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Covid-19 is hardening our borders The pandemic has brought out tribalism in even the most liberal societies

(Photo by Rene Gomolj /AFP via Getty Images)


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.

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David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

I think we need to start by getting a basic truth out, Supra National organisations are not universally good and national governments and nationalism is not universally bad. Both types of organisations have weakness and some unpleasant aspects but they both have their place, but the national government needs autonomy and control. The author appears to begin from the point that Supra Nationalism must take precedence but the response to Covid 19 shows why this is not the case.

When the virus first emerged in China it is clear that they suppressed information for a number of nationalistic reasons. The problem is the WHO, for politically expedient reasons, did not investigate what the Chinese were saying. They ignored the doctors and more importantly they ignored evidence coming out of Taiwan on human to human transmission because acknowledging Taiwan’s independence would have upset the Chinese The WHO played politics when it needed to concentrate on heath issues and dam the politics. The WHO’s performance did not help and possibly made this outbreak worse.

The EU has had a terrible virus. Once again it is focusing on it’s own navel and looking for ways to expand it’s power rather than help it’s population. It started a centralised procurement procedure for PPE which has not delivered a single peace of PPE. It complained about USA closing borders just as it’s own members were doing exactly the same thing. The head of the ECB (a political appointee who got the job because she was French even though she was not qualified) made statements that harmed the bond markets. The president of the EU Commission is AWOL and the head of the UK trade negotiations is more interested in turning the UK into a colony than supporting the economy.

Nationalism can lead to dark place, unfortunately supra nationalism can lead to equally dark places.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

‘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.’

Gotta get that dig at Trump in – it is mandatory for all articles published anywhere. Really, it’s pathetic. Just this morning I watched Trump for about on hour on a Town Hall for Fox and he was perfectly articulate, indeed more so than many politicians I can think of. Moreover, by closing the borders to China on Jan 31 he almost certainly saved thousands of US lives. Would the writer have preferred that all those people die? Does the writer want the Chinese to funnel opiods etc through the Mexican border so that countless more Americans die? It is because our media is full of these views that only 17% of the British population now trusts the newspapers, and why only a few percent of them now actually buy a newspaper. (I stopped buying newspapers almost 20 years ago, such was my disgust with the nonsense expressed therein).

Then there’s this:

‘In modern times we have made some progress in this direction ” think of foreign aid, scientific co-operation and the United Nations.’

The fact is that the vast majority of people, quite rightly, consider both foreign aid and the UN to be corrupt money pits. Scientific co-operation is to be welcomed, of course, but it’s not much use if countries like China steal all your secrets and IP etc.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Exactly. It is so pathetically transparent. They think that we don’t see them, but we do.

John Little
John Little
4 years ago

Disagree about the borders. Bring ’em on. Silly soppy flower power sentiment about open borders is on the Playschool level of “Imagine”. Borders are important. They’re adult. They clarify international relations and force nations to think for themselves as well as for others. The EU was bound to fail when put to it’s first real test because it was at the root a trading organization that got too big for it’s boots and began to see itself as a national entity, without of course any deep national foundation to build on. National bonds aren’t created by a set of rulings from Brussels. And so when a real existential crisis came along, the EU was immediately out of it’s depth. The issues around the single currency highlighted that fact. Coronavirus proved it. Also you should stop equating borders with jingoism, or “tribalism”, as you insist on calling it. I hate to break it to you but you are a hard wired tribal being, as are we all. Trying to deny that fact instead of accepting it and then learning to manage it has been at the root of so many delusions about internationalism and globalism. It’s time to get real.

kinelll086
kinelll086
4 years ago

How is wanting to control borders and wanting to preserve a culture “tribalism” ? its not !

MarieAthena Papathanasiou
MarieAthena Papathanasiou
4 years ago

In the middle of the pandemic Greece is still facing illegal entry on the Aegean Islands of smuggled migrants propelled by Turkey ,majority of which would not qualify for refugee status but still coming to claim asylum and get on benefits straight away.The EU taxpayer is paying for this parody of asylum. The UN is pressing the Greek Gov to allow illegal migrants to claim asylum and apparently the UN budget subsidises it . Unsusustainable migration policies must end as public health and safety are at risk

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
4 years ago

‘In modern times we have made some progress in this direction ” think of foreign aid, scientific co-operation and the United Nations.’

