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Borders are back

The challenge for the peoples of Europe today is to find the balance between protecting borders and open borders.

VISTA JOURNAL AUTOR 236/Evert_van_de_Poll 12 DE ABRIL DE 2022 10:01 h
Pont de l’Europe: the name is the symbol of Franco-German reconciliation in the aftermath of the Second World War. / [link]Arnoguerber.Wikimedia Commons[/link] via Vista Jounal.

Since the Russian invasion armies crossed the Ukrainian border, over three and a half million Ukrainian refugees have crossed several European borders, seeking refuge from the destruction of their country.

Across Europe people manifest their solidarity with the plight of the people from that beleaguered country whose name, significantly, means ‘Border land’.

Contrast this with pictures from only a few months previously, where North African refugees were freezing in Belarus, only meters away from the Polish border that was kept closed, and the paradoxes of the borders within Europe becomes very real.


Open vs protected borders

To begin with, there is the paradox of open vs protected borders.

Within the so-called Schengen area, named after the village in Luxembourg where the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985, a passport-free zone has been created without border controls, including most of the European Union plus Norway – the United Kingdom and the Balkans being excluded. It is one of the crowning achievements of European integration and encapsulates what this project is all about.

At the same time, there is widespread feeling that the internal open border zone should be secured by strengthening its external borders.

The refugee crisis of 2015 when over a million Syrians found refuge in Western-Europe, the spate of terrorist attacks on European soil and the global Covid-19 pandemic have all put the ideal of the Schengen agreement under strain.

Many governments agree that the rules governing the passport-free zone need to be reformed. They also call for a revision of the Dublin agreement, which allows immigrants who cross the external border of the EU in one country and obtain refugee status there, can freely move to the rest of the EU.

Moreover, when a sense of national identity and security is threatened, even the internal borders are quickly reinstated. In March 2020, as the pandemic took hold, European countries re-erected border checks that had long been eliminated, closing themselves off from each other in an uncoordinated away that disrupted the EU’s internal market, its supply chains and the movement of people.

There was an immediate return to national borders policies, as opposed to a unified European approach, which one would have expected after decades of working together in a borderless area.

People were not focused on having enough vaccines for Europe, for example, they just wanted vaccines for everyone in their country.


European vs non-European

This brings us to the second paradox. In the open economic space of an integrated Europe, many people appreciate the free movement of goods, capital and of persons, as long as they are European.

At the same time, there are increasing apprehensions about the influx of investors (and some would add a virus) from China, vaccines from the United States and gas from Russia, making us more and more dependent on outside powers.

There is a call for economic sovereignty, food sovereignty, industrial sovereignty and so on, while there is debate whether each nation should strive for its own sovereignty in these areas.

Refugees fleeing war and persecution in other parts of the world and seeking asylum in Europe, can still cross Europe’s external borders and find refuge. For so-called economic migrants, however, the national governments as well as the EU are putting up more and more restrictions.

Similarly, a growing part of the population fears that an uncontrolled influx of non-European migrants with their different culture and religion will disrupt the social peace, or even endanger the cultural security of the population – all the more so since ‘old stock’ Europeans are in demographic deficit compared to migrant communities.

Several countries have already restored controls along internal EU borders, and built fences barbed wires and even more than 1000 km of walls along the external borders of the EU, in order to better ‘regulate’ the influx of immigrants: between Poland and Belarus, at the Hungarian and Slovenian borders with Croatia, along the Evros River and the mountains that separate Greece and Bulgaria from Turkey, and around the Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.

Added to that are the even larger maritime ‘walls’ deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as virtual ‘walls’ across the seas and control systems at airports.

All of this constitutes the so-called Fortress Europe. Since Brexit, the United Kingdom lies outside this fortress, as migrants stuck at the French side of the English Channel are finding out, often to their peril.


Two border mindsets

All these recent developments illustrate what is called ‘the return of the borders’.

They go against the ideal of a borderless Europe, dear to economic liberals in favour of free trade in a globalising market, to progressive liberals in favour of a multicultural society, and to people with a cosmopolitan outlook in favour of a transnational approach to the major problems, such as climiate change, that are facing us today.

On the contrary, the same developments are welcomed, even promoted, by patriots and sovereigntists of all stripes who consider the European integration as a vehicle of globalisation, and who are keen to defend national economic interests (e.g. against delocalisation of industry) and safeguard the traditional cultural identity of their country (e.g. against the influence of Islam).

And this constitutes another border within Europe: between people with an open border mindset and those with a protected border mindset.


Barrier as well as protection

As Christians engaged in communicating the Gospel and serving churches in various countries in Europe, we have benefited from the ability to freely transit across age-old geographical borders.

