Are We Moving Away from the Idea of ‘Borderless World’?

A view which emerged in the 1990s, and remains influential to this day, is that with increasing globalisation we are moving towards a ‘borderless world’ – and it is easy to see why. The ever-growing global market means that certain goods, services and people can move around the world with little to no restraints. Within the Schengen Area hard physical borders were abolished and freedom of movement became one of the four economic freedoms guaranteed by the EU. In a world in which we can visit people thousands of miles away with nothing but a national identity card, it does seem in some ways strange to speak of borders.

Yet the notion of the borderless world has always been contested. While internally, the EU integration process has made borders less meaningful, this has arguably been accompanied by the increasing prominence of borders between EU and non-EU countries – on the edges of the EU there are hard physical borders and, what is more, many people are arguing for even stronger protection of these ‘shared frontiers’, perhaps by a common border control or by some sort of an EU army. Between Hungary and Serbia, crossing borders takes anything between three and ten hours, and occasionally even longer in the light of the refugee crisis since Hungary has responded to it by building a fence along its borders to forestall people coming in.

And of course, we cannot ignore Brexit, which has shone a light on a number of people, or in fact a whole democratic majority of one country, who seem to be strongly attached to the British nation state – desperately wanting to ‘take back control’ of its borders, rather than abandon it to the borderless world, even though the United Kingdom has never been part of the Schengen Area. Many Leave voters are calling for harder border protection, demanding their security and country’s sovereignty. Depending on how policymakers in Britain and the EU respond, Brexit could be seen as  moving the UK quickly away from anything resembling a ‘borderless world’. The creation of  new borders and walls as Britain reasserts its borderlines would be just another example of how new boundaries, both between sovereign states and between other territories such as within cities like Jerusalem, are emerging all around the world, again dividing its citizens.

However, we can see that Britain’s supposed aversion to the borderless world is not so straightforward. At the beginning of December 2017, Brexit talks were thrown into disarray by a clash between the UK and Ireland over the future of their common border. What both the UK and Ireland seem to want to avoid under all circumstances is a hard-border solution between Ireland and Northern Ireland, possibly undermining the Good Friday Agreement from 1998. The wide-spread reluctance in Britain towards a hard border between the United Kingdom and Ireland suggests that some borders matter more than others. Leave voters do not necessarily want to take back control of all of Britain’s borders – just those with mainland Europe, perhaps where they perceive there to be a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The fact that Leavers appear not to mind having soft borders, or even any borders at all between the UK and Ireland reveals that the argument was not about taking back control of borders per se, but about taking back control of borders within mainland Europe. This illustrates the different consideration Ireland gets when compared to the rest of the Europe – Ireland is perceived by the UK like ‘us’, while refugees, Eastern-Europeans and other immigrants are ‘them’.

Similarities can be drawn between the UK electorate’s concern with mainland Europe and attitudes towards borders in the United States. Just as the UK wants to take back control of its southern borders, but not of those with Ireland, so the US plans to build a physical wall between itself and Mexico – but not Canada. The difference between the UK and the US is that the US has no problem with using such rhetoric toward Mexico that clearly demonstrates this division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. On the other hand, it is only with Brexit talks stumbling upon the question of the borders with Ireland that it became apparent that it was just the UK’s southern borders with mainland Europe that Leave voters were concerned about.

It is not the border itself that matters but rather the question of who the border is with that sets these geopolitical disputes. As such it makes no sense to speak of a straightforwardly borderless, or non-borderless world – the picture is inevitably much more complex than that.