A shadow looms over Europe. Everywhere, new borders are sprouting up overnight like mushrooms. These new borders are designed to stop the entry of refugees, they are borders to shut out “the misery of the world” from our countries, clamoured for by the fearful and the demagogues. As the barricades proliferate, the Schengen dream dissipates.

Recently we have seen barriers being erected on the borders between countries like Macedonia and Greece, Hungary and Slovenia, Croatia and Austria, France and the United Kingdom (although, to be accurate, these are older), Denmark and Sweden. The repercussions of these actions affect primarily the refugees, yet their impact is much more complex. Queues of lorries on the borders are lengthening, transportation costs between Member States are rising, stock inventories have to be expanded and growth rates for gross domestic and national products are falling. And with this, the entire structure erected for guaranteeing the four freedoms of the European Union’s single market is now being threatened: the first being the free movement of European citizens. As Jean-Claude Juncker has stated: “Whoever kills Schengen carries the internal market to its grave”.

Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, was the first to set off, watched by the silent, critical eyes of his peers, down the desperate path of closing the borders of his country. Gone are the days when he was considered an irresponsible, unhinged leader who violated European law and was risking the future of the European Union. Now, a long list of EU heads of states and governments follow in his footsteps. Instead of barbed wire, some of his imitators resort to wire gates. They are without doubt more aesthetic than barbed wire, especially when shown on television. They even seem more humane. Yet, it does not stop the increasingly harsh rumours: the expulsion of Greece from the Schengen Area, the two-year suspension of the Schengen Area. Meanwhile, the leader of the German far-right party, the AfD, is demanding that border police should be allowed to shoot refugees who attempt to cross the border illegally.

Over the last few decades, the national borders of modern, developed countries have been losing their previous function as a means of providing the most favourable space for the birth of democracy, the welfare state, solidarity and national identities. Today’s circumstances are characterised by globalisation, multi-polarity, the internationalisation of large corporations and finances and the upsurge in international trade. Accordingly, sovereignty, at least in the case of medium-sized European countries, can only be fully exercised if the particular country presents itself to the international community as a member of an integrated bloc that is capable of acting as a single body. Self-imposed isolation by means of a makeshift wall is not an option because it will deprive the population, in the medium and long term, of modernity, sustainable progress, diversity and exchanges with more dynamic and advanced societies. It is not just a problem of the porous or impermeable nature of borders. It is a much more complex and deep-rooted subject. It relates to the diversity and vitality of a society, even its democratic strength and the ability of a society to adapt to global changes.

The glorification of national borders and the nostalgia for pre-Schengen era borders derive from the European Union’s inability to provide an impetus to the construction of a working multinational democracy. It is the result of the permanent petrification of the EU (as shown by the stability pact, the unwavering implementation of the adjustment policy and the opaque decision-making processes exemplified by the Eurogroup), which obstructs a true development of the rights of the incipient citizenry.

The fact that the EU is perceived as an indifferent behemoth by its citizens has its roots, among other aspects, in the actions of this giant; it usually acts late and in a direction against the immediate interests of the people. It is more urgent than before to think of and adopt the necessary instruments and measures for strengthening the Union’s decision-making mechanisms. In this way, the adoption of mechanisms that would allow the better expression of the wills of both citizens and national sovereignties can be advanced. Only if we succeed in facing this challenge will we be able to positively meet the “democratic deficit” dilemma and move towards constructing a common sovereignty, which will reinforce European citizenship.

A unique construction

No other group of countries in the world has managed to breathe life into a model of regional integration on the same ambitious and visionary scale as that of the EU. The EU is the most exciting yet also the most exasperating example of regional integration. With every new problem that arises, the EU’s deficiencies are laid bare along with its unilateral economic and political orientation for confronting it. There is no lack of evidence in this regard. It is enough to remember the financial and economic crises, tax evasion, the environmental issue, the refugee crisis and terrorism. Time and time again, the EU is shown to neither possess the instruments and institutions necessary for the situation, nor provide an open space for the differing political opinions of the incipient European citizenry.

