Lossi Asks: How Might the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect Attitudes Towards Border Policies in Central and Eastern Europe?12 min read
No one in Europe could have possibly missed out on the big news of the moment: the coronavirus is here. With the daily lives of 446 million EU inhabitants affected, the pandemic might constitute one of the most important events in recent history, and trigger deep social, political and economic changes in its aftermath.
In Central and Eastern Europe, the coronavirus crisis comes after recurrent questioning of the European Union in recent years, first and foremost open borders policy. In this context, national governments, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, have demonstrated a strong will to recover control over their borders and their populations. On the other hand, the coronavirus emergency might highlight the need for more cooperation and exchanges – of ideas, scientists, cures – between states. In that regard, closed borders may prevent isolated states to efficiently tackle the crisis.
To reflect upon the broader implications of the coronavirus crisis for the perception of free movement policies, and more generally of the European Union, in Central and Eastern Europe, Lossi 36 reached out to students and experts to ask them the following question: How might the COVID-19 pandemic affect attitudes towards border policies in Central and Eastern Europe?
From now on, it will be harder to criticize those who argue for tighter border policies.
Even though almost everything is uncertain these days, it’s already clear that Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán is trying to draw a connection between coronavirus and migration, providing a basis to his argument that stronger borders are conditions for immunity against a crisis.
However, in the long run, nationalist leaders also need to face reality: closed borders do not stop any pandemic but cause much more uncertainty; border shutdowns may help to keep the situation under control for a period of time but could easily lead to economic wounds. Countries which once relied heavily upon Western European car manufacturers now need to face the inevitable consequence: Audi and Mercedes did not suspend their production in Hungary because they had not seen potential buyers in the near future but more because, besides health protection, they could not manage to move the accessories and cars between countries due to new border policies.
On the other hand, this unprecedented pandemic might give more flexibility to leaders who seek strict border policies within their countries. Since almost every European country acted at the same time towards more border control to halt the spreading of the virus –– abandoning the idea of open borders, one of the most fundamental values of the European Union ––, from now on, it will be harder to criticize those who argue for tighter border policies. For separatist and nationalist leaders therefore, the best days are yet to come.
Márton Gera is a student at the University of Amsterdam, studying Sociology. He used to study at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, and wrote for Hungarian weekly magazines, including Magyar Narancs, Élet és Irodalom. He writes weekly movie reviews for the Slovakian newspaper, Új Szó.
It is difficult to imagine that people who have enjoyed freedom of movement with the rest of Europe for more than 15 years will tolerate rigid borders once the threat to their health disappears.
From December 1981 until the summer of 1983, in an effort to crush the Polish opposition, Poland’s communist government led by General Jaruzelski ordered people to stay at home while tanks rolled through peaceful but empty Polish cities. Today, images of the military being deployed in other parts of Europe in an effort to contain COVID-19 are far too familiar to the citizens of post-communist Central and Eastern Europe.
Now, being in complete isolation from their neighbours — both at the local and state levels — how will citizens of a once borderless Europe return to a life where their right to freedom of movement is reinstated? More importantly, will the governments in the CEE region, in particular in Poland and Hungary, be happy to renew normal and essential traffic with their neighbours? Or will the stringent control over the movement of populations be a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic for nationalistic governments?
One cannot help but think of Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary, which has already used the global pandemic as an excuse to usurp more power, indefinitely. Given that this was the same government that in 2015 erected a 523 kilometers wall on Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia in an effort to clamp down on migrant crossings, one can speculate that Orban’s government may be an avid proponent of tighter border policies, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for longer than it needs to be.
However, it is difficult to imagine that people who have enjoyed freedom of movement with the rest of Europe for more than 15 years will tolerate rigid borders once the threat to their health disappears. Although the memory of the iron curtain is still relatively fresh, it is hard to predict that citizens in CEE will want to revert to it. The people-to-people contact enjoyed in the European Union is essential to the functioning of the Union and it is a right, which far too many citizens have become accustomed to for it to be threatened long-term and without good reason.
Sofiya Kominko is a graduate student who is pursuing a double degree in politics and security with a focus on Russia and Eastern Europe at University College London and Jagiellonian University. Her research interests include transnational activism among Ukrainian migrants and reform making in Ukraine. Find her on Twitter @kominko_s.
What does seem certain is that once COVID-19 is eventually brought under control, questions will be asked about how well both national governments and the EU acted to resolve the crisis.
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic could be a game changer in Central and Eastern Europe. The long-term benefits of implementing strict border controls in the region to contain the spread of the virus has been heavily debated. However, the relative success or failure to deal with the problem has depended heavily on the actions of individual governments, rather than the coordinated efforts of the EU. And while physical borders in the region have now been almost completely closed, the alarming spread of disinformation has proved just as difficult to control.
Right-wing populists in power, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, have already sought to frame COVID-19 as a result of illegal immigration, and Polish Finance Minister Tadeusz Kocinski has criticised the EU’s financial response to the crisis. It will be interesting to observe whether others follow suit, as it appears that EU-scepticism and anti-immigration rhetoric may seem even more persuasive against the backdrop of a very real crisis on an unprecedented scale.
What does seem certain is that once COVID-19 is eventually brought under control, questions will be asked about how well both national governments and the EU acted to resolve the crisis. And while it may not be that reduced immigration is the answer, a major rethink about border policies across Central and Eastern Europe appears inevitable.
