Borders never disappear

Published 5 May 2020 / By Agnieszka Halemba

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.


As COVID-19 began to spread in Europe, I was finishing an article on “border as a resource”, based on research (here -in Polish) in the northern part of the German-Polish borderland. My focus group were Polish citizens who bought houses in Germany and live there, but still carry on with much of their economic and social activities in Poland. They cross the state border several times a day. They are a main beneficiary of the internal European “open borders” policies.

Using Sarah Green’s approach in the Crosslocations project, I showed how they shape their lives thanks to the border’s virtual and actual presence. I analysed how border marks various differences (in type and price of available housing, access and quality of health care, social relations built on both sides, forms of education for children, possibilities of language learning, business and work opportunities), which people use to what they perceive as their best advantage.

In this approach border is not only a line, which can be crossed in a particular place, but also a bundle of opportunities and obligations, which, under some circumstances, can be played around with. Most importantly, I observed that, as long as it doesn’t take too long, my interlocutors aren’t bothered if border guards check their passports or the boots of their cars. As a local, they say, one would soon get to know border guards and cross swiftly. One of my interlocutors said: "closing of the borders would be a problem for European Union, not for us".

Then came COVID-19 and on 15 March Poland closed free movement across its borders.

At first, local news suggested that the Polish government required everyone from abroad to be quarantined for 14 days. But this requirement was waivered for daily cross-border commuters. It seemed that my interlocutors were completely right with their reasoning – they were exempt from the heaviest burden related to crossing the border. Still, they could not cross the border just on any country road as they used to only a few weeks previously (those were blocked by barriers). They had to drive to a few selected crossing points and it turned out that they were stuck in up to 60 kilometres-long traffic jams leading to the border due to new measures at the border checking passengers’ passport, temperature, and documents related to cross-border commuter status. Online, there were immediately discussions on how to evade such controls (e.g. drive to the old border trench on a small dirt road, cross on foot and get into friend’s car waiting on the other side). When the simplified controls and additional crossing points for commuters were introduced on the 18 March, the problem seemed to disappear. Starting on 27 March however, the Polish government reintroduced the obligatory 14-days quarantine for almost everyone and the daily cross border mobility became legally impossible.

For German hospitals, factories and nursing homes the fact that Polish workers had to go into 14 day quarantine every time they crossed the border to Poland meant that they could lose many of their Polish workers when they needed them most. Employers in Germany were concerned that people would decide to stay in Poland, with their families. The bordering German states decided therefore to pay considerable per diem money (up to 65 EUR per day) to each worker from a neighbouring country who decided to stay in Germany to continue his/her work. However, money does not really solve the problem. People still want to be with their families. Additionally, Polish pupils going to German schools  have to get back to school now to take their A-levels; people can have a medical procedure booked in a German hospital;  yet other people want to take care of their elderly parents living in the other country. For those people a possibility of crossing the border on a daily basis is also important. Because of the requirement of the 14-day quarantine, the border, which until recently was perceived as a useful resource to enable navigation between obligations, restrictions and possibilities offered by various states, became a barrier.

On the 24 April 2020 the first wave of protest along Polish-German and Polish-Czech borders began, demanding to remove the 14-days quarantine requirement at least for cross-border commuters. Many people gathered on both sides of the border, with local German authorities, worried about economic losses, looking leniently from a distance, in contrast to considerably greater border guards’ presence on the Polish side.

Why should mobility across state borders be treated differently than travel between two locations inside the state territory? Why it is so easy to close the state border, disregarding the business, family and education ties across the border that were developed in the last 30 years? Once designated and made into material forms in the landscape, borders leave traces, most importantly infrastructure - a place next to the road where a police car can stand; a bridge over a river; a trench. They can be easily closed. The Polish-German border is only one of many borders that were closed or re-erected in the recent weeks, which in many respects were considered as non-existent: borders between districts, regions and towns.  It seems that every border established at some stage in history never truly disappears.

How will the present situation shape the attitudes towards the border in the long term? Will people still see the border as an opportunity and resource after they experience the present difficulties?

A border is an important economic resource for individuals as well as countries – this is why the heads of the German federate states pleaded with the Polish government in late April to open the border for transborder workers. Still, state border is also an incarnation of national sovereignty and control. In the present situation at least some nation-states reconfirm their power in such ways that people will think twice about leading a cross-border life in the future.

(UPDATE - On 4 May, the Polish government waived quarantine for cross-border workers and pupils, excluding those working in medical professions. The border is also still closed for those living next to it, and wanting to cross it for other reasons than work. It is also closed for children of cross-border workers.)

Agnieszka Halemba is an anthropologist at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences.

Border between Germany and Poland closed