Europe Needed Borders. The Coronavirus Built Them.

The pandemic has the continent increasingly discussing its common boundaries—and common identity.

A Swiss customs officer
A Swiss customs officer attaches a chain to a fence after opening the Swiss-French border in Thonex near Ambilly, France, on June 14. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

In 1996, a group of European scientists, academics, civil servants, and artists met in the Portuguese town of Coimbra to discuss European identity: Does it exist, and if so, what does it mean? All the participants made personal, deeply intellectual contributions. But many pointed out that as long as it remains unclear where the European Union ends, and who belongs to it and who doesn’t, European political objectives remain vague. How can citizens identify with vague political objectives?

Maryon McDonald, an anthropologist, said: “Identity is constructed relationally. The clearest identity is in conceptual opposition. You know most clearly who you are through what you are not. It is relatively easy to feel ‘European’ when visiting Japan, for example.”

Now consider what Europe is doing during the coronavirus pandemic: It is starting to draw borders. A marked difference between “us” and “others” is slowly emerging, leading to a stronger sense of belonging among Europeans. This has already had political ramifications.

The exercise in Coimbra was a call for a demarcation of geographical boundaries, common values, and political goals. During the Cold War those boundaries had been there, drawn by external circumstances. At that time, it was clear who Europeans were and what they stood for, because it was also clear who they were not and what their opponents stood for. After 1989, that distinction disappeared. Borders were erased, enemies became friends. And by welcoming countries that had been behind the Iron Curtain, the EU gave them perspective. This, it was argued, would help prevent a dangerous vacuum along Europe’s external borders.

But where were those borders exactly? Nobody knew this anymore. Everything was blurred. Would Ukraine join the EU? Would Turkey, a Muslim country? How would this change the cozy Christian club? Many Europeans posed such questions. Politicians never answered them. They didn’t know the answers themselves. This fueled Euroskepticism. Enlargement fatigue and a growing demand for migration stops and more security can partly be traced back to this.

Now, in 2020, something remarkable is happening: The era of vagueness seems to be coming to an end. Boundaries are getting erected between Europeans and the rest of the world—mental boundaries and physical ones. There are many reasons why this is happening. Brexit, for example, has forced Europe to put up a border with the United Kingdom. Borders are also a response to terror attacks in recent years. But the coronavirus pandemic is a more powerful catalyst.

Initially, the pandemic led to chaos in Europe. Every EU member state issued its own national measures. This was perhaps inevitable: Public health is not a European competence. But with some countries hermetically closed and others confiscating shipments of their neighbors’ face masks, the European internal market was seriously disrupted. This shocked EU governments into action. Whatever their differences, they all know that European postwar peace and prosperity depend on the internal market. The market is Europe’s economic and political foundation. No EU government wanted to give that up.

Immediately, they got organized. They fast-tracked procedures for trucks at internal borders (the “green lanes” system), sent one another medical equipment, and arranged financial assistance for affected regions. During the euro crisis, it took them three, four years to set up a rescue fund. This year, a 750 billion-euro recovery fund was set up in three or four months, involving a revolutionary joint debt issuance mechanism via the EU budget.

This gave “solidarity” some new meaning. Suddenly, Germans sang “Bella Ciao” for Italians in lockdown. French and Dutch COVID-19 patients were treated for free in Germany. Lawyers took time off to work in hospitals. People bought groceries for each other.

A new mood emerged in European society, German sociologist Heinz Bude said: “The idea of individuals being able to fend for themselves rings hollow now. … The days when freedom was the greatest good are over. Now shelter and protection become more important.”

Back in March, Italians were burning European flags as the country became Europe’s first to suffer a major outbreak. They felt abandoned: Why didn’t Europe help? Chinese and Russian planes, displaying their flags, had delivered the first face masks in Lombardy. Suddenly, cynical outsiders were seen as the good guys.

But this image changed quickly. Many Chinese masks were unusable. And by the end of March Europe was jolted into action—medically, financially, and logistically. This “has given [the EU] a new image,” EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told El País.

