European walls of hate and fear

We do need borders – but these needn’t be barricades. Español

Alessio Colonnelli
6 April 2016

North African immigrants in Sicily. Vito Manzari. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

An endless financial crisis, vast regional wars with huge ripple effects, mass migrations, climate change: today’s Herculean challenges. As Europeans, we cannot trust our own national States to sort them out alone, by themselves.

Nonetheless, States do need borders. But to keep out what? Economic immigrants (so much despised by a certain British press, for example), refugees, terrorists, imported goods or services, different ways of thinking, data?

When you think that only a few years ago the mood across Europe went in the opposite direction – “we must knock down old borders in order to prosper” –, then the current scenario was probably born out of a cataclysm that caught us by surprise. Globalization meant ‘open your doors’; now it means ‘shut that bloody door’.

This isn’t just a European phenomenon. In China, Russia and Turkey free-speech is gagged and influences from abroad are stymied. In the US there’s a lot of talking about protectionism and setting up walls against incoming Latinos and Muslims (not many Syrians have been lucky enough to find refuge there). The legendary and welcoming American cosmopolitanism seems now to belong to an age of black and white photographs.

Surveys commissioned by the EU have made clear that Europeans are mostly bothered by immigration and the threat of terrorism. Many voters find now protectionism attractive and globalization a right pain. Current borders, in their view, are insufficient and more of them are badly needed.

Economically solid countries boasting ethically sound governments now tremble and board themselves up, like waiting for a hurricane. They seem to have lost all confidence and think they can’t afford to be magnanimous. Austria, Sweden and Denmark said ‘Stop! That’s it.’

Their leaders – but also several others elsewhere and not only from right-wing parties – grabbed the chance to portray themselves as national heroes protecting their populations from the ugly force of foreignness.

It wasn’t always this way. Massive geographical features have contributed in the end to unite rather than divide Europeans: the Mediterranean, the Alps – seven countries share common traits of Alpine culture –, the Rhine and the Danube. Walls were perceived as a hindrance: knocking them down was thrilling. Europe started from there, even though its journey was often punctuated by bursts of hatred.

Now global events are turning the tables. The historical region of Tyrol, brutally split into north and south for various decades after WWI, was de facto reunited via Schengen, the euro, technology and modern education standards, which meant the language bond was never lost. It’s a region that is a symbol of European cohesion. Italian is also either spoken or understood there, and firmly so in its southern part. But Schengen is not applicable anymore as Austria tries to stem the flow of immigrants.

“To have a barbed wire wall [at the Brenner pass] would be a fatal blow to the European concept,” said the Austrian philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann in a recent interview with a local daily (Die Neue Südtiroler Tageszeitung, 21 February). That wall would separate Austria and Italy; a first in the EU’s West, between two fully integrated countries, both members of the eurozone.

“Vienna’s decision risks turning this region, once seen as a symbol of Europe’s peaceful cohesion, into something far different: an emblem of the continent’s disintegration,” wrote Stephanie Kirchgassner in the Guardian last week after interwieving local politicians and residents around Brenner. “But now, locals on both sides are bracing themselves for the re-emergence of an old-style border – possibly including passport checks – in this historically sensitive region after Austria announced it would begin a new ‘border management’ plan on 1 April.”

We do need borders, we do need well-defined, functioning States that can guarantee security and welfare to all citizens. The model of ‘every man for himself’ wouldn’t work in a globalized world. We have just seen this with the incommunicado intelligence services. In this sense, the hypothetical Brexit on 23 June would be a fatal blow.

Facing the consequences of globalization together, keeping meaningful borders (including demarcating ones in the EU’s south-east) and tearing down unnecessary internal walls, which until recently did not exist, are overwhelming challenges only in appearance.

There are illiberal forces who would like that we keep these new fences up today. Divided, weak Europeans who don’t even know themselves, that’s what they want. Hopefully we can soon do something concrete and pursue a real common path. Maybe it’ll be those newcomers from the Middle East, as so full of hopes as they are, who’ll inspire us.

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