The Maastricht Diplomat

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  • Lee-Ann Lichtenberger

Forgotten borders?

A thought on borders from one of Europe’s smallest countries

Photo: @jannikkiel / unsplash

For many people of our generation who have been born and raised in Europe, borders no longer have the significance they once had for our parents or grandparents. I will take you to the birthplace of the Schengen Area, which also happens to be the country I’m from: Luxembourg.


Growing up in Luxembourg, crossing borders has never seemed special to me. Due to the country’s small size – one can cross it at the widest point in two hours – it is a normal part of everyday life for Luxembourg’s citizens to quickly go buy groceries across the border. Cross-border commuting is in fact very popular: around 200’000 people who live in the so-called “Greater Region”, just across the border in one of Luxembourg’s neighbouring countries, commute every day to their workplace in Luxembourg. Compared to Luxembourg’s total population of around 630’000, this daily flow of commuters is a significant aspect of life in Luxembourg.


But that reality is a relatively new one. Before the introduction of the Euro and Schengen areas, crossing the border was more complicated.


The German city Trier, for example, has been a popular shopping destination for Luxembourg’s citizens for a few decades. When I was a kid, my family and I would go there very often. But crossing the border was never sensational: we would drive over a bridge and, just like that, we had already arrived in Germany. However, I remember how my parents told me what their trips to Trier looked like when they were kids. My grandparents had to make sure to change currency beforehand, they had to learn the currency rates to know whether the prices were reasonable, make sure to not take too much of certain products to the other country, and they had to deal with waiting quite some time at the border to get through border posts, especially during the summer season.


The idea of living in a version of Luxembourg where border controls are inevitable when going to one of the neighbouring regions appears to me to be a relic of a distant past. Over the years, the country has also become somewhat dependent on open borders. During last year’s lockdown, it became clear that the Luxembourgish health system would collapse if borders were closed, as cross-border workers represent around 65% of the country’s nurses. The pandemic gave me a new awareness of how important international cooperation on cross-border flows is.


Recent events made evident how valuable open borders can be. In Europe, however, I feel like the open borders of the Schengen area are often taken for granted. Yes, the pandemic made everyday life for Europeans that rely on cross-border commuting more difficult. But Europeans sometimes seem to forget how serious the situation in other border regions can really be.


The relation between North and South Korea is probably one of the most drastic examples. For more than 50 years, one of the world’s most militarized borders has been separating two countries whose cultures and histories are extremely intertwined. The establishment of the border has divided numerous Korean families, and even today, many of these families remain unable to reunite. Shifting the focus to North America, the Mexico-United States border has probably been one of the main topics discussed during Trump’s presidency. In August, The Guardian published an article stating that the parents of more than 300 children who have been separated at this border in the past years are still missing. Finally, the current situation in Afghanistan has forced thousands of people to flee their homes. They are trying to get to the borders, hoping to find refuge in one of the neighbouring countries. The reaction of the international community – either opening borders to take in refugees or keeping them closed – is strongly influencing the fate of the refugees that are trapped inside Afghanistan’s borders.


When looking at these global issues, the sudden closing of the Schengen Area’s internal borders at the beginning of the pandemic and the problems it has caused haven’t been but a glimpse of what it means to not have open borders. The closed internal borders have provoked an increased feeling of uncertainty and people started to question the meaning of the Schengen Area.


In order to understand what closed borders really mean, we don’t even have to look far beyond Europe’s extremities. A look at the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea is already enough. The decision of opening or closing one’s borders can become a question of life and death. However, the nations of Southern Europe or Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries are overwhelmed by the number of refugees and generally do not want to open their borders. Nations that are confronted the hardest by the refugee waves shouldn’t have to manage this situation alone. We need better policies to make sure that people who must flee their home countries due to war, persecution, natural catastrophes or other disasters – things that many of us can’t even imagine – finally get the support they require. We must call for a stronger international cooperation to even have the slightest chance of helping the millions of people that are being affected. We must not forget about the extreme situations that occur in border regions around the world.

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