May 4, 2020   6 mins

Every aspect of our lives has been impacted by Covid-19 — and geopolitics is not exempt. Though the world will not be fundamentally changed in the long run by this virus, it will accelerate many existing trends.

Among these are our attitudes towards borders. Within the EU the concept of ‘ever closer union’ was already faltering. The Schengen agreement has been falling apart, support for ‘Fortress Europe’ growing, and within that fortress, the nation states have become separate bastions.

A virus may not respect borders, but populist politics certainly does, and proponents understand the primal instinct in the  concept of ‘ love of one’s own’ in a wider setting than extended family. Take Nicola Sturgeon’s recent hint at a sovereign Scotland:

“I don’t have the power to close borders, but… if the UK Government took decisions that I thought were premature in terms of coming out of the lockdown, then clearly I would want to make sure that Scotland did what I judged was best to protect the population.”

Sturgeon is more articulate than President Trump, but the sentiment here is not so far from his boorish pronouncements on closing borders to save American lives.

Everywhere we have seen nations retreating into their castles. More than 80 countries have banned or limited the export of PPE, ventilators and drugs. 72 are WTO members, dedicated to open trade, but only 13 bothered to inform the organisation of their decisions despite it being a requirement. The US invoked a law from the 1950s to order the 3M company to stop supplying protective masks to Canada and Latin America. Germany complained when a shipment of masks it had ordered from an American company was seized at Bangkok airport and flown to the US. France ignored calls from the EU to lift its export ban on some drugs despite being told it was causing shortages elsewhere in the Single Market. The phrase ‘sauve qui peut’ which roughly means ‘every man for himself’ appears to be easily translated into every language.

Within the EU, member states have responded to a pan-national pandemic at a national level. The ‘community’ is an afterthought. At the height of the emergency in northern Italy, the government in Rome made a desperate appeal to the EU for help — especially for supplies of PPE. However, the other member states failed to agree on triggering the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism. Italy cried ‘betrayal’, causing Germany and a few others to step in — but, again, on their own national initiative. Noticing what was going on, China and Russia staged their own ‘soft power’ interventions, flying in emergency supplies (albeit of substandard material). A subsequent poll found that 88% of Italians believed that the “EU is not helping us”.

There’s also the issue of financial help. The richer northern members of the Eurozone are blocking the ‘Coronabonds’ that the poorer southern states say they need to fund the recovery. Instead, Brussels has offered cash from the European Stability Mechanism, but that comes with humiliating restrictions on how it can be spent. The Dutch have added to the resentment by asking why the southern states don’t have stronger economic policies.

The EU has now endorsed a roadmap out of the lockdown, but not before each country had already announced its own unilateral plans. In Germany, this extends down to the federal level, with the country’s component LĂ€nder (states) making their own decisions — there are shades of ‘Make Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Great Again’ and ‘Bavaria First’.

All of this is consistent with a resurgent tide of nationalism and separatism. In fact, the idea of the nation never actually went out of fashion. It was just said to have done so by a highly educated class that wished it to be true. At a popular level nationalism is alive and kicking, and when it comes to the crunch, national governments join in — kicking hard. The current crisis provides ample evidence, but there are other recent examples — such as the risible response to the German plan to distribute migrants and refugees across the Union in 2016.

Human beings are inherently tribal. A tribe is the extended family writ large, and the nation state is the modern embodiment of a mega tribe. The story of civilisation is one of drawing upon this instinct in order to cooperate and share resources at an ever-higher level — from family to tribe, from tribe to nation. But can we go higher still — from nation to regional union and even to truly global governance?

In modern times we have made some progress in this direction — think of foreign aid, scientific co-operation and the United Nations. Such internationalism has all sorts of motivations, but are these working with or against the grain of our tribal instincts? Historians tell us the nation state is a modern concept, but while this may be true, we have always had borders, and they are the geographic building blocks of the state. You could abolish them overnight, but the first time a trawler from Norway appeared in the sea off Grimsby, a delegation would be sent to explain how far away it had to go before it could begin to fish. The emotion is primal, and in times of crisis it strengthens.

Looking at the EU response to the current crisis, there are (beyond the institutional failures) some examples of Europe coming together as a huge extended family. For instance, Germany took in dozens of critically ill patients when the Italian and French health systems began to be overwhelmed. Realistically though, these are isolated incidents in the sea of Sauve Qui Peut.

The sharing side of human nature comes under massive strain when, at certain times, and at certain levels, we believe there is not enough to go around. As soon as it becomes a matter of life or death, our tribal instinct, and the related politics, kicks in. In such circumstances, which government is going to announce that it is giving a different tribe the very things its own people believe they need to survive?

Our instincts, while basic, aren’t always base. It’s entirely natural that we should seek to serve and protect what is most familiar to us. This is why individuals who were living and working in other countries rushed to get home as the virus spread around the world. It wasn’t only to be with close family at a time of crisis, but to be with their own tribe and tribal systems.

These feelings will be with us for some time. Thinking of a holiday in the window between the probable first and second waves? If so, I doubt you’re considering a cruise, the Trans-Siberian express, Goa, Lombardy or Hubei province. Almost certainly, your plans will factor in distance from home and hospital.

This goes well beyond tourism, of course. Across western Europe, hundreds of thousands of workers from countries like Bulgaria and Romania have left to go home, adding to existing unemployment issues there. With no clear date for a possible return this will accentuate the huge economic gulf between different parts of the European Union.

But there are even bigger inequalities between the EU and adjacent regions — and these too will be accentuated by the pandemic. Take the Sahel states. Already wracked by conflict, poverty, and drought, they are not only horribly positioned to deal with immediate threat, but will be less able to recover in the longer term. This will fuel the movement of peoples at a time when the destination countries will have high unemployment — thus putting further pressure on governments to take a hard line and close their borders ever tighter.

It is not just the openness of borders that is at stake, but also where they’re drawn. A recent Pew poll found that majorities in many countries do not support the status quo. For example, asked ‘are there parts of neighbouring countries that belong to your country?’ 58% of Turks and Bulgarians said yes, as did 60% of Greeks, 67% of Hungarians, and 53% of Russians. In recent years we’ve already seen borders change — de facto, if not de jure — in Ukraine, Georgia and Kosovo. The latter is discussing land swaps with Serbia, which, if implemented, could enflame irredentism elsewhere. Meanwhile separatist tensions continue in countries across the Continent. The economic stresses that followed the last great recession played their part in propelling the independence movement in Catalonia, for instance. The looming Covid recession (or depression) is likely to do the same.

Like the Spanish Flu of a different age, the current pandemic won’t change the direction of history, but it will speed it up. Given the already established trend towards nationalism, this should give us cause for concern.

We need to make the most of the positives — especially the international cooperation among the scientists and medics working to beat these diseases. Yet, at the same time, we can hardly deny the evidence of nations retreating behind their castle walls.

Borders really matter to people right now — which means they will become harder, but also, and for the same reason, more brittle.

Tim Marshall is a journalist, author and broadcaster.