Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Drawing lines in the right places

One of the greatest achievements of the European project over the last 70 years has been the removal of visible borders over much of the continent.  The Schengen area doesn’t exactly match the EU (some EU countries are outside it, and some Schengen countries are outside the EU), but it would have undoubtedly been impossible without the existence of the EU and the single market.  It has shown that the absence of borders and border control does not, of itself, threaten the national identity of anyone.
There are others, though, who like borders and, for them, the stronger and more visible those borders are the better.  ‘Controlling our borders’ was one of the core Brexit messages – and that in a state which wasn’t part of Schengen and had never abolished border controls anyway. The reason that Brexiteers bang on about ‘controlling our own borders’ is that those borders define a demarcation line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, with an often unstated but nevertheless ever-present fear and distrust of ‘them’; and the more visible the border, the greater the degree of demarcation.  Part of my opposition to Brexit is precisely about rejecting that demarcation, that ‘othering’ of foreigners; in European terms, I consider myself to be at least as much a part of the ‘them’ as of the ‘us’, particularly given the narrow and exclusive way in which ‘us’ is often implicitly defined.
I’m uncomfortable with the way in which so many countries have responded to the pandemic by reinstituting border controls.  Movement controls I understand, but are state borders the right place to impose and police them?  In France, the virus seems to be spreading from east to west, and in Italy from north to south; closing the eastern and northern borders respectively look like drawing lines in the wrong places.  Choosing national or state boundaries is an easy option, but it may also be a lazy and sub-optimal option - the determinant of where any lines need to be drawn is the progress of the virus, not nationality.
Here in Wales, I have no argument with the restrictions on movement which have been imposed to respond to the covid-19 outbreak, and accept that there is a need for enforcement of those restrictions, even if I have some doubts about the details of that enforcement.  It follows that I entirely accept the need to stop people travelling to second homes, potentially bringing the virus from urban hotspots into rural areas lacking the resources to respond to any major outbreak.  I can understand why local people in the areas most affected are concerned about people travelling to them under current circumstances. They are right to be concerned. 
There is, though, something that makes me feel uncomfortable about some of the language and rhetoric involved, particularly when it translates into fear and distrust of the ‘other’.  Calls for the effective closure of the Wales-England border when the virus is already circulating both sides of that line look like another example of trying to draw a line in the wrong place. There are holiday home owners in Wales as well, who would be unaffected by any border closure – unless we move to close county (or even community?) borders as well. 
Logically and rationally, restricting movement makes sense and enforcing those restrictions is a natural concomitant.  Those are things which can be undone easily and quickly if and when the situation allows.  But dark human emotions such as fear and distrust of others, once expressed and experienced, are much harder to reverse. Control of movement doesn’t have to be the same thing as managing flows across a line on a map and the association between ‘control of movement’ and ‘enforcement of borders’ is a potentially dangerous one.  Effectively encouraging the idea that people on the other side of an arbitrary line are in some way ‘others’, even if done entirely unintentionally and with the very best of motives, may have undesirable longer-term implications. 


Jonathan said...

You have to take account of international law. If you want to be an independent recognised State/country you have to have "secure and recognised borders". Which means you have to be able to (1) say where the line is and (2) Enforce it by State Action. If necessary. So you probably have to demarcate the border with a crossing point. But NOT necessarily close it. That depends on the situation. You can decide to do a Schengen and leave it open. Yes, I like Schengen. But occasionally you will want to enforce the border. How often would a free Wales close Offa's Dyke? Hardly ever - Schengen, and the fact that its a porous border in some ways.The UK operates an internal Schengen. The idea of police sitting on the Gwent, Powys or Chester Borders in 2020 to check travellers does somewhat freak me. You could say it is an example of exceptional control in an emergency, a Public Health one, I can see. But I dislike it because it encourages the infantile desire of half the UK to live in a police/wartime lockdown cotton-wool lined cocoon. Not the kind of safe space I fancy at all.

John Dixon said...

"The idea of police sitting on the Gwent, Powys or Chester Borders in 2020 to check travellers does somewhat freak me." Likewise, but I'd go further than "I dislike it because it encourages the infantile desire of half the UK to live in a police/wartime lockdown" Whilst it may well pander to that mindset, the bigger concern for me is that it is more geared to doing that than to being efficacious in achieving the stated goal, which is reducing the movement of people. One aspect of movement of people (visiting holiday homes) has been given an elevated importance (presumably because of the visibility of 'outsiders' in the relevant communities), and been turned into a target of 'stopping people coming from England'. The dangers of that approach should be obvious, both in terms of 'othering' a particular group and of missing the potentially bigger dangers of internal transmission.

dafis said...

borders serve to denote jurisdiction. Where there is an appeal for a bit of common sense, restrained behaviour, within a jurisdiction - not martial law - it is reasonable to expect people to apply common sense and restraint. In this case we see several people wishing to evade their "common sense" community obligation by "escaping" into an adjacent jurisdiction. Bad news when that adjacent territory shares the same stance as the territory from which they depart. Therefore they should expect some form of penalty. Similarly deviants from within our communities who think it's fair game to visit Daddy in,say,London should also expect a caning.

Pete said...

An interesting parallel comes from my time in California. In the early 90's there was an infestation of Fruit Fly that threatened the Orange crops and the grapes in "Wine Country" Both are important contributors to California's agricultural economy.
Normally there is no problem in crossing from neighboring states into California but at that time there were checkpoints along the borders, checking for produce that could be bringing the fruit fly into the state. It didn't alter the fact that the infestation was in the state or that extreme measures were being taken to eradicate the threat. Border controls were in place, not to discriminate but to prevent the infestation getting worse. Seems a reasonable response. A similar comparison is that no one thought of the people of Nevada or Washington as "Others" except on the football field.
Which is a long way around of demonstrating that it is perfectly possible to have borders, enforcing them when necessary, without dehumanizing those people beyond the border.

John Dixon said...


"...it is perfectly possible to have borders, enforcing them when necessary, without dehumanizing those people beyond the border." Nothing there that I'd disagree with, but I'm not sure that your parallel is a good one. I hope that I was clear in the post that I don't have an issue in principle with imposing checks along a 'border' in an emergency, if the question of which 'border' to impose has been thought-through and based on evidence; but that isn't the same as responding to popular or populist demands to close a particular 'border' to stop a particular group from crossing it. The former approach identifies the 'border' based on (in this case) the spread of a virus, the latter doesn't necessarily do that.