This is the funniest thing I have read in weeks.

Anna Clare Bryson
Anna Clare Bryson
4 years ago

It’s not just a matter of “tribalism” v “internationalism”. Most modern Western nation states are the products of long – sometimes very long and complicated social and institutional developments that originally had to overcome regional and local loyalties. And in some parts of the world the lack of positive nation building (partly because of the strength of genuine tribal, pan-tribal and religious fractures) is a major block to development.

It has always been a big problem for the EU (which for many years I enthusiastically supported), that in order to develop further real integration, it needed a “European people” – i.e. it needed the various different European populations to develop a real sense of solidarity – of identity, that would make the EU Parliament genuinely representative and open up the possibility of European government without a democratic deficit and too much of a tendency to technocracy. This has not happened… and I think it was unrealistic to think it would, because for most people, and for very deep-rooted linguistic, political and cultural reasons, not mere tribal instinct – the nation state is the main matrix of communal identity and institutional action above the local – the place where people feel relatively secure and able to participate effectively in politics and debate. This is the case even for people who are far from aggressively “nationalistic” in their politics.
Of course there is a place for international cooperation and all kinds of international organisation and links in all levels of social life. But the idea that these supranational bodies necessarily operate more virtuously and competently than national institutions is a strange snobbery.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

It has always been a big problem for the EU (which for many years I enthusiastically supported), that in order to develop further real integration, it needed a “European people” – i.e. it needed the various different European populations to develop a real sense of solidarity – of identity …

And failing that, it has arguably sought to dilute the sense of national identity – though clearly with only limited success.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
4 years ago

Like the Spanish Flu of a different age, the current pandemic won’t change the direction of history, but it will speed it up.

Does this mean anything at all?
A good article, in parts, (I agree with Fraser Bailey elsewhere in the comments), but spoiled by quite a few passages apparently written on autopilot which just seem to repeat the political mantras of a desiccated clerisy.

ken wilsher
ken wilsher
4 years ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

A desiccated clerisy – nice.

Spong Burlap
Spong Burlap
4 years ago

“60% of Greeks” want Konstantinoupolis back. A number far below the real number, very clearly!
As for our Magyar friends, so much land was arbitrarily removed by this or that hostile diktat during the 20thC.

Each have a right to be “tribal” — because of many many variables too complex to discuss in a brief manner. Both nations have good cause, surely.

Will D. Mann
Will D. Mann
4 years ago

Many in the South West of England would like a border of some kind with the rest of the UK if recent posts on social media are any guide.

robertbutterwick
robertbutterwick
4 years ago

I think it’ll take more than a pandemic to herald in a World government, but what it does reveal is that the EU isn’t fit for purpose. That the media is obsessed with Trump when it should be highlighting what is happening globally, particularly what the West isn’t doing. It appears that Putin’s luck may be running out. Who should help. Anyone. Would it be help for Putin, Russia or fellow human beings?

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
4 years ago

The reason Europeans stopped building walls around their cities in the 17th century was because they started to respect defensible national borders.

Call for open borders if you want, but expect walled cities as a result.

David Waring
David Waring
4 years ago

The current situation has just reinforced the view the EU is a waste of space which only considers those working in the Berlyamont and cares naught for its citizens who are required to pay for its salaries..

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Historians tell us the nation state is a modern concept

But interestingly the notion of a “people” seems to have far deeper roots, and the nation state is perhaps only a politicised and homogenised version of this.

We still have nothing like a complete picture, but genetic archaeology is starting to show that the lines around ethnic, language and cultural groups are often more rigid than we might have expected. Peoples can live side by side geographically for long periods of time, and yet remain remarkably distinct.

ken wilsher
ken wilsher
4 years ago

The articles in UnHerd may be poor (“political mantras of a desiccated clerisy” – thank you Dave) but the comments are terrific.
Keep it up…. maybe the message will get though eventually.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

“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?” This claim is surely an oversimplification; both it and the question that follows imply a neat model undermined by the complexities of actual historical development.