Michael Cole is an Early Stage Researcher on the FATIGUE Project, based in Tartu, Estonia. Follow him on Twitter here: @NotTheMikeCole. The FATIGUE project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under grant agreement No. 765224.
The point that the coronavirus proves, even more than other European crises, is that the final word in solving calamities belongs not to the EU, nor to the WHO, nor to any external geopolitical power, but to the nation-state.
The return of border closures in the pandemic can be analysed as part of a bigger development in Europe: the return of the nation-state. You may recall that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told us just two weeks ago, in Italian, that “today we are all Italians”. Unfortunately, these words turned out to be nothing but thin air. Brussels can’t help member states during a pandemic. That’s because there are very few sectors in the European citizens’ daily life that are impacted so little by European integration as our health sectors are. And so, every EU member state is taking a radically different approach to the coronavirus.
Merkel called the crisis the greatest challenge since World War II (a statement that probably won’t be welcomed by many East German victims of Stalinism). Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki positioned the challenge in a Catholic context of chastisement (“These weeks until Easter, they have to be weeks of social discipline”). Hungary’s Orbán attributed the calamity to foreigners (“It’s no coincidence that the virus first showed up among Iranians”).
The point that the coronavirus proves, even more than other European crises, is that the final word in solving calamities belongs not to the EU, nor to the WHO, nor to any external geopolitical power, but to the nation-state. Borders close right away, eyes are on the national leaders, and meetings in Brussels are cancelled. The coronavirus is a stark reminder that we still live in a world of nation-states. This conclusion is important, not just as a reality-check, but as a message to Europe’s nationalists who won’t give up their apocalyptic discourses after this pandemic: Dear European nationalists, where is your monstrous European Empire now? Where are the tentacles of the ever-growing Brusselian octopus? All we can see are sovereign nation-states in lockdown.
Jules Ortjens is a political scientist and journalist working for Dutch radio broadcasting station BNR and daily newspaper Trouw.
These measures were taken unilaterally by EU member states and partner countries, which goes against the inclusive, regional and integrated approach to border policies within the EaP.
Border policies have been central in the Eastern Partnership (EaP), which was launched in 2009 as a framework for dialogue and cooperation between the EU and 6 Eastern partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine). Thanks to free-trade agreements, mobility partnerships and visa facilitation agreements, borders have recently become more fluid for people, goods and services.
However, there are reasons to think that the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with some changes introduced in the new EaP strategy, might affect the EaP integrated approach to border policies. On 18 March 2020, the EU published the Joint Communication “Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020”. This document reaffirmed the importance of economic integration, interconnectivity, mobility partnerships, and people-to-people contacts. It put, however, greater emphasis on preventing illegal migration, combating organized crime, and strengthening security. In other words, on reinforcing controls and restrictions in border management.
In parallel, as a result of the virus development, EU and EaP countries have taken extraordinary measures, such as intensified checks at borders, (re)introduction of internal border crossings, strict travel bans, and closure of borders (including Armenia, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine). Importantly, these measures were taken unilaterally by EU member states and partner countries, which goes against the inclusive, regional and integrated approach to border policies within the EaP.
Thus, depending on the duration of the pandemic, there seems to be a risk that going back to “normal” will be difficult. Some countries might be tempted after the crisis to keep some of their extraordinary prerogatives on the management of borders. It is also conceivable that some will be more reluctant to implement the mobility partnerships and visa agreements. Finally, the greater emphasis on security in the post-2020 EaP might encourage these attitudes and lead to a more conservative approach to border management. If the EU wants to preserve the integrated approach to border policies within the EaP, it might need to pay particular attention to how individual member states and EaP countries behave as the crisis unfolds.
Yaëlle Oliva is a policy practitioner and analyst specialised in Russian studies, the EU external affairs and human rights. Her academic work focuses on the development of civil society in Russia, on the Russia-Israel relations, and on the Eastern Partnership (EaP). She graduated from INALCO, Sciences Po Paris and the College of Europe in Natolin and recently completed a Bluebook traineeship in DG NEAR at the European Commission.
There are other borders, however, which are being erected at the moment.
When it comes to South-East Europe, the border regimes in this region have already been far from loose even before the outbreak of the pandemic, as the only member of the Schengen area is Greece. Both citizens of the Balkan countries and migrants from other places have experienced the weight of Fortress Europe in different ways.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, this situation is likely to cement. There’s little chance that the current dominant nation-centric discourses around the crisis would boost a will for further integration. The great mismatch between EU’s market power and its prerogatives in healthcare and disaster management leaves the impression that nation states are left to deal with the pandemic alone. Yet, at a later point, when the economic dimension of the crisis is on the table, the EU will be able to do a lot to regain legitimacy as a key and necessary actor.
There are other borders, however, which are being erected at the moment. In several Bulgarian cities and towns Roma neighborhoods were put under special regimes of crossing, as well as under drone surveillance and monitoring. Such policies, directed particularly at Roma, send a rather disturbing message to the public. The group-shaming and blaming articulated by the authorities today displaces the focus and creates a scapegoating narrative. Instead of withdrawing from the deeply rooted institutionalized xenophobia and trying to include the minorities in the fight against the pandemic, the authorities chose to employ xenophobic rhetoric. Instead of tackling the real problems related to the poor living conditions which many Bulgarian citizens suffer, the politicians chose to undertake discriminatory policies based on ethnicity. The borders for Roma in Bulgaria are not new and they have been constantly reproduced in the last decades. However, the current situation exacerbates the tensions and brings to the surface the results of a long-standing pattern of discrimination and neglect.