When Border Closures and Supranational Collaboration go hand in hand
Unexpectedly, a virus, SARS 2 CoV-2, has become the
most important political as well as human issue facing us at this time. Like
any crisis of public safety, it presents the EU with an opportunity also: the
opportunity to become a strong provider of security for its countries and
citizens. Instead, tragically, EU is on the verge of committing a major
mistake, its second potentially suicidal mistake in four years, by holding onto
open borders (the Italian one) in this emergency period.
The need for the EU to rebalance its efforts and its
political culture to give a more co-equal weight to its security side has been
discussed in many an article, among them a recent one in this space (https://fedtrust.co.uk/the-relevant-tasks-now-for-europe-and-for-federalists/)
. It was not anticipated however that this would become an emergency need so
soon, nor that it would be for dealing with a disease.
Firebreaks are crucial for stopping diseases, just as
they are for stopping fires. No firebreak is perfect, which is why many are
needed. Borders, when enforced, are firebreaks.
Within each country, there are also firebreaks. Natural
geographical borders and artificial communal and political borders are used as
firebreaks in many an emergency situation. Communes close their borders to
catch criminals and terrorists as an almost routine form of emergency. Their
borders can also be closed, as some have just been within Italy, to avoid
spread of people with dangerous contagious diseases.
National borders are crucial supplementary firebreaks
to the communal ones. When there is an emergency with a country that could
spill over across its border, closing that border is an essential part of the
There are solid reasons for using old national borders
as firebreaks. A single national government is internally coordinated for emergencies
more efficiently than a set of national governments. Citizens and police and
politicians all speak the same language fluently. Decisions get made more
efficiently than in a diverse grouping of countries. There are lengthy common
codes of law, there are elaborate unstated shared habits or common law
behaviors, there are habits of accepting joint emergency decision.
Likewise locally. The local authorities are
coordinated much more closely and efficiently within a single commune than they
can be between two communes with different local chieftains. The national state,
to be sure, enables the communes to cooperate far more closely than they would
were they independent statelets. This coordination enables them to have more
open internal borders than if separate states. But at the same time, one of the
ways the nation coordinates its communes is to support them in closing off
their borders for emergencies — and sometimes imposing this closure on them,
as Italy has just done by quarantining Veneto and Lombardy. This was an
absolutely indispensable measure on Italy’s part, to slow the spread of the
coronavirus. What is missing is its logical complement: to close Italy’s
national borders at this stage of the emergency.
Likewise, again: The EU exists to enable the nations
to coordinate much more closely than they used to be able. But one of those
requisite coordinations is to support them — even sometimes require of them —
to shut their borders during emergencies. That is the coordination the EU needs
to be demanding of Italy and its neighbors at this moment.
The EU needs to put itself in the forefront of closing
borders when needed, for the very sake of retaining the European identity and loyalty of its citizens. Europe must protect
its citizens, not sacrifice them on the altar of open borders at all times and
all costs. The latter approach would be the way to lose their trust in Europe.
The EU has, at the time of my writing, been making a
terrible mistake, calling for the Italian external borders to remain open at
this time. By this action, it takes upon itself a highly visible part of the
blame for a failing that has deadly consequences. People will begin apportioning
that blame as casualties mount, and they will punish harshly those to whom they
give the blame. The EU cannot afford to be the recipient of the blame on this.
This mistake could potentially compound the ones made
during the migrant crisis of 2015-16. The latter mistakes, though made mostly
by national officials with the EU playing at most a co-starring role, have
already taken a toll on the EU through Brexit, and for a time risked similar exits
across much of the Continent.
