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Why Europe Could Melt Down Over a Simple Question of Borders

LONDON — The European Union has always been sold, to its citizens, on a practical basis: Cheaper products. Easier travel. Prosperity and security.

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Max Fisher
, New York Times

LONDON — The European Union has always been sold, to its citizens, on a practical basis: Cheaper products. Easier travel. Prosperity and security.

But its founding leaders had something larger in mind. They conceived it as a radical experiment to transcend the nation-state, whose core ideas of race-based identity and zero-sum competition had brought disaster twice in the space of a generation.

France’s foreign minister, announcing the bloc’s precursor in 1949, called it “a great experiment” that would put “an end to war” and guarantee “an eternal peace.”

Norway’s foreign minister, Halvard M. Lange, compared Europe at that moment to the early American colonies: separate blocs that, in time, would cast off their autonomy and identities to form a unified nation. Much as Virginians and Pennsylvanians had become Americans, Germans and Frenchmen would become Europeans — if they could be persuaded.

“The keen feeling of national identity must be considered a real barrier to European integration,” Lange wrote in an essay that became a foundational EU text.

But instead of overcoming that barrier, European leaders pretended it didn’t exist. More damning, they entirely avoided mentioning what Europeans would need to give up: a degree of their deeply felt national identities and hard-won national sovereignty.

Now, as Europeans struggle with the social and political strains set off by migration from poor and war-torn nations outside the bloc, some are clamoring to preserve what they feel they never consented to surrender. Their fight with European leaders is exploding over an issue that, perhaps more than any other, exposes the contradiction between the dream of the European Union and the reality of European nations: borders.

Establishment European leaders insist on open borders within the bloc. Free movement is meant to transcend cultural barriers, integrate economies and lubricate the single market. But a growing number of European voters want to sharply limit the arrival of refugees in their countries, which would require closing the borders.

This might seem like a straightforward matter of reconciling internal rules with public demand on the relatively narrow issue of refugees, who are no longer even arriving in great numbers.

But there is a reason that it has brought Europe to the brink, with its most important leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, warning of disaster and at risk of losing power. The borders question is really a question of whether Europe can move past traditional notions of the nation-state. And that is a question that Europeans have avoided confronting, much less answering, for over half a century.

How Borders Could Break Europe In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, Merkel warned that if European countries did not “fairly” share the burden, then opportunistic leaders could exploit the issue to dismantle Europe’s freedom of internal movement. “It won’t be the Europe we want,” she said.

Three years later, Merkel has become the leader she warned about. To save her governing coalition in Berlin and bleed off populist sentiment, she has proposed imposing controls at the Austrian border to block refugees.

Most refugees arrive in Italy, Greece or Spain and are meant to remain there while waiting for asylum. In practice, though, many head north.

But how to pick out refugees from dozens of open roads and rail lines that connect Germany with Austria?

One option is to screen selectively for possible refugees; in essence, racial profiling. No one is sure how this would work. Spotters on border watchtowers with binoculars? Random pullovers? Any scheme seems likely to miss most refugees while harassing enough dark-skinned non-refugees to guarantee a backlash.

The other option is to set up checkpoints and screen everyone, making travel from Austria to Germany far more difficult, likely hurting both economies. In either scheme, Merkel’s plan calls for camps along the border to hold refugees seeking to cross.

As Merkel warned three years ago, this could break the European Union as we know it. It would tacitly encourage other countries to harden their own borders, if only to protect from becoming holding pens for stricter nations like Germany.

Should enough borders harden, refugees could end up stuck in Italy, Greece and Spain — an outcome Merkel has also warned could doom the bloc by encouraging those countries to leave.

Shutting down internal movement would withdraw some of the union’s most popular perks — ease of travel for work, vacation or family — and undercut trade and labor transfers, weakening the single market economy.

It might seem strange, then, that such a policy could be seen as indulging public demand. The fact that its ramifications would go so far beyond refugees, whose arrivals are anyway down sharply, suggests that public demand is about more than anti-refugee sentiment.

Perhaps the drive to restore European borders is, on some level, about borders themselves. Maybe when populists talk about restoring sovereignty and national identity, it’s not just a euphemism for anti-refugee sentiment (although such sentiment is indeed rife). Maybe they mean it.

Why Borders?

Traveling Germany with a colleague to report on the populist wave sweeping Europe, we heard the same concerns over and over. Vanishing borders. Lost identity. A distrusted establishment. Sovereignty surrendered to the European Union. Too many migrants.

Populist supporters would often bring up refugees as a focal point and physical manifestation of larger, more abstract fears. They would often say, as one woman told me outside a rally for the Alternative for Germany, a rising populist party, that they feared their national identity was being erased.

“Germany needs a positive relationship with our identity,” Björn Höcke, a leading far-right figure in the party, told my colleague. “The foundation of our unity is identity.”

Allowing in refugees, even in very large numbers, does not mean Germany will no longer be Germany, of course. But even this slight cultural change is one component of a larger European project that has required giving up, even if only by degrees, core conceits of a fully sovereign nation-state.

National policy is suborned, on some issues, to the vetoes and powers of the larger union. That includes control over borders, which are partially open to refugees but fully open to other Europeans.

Though the backlash has focused on refugees, who tend to present as more obviously foreign, studies suggest that it is also driven by resentment toward European migrants.

Traveling recently through Yorkshire, a postindustrial swath of northern England, I heard complaints that began about refugees but shifted quickly to Polish workers, who have arrived in much greater numbers. Some spoke ominously, if implausibly, of towns where Polish was more commonly heard than English.

It is not easy for Europeans to abandon the old-style national identity, rooted in race and language, that has caused them such trouble. The human desire for a strong group identity — and for perceived homogeneity within that group — runs deep.

Germany for the Germans, Catalonia for the Catalans. A country of people who look like me, speak my language and share my heritage. These nationalist impulses, however dangerous, emerge from basic human instinct. It makes us feel safe; losing it makes us feel threatened. It is reinforced in our popular culture and built into the international order. New Orders, Old Instincts

European leaders hoped they could rein in those impulses for long enough to transform Europe from the top down, but the financial crisis of 2008 came when their project was only half-completed. That led to the crisis in the euro, which revealed political fault lines the leadership had long denied or wished away.

The financial crisis and an accompanying outburst in Islamic terrorism also provided a threat. When people feel under threat, research shows, they seek a strong identity that will make them feel part of a powerful group.

For that, many Europeans turned to their national identity: British, French, German. But the more people embraced their national identities, the more they came to oppose the European Union, studies found — and the more they came to distrust anyone within their borders who they saw as an outsider.

European leaders, unable to square their project’s ambition of transcending nationalism with this reality of rising nationalism, have tried to have it both ways. Merkel has sought to save Europe’s border-free zone by imposing one hard border.

Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, has called for ever-harder “external” borders, which refers to those separating the European Union from the outside world, in order to keep internal borders open.

This might work if refugee arrivals were the root issue. But it would not resolve the contradiction between the European Union as an experiment in overcoming nationalism versus the politics of the moment, in which publics are demanding more nationalism.

That resurgence starts with borders. But Hungary’s trajectory suggests it might not end there. The country’s nationalist government, after erecting fences and setting up refugee camps, has seen hardening xenophobia and rising support for tilting toward authoritarianism.

As the euro crisis showed, even pro-union leaders could never bring themselves to fully abandon the old nationalism. They are elected by their fellow nationals, after all, so naturally put them first. Their first loyalty is to their country. When that comes into conflict with the rest of the union, as it has on the issue of refugees, it’s little wonder that national self-interest wins.

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