Cheap air travel and freedom of movement within the EU are bound up with the violent policing of its borders
The popular European low cost airline easyJet recently launched an ad campaign titled Generation easyJet. The ads use the rhetoric of flexibility, impulse, and fun to describe their brand of no-frills travel. “Happy, spinning, clapping, laughing, dancing, in the blackness of magic,” sings a cheery male voice while a montage of feet tap along. “Get it, have it, bag it, throw yourself on the aeroplane and fly like magic,” he continues, as various couples are reunited in a characterful yet unplaceable café.
To save money on airport fees, easyJet operate a tightly scheduled back-to-back service from the outskirts of cities, flying early in the morning or late at night. Checked baggage and airport check in offered by old-school airlines as standard are taken away and sold back to you by easyJet as added extras. There is a charge for the privilege of paying by credit card, and a fine if you forget to print your boarding pass or have a cabin bag that is slightly too big. Staff at easyJet must adopt the “orange spirit,” and have their own Generation easyJet epithets such as “the always-ready-to-help generation.”
The profits of the aviation industry are protected by the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, an international agreement that there would be no tax on fuel for commercial aviation. Compared to the high fuel taxes levied against other modes of transport, this is effectively a subsidy. The tax ban facilitates the cheap fares that mean European travellers are able to do “more of the things they love,” and allows easyJet to operate a low-yield business model with a basic profit of only £8 per seat as more people can afford to fly more often. EasyJet’s conscience is clear; the economy of cheap holidays supports not only the tourist industries in the places they fly to, but also the airports and airlines themselves, which employ thousands of staff from retail assistants to pilots to cleaners, and make huge profits for the shareholders. “This is Generation easyJet,” the voiceover proudly proclaims in the finale of the ad, suggesting that low-cost travel in general, and easyJet in particular, define an era. This is echoed in the blurb on the ad agency’s website, which gushes, “easyJet’s low prices and expanding network of destinations heralded the democratization of air travel.” Indeed, the epithet “Generation easyJet” does capture an experience that will be familiar to many Europeans, and, in what it excludes, hints at the fissures in the foundations of European ideology.
The free-spirited and spontaneous easyJet traveller, unburdened by material possessions, carrying only a correctly sized cabin bag with liquids under 100ml, placed in a resealable transparent bag, passes through security, biometrically scanned, and enters the airport lounge. The easyJet generation don’t buy objects to clutter their overpriced rental flats; instead they buy experiences, memories, and dreams. EasyJet’s image of a happy flyer cruising around the continent working and spending money is consistent with the European Union’s ideology of freedom of movement for goods, services, money and people, the guarantee of which is part of its commitment to creating an “area of freedom, justice and security,” as written in the founding treaties of the EU. The free-flowing liquid passenger reflects an idealised citizen consumer, the primordial human of the EU’s technocratic regime. But not everyone can participate in this travel utopia.
As easyJet sends passengers to the beaches of the Mediterranean for their holidays, a counter-industry flourishes on the other side of the sea; an unofficial, unregulated and dangerous boat service that ferries migrants across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Malta, Italy, and Greece. The trafficking business is sustained by the high concentration of displaced people in the area and lack of safe alternatives for crossing. In many cases the migrants have travelled to Libya from other parts of Africa or from the Middle East in order to take the boats to Europe. A recent report by the International Organisation for Migration suggests that it is the deadliest crossing for irregular migrants in the world, accounting for 75% of all migrant deaths since 2000. Over 3000 people have died already this year. In 2013, the Italian government launched Mare Nostrum, a major search and rescue operation that saved over 150,000 lives before its funding was cut in 2014. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Triton, a smaller operation run by the European border control agency, Frontex. Though it is obligated to help persons in distress under international law, Triton’s primary aims are militarized border surveillance and security. Greece, Italy and Malta lack the resources to deal with the current numbers of migrants arriving, but as EU asylum laws state that asylum seekers entering Europe must stay in the first country they arrive, other countries in Europe are not obliged to take in a share of the migrants. Many countries, including the UK, have refused to contribute cash to search and rescue operations.
Under the EU’s current immigration policy, which distinguishes between forced and chosen immigration, unregulated migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe is increasingly difficult to define. The prerogative expressed in easyJet’s campaign, that the European traveller should choose to move around, is inverted in the EU’s policy for irregular migrants, who should only travel if they absolutely have to. Forced migrants, those who can prove they are at risk of persecution if they return to where they came from, are granted asylum, while those who are deemed to have chosen to emigrate for economic reasons are not. However, the complexity and multiplicity of reasons for migration makes this model increasingly inadequate. Generation easyJet—if the sweeping generational term is understood as both the beneficiaries of cheap travel and those whose movements are considered irregular—manifest the contradictions implicit in the rhetoric of freedom of movement. Generation easyJet are migratory, and in many cases already multiple migrants, the result of the mass migrations and displacements brought about by colonialism and the development of global capitalism. The privileges of freedom of movement and cheap travel depend on the violence of borders for those who do not hold the correct passport. An easyJet flight is cheap, quick and safe, compared to the expensive, slow and deadly crossing on the boats from North Africa to Europe.
