The Worst Invention Ever?

US border with Mexico at San Diego

‘Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians’. This was the claim made earlier this week by Jean-Claude Junker, the very President of the European Commission.  So is he right? And if so, having invented them, must we now live with them forever?

Juncker’s words have inevitably attracted considerable ridicule. The Sun declared that the ‘delusional old hippy’ had ‘finally lost the plot’.  The UK government responded in more measured but no less absolute terms.  Prime Minister Theresa May, for instance, sought refuge in public opinion, responding that ‘the British people think that borders are important, having more control over our borders is important’.  Just two months after the shock of the Brexit referendum, that much is clearly true.  We do “believe” in borders.

So too do Donald Trump and his supporters, beguiled by promises to ‘build a wall’ between the US and Mexico. And Trump is not alone.  There is a global push to build more walls. There are fences that separate the Spanish North African enclaves of Cueta and Melilla from MoroccoUzbekistan from Turkmenistan and AfghanistanSaudi Arabia from YemenBotswana from Zimbabwe, and China from North Korea: all built in the name of deterring “illegal” immigrants.  The list goes on. Israel spent upwards of  $270m to build a two-layer fence completely sealing the 266km Egypt-Israeli border, in the hope of deterring irregular immigrants – many refugees –  from crossing via Egypt from Sudan and Eritrea.

Only twenty-five years ago that the world danced in delight as the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the Iron Curtain. South Africa’s “snake of fire”, a lethally-charged electric fence running along the border with Mozambique, was also switched off just one year later, as apartheid crumbled. Yet three decades later, border fences are back in fashion.  Nationalism is resurgent: liberalism in crisis.

Yet Junker is clearly right that for the wretched of the earth, the consequences of such fences are horrific. Because of border fences, refugees today crowded like cattle into makeshift camps, prisoners on the edge of Europe. Because of border fences, Mexicans must risk death by dehydration before they can arrive in the US to begin filling up white people’s water glasses for the minimum wage.  Because of border fences, smugglers make billions – and so too do the security companies on the other side of the walls, profiting from our every fear.

So as a cri-de-coeur condemning horrific human suffering, Juncker’s words resonate.  Good fences do not make good neighbours. Instead, this belief in the righteousness of borders allows us sit and watch in quiet indignation, as refugees desperate for their lives try to scale our walls.

Given this, who could defend borders, paper lines and steel walls that remind us of the permanent crisis of a divided mankind?


And yet, while my first instinct is to applaud Juncker without reservation, I hesitate.

I am reminded that the very idea of liberal democracy has always been an unhappy compromise.  Liberalism is about individual freedom and equality and opportunity.  Democracy is about freedom too, but freedom from tyranny:  freedom measured in collective terms. It requires that you work out who “the people” are: it requires that you exclude the Others. Nations need borders to exist in a way Empire does not.

So do we need nations? I think we do… at least until we come up with a better alternative. A world without borders may be some kind of utopia, but it leaves unanswered important questions about power and identity. Self-government matters. Community matters.  Institutions that deliver health and education and social services to citizens matter.

And while I would not for one second want to suggest that this is what we have in our hollowed-out neo-liberal states run by elites with Capital, it is hard to imagine a world without borders – a world without nations – offering a social safety net either.  Liberalism unfettered offers freedom, but not much protection. History tells us to be wary of allegedly benign dictatorships with civilising missions: Empire is not a cure for inequality.  We can see this well enough when we look within our own communities.

So I don’t think we need borders to protect us from the enemies beyond, the terrorists and “bad” refugees conjured up to keep us from sleeping. But I do think borders – some kind of physical limit on any single state – may be a crucial safeguard against the enemies within, a limit on the corrupting tendencies of power.

This is why instead of wishing for a world without borders, I want a world with better borders.  Let us keep citizenship; let us acknowledge the value of community and the practical necessity of accountable government able to build roads and schools.  And yes, in this lies a defence for some kind of nationalism, some kind of republic.  But this is not the Nationalism of Trump or May; not exclusionary xenophobia and racism; not violent sectarianism. I have never understood why “porous border” is only hurled as an insult, a synonym for poorly policed and insecure. Imagine a world in which –  rather than presumptively exclude ­­as we do now –  borders were open enough to presumptively include.  This, after all, is the freedom the European Union offers to its citizens.  It is the kind of freedom Germany offered in opening its doors to Syrian refugees last year.

May and Trump, of course, would call “foul”: or rather “flood”.  They’d point to the rise in German nationalism and the Brexit vote as proof that this is not what “the people” want, raise the spectre of a million poor migrants knocking down our doors. They might remind the idealist crusading against inequality that Europe’s internal borders have dissolved only as higher walls have been thrown up around its perimeter.  For democracy is, in the end, a self-interested exercise.  But for all those who paused at least momentarily to think about Juncker’s comments this week, it would be good to pause for a moment longer and ask why, exactly, are we so afraid of turning the question “why should we let them in?” into its mirror reflection; “why should we keep them out?”