One of the most talked about borders in Europe right now is the one separating Northern Ireland from the Republic, as its future is pending. For the moment, this border is not unlike any other internal EU crossing, with many inhabitants of the border region crossing it daily without thinking much of it. But in this case, this comes after years of torment and conflict between the two sides. Although an extreme example, many now-peaceful internal borders are shrouding a more volatile history, when rather than the imaginary lines they may seem today, they once marked the charged frontiers between two radically different civilizations.
Out of all EU member states, Ireland is foreseen to be dealt the hardest blow after Brexit. A restoration of border controls would be a disaster for the country’s already scarred relations to Northern Ireland; so much so that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar demanded a written guarantee from Westminster that the hard border historically dividing the two will not be brought back.
Generally speaking, border regions in the EU are home to 150 million inhabitants and represent 40% of EU territory. That means almost half of EU regions are situated next to an international border. Perhaps this means international travel as a daily work commute, kids going to school in one country and returning home to another, or even finding that your nearest hospital, airport or shopping centre just so happens to be abroad. The two countries being within the EU Customs Union definitely makes certain things easier for the locals in these regions – even a novelty at times – but it can also be a nuisance. What then does living in one of the EU’s border regions really entail today? I asked young people who have experienced this first-hand to share their stories.
Salzburg, Austria, near the German border
Beatrice (28) has fond memories of being brought up in northern Italy, just close to the Swiss border:
“I remember that during winter my family would go on short trips to Switzerland to let me and my brother play in the snow – it snows much more on the Swiss side of the Alps. We would always stop at the gasoline station to fill the car with fuel. It is quite a bit cheaper in Switzerland, and my father always waited to have a minimum level of fuel before planning our trip! It was quite amusing, as you could mostly see Italian cars at the gasoline station – all the people who stopped there for the cheaper fuel, cigarettes and sweets.”
Villa di Chiavenna, Italy, a stone’s throw away from the Swiss-Italian border
“It is kind of common in my area to live in Italy and work in Switzerland, as the wages are better there. However, not everybody could work across the border, and the Swiss government used to limit this to people living in a province close to the border.”
Now working in Luxembourg, Beatrice witnesses similar tactical border crossing:
“A lot of people will go to Trier in Germany to shop for clothes, shoes, cosmetics or cleaning products, as it takes only half an hour to get there and things are much cheaper. A lot of my colleagues live in Germany or France and commute daily, as life is less expensive there and they get much better value for their money.”
Similarly, Ida (23) grew up in Croatia and claims frequent trips across the nearby border to Bosnia and Herzegovina for weekly shopping was some sort of national hobby:
“Shopping in Bosnia is what most Croatians do – I guess because everything is so much cheaper!”
David, (22) who spent some time living in Strasbourg on the French side of the Franco-German border also made the most of the economical perks of living in a border region:
“I had a list with the goods I needed to buy. Some goods were cheaper in Kehl in Germany while others were cheaper in Strasbourg… Depending on how my fridge looked like, I was shopping in one or the other country!”
Strasbourg, France, near the Franco-German Border
This is another border with a heavy history, with Strasbourg being part of the Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine which was occupied by the German Empire in 1871, after it annexed most of Alsace and the Moselle department of Lorraine following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War. As a result, these regions not only have the expected cultural influence of the neighbouring country, with it being so close to the border, but having been historically a part of both sides, its identity is complicated further. Nowadays, crossing the border may be as easy as any trip to the supermarket. However, it must be remembered that is took centuries of struggle to get to this point.
Furthermore, it’s not just general groceries many of these border-dwellers are taking advantage of. On the Dutch-German border, German students are known to make the most of their proximity to a country with notoriously relaxed drug policies, many of them even getting arrested once back on German soil in their attempts to bring substances back home with them. Likewise, Swedes close to the Danish border are known to hop over to Denmark in search of alcohol, with hordes of them filling Danish shops in border towns before merrily clinking all the way back to Sweden, where alcohol restrictions are much tighter.
So, is traveling to another country and back as part of your daily routine the exciting cosmopolitan dream some of us deem it to be? Border hopping on a daily basis has become so normal for Beatrice that to her, it is just a part of life:
“When you are brought up close to a border it feels kind of normal to be honest, it is the first reality you experience and it is somehow surprising when people think it is “odd” or “special.””
Teresa (23), who grew up in the Spanish pyrenean town of Puigcerdà, just near the French border, reminisces:
“All my cousins and I have pictures of our ‘first trip abroad’ as babies… which meant crossing the bridge that goes beyond the river Segre, which is also the French-Spanish border. Big adventure abroad indeed!”