The mission discourse is in favour of crossing or downgrading borders; we want to be free to cross borders and meet people where they are. The return of physical borders in Europe is therefore seen more as a problem than as an incentive to reconsider our views.

We notice that in mission circles people tend to relativise borders, as if they do not have much significance. Because mission workers have a habit of crossing national borders and communicating the Gospel cross-culturally, they generally view borders in terms of restriction, as barriers.

They inwardly resist the very idea of a closed country, so they prefer to speak of ‘limited access countries’. This emphasis leads to seeing borders primarily as lines to be crossed over, and as hindrances when evangelistic mission workers cannot easily get into a certain country.

But this is just one side of reality. At the same time, borders are needed for people to live in security – physically, socially as well as culturally. Borders indicate that there is a limit to what I can call ‘mine’ and to what I could claim for myself, a legal limit to the jurisdiction of a ruler, a geographical limit to the wielding of power.

A fundamental moral and legal rule of society is that one should not trespass the living space of one’s neighbour. It is precisely by respecting that space, that people can live together within a country, and that nations can live together in peace.

The Bible emphasises this positive function of borders. The Torah has some pretty strong things to say about those who ignore this.

One of the blessings and curses that should be read during the renewal of the alliance of the Israelites with the Lord God says: “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbour’s boundary stone.” And all the people should say “amen” to this (Deuteronomy 27:17). This is one of the moral rules that should be respected in order that the people live in social peace.

The Russian invasion in Ukraine has reimprinted in the minds of people all over Europe that borders are needed for security, and that they should be respected as such. Public opinion massively pronounces in a variety of ways the very curse of Deuteronomy 27.

The challenge for the peoples of Europe today is to find the balance between protecting borders and open borders.


Borders as membranes

A third function of borders is that they serve places of contact between ‘us’ and ‘others’. That can become a confrontation, and lead to conflict, but not necessarily so, because borders are also areas of exchange and cooperation, places where people widen their horizons.

Like any fence or limit, they provoke curiosity to discover how the people on the ‘other’ side live, a desire to travel and meet them, and learn their language.

Viewed from this perspective, borders are an invitation to go beyond our limits and to receive from others who are different from us. Borders are places of ‘liminality’, and of exchange, where ideas, goods and people can move in as much as out.

Instead of functioning as impermeable frontiers that serve to keep ‘others’ away from ‘us’, we should rather see them as open borders.

Historian Richard W. Slatta describes frontiers, borders and border regions as membranes. Membranes are differentially permeable with respect to what may pass through them and what is blocked.

Their permeability is different for opposite directions. That is, some goods are allowed to pass. Other things, such as armies, are not allowed to pass.

Membranes have thickness. When viewed from a distance they seem thin, almost like lines. When viewed up close they are zones through which objects, people, and ideas may pass.


The responsible society

In seeing borders as membranes, we discover that we are not the only ones in this world and so borders become a place where the members of the human family discover their neighbours.

This brings in the concept of the ‘responsible society’, developed in both Catholic and Reformed (neo-Calvinist) social teaching in the late 19th and early 20th Century. This concept is based on the Biblical commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

Within Christian social thinking, which has influenced Christian democratic thinking which in turn has had an important influence on the European integration process leading to the current European Union, the idea of neighbourly love has taken on an international perspective.

Not only individuals but also countries and nations, are challenged to see themselves as neighbours in the Biblical sense of the term, being responsible for the welfare and the peace, not only of oneself but also of one’s ‘neighbour’.

This is an invitation to look beyond the national borders, be they long standing or newly imposed, and stand alongside our neighbouring countries.

Instead of being the person who asks, ‘who is my neighbour’, the parable of the Samaritan invites us to ask, ‘to whom do I act as a neighbour?

When nations are perceived as neighbours, and when we take this teaching of Jesus as a lead, the question becomes ‘to which nations does our country want to behave as a neighbour?

Evert Van de Poll is co-editor of Vista.

Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Vista Journal.


Further reading

  • Andrén, Mats et al. (ed.). Cultural Borders of Europe: Narratives, Concepts and Practices in the Present and the Past. 1st ed., vol. 30, Berghahn Books, 2019,

  • Hall, Thomas D (ed.). A World-Systems Reader: New Perspectives on Gender, Urbanism, Cultures, Indigenous Peoples, and Ecology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

  • Langer, Christian and Manuel Fernández-Götz. ‘Borders and Frontiers: Contemporary and Past Perspectives’ in Gerd Graßhoff and Michael Meyer (ed.), Excellence Cluster Topoi, Berlin, eTopoi, 2008.

  • Slatta, Richard W. Comparing Cowboys and Frontiers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

  • Sur, Serge et al. ‘Le réveil des frontières – des lignes en mouvement.’ Dossier de Questions internationales, N° 79-80, May-August 2016.




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