Has Covid killed the EU's dream of open borders?

23 January 2021

4:28 AM

23 January 2021

4:28 AM

‘All non-essential travel should be strongly discouraged both within the country and of course across borders,’ Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, has said. As a result of the Covid crisis, the dream of open borders across the continent of Europe has never seemed so imperilled. Meanwhile, a post-Brexit Britain has the ability to flex its borders as much as it chooses. To some Brexiteers, this alone makes Brexit worth it.

The Schengen agreement was signed in 1985 and became pan-EU in 1999, meaning that, from then on, any country without an opt-out needed to allow free movement of people from any other signatory country (almost all of the rest of the European Union). The United Kingdom and Ireland were amongst the few countries within the EU to opt out, meaning that, while freedom of movement still applied in those countries, it was tempered by the ability to carry out passport checks. The instincts that led to the opt-out of Schengen by the UK were the very same that led to Brexit two decades later.

And in the midst of a health crisis that makes open borders seem positively utopian, Brexit Britain appears to some to be on the right side of history on this argument. Whereas the EU countries are being forced to try and co-ordinate their way out of this pandemic border issue, with all of the headaches and compromises that entails, a newly independent Britain is free to make whatever choices work for it and it alone.

Having said all that, there are several important things to point out here. One is that any travel anywhere whatsoever is a problem at present. Put another way, even if we were still in the EU, not only could I not go to France anyhow, I can’t even go to Kent due to lockdown rules. The problem for the moment isn’t really open borders so much as the fact that we have been forced to restrict people to their absolute immediate areas. Schengen-style borders may seem absurd in light of all this, but only because no one can leave their house, never mind their country.

Another is that Covid is not going to last forever, thank God. What we are witnessing is a temporary problem as opposed to some eternal rebuttal of the Schengen model. The borders need to close across Europe because of a pandemic; yet they will open up again once Covid has been contained, however long that might take. In other words, this is a temporary shift in immigration viewpoint within the European Union as opposed to a permanent change. It neither proves nor disproves the validity of the Schengen system.

Brexiteers should also consider that the same arguments for closing borders across Europe due to coronavirus are along the same lines as the ones made around the curbing of civil liberties and lockdowns going on infinitum. As ever, what Brexit means in terms of protectionism vs free trade buccaneering, the open vs the closed, remains up for debate. Leavers can point out here that at least in a post-Brexit world that choice is solely up to the people of this country.

The final thing to say is that despite having total control over the border, the British government haven’t done much with it so far. Perhaps judging them on a few weeks work is unfair, but you do have to wonder why the basic checks that we could have put in place even when freedom of movement applied are still not fully operational in a post-transition Britain. There is also the small matter of the number of boats arriving into Dover filled with illegal migrants. It seems thus far that being out of the EU has not diminished this movement of people.

So has the EU’s open borders policy imperilled its fight against Covid? I’m not convinced. Covid border closures do not make the case that such things were the right thing all along any more than Covid lockdowns make the case that keeping people in their houses was always the correct thing to do no matter what. This post-Brexit period to date has also shown that just because the British government has control of something, that doesn’t mean it will always do the sensible thing with that newfound sovereignty.

On the whole, Brexit Britain has a long way to go until it demonstrates it can make ample use of the independence Brexit offers – particularly when it comes to the country’s borders. Meanwhile, the fact that Covid restrictions continue may have one silver lining for the UK government: the problems involved in being outside of the EU for British tourists will be delayed in being felt. It remains to be seen how much sovereignty really means to people while they stand in a four-hour queue at Malaga airport. Borders being more open have both their upsides as well as downsides, as we’ll find out once this crisis is at an end.

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