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How the EU politicises research and development in border security

In a world where every aspect of social life is increasingly dependent on technology, the provision of security is no exception. Technologies permeate security practice on every level, from automatised border controls to augmented surveillance capacities. While the role of technology in security has been widely discussed, much less attention has been given to the role of Research and Development (R&D) in security technology. Yet, understanding the politics behind R&D provides crucial insight into how certain perceptions of border security are inherent in the design of technologies used to police the border.

Annually, the EU spends more than one and a half billion Euros on Research and Development for security technology. In total, EU funding accounts for 50% of all funding on security research on the continent. Security research has evolved into a policy field of its own at EU level, with administrative bodies emerging to govern its development.

One of the priority areas in security R&D is border security and mobility management, which has become one of the most politically salient and controversial topics in the Union. The EU’s border has seen a high number of policies emerge aimed at establishing technological infrastructures of surveillance and control, drastically expanding practices of border control but also increasing the reliance on state-of-the-art security technologies.

This intersection between the politics of security research and the politics of border control is the focus of my research. It sheds light on how technologies and security are co-produced. Understanding of what the border is and should do, are a driving force in generating R&D in border technology, these specific and politically influenced ideas around border security, thus lead to the creation of yet more new technologies and administrative approaches in guarding the border. At the heart of ideas around the role of the bord is the notion of “Fortress Europe” – i.e. that borders should keep people out rather than guaranteeing a certain extent of movement and mobility into Europe. R&D is thus a vital element in the fortification of the EU’s external border

Do technologies produce borders or do borders produce technologies?

Determinist views on technologies in International Relations and Security Studies see technology as means to an end – devices are predominantly used in order to achieve the policy goals of security and control. However, more critical approaches have drawn on theories of Science and Technology Studies (STS) to regard technologies as a result of social processes, practices and power relations.

Technologies in this sense not only emerge out of specific social configurations, but are understood to be productive and constitutive of the socio-political environment within which they are applied. This means that the use of technology in border control, such as surveillance, are not merely applied in that specific context, they also play a role in producing the border where they are applied. Looking at technology development, I argue that we can understand which form of border is produced through the application of these technologies. This gives us insight into how technologies at the border help reinforce practice of exclusion, discrimination and violence.

Moreover, security R&D within the EU’s Research Framework Programmes, such as Horizon 2020, are the main funding vehicles and are closely oriented to policy objectives. Thus, the problematic notions underpinning policies and practices relating to the border, are reproduced and embedded in the technologies produced. R&D in border security is therefore not merely a technical process in order to assist the objectives at the EU’s external border, but a political practice of making a specific, exclusionary and violent kind of border.

Emerging administrative orders and shifting power relations

When it comes to developing technologies and practices, it is institutional powers which establish the rhetoric, set the agenda, and define the political objectives. Powerful institutions in the EU’s border regime such as the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex), seek to shape R&D programmes to their specific objectives. This emergent institutional order also shapes agenda setting and visions for the role R&D plays in border technology. For example, the security industry is the main benefactor of security R&D funding, which gives it considerable powers in shaping border security according to market interests, thus exacerbating structures of exclusion as this is what the security market dictates. EU endeavours to first strengthen the industry and consequentially attempt to curb its powers by privileging policy and security actors in research projects, are an instance where the multiple power struggles on an institutional level are rendered visible.

How the border is imagined in R&D and the problems with this vision

Interrogating how R&D in border security technology is a political practice, requires a specific focus on the political conceptualisations of the border and of the role of R&D at the border. As mentioned above, R&D in the EU’s Research Framework Programmes is closely tied to policy goals that often define narrow objectives. However, these specific ideas reflect larger socio-political and sociotechnical visions of what the border should achieve, how it should be designed and built. As mentioned before, these visions often entail objectives of fortification and tougher regimes of control at the border.

For example, technological border controls such as databases as the Entry-Exit System or the European Border Surveillance System, which are elementary parts in the working programmes of the Research Framework Programmes, are underpinned by ideas of what a border should be are also crucial in understanding practices of discrimination, exclusion and violence, as they often racialise people on the move and define migrants as threats.


R&D is treated as a seemingly unpolitical, highly technical topic, yet due to its funding sources and governance, it is often deeply political in nature and bears multiple crucial entry points for critical research. What is more, despite receiving increasing funds and continued expansion, only a handful of technologies developed through R&D are actually implemented at the border, which has emerged as major point of debate in policy circles at EU level.

It seems R&D is a powerful tool through which state bodies can extend their administrative powers and establish and institutionalise their idea of what a border should be, helping legitimise border security policies. Further, the financing of this kind of R&D is deeply interwoven with market logics and the objective of making profit through the development of state-of-the-art security solutions. Through interrogating R&D we therefore gain insights into a variety of political processes at the border and are able to problematise the wider technological politics of border security.

Clemens Binder is a researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs and a PhD-Candidate at the University of Vienna. In Autumn 2021, he spent a stay as visiting researcher at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. In his work, he engages with the intersections of border security, migration control and politics of technology and innovation in the European Union.

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