In many parts of the world regional unions preceded nation states. The tribes were incorporated into an empire (a “regional union”), which subsequently (much later in many cases) broke down into nation states. As late as the nineteenth century, virtually all of Eastern Europe was under imperial writ (Habsburg, Russian or Ottoman), and the empires were all ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse. Of course, the imperial authorities often delegated to local monarchs and chieftains, but the relevant territorial sub-units weren’t themselves especially logical in terms of “tribal” self-determination; thus, ethnic Germans with the same language and the same religion found themselves scattered among numerous separate principalities under the nominal authority of the Holy Roman Empire, as well is in many eastern cities beyond it.

In most cases, the disarticulation of imperial structures and subsequent process of national self-determination involved a deliberate attempt to create “tribal” feeling, either from above (consider the way in which “standard” Tuscan was imposed on speakers of everything from Friulian to Sicilian once the Kingdom of Italy came into being), or through the self-conscious activity of intellectuals (think of Finland, where the educated class, largely Swedish-speaking, made a deliberate effort to learn and adopt the Finnish language, Finnish names, etc). Consider also that at least some of these new nations cemented their tribal identity via mandatory population exchanges in a deliberate attempt to create homogeneity (that between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s being the most obvious example).

The EU is often regarded as a kind of postmodern, ahistorical structure. But I have often thought that it resembles nothing so much as an attempt to rebuild the liberal autocracy of the Habsburgs. Consider too that modern China, India and Russia, all vast and all ethnically and linguistically diverse, bear a much greater resemblance to the historic European empires than they do to modern nation states like, say, Portugal or the Czech Republic. The imperial model is still with us.

I’d add that in the middle ages most Europeans would probably have regarded themselves first and foremost not as members of their tribe, nor as subjects of their king, nor as inhabitants of a geographical territory – but as members of the Church and citizens of Christendom.

Tad Pringle
Tad Pringle
4 years ago

If Europe closes it’s borders how will it make up for the shortfall in rapists.

alan.coombs2
alan.coombs2
4 years ago

Just another rant from a d**khead remainer.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

“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?” This claim is surely an oversimplification; both it and the question that follows imply a neat model undermined by the complexities of actual historical development.

In many parts of the world regional unions preceded nation states. The tribes were incorporated into an empire (a “regional union”), which subsequently (much later in many cases) broke down into nation states. As late as the nineteenth century, virtually all of Eastern Europe was under imperial writ (Habsburg, Russian or Ottoman), and the empires were all ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse. Of course, the imperial authorities often delegated to local monarchs and chieftains, but the relevant territorial sub-units weren’t themselves especially logical in terms of “tribal” self-determination; thus, ethnic Germans with the same language and the same religion found themselves scattered among numerous separate principalities under the nominal authority of the Holy Roman Empire, as well is in many eastern cities beyond it.

In most cases, the disarticulation of imperial structures and subsequent process of national self-determination involved a deliberate attempt to create “tribal” feeling, either from above (consider the way in which “standard” Tuscan was imposed on speakers of everything from Friulian to Sicilian once the Kingdom of Italy came into being), or through the self-conscious activity of intellectuals (think of Finland, where the educated class, largely Swedish-speaking, made a deliberate effort to learn and adopt the Finnish language, Finnish names, etc). Consider also that at least some of these new nations cemented their tribal identity via mandatory population exchanges in a deliberate attempt to create homogeneity (that between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s being the most obvious example).

The EU is often regarded as a kind of postmodern, ahistorical structure. But I have often thought that it resembles nothing so much as an attempt to rebuild the liberal autocracy of the Habsburgs. Consider too that modern China, India and Russia, all vast and all ethnically and linguistically diverse, bear a much greater resemblance to the historic European empires than they do to modern nation states like, say, Portugal or the Czech Republic. The imperial model is still with us.

I’d add that in the middle ages most Europeans would probably have regarded themselves first and foremost not as members of their tribe, nor as subjects of their king, nor as inhabitants of a geographical territory – but as members of the Church and citizens of Christendom.

heslin415
heslin415
4 years ago

“The emotion is primal, and in times of crisis it strengthens.” 100% agree.

Borders will not disappear until all communities or nations become equally rich (not very likely in the foreseeable future). It’s just sad.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
4 years ago
Reply to  heslin415

Why do you think the absence of borders would make you any happier? Is there anywhere you can’t go with a little effort (in normal times, not now obviously)? Whether Alsace-Lorraine is in France or Germany is not a question of which country is richer.