Wednesday 9 September 2015

The unimportance of boundaries

There’s a certain inevitability about the way in which those in the UK who don’t like open borders have responded to the numbers of people travelling across Europe in recent weeks.  Part of it includes scornful references to the Schengen agreement, and they tell us how fortunate it is that the UK never signed up to it.
It’s true, of course, that the retention of border controls by the UK has prevented many people from reaching the UK.  It’s also true that the open border policy of much of Europe means that once people are in the Schengen area, there is no physical means of preventing them travelling as they like within that area.  Such a response within the UK does, though, reinforce the perception elsewhere in Europe that the UK is a member of the EU but not really part of it.  The UK’s anti-EU brigade may claim that they want to return to a ‘common market’, but in truth, they struggle with the concept of a ‘common’ anything.
It also betrays an attitude towards borders which is based on a perception that some borders are right and natural and need to be protected, whereas others do not, and an attitude towards movement by people which regards it as a privilege rather than as a right.  Both of those attitudes are being reinforced on a daily basis.  It’s something that should worry us more than it seems to.
Most of those who demand the continuation of full and rigorous border controls at all points of entry would be outraged at the thought of border controls between England and Scotland or Wales (although, to be fair, some of them strike me as the sort of people who’d really rather like to introduce controls on movement between counties if they thought they could get away with it).  But why?  What is it about the boundaries between states which makes them more sacrosanct than other boundaries?  All boundaries are, ultimately, human constructs.  There’s nothing eternal or inevitable about any of them; and most, if not all, have moved regularly over the centuries.  The idea that they are rigid, natural, and eternal is of fairly recent origin.
Politicians would be doing us a better service if they expended their efforts on working out how to prepare for, and deal with the consequences of, free movement than on using the current problems to restrict that freedom still further.

1 comment:

Cneifiwr said...

This is something which also struck me, listening to a succession of our elected representatives demanding that the member states of the EU "seal their borders". Incredibly this includes a number of Tory MEPs who you would think would do quite a bit of travelling in Europe. But probably they just hang around a few favoured watering holes because if they did travel, they would know that borders cannot be sealed short of erecting the sort of border which used to cut across the middle of Germany.

Tens of thousands of French and German citizens commute from the suburbs into Basel every day; there are villages in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany where international borders zig-zag invisibly along residential streets, and outsiders would be hard put to say which country they were standing in. There are bits of Germany completely surrounded by Austrian territory. Tens of thousands of miles of international borders snake through farmland and woods. How do you seal that?

Having endured 50 years of sealed borders, nobody is in a hurry to return to those halycon days.