The call for protectionism is loud in America. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

February 1, 2021   5 mins

It’s usually the smaller items that convey the biggest news. A few years ago Le Monde reported a study that found seven out of ten French people to be living in the region of France in which they were born. That finding surprised many people, including the reporter involved. After all, we think we live in a transitory world, yet a huge number of people still spend their entire lives close to home. Around 60% of British people live no more than 30 miles from where they resided as fourteen-year-olds.

No matter which university you visit, you’ll always find a research group focusing on mobility in some form or other, usually migration. It’s very rare, however, to find a team of researchers looking at immobility, even though only 3% of the world’s population is made up of immigrants. In Western Europe and the United States, those born in another country account for around 15% of the population, on average, and although it would be wrong to dismiss the changes that migration brings, clearly most people in any given country are not migrants.

This tendency to ignore the majority represents a blind spot that might almost be called a prejudice: mobility is good, immobility bad. It applies at the individual level as well as being an injunction aimed at large groups. The crossing of borders brings progress, since mixing keeps cultures alive. Who would deny that the urge to create and the exploration of boundaries go hand in hand?

And yet the number of international marriages remains limited. Few people leave their homeland to go and work in a foreign country. Few Europeans have sufficient command of another language to use it to discuss profound differences of opinion. More importantly, a sense of lifelong responsibility towards others does not travel well across borders. Despite all the stories about the virtual world we inhabit, proximity continues to matter.

Indeed, we rarely stop to think about it, but in everyday speech we use countless images that involve space: the political landscape, left and right, the opening up of a horizon, the path to the future, the centre ground. Terms like marketplace, battlefield, fault line and domain are more than merely specifications of place, and we sometimes describe grief as a journey, or troubled periods in our personal lives as an uphill struggle.

Post-1989 claims about the “end of history” — the idea that liberal democracy would inevitably win more and more terrain – were accompanied by the notion of the “end of geography”, a sense that distances would evaporate in the global village. Neither proved well-founded; democracy no longer seems inevitably universal, and we all live in worlds that are in many respects still confined.

Today it is no coincidence that the liberal paradigm is under pressure in the countries that most clearly embody it as a worldview: the United States and Britain. The British people’s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump in that same year are often, and rightly, mentioned in the same breath. It’s precisely in countries that see themselves as the advance guard of globalisation that the call for protectionism is loudest, or at any rate louder than in continental Europe, which has always wanted to practise a more moderate form of liberalism.

Populist parties have exposed social and cultural fault lines that we need to take seriously. Such movements are usually placed under the heading of “populism”, but “protectionism” would be a rather more accurate label. This causes considerable confusion, because protectionist parties are difficult to classify as either Left or Right. After all, the Rassemblement National and the FPÖ present themselves as defenders of the welfare state and oppose, for example, raising the pension age. A new fault line has therefore emerged on the political spectrum: internationalism versus protectionism.

Not long after the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, I heard a former European commissioner at an international conference in Copenhagen say, “While 30% make the noise, 70% continue to make the laws.” In response I asked: how can we be so sure that the 30% will remain a minority? And would it not be a good idea to take those voters seriously? Have we not learnt that democracy must ensure minorities are represented?

Doing away with internal borders without putting in place effective controls at the external border is one reason why the EU has struggled to contain populism. In a speech, the president of the European Union, Herman Van Rompuy, acknowledged this deficit: “Europe, the friend of freedom and space is seen as a threat to protection and place. We need to get the balance right. It is essential for the Union to be also on the protecting side.”

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has only sharpened the tension between the removal of borders and this need for protection. Indeed, although huge progress has been made since the Second World War in conquering infectious disease, globalisation has also created the preconditions for a rapidly spreading pandemic.

In Epidemics and Society, medical historian Frank Snowden described the long history of diseases such as bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, polio and tuberculosis. All these forms of pestilence stretch back centuries, but he regards the third plague pandemic, which began in 1894 in Hong Kong, as the first truly global spread of infection. Within six years the disease reached five continents, mainly through major port cities.

After decades of intense globalisation and urbanisation, our intrinsic vulnerability to infection has increased, despite better diagnosis and vaccines. “Epidemic diseases are an ineluctable part of the human condition,” Snowden writes: “and modernity, with its vast population, teeming cities, and rapid means of transport between them, guarantees that the infectious diseases that afflict one country have the potential to affect all.”

As a traditional saying from the shipping industry goes, one leak is enough to capsize an ocean steamer if no bulkheads have been built in the hold. The unlimited mobility characteristic of our era has many unintended consequences: a local infection in China can translate into a worldwide outbreak in just a few months, killing millions and throwing many more out of work. These days we should be making a thorough study of chaos theory, which tells us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in Texas. Sure enough, one damned bat from Wuhan brought the whole world to a standstill.

Countries have become more and more economically interlinked. It is of course a great advantage not to have to produce everything yourself, but the outbreak of coronavirus also shows the drawbacks of such dependency. A reduction in supplies from India and China can lead to a shortage of pharmaceuticals: 80% of the drugs sold worldwide come from those two countries. Would we not do better to produce essential medicines ourselves? One immediate lesson from the coronavirus pandemic is that we need to take a critical look at global dependencies.

It is not easy to navigate between a poorly understood cosmopolitanism and a new protectionism. Mobility can increase only if there are enough people who feel a bond with a place. In fluid circumstances everything dissolves — why would this not apply to freedom? The greatest challenge is to ensure that the mobility characteristic of our time can be reconciled with citizens’ rights.

In this borderless world, markets and morality reinforce each other, since borders and regulations are obstacles to both commerce and human rights. Hence businesspeople and idealists speak the same borderless language, of tearing down walls but also of tearing up the social contract, too, since it also takes shape within borders.

Italian novelist and cultural critic Alessandro Baricco nicely summed up this worldview when he said that, “Everything that has need of the steadfastness of immobility ultimately gets a twentieth-century stench and later a vaguely ominous sound as well.” Baricco’s conclusion was to “Boycott borders, tear down all walls, set up one open space in which everything must circulate. Demonize immobility.”

We often hear people expressing concern about the borders of freedom. Here I want to lay the emphasis on the freedom of the border. We need to learn to deal with the tension between openness and protection, a tension that is part and parcel of any lively democracy. An open society cannot exist if there is no middle ground.

For the average citizen, globalisation has a wide range of consequences: alongside interaction and prosperity, we see alienation and inequality. Pleas for open borders and pleas for closed borders are increasingly at odds, which does not bode well. If these fault lines become even more firmly fixed within our societies, and people feel forced to choose between two extremes, then it’s clear where most people will end up: on the side not of cosmopolitanism but of nationalism.

Freedom of the Border is published by Polity

Paul Scheffer is professor of European Studies at the University of Tilburg and author of Immigrant Nations (2011)