Migration politics

“Once Again Borders Are Becoming More Important” – An Interview with the Political Scientist Wilfried von Bredow

Border fences can never be a long-term solution | © bluedesign – Fotolia.com

All over the world more and more borders are being erected. What are the reasons behind this development and how has the meaning of borders changed in light of globalisation?

Herr von Bredow, in our increasingly globalised world are borders losing more and more significance?

One has to be very careful on this question and not make any sweeping generalisations. Of course, it is correct that the consequences of globalisation have changed the meaning of borders and in many cases have reduced them in number – we only have to think here of all the efforts being made to create free trade areas. On the other hand, one could also claim that the opposite is true, i.e. that it is globalisation in particular that has enhanced the importance of borders.

I think that when we speak of the current and future role of borders, it is important to be clear about one thing in particular – there has never been a historical development towards an increasingly borderless world. There has hardly ever been any historical continuity, if any at all. Borders have always been adapted to the prevailing external circumstances.

What situation are we in 2015?

Towards the end of the East-West conflict, with the disappearance of the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall in the 1990s, people were at first very optimistic about the overcoming of borders. Not just in Europe, but also in other parts of the world. One example here would be the border between the USA and Canada, but That changed dramatically after the terror attacks of 11th September in 2001. Suddenly borders once again became important as a form of protection. The increase in migration flows has also led to borders becoming once again more significant.

Are you saying then that at the moment borders are not being dismantled, but, on the contrary, being re-erected?

It is in fact the case that at the moment there are more political borders on the Earth than ever before. In the meantime there are border fences all over the world, some of them very long and some highly sophisticated. Take, for example, the Israeli border installations at the Gaza Strip or the border between the USA and Mexico which in the meantime is monitored by drones.

Is that an expression of helplessness or an effective, isolationist “walls-up” concept?

It is, of course, true that border fences can never be a long-term solution. They do nothing to change the causes of terrorism or the great flows of migration that we are experiencing at the moment. On the other hand, open borders can also have problematic consequences. Uncontrolled flows of migration will put a huge strain on many elements of our society, for example, our social system or our health system. In the end this would jeopardise the liberality prevailing in a society. We are experiencing this at the moment all over Europe in the form of a political shift to the right, in Germany, too.

The emergence of the nation state

Basically the concept of a border is linked to the idea of a defined, state territory that wants and has to defend itself against external threats and danger. Has that always been the case?

It was not until the emergence of the modern system of states that came about in Europe in the middle of the 17th century that the concept of a national state prevailed. It took the form of a social order with a claim to having a national identity called the “people” and to having a territory that was protected by borders. In feudalist times of the Middle Ages it was often the case that entire stretches of land changed their rulers without the people knowing about it or even being interested in it. This changed drastically with the advent of nationalism as an ideology for large-territory states.

How was it in other parts of the world?

In many countries outside Europe borders were often drawn arbitrarily, above all by colonial powers like England and France. After the Second World War the former colonial areas then tried to define themselves as national states and to create nations within the framework of an anti-colonialist struggle. Unfortunately many of these “young” nations still have not managed, even today, to adapt these enforced borders to their own political aims and visions and to either accept them completely or to try to change them in agreement with their neighbours.

The concept of the Open Border

Let’s talk again about the concept of the Open Border. Is the tendency towards a “walls-up” isolationism understandable in the face of terror and migration or is it something that can and should be overcome?

Unfortunately it is not quite that easy. Both open and closed borders have advantages as well as disadvantages. Here I am not just referring to the classic conflict between economic and security interests. Even from the economic perspective it is not quite clear which would be better – open borders or “walls-up”. It depends on each individual situation. Free trade, too, can most definitely have a negative effect. It can, for example, lead to big cities becoming richer and richer and anywhere else outside on the periphery poorer and poorer. In many threshold countries this situation is still very much in evidence. What I think we can say, however, is - the idea of a supranational, borderless world is utterly wrong.

Is the European Schengen area then an example of open borders functioning?

The Schengen area was only able to work so well for so long, because it involved countries that were relatively similar to each other and because it was also agreed that the external borders would be controlled. Now they are trying to save the idea of open, inner-European borders by putting up new fences. And it has to be assumed that these borders will not be dismantled so quickly.

Wilfried von Bredow | © Wilfried von BredowFrom 1972 to 2009 Wilfried von Bredow was a professor of political science at the Philipps University in Marburg. He is the author of numerous publications about the relationship between the military and politics, as well as about international relations, among them Grenzen. Eine Geschichte des Zusammenlebens vom Limes bis Schengen (2014).
Klaus Lüber
is a cultural and media scholar and works as a freelance author for “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, “Die Zeit” and “Die Welt”.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2015

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