The virus mistake follows in the same spirit — a too
indiscriminate spirit of opening borders — as the migrant one. This redoubles
the reasons why the EU needs to correct the mistake and escape the political blame
for it. If instead it sticks with this policy and makes it truly its own (as
opposed to treating it as, say, a temporary inability to reach consensus on a preferred
stronger restrictive policy), then it would revive some of the “exit”
sentiments on the Continent. In the last two years those sentiments have been
blessedly in abeyance, as people have seen how much harm Brexit has been doing
Britain. But they could come back with a vengeance, if the EU becomes
associated in the public mind with laxity toward the virus. If they do come
back, they are likely to have still more damaging consequences for the EU in
this second round than Brexit itself has had in the first.[i]
The EC-EU was originally seen as bringing existential
security in the 1950s and 1990s, after centuries in which European democracies
had subsisted in conditions of national existential risk. This changed during
the euro crisis and the migrant crisis. The EU came to be seen as an enabler
for the new existential risks, a perception that had some reality even though the
national leaders were the main forces in them. This pushed out of many people’s
minds their appreciation for the EU’s old role as a bearer of existential
The EU’s present risk is no less than the recently
passed ones. People could begin dying in large numbers from the novel coronavirus;
indeed, this is presently considered the most likely outcome by most medical analysts
and authorities. People will attach political blame for mistakes that added to
the death count.
The EU must aim at being seen as the solid security
agency that has worked firmly to get its citizens protected from the virus. It
must not come to be seen as a complex system that fostered passivity on the
virus, much less one that protected some of the vulnerabilities to the virus by
keeping borders too widely open.
The EU could readily make itself a solid security
agency on the virus, in three ways: by insisting on closing national borders
when their closure helps in this fight; by actively coordinating its member
states at the same time for mutual help across those closed borders in fighting
the virus; and by providing a large scale, strong federal level of assistance
for its countries in their efforts against the virus.
These are not difficult things to do. If there are
obstacles, they lie in a discomfort with the first measure, or a feeling that
it runs in the opposite direction of the others.
In fact, fortunately, there is no contradiction in closing
borders and increasing the supranational effort; no more than there is any
contradiction, within Italy, between quarantining two provinces and
coordinating them with each other and with the rest of Italy to fight the virus.
Italians today coordinate across the provincial borders for the very purpose of
keeping those borders closed. So far from undermining their common identity as
Italians, this cooperation — cooperation in keeping them for the moment
separated — is something that reinforces their common identity. It shows in
real life practice their mutual dedication to keeping one another safe.
This intra-Italian cooperation on keeping provinces
separate is the only kind of cooperation that can be considered real cooperation
in current conditions. An opposite cooperation, one that prohibited border
closures and quarantines, would be seen, rightly, as a false cooperation,
obstructing the true security cooperation that is indispensable. And if the
open internal borders sped the pandemic, secessionist movements really could
arise within the provinces damaged by this, blaming the other provinces and
Italian unity for their misfortune, seeking separation so they could protect
themselves in the future.
principles must always be interpreted intelligently so as to work for the
better particular conditions. This is true both within Italy and in the EU at
large. Concrete necessities must not be sacrificed to a rhetoric of the universal;
the universal is misunderstood if it fails to be interpreted to protect the
It is understandable, in selfish terms, that Italy wouldn’t
want to close its borders with its EU neighbors. On this, it has thus far given
in to temptation, even while insisting on sound discipline and closures of
borders within Italy. The EU should be correcting the temptation and rendering
the anti-virus discipline consistent.
There is a further cost to the EU of getting ranged on
the side of non-use of borders as a protective firebreak for the virus.
The further cost is this: If Britain is perceived as
having gained any benefit in controlling the virus by controlling its own
borders, it would reverse the present general judgment that Brexit has harmed
Britain. The new general judgment would be that Brexit saved Britain. This
would win Continental populist parties more followers and encourage them to
revert to a goal of full exit.
This is a painful thought, one that tends to inspire
counterarguments against considering it at all. Dealing with such arguments
could properly require an article of its own; here we will try to keep it to
This reversal in perception of the effect of Brexit,
from negative to positive, would occur naturally, almost inevitably, in the
event of a pandemic in which the EU ranged itself too long against border
closures. Only two things can prevent it: If the pandemic proves a dud, a
deliverance for which we all pray but cannot expect; or, if the EU changes to a
policy of strong struggle against the virus on all levels, European and
national, across borders and in jointly closing some borders.
It does not matter that many would argue that the reversal
of perception would be illogical and Brexit really helped nothing. Those
arguments might be strong. In my own view, they would be strong but not
impregnable. Let me list a version of them: 1. Britain is not in Schengen.