To confront the financial and banking crisis, new funds, regulations and supervisory institutions for the coordinated handling of the situation had to be improvised and created out of hand. The refugee crisis has led the European Union to resort to a vote (completely unexpected and wholly inadvisable on such a sensitive issue) in order to establish truly insufficient relocation quotas among the States belonging to the Schengen area. This; after decades of a head-in-the-sand policy and refusing to establish an immigration and asylum policy based on principles and a certain degree of solidarity shared by all. The most tragic gauge of this indifference and lack of foresight is the conversion of the Mediterranean Sea into a huge cemetery for drowned refugees. Another example is the lack of cooperation between police forces and the security bodies when it comes to fighting terrorism. The most recent terrorist attacks are a flagrant testament to the insufficiency of the steps taken until now. Europol is far from ready to take on this role. The same deficiency applies to other areas. It is enough to reflect on taxation, social policy, energy policy, transportation, the environment, amongst others.

The result has been the rise and validation of chauvinist political views, whose principal slogan is the defence of national sovereignty, as if it were actually threatened; an increasing number of governments are again undertaking the archaic practice of building fences, barricades and barriers as well as adopting authoritarian measures for implementing this policy. Hungary and Poland conclusively demonstrate that in many cases this jingoist response is not without authoritarian tendencies. This increasing nationalist and jingoist pressure not only destabilises national democracies but also weakens the ability of citizens to have any influence over the global situation. From this rebirth of nationalism and chauvinism, controlled democracies, inspired by the likes of Putin and others, gain popularity without any concern that joint actions are crippled through such fragmentation. The EU has become weaker and less influential at the global level and especially in relation to neighbouring countries on which Member States depend, simply because the prejudiced withdrawal only leads to national States becoming weaker than they currently are. By huddling behind national borders, like turtles in their shells, European countries lose their ability to act. In a world where European counties possess ever-decreasing clout and prominence, only the EU can offer new options and broaden the possibilities.

The dangerous fiction of closed borders

The idea that the new walls, fences and barricades, or an exit from the EU would allow a particular country to gain greater independence and stronger sovereignty while guaranteeing its national identity is but fiction. In the same way, it is a fantasy to glorify Robinson Crusoe’s freedom, alone on his island. The supposed freedom of a nation to declare itself an island, especially if it does not have the continental size of the United States, Russia, Brazil or China, within the world of today is illusory.

Today, the world is ruled by globalisation, featuring avaricious banks and financial funds in a quest for an easy buck; transnational companies extending their tentacles to every corner; geopolitical problems that affect lives in the smallest country; global warming that can only be solved collectively; and international organised crime. Today’s world is multi-polar and characterised by a fragmented international community dominated by a handful of great powers, with dwindling raw materials, increasing refugees and many other aspects which set the agenda for the international community. So, how can anyone believe the solution lies in hiding behind their borders, surrounded by walls? It is a tremendous misconception: an illusion; a fantasy that can only lead to the opposite outcome.

Can anyone really assert that Hungary is today stronger and more independent, with its democracy resembling a thick-walled bunker, surrounded on all sides by barbed wire, where freedom of the press has been emasculated and ultra-nationalist sentiment is pervasive, than the libertarian Hungary at the time when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down? The Poland of the xenophobic and conservative catholic party, Law and Justice – the Poland that is ashamed of being a member of the EU and hides the starred flag, fearfully clinging to its religious and ethnic homogeneity, having turned its back on the dynamic and open culture that surfaced with the workers’ uprising of the 1980s; is it a more promising Poland than the dynamic, open-minded Poland that was eager to enter modernity a few decades before? Is Kaczynski’s Poland of today, which seeks isolation and withdrawal from the EU, safer and more resilient in confronting the roaring, clawing Russian bear that is prowling the region?

Is France going to be able to confront the enormous problems with which it is struggling due to an economic policy that eroded its industry, that did not adapt to new challenges in time, and that continues to cling to energy plans of a bygone era and obsolete productivity models, only because it will soon, as promised by Marine Le Pen, be encircled by immigration-proof walls and resort to competitive currency devaluations in order to sell its products briefly at cheaper prices? Would Greece have been better off if it had left the Euro and the EU to go it alone on the choppy Mediterranean waters, at the mercy of geopolitical interests for which it is no match? Is there really anyone who believes that it would be a freer, more independent and autonomous country? What would be gained from a purer form of sovereignty?

