Schengen, Luxembourg. Photo by Manolo Gómez.
Young adults who grew up after the Berlin Wall fell might have believed that national borders were an artifact destined to become as irrelevant as the disk operating system for PCs that their parents remember as DOS.
Millennials and members of the younger Gen Z grew up in a world of globalized trade, cheap and easy transcontinental travel, and a Europe that allowed nonstop drives from Portugal to the frontiers of Russia. With their limited perspective, a belief that borders could and should be abolished (along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was understandable, even if it was never realistic.
Recent events may have dispelled such beliefs among many young adults. Those beliefs were never widely shared among older generations in the first place.
Baby boomers and the generations that came before us have seen barriers along frontiers rise as well as fall. I am old enough to recall when Americans could cross into Canada and Mexico – Mexico! – bearing no more than a drivers’ license. Citizens of those countries could cross just as easily into ours. I remember vividly when the Wall came down; if I were a few years older, I would have been aware of it when it went up, too.
My parents saw a single German state divided in two and then reunited, but with significantly different borders than the ones they learned in junior high school geography. Today’s young people may have been shocked when Crimea suddenly went from being part of Ukraine to being part of Russia (according to Moscow, if not Kyiv, as well as in practical fact). They might have been less shocked if they were aware that today’s Polish city of Wroclaw was, in my parents’ adolescence, the German city of Breslau. Poland’s Gdansk, where the anti-communist Solidarity union movement was born in 1980, had been Danzig. Russia’s Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea was Germany’s Konigsberg until 1945. A nonaggression pact with Hitler assigned Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Stalin, who took them in 1941. Those Baltic states and modern NATO members would not regain their independence until the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s.
Borders matter, and nowhere more so in modern times than in Europe. Oceans of blood were spilled and entire generations of young men were decimated over European borders in the 20th century – starting with a pistol shot in Bosnia in June 1914 and ending, again in Bosnia, in 1995.
That violent history gave rise to the modern drive for an integrated, border-free Europe. The European Union, with its coordinated trade and regulatory policies, is one manifestation. The creation of the Schengen Zone of visa-free travel on the continent, which began in 1995, is another. The Schengen Agreement was merged into the EU’s regulatory framework in 1999. The 21st century seemed destined to be the one in which a United States of Europe would arise, looking a lot like the U.S.A., but with much older and prettier architecture.
Except it did not happen. Wiping out the physical and bureaucratic vestiges of borders did not end the linguistic and cultural differences that gave rise to them in the first place. It didn’t destroy the family and regional affinities that make, say, a Danish tourist in Sicily just that: a tourist, not a visiting fellow European.
For all our political disagreements and regional differences, our United States is built on common institutions, a deeply shared – if sometimes tragic – history, and universal commitment to a Constitution whose supremacy clause assures that when constitutionally permissible federal and state laws conflict, federal law takes precedence. But our states are not powerless administrative entities. They retain significant sovereign constitutional powers of their own. The endless give and take between Washington and the state capitals makes coordination between the two a routine fact of daily life, in everything from public health to law enforcement to equipping and deploying the National Guard.
Europe does not have this type of give and take now, and it may not ever have it. Despite a costly and bloated central bureaucracy in Brussels, vital functions including budget policy, national defense and health care are all handled at the national level. In ordinary times, this is not much of a problem. But when the system is stressed, these national differences reemerge – and so, in modern times, have the borders.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to overrun hospitals and clinics in northern Italy in early March, Germany banned the export of medical gear including protective masks and gowns. Nearby states quickly put up border controls to prevent infected people from reaching their own populations – although thanks to the new coronavirus’s ability to spread via asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers, these barriers were ineffective.
Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg – all Schengen states – were soon dealing with major outbreaks. Their reported per-capita infection and death rates still exceed those of the United States, although with our much larger population, we have higher raw totals. Germany’s infection rate has risen too, but with a more capable medical system, the country has never come close to being overwhelmed. Embarrassed, the Germans lifted their national embargo a couple of weeks after they imposed it. The national-level export controls were supplanted by EU-wide restrictions, similar to those imposed at various points in the pandemic by our country and others around the globe.
But as the restrictions on medical exports were lifted, European countries increasingly closed their visa-free borders to most traffic except commercial shipping. Miles-long border queues and delays sometimes lasting more than 24 hours became common sights along frontiers like the one Germany shares with Poland. We have seen nothing like that here, even when states like Florida and Texas sought to limit movement of nonresidents from out-of-state hot spots.
This is not the first time in recent years border controls have reemerged in Europe. Unauthorized migration from Africa and the Middle East triggered the construction of new border fences on the EU’s eastern boundaries in 2016. The interdiction, housing, processing and repatriation of these migrants has been an ongoing source of friction and problems across the Mediterranean and all the way to Calais, France. In Calais, migrants even today are packed into primitive camps where anti-pandemic social distancing is all but impossible. Most of those migrants hope to go to the United Kingdom, which never joined the Schengen Zone. U.K. officers patrolling English Channel beaches for COVID-19 lockdown violators regularly come across newly landed migrants and their dinghies instead.
Borders do not only control the flow of people and goods; they also control the flow of money. The EU’s ponderous bureaucratic gears are greased by funds from Germany and other wealthy northern and western states. The EU transfers these funds (with considerable frictional loss) to the more impoverished south and east. The south and east, in turn, repay their benefactors by serving as protected export markets, cheap vacation destinations and a near-limitless supply of labor. But there is constant tension between the proclivity of those poorer countries to spend money that they do not earn and their patrons’ thriftier habits. Being in the redistribution business, the EU naturally tends to side with the supplicant nations.
This is the backdrop for the president of the EU Commission’s surprise apology to Italy last week for Germany’s allegedly selfish behavior. When other leverage is insufficient to open Germany’s checkbooks, shame is frequently applied. And given Germany’s historical role in the blood spilled over European borders, it is not an ineffective tactic.
Nobody wants – and there is no reason to assume that there must be – a return to the violent history of European boundaries. Americans and Canadians don’t feel we need to unite in order to be good neighbors who can peacefully resolve the occasional disagreement. Europeans need not sacrifice their individual national identities to be good neighbors to one another, either. And when we look at how these countries behave in times of continental stress, it is clear that they have no intention of sacrificing those national identities. The gates and fences may come down when the crisis is over, but the borders will remain.