Britain as an EU member always had control over its borders. 2. Britain was
just as much an island before Brexit as after Brexit, with sea borders and
limited points of normal entry that make it easier to control. 3. Brexit does
not add, or could add at most marginally, to Britain’s existing independent
legal border authority. Even if it brought full separation from the ECJ, the
human rights entry issues are more with ECHR. 4. Britain has not in fact controlled
its borders any better by virtue of Brexit for the sake of restricting this
virus. If anything, the “global Britain” slogan of the Brexit Government has
had the opposite consequence. Britain has not been in the forefront of banning
travel to the non-EU hotbeds of the virus — China and Iran (Qom receives 20
million Muslim pilgrims a year) — but only gently advised against travel there.
This is not entirely an accident; it has something to do with the Brexit
ideology of not privileging Europe. It is tempting to add that Britain has also
not been in the forefront of banning electronic and national security viruses
from China; thus Huawei. This too flows from the mentality of reclaiming independence
of its prior supranational arrangements, in a world in which national action
alone is inadequate and inherently buffeted by contradictions; and from the further
mentality of trying to prove one’s independence, which can often be done only at
the expense of the country’s real needs.
Despite these points, many would think the opposite case
to have the stronger part of the argument: that Brexit does add to Britain’s
border control against the virus. They would have their own arguments of some weight.
I must confess that I am likely to make this second
case rather weakly, as I am a non-Brexiter. I must ask my reader to avoid seizing
upon my inadequate exposition of them as a reason to ignore them; to remember
the aphorism of J.S. Mill, that he who knows only his own side of the argument
knows even that poorly; and thus, to read these points with the thought that
they would inevitably be made far better and more forcefully by others, were
the pandemic to persist and were the EU to persist in resisting closure of
borders. That said, here is a rough outline of some points that can be made on
that other side: 1. The ECJ and ECHR can be obstructive to Britain’s ability to
exclude and deport people. They can have this effect psychologically as well as
legally, rendering it politically harder and more cumbersome to make the effort
to protect its borders. 2. The EU and Council of Europe and ECJ and ECHR cannot
be absolved of co-responsibility for each other. They are, from a systems
standpoint, all part of the overall European meta-system; a reality observed
from nearly the start, in a classic text of the Europeanist literature, A.H.
Robertson’s “European Institutions”. They have mutually reinforcing effects in
their policies, in ideology, and in the psychological realm. 3. Being in the EU encourages British judges
to defer to open border norms instead of national sovereignty norms and border control
norms. It encourages also British media to do this, making it sound disreputable
to advocate border controls. 4. Leaving the EU restores a willingness on the
part of Government and Courts to enforce borders when needed. The more fully
the UK leaves the EU, the greater the alacrity with which it will control its
borders in crises such as the present one.
One could counter-retort that these arguments are as
much psychological as legal, they are a necessary consequence of choosing integration
instead of sovereignty, therefore they cannot be blamed on the EU. That would
be mostly true, or at least the first two parts of it would be. But it would also
mostly miss the point, which is that the last part of it does not really follow.
Psychology is a reality in politics. It has
consequences for forming policies. The psychological ripple effects of having a
joint institution are important. The psychological effects of forming European
institutions, as a way of softening nationalism, were a critical part of the
case that federalists and functionalists alike made for them. These effects
have also been an equal part of the cases made by those who argue against them;
legitimately so, no matter whether one likes or dislikes their arguments for
maintaining more nationalistic mentalities. For those who have welcomed the
reduction in nationalist mentalities, the unanticipated further psychological
consequences and unintended ideological evolutions of this reduction need to be
dealt with when they prove harmful, not accepted passively, much less embraced
as an inescapable part of the Europeanist ideology. This is the case today,
when these overall positive attitudes have contributed to a failure to reimpose
needed emergency restrictions on borders, or a failure do so soon and strongly
enough. Failures such as these can be disastrous, and cannot be dismissed as
irrelevant or as not our responsibility.
