Europe today is a continent of borders. The second-smallest continent in the world has more than 50 distinct, sovereign nation-states. Many of these are part of the European Union. At the core of the EU project is an effort to reduce the power and significance of these borders without actually abolishing them — in theory, an achievable goal. But history is not kind to theoretical solutions.
Today, Europe faces three converging crises that are ultimately about national borders, what they mean and who controls them. These crises appear distinct: Immigration from the Islamic world, the Greek economic predicament, and the conflict in Ukraine would seem to have little to do with each other. But in fact they all derive, in different ways, from the question of what borders mean.
Europe’s borders have been the foundation of both its political morality and its historical catastrophes. The European Enlightenment argued against multinational monarchies and for sovereign nation-states, which were understood to be the territories in which nations existed. Nations came to be defined as groupings of humans who shared a common history, language, set of values and religion — in short, a common culture into which they were born. These groups had the right of national self-determination, the authority to determine their style of government and the people who governed. Above all, these nations lived in a place, and that place had clear boundaries.
The right of national self-determination has created many distinct nations in Europe. And, as nations do, they sometimes distrust and fear one other, which occasionally leads to wars. They also have memories of betrayals and victimizations that stretch back for centuries before the nations became states. Some viewed the borders as unjust, because they placed their compatriots under foreign rule, or as insufficient to national need. The right of self-determination led inevitably to borders, and the question of borders inevitably led to disputes among states. Between 1914 and 1945, Europeans waged a series of wars about national boundaries and about who has the right to live where. This led to one of the greatest slaughters of human history.
The memory of that carnage led to the creation of the European Union. Its founding principle was that this kind of massacre should never happen again. But the union lacked the power to abolish the nation-state — it was too fundamental to the Europeans’ sense of identity. And if the nation-state survived, so did the idea of place and borders.
If the nation-state could not be abolished, however, then at least the borders could lose their significance. Thus two principles emerged after World War II: The first, predating the European Union, was that the existing borders of Europe could not be changed. The hope was that by freezing Europe’s borders, Europe could abolish war. The second principle, which came with the mature European Union, was that the bloc’s internal borders both existed and did not exist. Borders were to define the boundaries of nation-states and preserved the doctrine of national self-determination, but they were not to exist insofar as the movement of goods, of labor and of capital were concerned. This was not absolute — some states were limited in some of these areas — but it was a general principle and goal. This principle is now under attack in three different ways.
The Movement of Muslims in Europe
The chaos in the Middle East has generated a flow of refugees toward Europe. This is adding to the problem that European nations have had with prior Muslim migrations that were encouraged by Europeans. As Europe recovered from World War II, it needed additional labor at low cost. Like other advanced industrial countries have done, a number of European states sought migrants, many from the Islamic world, to fill that need. At first, the Europeans thought of the migrants as temporary residents. Over time, the Europeans conceded citizenship but created a doctrine of multiculturalism, which appeared to be a gesture of tolerance and was implicitly by mutual consent, given that some Muslims resisted assimilation. But this doctrine essentially served to exclude Muslims from full participation in the host culture even as they gained legal citizenship. But as I have said, the European idea of the nation was challenged by the notion of integrating different cultures into European societies.
Partly because of a failure to fully integrate migrants and partly because of terrorist attacks, a growing portion of European society began perceiving the Muslims already in Europe as threatening. Some countries had already discussed resurrecting internal European borders to prevent the movement not only of Muslims, but also of other Europeans seeking jobs in difficult economic times. The recent wave of refugees has raised the matter to a new level.
The refugee crisis has forced the Europeans to face a core issue. The humanitarian principles of the European Union demand that refugees be given sanctuary. And yet, another wave of refugees into Europe has threatened to exacerbate existing social and cultural imbalances in some countries; some anticipate the arrival of more Muslims with dread. Moreover, once migrants are allowed to enter Europe by any one country, the rest of the nations are incapable of preventing the refugees’ movement.
Who controls Europe’s external borders? Does Spain decide who enters Spain, or does the European Union decide? Whoever decides, does the idea of the free movement of labor include the principle of the free movement of refugees? If so, then EU countries have lost the ability to determine who may enter their societies and who may be excluded. For Europe, given its definition of the nation, this question is not an odd, legal one. It goes to the very heart of what a nation is, and whether the nation-state, under the principle of the right of national self-determination, is empowered to both make that decision and enforce it.
This question does not merely concern Muslims. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ostjuden — the Jews coming into Western Europe as they fled czarist edicts — raised the same challenge, even though they sought more vigorously to assimilate. But at that point, the notion of borders was unambiguous even if the specific decision on how to integrate the Jews was unclear. In many countries, the status of minorities from neighboring nations was a nagging question, but there were tools for handling it. The Muslim issue is unique in Europe only to the extent that the European Union has made it unique. The bloc has tried to preserve borders while sapping them of significance, and now there is an upsurge of opposition not only to Muslim immigration, but also to the European Union’s understanding of borders and free movement.
The Greek Crisis
The question of borders is also at the heart of the Greek crisis. We see two issues: one small, the other vast. The small one involves capital controls. The European Union is committed to a single European financial market within which capital flows freely. Greeks, fearing the outcome of the current crisis, have been moving large amounts of money out of Greece into foreign banks. They remember what happened during the Cyprus crisis, when the government, capitulating to German demands in particular, froze and seized money deposited in Cypriot banks. Under EU rules, the transfer of deposits in one country of the bloc, or even outside the bloc, is generally considered legitimate. However, in the case of Cyprus, the free movement of capital across borders was halted. The same could conceivably happen in Greece.
