The post-modern EU can learn from the medieval concept of borders.

Jan Zielonka argued in his book "Europe as Empire" that Europe is becoming a neo-medieval empire with ‘overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, diversified institutional arrangements, and multiple identities' with ‘fuzzy cultural, economic and political borders between the enlarged Union and its new neighbours further east and south east'. Indeed, the medieval parallel is useful in thinking about Europe's borders, but a more accurate comparison is probably to think about medieval fortresses, not borders.

Exporting border controls

A fortress has multiple lines of defence - a dungeon as the hard nucleus and defensive walls, but also external fortifications such as ditches or earthworks (see a formidable fortress, left). The EU has been developing a similarly multilayered system of border management and protection with elements of outside fortifications. With the Schengen area as the dungeon, and the new EU member states, not yet in Schengen but already separated from the outside world by a strong visa wall, the EU has started to build outside fortifications.

Medieval Fortress The EU is as keen to engage in border management cooperation with its neighbours, as it is sceptical of facilitation of trade or visas. The EU has currently deployed four EU operations in its Eastern and Southern neighbourhood, and three of them are border assistance missions - the EU Border Assistance Mission to Ukraine and Moldova (EUBAM), a EUBAM Rafah (Palestine) and a tiny EU Border Support Team to Georgia. Moreover, when in spring 2008 the EU Special Representative for South Caucasus put forward possible ways for the EU to step up its engagement in the conflict region of Abkhazia, these also focused on border management dialogue. In many ways the EU is exporting its preoccupation for illegal migration, trafficking and organised crime to its neighbours.

To make sure EU border missions are important for making its neighbourhood a better place. But the EU's export of border controls has to be complemented with similar activism on trade and visa facilitation, which are its neighbour's true priorities. There are many things a post-modern Europe can learn from medieval Europe. Building multi-line defences as a technical solution to border controls is one thing. But the EU has to learn more from the medieval concept of borders, as well. Not how to manage defences, but what borders are and how to manage borderlands.

Borderlines vs borderlands

The notion of "borders" has many meanings, hence the proliferation of related terms such as frontier, boundary, borderland, limes, rim etc. A border can be a fixed line of demarcation. A borderland or frontier are more difficult to define. They imply the existence of grey transitory area between one jurisdiction to another. As in medieval times borderlands can be ‘a relatively undeveloped, thinly populated, outlying zone or rimland, a marginal region into which an advanced civilization introduces colonists as permanent settlers' (The Frontier in Medieval History). Or they can be some kind of cross-roads where multiple languages, currencies, religions and ethnic groups interact, mingle and prosper (think of Geneva, the Savoy Kingdom, Vojvodina or the Low Countries).

Conceptually borders and frontiers are antonyms. In the last century and a half modern borderlines have destroyed many borderlands. Passports, currencies and visas have relegated frontier regions to symbols of divisions, not cross-roads. The fixed borders of nation-states were set to delineate cultures, languages, currencies, and mobile telephony operators, not mingle them. In frontier regions people interacted, multiple currencies circulated, overlapping sovereignties were clashing, while locals spoke easily two-three languages. In many ways the “fixed, durable and inflexible requirements of borders clash with the unstable, transient and flexible requirements of people” (Medieval Frontiers: Concepts and Practices)   

The EU's relationship to borders is double-edged. While the EU has been eliminating borders inside Europe, but its outside borders were becoming increasingly restrictive. Witness the example of two of EU's Eastern neighbours: Moldova and Ukraine. Just a few years ago these countries had visa-free regimes with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. After Central Europe joined the EU, there is no single country to the West of Ukraine and Moldova where the citizens of these states can go without visas. They can travel easily only to the post-Soviet space. And there is no stronger anchor in the increasingly authoritarian post-soviet space than people's inability to travel, study or do business in the EU. Thus EU's visa policies are easily cancelling many of the expected political, economic or cultural effects of the European neighbourhood policy. EU's soft power is in fact draining in the queues in front of the EU consulates in Kiev, Moscow or Tbilisi.

Reconceptualising the debate on EU's borders might help. Today the intra-European debate on borders is either focused on enlargement (‘Should Turkey or Ukraine join the EU?'), or on border-management (‘how to make the defensive fortifications stronger?'). But the EU should equally re-think the way it sees its borders. Shifting from the notion of borders as demarcation lines, and symbols of exclusion, to the reality of frontiers - more open regions, where people and cultures mingle will make post-modern Europe learn a good lesson from medieval Europe. Border management need not be just about fences, but about management of openness and interaction.

Read more on:

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.