For decades, they have traipsed around the outer reaches of Schengen, almost reluctantly adorning blue armbands as a failed semblance of homogeneity, of unity. Bearing no official dress, they have worn the standard issue outfits of their national authorities, which have ranged in cut and cloth, in colour and weight.
This week, the EU’s border agency, Frontex, announced they have developed an EU ‘uniform,’ rendering the above distinctions void and contributing to the formation of a singular and consistent symbolic regime, the likes of which the bloc has never before seen. It is the EU’s first ever uniform.
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The Latin Uniformis to which the English Uniform is derived via the 14th century trajectory of the French Uniforme, is a compound word designating an object composed of a singular model, shape or appearance. The online etymology dictionary notes how the word form, as it was applied in late 14th century theology, came to denote the characterising feature of a particular object, an ‘archetype’ of that thing. In the context of this week’s developments, this then begs us to question, what is the ‘original’ upon which the archetype is based?
The challenge of answering this question soon climbs to a crescendo when we consider that the very concept of the EU – as a voluntarily subscribed architecture – is a novel and original, modern organ. Its character, therefore, is not quite nascent but rather embryonic, or emergent – at least in material form, politically fashioned from the by-products of EU values and policy efforts. Crystallizing this character into a singular uniform, would have been no easy task.
Frontex’s stylistic and strategic message
This fact becomes even more apparent when casting an eye over the palate of national designs adorned by loosely-defined ‘policing’ organisations in Europe over the ages, which have varied wildly.
There is the medieval Spanish ‘peacekeeping’ corps – the ‘Santa Hermandad’ and their long white robes adorned with the cross of St George. Then there’s the Paris ‘Police de Ville’ of the early 19th century, featuring a tailed navy-blue tunic and black bicorne hat decorated with a tricolour cockade. Take a look at the London Metropolitan Police of the 1840s and you’ll see a force kitted-out in dark, high-collared tailed coats and stovepipe hats.
There is a method to the design of the new Frontex uniforms which will be given to the agency’s Standing Corps, a new unit deployed to police the EU’s external borders which aims to be expanded to 10,000 personnel by 2027. The new attire features a navy-coloured shirt and tie, a light, waterproof jacket emblazoned with Frontex and EU logos, and the embellishment of a side cap, that makes the bearer appear almost as if they are a flight attendant working for a cheap, budget airline.
In a Frontex briefing document outlining the vision for the new uniforms, the agency had given an insight into the ‘character’ that they wanted the new, unified look to transmit, noting that they believed the new designs could transmit a ‘strategic message’ of the EU and its values.
“It is of strategic importance that the visual appearance of the uniform conveys credibility and trustworthiness,” the document states. “It should carry authority but must not be intimidating.”
The reticence in appearing intimidating is indeed both a strategic and a political ploy. Frontex has come under increasing scrutiny recently for alleged pushbacks of refugees and migrants at the Greek-Turkish maritime border, an occurrence that if found to be true, would breach international law.
Moreover, both Politico and EUObserver reported this week that the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, has embarked on an investigation into Frontex as a means to probe the above allegations, as well as to look into reports of harassment and misconduct at the agency.
Frontex’s intention to therefore appear ‘credible’ and ‘trustworthy’ while at the same time avoiding a sense of ‘intimidation,’ is compromised in the context of such allegations. A perfect case of style over substance.
Police uniforms transmit messages both to law-abiders and dissenters alike. For Frontex, the attempted symbolism of their attire attempts to chart a space of absolutes where citizens from the rural outer-lands of Hungary to the drab coasts of northern France will know that this is a force which ultimately resonates from the nucleus of the EU’s supranational political machine: Brussels, and the values to which it holds itself dear. But it doesn’t assist in the agency’s aim to appear ‘credible.’
In all likelihood, the majority of citizens may not even notice the difference in having gone from the armband adornment to a full-blown officious dress, at least not consciously. But even if the agency’s ‘strategic message’ falters, there is still the very apparent bid for uniformity that will register in the minds of observers. This is the EU’s never-ending quest for harmonisation, materialised in a singular form that aims to further homogenise disparate elements of the European project – it is to this objective, at least, that the new attire is most likely to pursue with success.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.