In any event, which is the prior principle: the free movement of capital or the European Union’s overarching authority to control that flow? Are Greek citizens personally liable for their government’s debt — not merely through austerity policies, but also through controls imposed by the Greek government under European pressure to inhibit the movement of their money? If the answer is the latter, then borders on capital can be created temporarily.
The larger issue is the movement of goods. A significant dimension of this crisis involves free trade. Germany exports more than 50 percent of its gross domestic product. Its prosperity depends on these exports. I have argued that the inability to control the flow of German goods into Southern Europe drove the region into economic decline. Germany’s ability to control the flow of American goods into the country in the 1950s helped drive its economic recovery. The European Union permits limits on the movement of some products, particularly agricultural ones, through subsidies and quotas. In theory, free trade is beneficial to all. In practice, one country’s short-term gain can vastly outweigh others’ long-term gains. The ability to control the flow of goods is a tool that might slow growth but decrease pain.
The essential principle of the European Union is that of free trade, in the sense that the border cannot become a checkpoint to determine what goods may or may not enter a country and under what tariff rule. The theory is superb, save for its failure to address the synchronization of benefits. And it means that the right to self-determination no longer includes the right to control borders.
Ukraine and the ‘Inviolability’ of Borders
Finally, there is the Ukraine issue — which is not really about Ukraine, but about a prior principle of Europe: Borders cannot be allowed to change. The core of this rule is that altering borders leads to instability. This rule governed between 1945 and 1992. Then, the fall of the Soviet Union transformed the internal borders of Europe dramatically, moving the Russian border eastward and northward. The Soviet collapse also created eight newly free nations that were Soviet satellites in Central and Eastern Europe and 15 new independent states — including Russia — from the constituent parts of the Soviet Union. It could be argued that the fall of the Soviet Union did not change the rule on borders, but that claim would be far-fetched. Everything changed. Then came the “velvet divorce” of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and now there are potential divorces in the United Kingdom, Spain and Belgium.
Perhaps most importantly, the rule broke down in Yugoslavia, where a single entity split into numerous independent nations, and, among other consequences, a war over borders ensued. The conflict concluded with the separation of Kosovo from Serbia and its elevation to the status of an independent nation. Russia has used this last border change to justify redrawing the borders of Georgia and as a precedent supporting its current demand for the autonomy and control of eastern Ukraine. Similarly, the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia shifted dramatically as the result of war. (On a related note, Cyprus, divided between a Turkish-run north and a Greek-run south, was allowed into the European Union in 2004 with its deep border dispute still unsettled.)
Since the end of the Cold War, the principle of the inviolability of borders has been violated repeatedly — through the creation of new borders, through the creation of newly freed nation-states, through peaceful divisions and through violent war. The principle of stable borders held for the most part until 1991 before undergoing a series of radical shifts that sometimes settled the issue and sometimes left it unresolved. The Europeans welcomed most of these border adjustments, and in one case — Kosovo — Europeans themselves engineered the change.
It is in this context that the Ukrainian war must be considered. Europe’s contention, supported by America, is that Russia is attempting to change inviolable borders. There are many good arguments to be made against the Russians in Ukraine, which I have laid out in the past. However, the idea that the Russians are doing something unprecedented in trying to redraw Ukraine’s borders is difficult to support. Europe’s borders have been in flux for some time. That is indeed a matter of concern; historically, unsettled borders in Europe are precursors to war, as we have seen in Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and now Ukraine. But it is difficult to argue that this particular action by Russia is in itself a dramatically unprecedented event in Europe. The principle of national self-determination depends on a clear understanding of a nation and the unchallenged agreement on its boundaries. The Europeans themselves have in multiple ways established the precedent that borders are not unchallengeable.
There are two principles competing. The first is the European Union’s desire that borders be utterly permeable without the nation-state losing its right to self-determination. It is difficult to see how a lack of control over borders is compatible with national self-determination. The other principle is that existing borders not be challenged. On the one hand, the union wants to diminish the importance of borders. On the other hand, it wants to make them incontestable.
Neither principle is succeeding. Within Europe, more forces are emerging that want to return control over borders to nation-states. In different ways, the Muslim immigrant crisis and the Greek crisis intersect at the question of who controls the borders. Meanwhile, the inviolability of borders has been a dead letter since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The idea of borders being archaic is meaningful only if the nation-state is archaic. There is no evidence that this is true in Europe. On the contrary, all of the pressures we see culturally and economically point to not only the persistence of the idea of nationality, but also to its dramatic increase in Europe. At the same time, there is no evidence that the challenge to borders is abating. In fact, during the past quarter of a century, the number of shifts and changes, freely or under pressure, has only increased. And each challenge of a national border, such as the one occurring in Ukraine, is a challenge to a nation’s reality and sense of self.
The European Union has promised peace and prosperity. The prosperity is beyond tattered now. And peace has been intermittently disrupted — not in the European Union, but around it — since the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 to create a common economic and monetary union. All of this is linked to the question of what a border represents and how seriously we take it. A border means that this is my country and not yours. This idea has been a source of anguish in Europe and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is a reality embedded in the human condition. Borders matter, and they matter in many different ways. The European crisis, taken as a whole, is rooted in borders. Attempting to abolish them is attractive in theory. But theory faces reality across its own border.