Berlin’s New Walls

The free circulation of people is one of the European Union’s great achievements. It shouldn’t be surrendered lightly.

By , the former editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in partnership with Legatum Institute.
GettyImages-488180692_germany2
GettyImages-488180692_germany2

In the wee hours of a chilly autumn morning 26 years ago, I watched in astonishment as the concrete wall that had separated the two halves of Berlin abruptly lost its power to intimidate. Always absurd, the Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier had been rendered irrelevant. Just a few hours earlier, East Berliners had faced the threat of death for trying to make the crossing. Now they were free -- in the most elemental and instinctive of ways. This is why the collapse of the Berlin Wall was such an intensely emotional experience. You didn’t have to be a lawyer to understand why all those crowds were delirious with joy.

In the wee hours of a chilly autumn morning 26 years ago, I watched in astonishment as the concrete wall that had separated the two halves of Berlin abruptly lost its power to intimidate. Always absurd, the Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier had been rendered irrelevant. Just a few hours earlier, East Berliners had faced the threat of death for trying to make the crossing. Now they were free — in the most elemental and instinctive of ways. This is why the collapse of the Berlin Wall was such an intensely emotional experience. You didn’t have to be a lawyer to understand why all those crowds were delirious with joy.

The wall wasn’t just about Berlin, of course. It was just a tiny segment of a much longer dividing line that had sliced Europe in two since the end of World War II, a line that continued to appall even as communism’s weakening increased its porosity. In the summer of 1989, a few months before the fall of the wall, the reformist communist government in Hungary had allowed a few hundred East Germans congregating at a “pan-European picnic” to tug aside the barbed wire along the border and cross into Austria. It was that gesture that really unleashed the outflow of people that doomed the regime in East Germany and led straight to those masses of happy people I mingled with in the center of Berlin.

Now comes the news that Hungary has shut its border with Serbia to prevent the flow of refugees into Europe — following a cue from Berlin, where the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel decided on Sept. 13 to re-establish controls along Germany’s southern frontier in a desperate effort to stanch the flow of humanity thronging northward. The announcement came just days after Merkel had reasserted Germany’s determination to keep itself open to the flood of migrants (it had already committed itself to accepting nearly a million of them this year), which made the reversal particularly demoralizing for those of us who have always been partial to a Europe that reaches high. The fact of the matter is that Germany sets the tone for the rest of the continent, so even if this surrender turns out to be just a temporary setback, it still sets an ominous and destructive precedent. Other European countries, in addition to Hungary, were, of course, quick to follow the German example.

And, yes, I get it. A shoot-to-kill border dividing Germans from Germans is qualitatively different from a bunch of border police locking arms to halt Syrian or Eritrean refugees fleeing far-off wars. Even so, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Europe has suddenly gone into reverse gear. Re-erecting old borders makes for disheartening optics.

Until recently, thanks mainly to the Greek bailout drama, the European Union’s biggest existential crisis seemed to revolve around its purse. Now the EU is confronting a crisis of the heart. Over the past three decades, French, German, and Italian leaders have held up the free circulation of people as one of the fundamental pillars of the European project. How, after all, could you have a single market, an integrated economic space, with border controls separating individual states?

The Schengen Agreement, concluded in 1985, suggested that the continent had finally found the will to transcend old divisions — and anticipated the even greater triumph of pan-European identity that dawned four years later. Schengen seemed like the perfect way to demonstrate that Europe was so over that whole 20th-century obsession with border fortifications. It also reinforced the idea that new, civilized, transnational identities could transcend provincialism and bigotry. Doing away with borders was a vital prerequisite for the creation of “European citizenship.”

Just a few days ago, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made a point of calling free movement under Schengen “a unique symbol of European integration.” (One wonders what he must have said to Merkel after her decision to effectively revoke Schengen in order to get a grip on the refugee crisis.) Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni went even further, warning that Europe was on the verge of losing its “soul.” “Can we imagine a union without Schengen?” he asked in late August. “A return to the old borders?”

Maybe such defenders of open borders are just naive, innocents adrift in the rough seas of political reality. Polling shows that majorities in several of the big European countries have turned against the idea of open borders.

But I find I’d rather side with the idealists rather than people like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose rants about defending “European values” from scary Syrian refugees have made him the darling of the far right. And how sad it would be to end up in ideological proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is undoubtedly tickled pink as he observes the fragmentation of European unity. After all, just look at these self-righteous Europeans, so keen to maintain the moral high ground, who dared to sanction him after his seizure of Crimea. A Europe fractured and humiliated (not to mention seething with toxic nationalist parties, ripe for exploitation by Moscow) is exactly what Putin wants to see — and European leaders are handing it to him on a platter.

Even better than restoring the old Schengen rules, of course, would be an attempt to reform them — intelligently and unhysterically, in a way that reconciles freedom of movement with the need for reasonable controls over immigration and respect for the principle of asylum for those fleeing persecution. This shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle, but overcoming it may well lie beyond the capabilities of the current generation of stuttering Eurocrats. It would be a terrible shame, and a sad reflection of the state of the European project, if the only solution they can come up with is rolling out the old barbed wire.

Photo credit: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

Christian Caryl is the former editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in partnership with Legatum Institute. Twitter: @ccaryl

More from Foreign Policy

The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.
The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.

America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose

Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.

The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy

The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.

Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.

Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now

In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.
U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.

Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet

As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.