A man in a suit and tie eats an ice cream. Generation easyJet seamlessly integrate work and leisure, a mobile workforce migrating or commuting to where the wages are higher, or work more plentiful, not held down by permanent jobs or material commitments. They go where it’s sunny, or where there’s money. Plugged in and ready to work, shop, or play, this is a new type of business passenger for a new kind of work, work that takes place everywhere and anywhere. In the post-industrial west, work and leisure increasingly resemble one another. Hotels, airport lounges, shopping malls, and offices all have the same generic, hygienic décor. A recent high-rise office development in London has been described as a “vertical city,” providing arts, entertainment, and sports facilities for its speculative workers. Developer Stuart Lipton says the building “will be a big village. You might want to go to a lecture on the second floor, a debate, a TED talk. All the way up through the building there will be these places to stop. The feel will be not unlike a British Airways lounge where there are people sitting at desks, some at a bar, some on a settee, others around a table.” In the new ideal of work, leisure is incorporated into the routine of work, office spaces transition seamlessly into relaxation and leisure spaces, yet simultaneously everywhere is an office: the airport, the café, the town square, the beach.
Googling “laptop on beach” throws up thousands of familiar stock images of mostly white men and women lounging on generic white-sand beaches under spotless blue skies, smiling, with portable computers on their laps. The laptop on beach image is the ultimate techno-individualist liberal fantasy in which work, leisure and shopping have merged. In this fantasy, life is a series of holidays punctuated by work, made bearable by the memories of previous holidays and the anticipation of holidays to come. Laptop on beach is the Robinson Crusoe of the techno-industrial age: a global industrial product appearing as a natural product of self-sufficient labor. There are no power outlets or wifi on the beach of the deserted island, but this doesn’t stop neo-Crusoe from recreating his office environment entirely from scratch, digging into the mountain to mine the metals and minerals required for the motherboard, growing corn from a few seeds he was able to rescue from the wreck to make plastic, and setting up a hydroelectric plant in the waves to produce electricity.
The integration of work and leisure in the architecture of airports and office towers is reminiscent of the concept of public realm that dominated urban development in the West through much of the 19th and 20th centuries. But in contrast the “vertical city” is a private space protected by high security. Health and leisure facilities are provided as privileges or incentives. Like on an easyJet flight, what was once considered basic, such as checked baggage or refreshments, now comes at a premium. As the social democratic model that once prevailed in the EU gives way to a technocratic order of crisis management, the nature of the public realm also changes: while its benefits—health, education, housing—were once construed as “for everyone,” in its contemporary manifestation they are provided only to members, as added extras. Not everyone can be privileged, or privilege wouldn’t exist. Freedom for those within the borders becomes a justification for unfreedom for those outside, and for universal control and surveillance.
In a democracy, inclusion and exclusion operate simultaneously. It is necessary to determine who is—and therefore who is not—a citizen, and therefore entitled to rights and privileges. This determination is made by the construction and policing of borders, and the exclusion of certain groups, such as women, slaves, and minors. In the EU, the gradual integration and granting of privileges to states that have attained the economic and political criteria set by the union is accompanied by increasing border security and immigration controls for those attempting to enter from outside. However, the situation is more complex than a binary inside and outside, or included and excluded; like easyJet’s variable portfolio of privileges, there are both a number of classes of citizen defined within the EU’s borders, with differing rights and entitlements, as well as various categories of outsider. To give an example of this tiered system, in the UK, EU migrants are not allowed to vote in general elections, whereas commonwealth migrants automatically have the right to vote in all elections. The definition of who can or can’t be European is additionally accountable to perceptions of otherness such as race and religion. The EU has never considered extending its borders to North Africa, even though it is geographically close and has historically strong political and cultural ties to the Mediterranean, because European identity under the EU regime is based on white norms.
If easyJet is a signifier for the European principle of freedom of movement, the traffickers’ boat service is a signifier for the real violence of the borders that secure that freedom. The easyJet passenger is the virtual ideal citizen of the European super-state. A passenger on a trafficking boat, arriving on the beaches of Europe with their baggage—both literally and figuratively—is dispossessed of their former identity. The beach is an ambivalent zone between land and sea. The beach is an emblem of freedom. Approached from the shore, the beach is the boundary of infinite horizons, the limit of the limitless. The land comes to an end, and the sea stretches off to unbounded possibilities. Seen from out at sea the beach heralds the end of a journey and the first encounter with a new place. The beach is a soft border, moving with the tides, shifting as a result of coastal erosion. The migrant on the beach has not yet been processed, scanned, passed through security. The migrant on the beach is excluded from the protection of the law yet subject to its punishment.
A crisis of meaning occurs when the migrants and the holidaymakers meet on the beach. For holidaymakers, the beach is a temporary zone of lessened inhibitions, outside of their usual routine. It is an escape from the stresses of urban life, a fantasy place of happy memories, with its own strict etiquette of hygiene and social procedure, in which nothing real can happen, body hair and behavior conform to unwritten regulations, and tourists enact the conventions of a good time that are reproduced and reiterated in easyJet’s advert. For the migrants, the beach is a transitional zone in which their status is yet to be determined, the old life irrevocably left behind, the new life not yet made. It has a different temporality because it is transitional, between two states that apparently cannot be reconciled. These are two very different kinds of journey. A holiday is a journey that is returned from without anything having changed. The holiday is a hiatus, restorative but not transformative, a break earned by hard work. The migrant journey cannot be returned from, because even to go back once you have made such a journey would be to return to a different place as a different person.