Mobilities, neo-nationalism and the lockdown of Europe: will the European Union survive?

Published 14 April 2020 / By Adrian Favell and Ettore Recchi

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


European regional integration was built on cross-border human mobilities and social transactions. A disease that has spread through expansive human travel and unconstrained human interaction has now been tackled everywhere with immobility and social lockdown within tightly bounded national units. The pandemic is raising echoes of the Dark Continent—that is, Europe’s dismal pre-1945 past analysed so chillingly by historian Mark Mazower—as well as many revived utopian ideas about community, collective responsibility, ecological consciousness, or a new and proactive focus on welfare coverage and public health. In any case the European Union may never be the same after the crisis, if indeed it survives.

As we stress in the book Everyday Europe, a clear shift away from mobilities and transactionalism was afoot in the years preceding the present cataclysmic global event. The European integration project was premised on an economic model based on the usual capitalist triumvirate of free moving capital, goods and services, to which it added a distinctive European hallmark: the free movement of people. The European Union’s highly elaborated legal framework of free movement and supranational citizenship is an exception in a globalised world where cross-country movements were still heavily constrained and shaped by nation-state borders. Implicit in this unique free movement regime is the expectation that the pattern of mobilities it enabled would enhance European peace, cooperation and growth.

One of the sharpest consequences of the European crisis of the last decade has however been growing inequalities between countries. There have been polarising “winners and losers” dynamics and human resources drain, both between South and North and East and West, as well as within countries—typically between global/globalising cities and marginal peripheries. This in turn has fuelled populist resentment,  the so-called “Euroclash” or “left behind” backlash. At the same time, Europe's greatest achievement—the everyday social transnationalism that is a product of 50+ years of cross-border cooperation and transactions in the mode first spelt out by IR theorist Karl Deutsch—has drifted increasingly apart from collective expressions of political will.

A generational shift may be afoot too. The incipient self-constrained mobilities of some millennials (usually in the name of ecological sustainability, as well as evolving virtual social media practices), appear to be fundamentally diverging from the habits of their epically mobile predecessor generation. The ultra-mobile cosmopolitan Euro-globalists of the 1990s and 2000s are now going to lose out or change their ways. Possibly mobilities in the future will be more virtual, and social transnationalism, if it survives, will not be based so easily on endless physical mobilities and interactions. A new balance may need to be found between individual freedoms, inequalities and the unfair distribution of mobility opportunities, and the sustainability of mobile transport and logistics systems.

This is where a little science fiction may help us see the future. Imagine the re-nationalised world we may be about to inherit. We have been quarantined in our designated national unit, and we have been told that all international travel is cancelled, except for those returning “home”. “Home” has been assumed everywhere to be one’s bounded nationality. We have sat it out in our nation-states, sharing a “national” fate. This has meant enduring in many places crude evocations of patriotic virtue and collective nationalist identity. At the end of this, borders will be opened one by one selectively with other nations on a preferential, highly negotiated basis—implying visas for individuals based on citizenship and health clearance, and most likely a whole range of stratified criteria, from fast track to absolute prohibition.

Eugenic properties in future may be the standard, correlated most likely with wealth and privilege. For sure, nations have relearned their best default position: Danish for the Danes, Poland for the Poles, France for the French (etc), minus as far as possible the weak, unfirm, and unhealthy, behind strictly controlled borders. Perhaps crude political power relations and favours for favours will yield a new regime of “unfreedom of movement” in Europe, and beyond? It may be stratified in all kinds of ways—but certainly favouring those of better, “healthy” stock, with national passport visas stamped for border clearance.

Intriguingly, certain aspects of the new nation-state centred politics and shared health destiny may be more egalitarian than the world of socially polarised transnationalism. Nation-states are relearning old welfarist truisms; pure market-driven “roll-back” neoliberalism may be in abeyance, while there may be a lot of continuity with “roll-out” neoliberal forms—that is, state-centred governmentality. To these powers, there will surely be a heightened concern with the eugenic dimensions of managed citizenries: selecting the “fit” for economic purpose, and in judging how much un-healthiness the national welfare state can bear.

The pandemic is thus an exogeneous shock that may align with pre-existing tendencies albeit perversely. Coronavirus crowns the advance of neo-nationalism over the last decade and legitimises it through an apparently universal imperative: physical survival. Staying safe means staying immobile. Social distancing (and the end of physical transactionalism) may ascend to become a core principle of international relations. Of course, this is only one possible scenario, and a longing for freedom and mobility may also resurface at the end of the pandemic. But this is likely to be even more stratified in its patterning than it ever was under “neoliberal” globalisation or European regional integration.


Adrian Favell is Chair in Sociology and Social Theory at the University of Leeds, and Ettore Recchi is Professor of Sociology at Sciences Po, Paris and Migration Policy Centre, EUI, Florence. They are the editors of the collectively authored work, Everyday Europe: Social Transnationalism in an Unsettled Continent (Policy Press: 2019).

paper boat with torn EU flag