If the psychology of Italy’s full, EU-with-Schengen
membership has been a part of the reason why Italy’s external borders have not
been closed as a firewall against the virus, the converse is also true: Salvini,
leader of the League with its ideology of reviving nationalism, claims to have called
earlier for using quarantines and travel restrictions to obstruct the virus
while the Government refused. The claim (which is intrinsically plausible, although
I should note that I have seen neither verification of it nor denials of it), provides
him a basis for his further claims to have proved right against the other
parties, and that such measures as the government has taken on this have been
thanks in part to his pressures. This will inevitably be counted politically as
a point in favor of his nationalist prejudice against the Europeanist prejudice
of his rivals.
One might think the other parties should have wanted
to avoid leaving to Salvini the ownership of the strongest position of advocating
for using quarantines and borders for protecting the public against the virus.
They should have striven to show in practice that the Europeanist prejudice can
go hand-in-hand with the most forceful, timely, and effective responses to the
virus. But they seem to have done just the opposite, presumably out of
deference to a widespread if misguided feeling that Europeanist integration
ideology and European values mean always favoring open borders.
If the psychology of EU-Schengen has been part of the
problem in the EU’s formulation of policy on this, it has also been part of the
reason why some Italians have felt it as their quite normal right to pass
across the national border even during this emergency, a right they would
exercise as an ordinary thing without any special thought. Schengen and the
euro have in fact commendably turned crossing the border into a trivial
exercise, not needing the considerable preparation aforethought that it used to
require. The obverse side of that change for the better is that restricting the
border in an emergency means a change in habits and requires a stronger
governmental effort than in the days before there was a euro or Schengen.
Instead of this requisite stronger effort, we are seeing a lesser effort, a
deference to border-crossing as a normal easy event. The ideology is afoot this
openness is to be preferred always, on principle.
That was not the ideology of the EC’s founders. They
knew quite well the importance of fighting to protect borders from threats from
abroad. They did not stand aside from the fight; rather they were often its
strongest proponents. They knew there were many times when national protection
and supranational collaboration were mutually necessary to each other, not
mutually opposite. Jean Monnet got his start in the international integration
business by integrating the supply lines for the allied efforts in the two
world wars to protect themselves from the German invasions.
Either of the two polar opposite Continental psychologies
about borders — the open Europeanist one and the closed nationalist one — can
be deplored as sometimes irrational, or as having been deployed irrationally in
the present case. The effects of these psychologies on current policy are no
less real for that fact; nor less predictable. In fact, both psychologies have
their legitimate reasons, and both of them have significant elements of
irrationality. It does no good to dismiss their consequences or deny their
responsibility for those consequences, as if they were merely a matter of an
Once psychologies have been allowed to become policy
actions and develop real world consequences such as these, knock-on
consequences start piling atop upon them. The water passes under the bridge. It
is soon gone far into the distance. The old river is never there again to step
into. The beliefs and attitudes on the basis of which the decisions were made
are turned into historical facts of their own, no matter how ill-judged they
were. Can they still be viewed as merely subjective mistakes? Not entirely. If
these beliefs are allowed to develop these consequences, and not only by
selfish individuals carelessly crossing borders but by the EU institutions and
the governments that support the EU ranging themselves on the side of the
subjective mistakes, then the subjective factor takes on an objective aspect.
It becomes something more than a mere mistake, something more like a reified
commitment on the part of the institutions that have stuck to these
mentalities. As more waters pass under the bridge, it becomes too late to
readjudicate the logic of the beliefs that let them pass in the sense of
dismissing them as mere mistakes. It would be necessary to have corrected them
in the here and now, to avoid getting to that point.
What does it mean to take responsibility for the European
institutions in this situation? In my view, it means noticing the non-rational
applications of their psychological correlates in the present case of the
Italian border question, and correcting the thinking and the consequent policy in
real time, before it becomes further embedded and further consequences accrue
This is not without its urgency: the present policy,
or policy gap, has already aided in the spread of the virus via Italians
travelers who have carried it into several more European countries. Additional
people will die in consequence. The sooner the misdirections of policy are
overcome and the more completely the gaps in containment are closed, the better
it will be: better for the survival of thousands of human beings across Europe,
and better for the survival of the EU, which I hope will not again become at