems to me particularly powerful as a means of engagement with policymakers, which is documented in the Appendix as enabling cultural connection alongside the ability to maintain “an air of impartiality” (Ibid).

The final part of the Appendix reflects on issues of representation and reciprocity when undertaking interviews with migrants. Dr Mainwaring advocates the importance of being humble, while following Aihwa Ong in highlighting the importance of research that helps to “disseminate views” of the marginalised without “betraying their political interests as narrators of their own lives” (cited on page 175). The author reflects on her own privileges and her attempts to navigate the thorny issue of compensation for research participants in this section of the book. She also considers the dangers of documenting migrant practices and ends with a question that remains critical for scholars in this area: “How do we, individually and collectively, demonstrate solidarity with mobile populations and effect positive change in our societies?” (page 177). At Europe’s Edge provides a rich answer to this question even as it continually questions its efficacy in so doing. As such, it is a must-read for scholars of migration and borders as well as for critical scholars across the fields of European Studies, IR and Political Geography.

"At Europe’s Edge stands as a leading text in the field of critical border and migration studies and has been rightly recognised as such".
Vicki Squire
Vicki Squire