Debunking false promises

Why do the countries of Latin America, South East Asia, and Africa make great efforts in emulating the EU in their creation of supranational bodies, their formation of new regional blocs, in which they can pool their strengths and assert their interests opposite the strongest international players? It is true that behind these centralising trends, not everything that glitters is gold. Often the most enthusiastic for closer cooperation are large corporations, simply because of the advantages flowing from integrated markets, with their economies of scale, the opportunity to establish a more efficient division of labour, to achieve lower tax liability as well as unrestricted access to larger markets. These are only some of the beneficial aspects they glean.

But let’s not be mistaken. In all these projects of regional integration, the most diverse social and political organisations strive for more than just a simple free trade area. The citizens, the young people, through NGOs, universities, research institutes, cultural organisations and political parties push for integration which not only allows free movement of capital, goods, services and workers, but which also has a political dimension. In the majority of cases, inspired by the example set by the EU, we see increased pressure on these new blocs to be based on democratic principles, and not just on a technocracy, which can build governmental institutions or joint governance. In all these ventures, pressure mounts on giving better expression to the citizens’ will within the nascent transnational democracy.

The closed-border policy, as advocated by the xenophobic far-right parties and even by some of the ultra-left groups, who dream of new borders to preserve ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural homogeneity, leads to increased isolation of the Member States and ignores the richness inherent in co-existing diversity. The outcome is that, sooner or later, the country’s external trade will stagnate (beyond the breath of fresh air that a currency devaluation would allow in the short term). Its scientific exchanges over time will drop, its youth will no longer be able to travel so easily nor discover new experiences as before through the exchange of views with people of different backgrounds; its culture will wither and become parochial.

The arguments from the bigoted nationalists who consider the old-time national borders to be a panacea, who believe borders to be somewhat sacrosanct and place them on a pedestal, are either flimsy or dangerous. Neither a new Maginot Line, nor a refurbished Berlin Wall, nor the most sophisticated barriers will be able to offer protection from all evils, contrary to the claims of the far-right. The dismantling of the EU by a new wave of nationalism can only aggravate the problems. It is enough to reflect on the ghosts of the past that still lie dormant, awaiting any opportunity at all to rear their ugly heads.

It is far from true that the adoption of the Schengen area and the elimination of internal borders left the EU and its Member States more prone to terrorism or organised crime: they existed before then. The old national borders did not stop the attacks that rocked different European countries during the 60s and 70s of the last century. ETA, the Red Brigade, the Red Army Faction and even the Mafia were not swayed or defeated by the pre-Schengen boundaries.

Another path to solidarity

To blame the Schengen area and the Dublin Regulation for the woes of the current migration wave is myopic and only creates confusion. The huge influxes of refugees thirty or forty years ago, before the Schengen area saw the light of day, serve as an indication to the inability of national borders to offer an impermeable blockade (some examples among the many are the wave of North African refugees, the significant influx of refugees and migrants from Latin America who settled in Spain or the heavy surge of Balkan refugees in the 1990s, and this is besides the intense immigration during the 1970s and 1980s that changed the make-up of the streets in the United Kingdom). No, the national borders of yesteryear could not stop refugees, nor did they regulate the quantity of immigrants in a better coordinated manner than the current borders (although in some cases the treatment was more humane).

What is therefore needed is the intensifying of European integration, freeing it from its neo-liberal management of the economy, shedding it of the chains of the growing national jingoism, democratising it and converting it into a launch-pad for the necessary social and environmental changes. At the same time, it needs to gain greater prominence on the international scene in order to participate in solving conflicts which create the surges in current refugee numbers, while becoming a support framework for the ongoing participatory and environmental transition. Only in this way can the principle of solidarity upon which the European Union is based be re-forged.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that this project will be a success. Politics is the art of the possible but it is a guarantor of nothing. However, faced with the alternative –the reawakening of nationalism, chauvinism and totalitarianism in Europe – the EU continues to be, despite all its faults, the most attractive option. The European dream, based on unity and diversity, is still the most promising aspiration both for the current generation and for those to come.

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