In a roundabout way, what really helped was other countries trying to weaken the EU during the pandemic. Turkey opened its border with Greece, encouraging refugees and migrants to go to Europe. It also started drilling in Greek and Cypriot waters. Russia spread online conspiracy theories about the pandemic. It propped up the president of Belarus, who had committed voting fraud and turned on his own people. While Europe was in lockdown, the United States, its old ally, slammed tariffs on European products, threatened companies building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with sanctions, and withdrew thousands of soldiers from Germany. China complicated the World Health Organization’s search for the origin of the virus and invaded Hong Kong, while trying to force contracts with Huawei down European governments’ throats.

This opposition from strongmen trying to take advantage of European vulnerability alerted many Europeans. What kind of mercantile world were they suddenly living in? U.S. sanctions against the International Criminal Court, the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the British government tearing up the exit agreement with the EU—all this probably did more for European unification than decades of subsidies from Brussels.

In the euro crisis and migration crisis, European countries fell into the national-sovereign reflex. But COVID-19 brought Europeans closer together. Because the pandemic has coincided with geopolitical developments leaving Europe in the cold, the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev said in a public debate last summer, “this is about our place in the world. It’s about European sovereignty and the need to reduce our vulnerability. This is new.”

In March, the EU closed its external borders with third countries. That had never happened before. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Greece’s border with Turkey and said that Europe showed solidarity with Greece and would not be bullied. With helicopters and armed border guards as a backdrop, the message was implicit but clear: This is where Europe stops. Turkey, which has been a candidate country to join the EU since 1999, was thus indirectly told that accession is off the table.

But Europeans heard it, too.

There is a historical parallel. The Habsburg Empire, which the EU resembles in many ways, had no borders with the Ottoman Empire for a long time. But in the 18th century, when infectious diseases came from Ottoman territory, the Habsburgs built their first border posts with watchtowers and quarantine buildings for travelers, luggage, and merchandise. Thousands of border guards were appointed, from all corners of the empire. It was a tremendous exercise. Europe is doing something similar now—again triggered by a pandemic.

Greece, for example, which reluctantly gave shelter to migrants from Turkey, is now pushing them back over the border. This is a clear violation of international law. But Europe looks the other way. Apparently, borders now take precedence over human rights.

In a speech in Berlin in 2013, then-European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said that Europe had long been a space to roam around in and explore diversity. Now it was becoming “a place, where we can feel at home.”

Indeed, while most citizens want Europe’s internal borders to remain open, they insist that external borders be better policed and controlled. But human rights, the rule of law, and democracy are high on their priority list, too. This sounds like a contradiction. Frontex, Europe’s border guard that has just been beefed up from a few hundred to 10,000, already stands accused of human rights violations. Some members of the European Parliament have recently called on its director to resign. But others insist that once external borders are better guarded, it will be easier to set up a functioning EU asylum and migration policy and erase some of these shameful practices.

Ten years ago, Europe seemed divided into cosmopolitans and nationalists. Now many, including cosmopolitans, say that Europe can no longer count on others and needs to be “strategically autonomous.” Borders and demarcation are part of this autonomy—“l’Europe qui protège,” French President Emmanuel Macron calls it. Europe, once a community of choice, is becoming a community of need.

Many Europeans, not just nationalists, fear losing control in a dangerous world. They are beginning to see the EU as a means to strengthen national sovereignty. They may still not be happy with the EU, but they are certainly happier in it.

German Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, a hard-liner during the euro crisis, recently called in an op-ed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for more European sovereignty. Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who directs the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, said Europe has “bloody well beaten itself through this crisis.” In Foreign Affairs, the researcher Max Bergmann wrote that Europe has been “a geopolitical nonentity since the 1990s” but “will emerge from this crisis a stronger, more unified global player.”

This doesn’t mean that a European identity will suddenly emerge, or that European politics will suffer no more setbacks. Anyone saying that would ignore the nature of European integration and be hopelessly naive—the bitter fight over the rule of law in Europe, with the multiyear EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund as hostages, is a case in point. Still, it could mean that the EU and nonmembers such as Norway and Switzerland slowly get some sense of direction and cohesion again, after years of aimlessly floating around.

In her 1919 essay Prometheus, the Dutch writer Carry van Bruggen wrote that people always want to belong. But if they get too involved in a group they will lose their individuality: “Being different from others is the condition for self-preservation.” Perhaps today’s Europe is discovering just that.

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and a columnist at Foreign Policy.

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