Petra (25) on the other hand, who moved close to the Danish-German border later in life for her studies, was understandably a little more excited about her frequent trips to and fro:
“I very often went biking in the forest or sailing on the Baltic sea with my friends, not even realising that I crossed an international border! I loved it, it felt so special, such a privilege, like wow – I dreamt about this as a child!”
Petra by the Danish-German border
Despite the perks of being able to regularly drift from one country to another, the convenient proximity to citizens and businesses from other EU countries has not yet brought the full benefits that it should. You might assume that border regions should profit more than others from the benefits of the Single Market. However, unfortunately for them, the full economic potential of this geographical situation remains untapped. The reality of this on-the-fence position between two countries means navigating between two different administrative and legal systems – both expensive and irritating. These differences in rules and procedures are often hard to overcome. Cross-border job services are still few and far between across the EU, and getting reliable and comprehensible information on different tax or social security regimes can be quite difficult- from different procedures for reimbursement of medical services, to a lack of connections between public transport systems, to those cumbersome language barriers.
The European Commission seems determined to tackle these problems. In line with President Juncker’s call to ensure fairness in the Single Market in his 2017 State of the Union speech, the Border Focal Point project aims to help border regions to work better with their neighbours. To make border region public services more convenient for locals, the Border Focal Point will map existing cross-border healthcare facilities, and showcase good examples, such as the Franco-Belgian cross-border healthcare zones. It will also locate the missing rail links along international borders within the EU for more efficient cross-border public transport services. (Find out more about the Border Focal Point project on the EU fact sheet: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-17-3271_en.htm )
When Miguel (26) studied in Salzburg by the Austro-German border, he found himself regularly cycling between the two countries: “The road connections were great, meaning I could easily go back and forth when I needed to.” In this case, it seems that inhabitants can travel across the border relatively easily. It just goes to show that when real attention is paid to the infrastructure connecting the two countries, living in border regions becomes a lot more practical.
Miguel cycling across the Austro-German border with his nephew, Abel.
So, “living on the edge” can be fun at times but also seems to include a lot of extra fuss and paperwork if not given enough attention by regional and national governments. Maybe one day, if internal EU borders ever disintegrate completely, so will the issues they can bring to those living in these regions. In the meantime, there have been many cases of national governments attempting to make life easier for those in this situation, whether it be France and Germany lowering travel costs to make it more affordable to hop over to the other side, Hungary and Slovakia’s emergency services now responding to emergencies across the border, Latvia and Estonia’s healthcare systems making it easier to get medical attention when your nearest hospital is on the opposite side, or Spain and Portugal agreeing that inhabitants can now train and qualify in one country, then work in another.
As the EU becomes more about cooperation rather than separation, and international movement becomes not only more common but quite frankly, pretty difficult to avoid, border control policy needs to adapt to match this new fluid and cosmopolitan union.
As for the situation in Ireland? The Irish government proposed that Northern Ireland receive a special status post-Brexit, even if the UK does leave the customs union. For many years, those living at the Irish border have profited from free movement, patching relations between the two sides. To go all the way back to square one would be a huge blow to the progress that has been made since the peace process of the 1990s and the eventual Good Friday Agreement of 1999. The memory of the divisions between Northern Ireland and the Republic are still in living memory, meaning their relationship is still healing. RTE Europe Editor Tony Connelly lamented that “despite the great gains of the peace process, the border is now back in Irish politics.” (Taken from his speech at the IIEA, Dublin: https://www.iiea.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Tony-Connelly-RTE-Europe-Editor-Speech.pdf)
This is a prime example of how freedom of movement between neighbouring countries and the cooperation between their respective border regions is profoundly important.
Although seemingly frivolous, anecdotes about our generation crossing borders without a second thought, often with only cheap groceries or alcohol on their mind, or perhaps not even noticing at all, this encourages reflection upon how far many of these regions have come to ensure free and peaceful movement between the two countries.
Hopefully in the case of Ireland, the two sides will come to a practical and sustainable arrangement to avoid opening old wounds. Although this border is not new, its shifting situation has brought to attention the modern-day quirks, as well as the past struggles, of living straddled between two nations. Whatever comes of this problematic side-effect of Brexit, one thing is for sure: although borders now seem imaginary to many of us, we would do good to remember that for now, they are still very real on paper; the fences could go back up again at any moment if we let them.