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 response.

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 security.

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.

 General 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 concrete.

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 outline form.

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 incidental irrationality.

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 atop it.

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 risk.