Just like any geographical entity, borders have several dimensions. They can be symbolic, cultural, religious, political, economical, blurred or sharp, imaginary or tangible. Of course, most contemporary debates about borders are focusing on political ones (also becoming economical ones, from the South to the North), as they are the only one capable of physically stopping flows of people and things.
We never lived in such a globalized world, yet physical walls, made of concrete and fences, have never been so numerous on the surface of the planet. Political separations between nation-states – or, just where limits are blurred between the nation (identity and belonging) and the state (institutions sovereignty) – are definitely the center of the debate (think about the Palestinian territories, Korea, Northern Ireland or the Moroccan desert for instance), as the stakes are huge for governments and inhabitants.
It feels like the more “borderless” the business world is (every idea and business model is now competing directly with the rest of the planet), the stronger nationalism and local identities can become to reject uniformization. On the other hand, ideologies of universalism, “global citizenship”, ubiquity of basic human rights and cosmopolitan identities have never been so powerful since we became aware of our planet uniqueness and limits.
So questioning borders equals questioning the legitimacy of the national scale (and institutions) to be the political unit of our global contemporary world. Great minds of our time like Saskia Sassen and Martha Nussbaum have developed fascinating reflexions on this duality between the global scale of a world market dominated by “world cities”, going over national boundaries, and national institutions caught in the fire, either fighting against or taking advantage of this global competition between very local actors (like cities, firms and industrial regions).
The European Union is like a microcosm of this global versus national competition: at a global scale, the european nation-states taken individually are not competitive enough and seem to be stronger when working together as an economical alliance. However, when you take a closer look it is obvious that important inequalities and levels of competitiveness can be spotted between a north-western EU and a south-eastern one – today rising to the point of questioning the european economical project viability. Local nationalism (Catalonia, Scotland, Pays Basque…) are weakening nation-states legitimacy “from below”, as powerful firms and metropolis are contesting national governments authority from “above”.
One other striking thing about EU is that if borders within the EU almost disappeared (free circulation),borders around the EU are among the most impenetrable of the world. From within, cross-border collaborations are developed, often based on historical and cultural regions that used to belong to the same tradition. Instruments of collaboration are being developed (such as the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation) and maintained to ensure high quality collaboration between neighbors – as it seems not to be such a “natural” and spontaneous way to go.
As Mátyás JASCHITZ states, in his paper “Key Factors for Successful Territorial Cohesion: Cross-Border Cooperation”, from the European Journal of Geography Special Issue on Borders:
“Summarising the findings of this study three topics stand out. Firstly, considering the territorial disparities of Europe, EU cohesion policy and the special role of the borders, it can be stated that without successful cross-border cooperation structures, real territorial cohesion cannot be realised. The role of the borders – slowing down, breaking and reshaping spatial communication – is so strong such that the course of the activities in overcoming the territorial differences could be underestimated”
Although, from the outside, the european fortress appears like one cohesive block of countries with very few weak spot overflowed by thousands of migrants trying to get in, leading to many drama. So yes, borders are still powerful political lines proving that the nation-state is the dominant political unit of our globalized world, but also borders have changing meanings and definitions depending on them beinginternal or external.
Are we ready to live in a world without (national) borders? It does not feel that way. Even if informal networks, nongovernmental organizations and civil institutions fill up the need for international cooperation where policies are missing, international federations like the EU is financing projects to reinforce cross-border collaboration – not projects aiming to get rid of borders. It looks more like a logic of working “despite” and “around” the handicap of borders than actively putting efforts to kill the nation-state system – that would of course raise violent protestations.
Powerful institutions evolving above the national scale (economical alliances, firms, cities, even the United Nations) must find clever ways to go around the issues caused by borders (wich often means, go above states authority), but without questioning officially the sovereignty of the states. That leads to a very complicated game, demanding a lot of time and resources, to preserve the world system as it is – maybe also because no one has ever proposed a serious alternative we could switch for fast and safely enough.