Updated at 9:05 a.m. ET on June 25, 2020.
A couple I know who’d been living in Beijing—she’s American and he’s Australian—are marooned in Budapest, waiting for China to reopen its borders. A friend wrote me from Boston. She has both an American and an Irish passport, and is unsure whether she can enter France to see her partner, to whom she’s not married. Another friend, who is American, married her French partner this month before he returned to France because they didn’t know when he would be allowed back into America, or she into France.
Cosmopolitanism—or travel, period—has become deeply confusing in the COVID-19 era. When the pandemic hit, borders began closing around the world. Now they are reopening gradually, but also arbitrarily, in ways that seem determined less by infection rates and more by politics, economics, and, for some countries, a need for tourists. To those of us who came of age after the end of the Cold War, these sudden and in many cases incoherent closures are not just irritating; they are crushing—a rapid and dramatic stricture of everything many of us had been lucky enough to take for granted: open borders and freedom of movement.
For decades, Europe has been the emotional center of this belief in a borderless world. European Union nationals can live, work, and study in any of the bloc’s 27 member states, while visitors can travel throughout the 26 countries in the Schengen Area without internal border controls. In much of this region, you use the same currency and can drive across a national frontier without knowing it; roaming on your cellphone is free. Europeans can (and do) live in one country and commute into another. Some towns lie along a border, and residents move unencumbered from one country into the other.
All of this is relatively new—a product of the postwar world, when the core countries of Europe forged closer alliances to prevent the wars that had for so long marked and marred the Continent’s history. The loosening of borders spread even farther after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then again more than a decade later, when many countries in the former Eastern Bloc became part of the European Union.
But the coronavirus outbreak has emboldened defenders of the nation-state, in Europe and beyond. This doesn’t affect just people who live and work across borders, or people like me, who feel at home in many countries. From now on, it will likely be harder to start a business or fall in love beyond national borders, and even harder to be a refugee or seek asylum.
Though these latest restrictions have come into force suddenly, during a health emergency, they have been a long time in the making. The coronavirus brings the latest in a series of attacks on the notion of open borders, especially in Europe. First came the refugee crisis in 2015, which gave oxygen to politicians across the Continent calling for curbs on migration. Then came Brexit and the election of Trump, both of which marked the symbolic turning-inward of countries that had previously been open to migrants, to cosmopolitanism. The virus has only furthered the feeling of retrenchment.
I recently spoke with Mira Frischhut, a 27-year-old Austrian who lives in France. When Europe closed its borders to outsiders in March, in an effort to slow the outbreak, she was stuck in Colombia on vacation. It took numerous calls to the French and Austrian embassies to sort out which country would take her back; she eventually managed to get to France.
“It was really this moment where I wasn’t European,” she told me. “It was two countries that said they weren’t responsible for me. It wasn’t two countries within the EU, but two countries, period.” This was something new. “I grew up as a European,” Frischhut said. “I moved to France at 18. I never experienced too many borders in Europe, so this was clearly a shock.”
Frischhut spent the next few weeks in France but recently traveled to Innsbruck, Austria, where she’s from, after France finally allowed residents to travel more than 100 kilometers, or about 60 miles, from home and opened some of its borders. Being back in Innsbruck, Frischhut noticed a host of other travel issues: The city is close to the German and Italian borders, but the rules vary. For a while, Austria permitted Germans to drive through Austria en route to Italy, but they had not been allowed to stop in the country. (Austria has since opened its borders to residents of all EU countries except the U.K., Sweden, and Portugal.) Those myriad, frequently confusing restrictions were by no means unique. My American friend with the Irish passport tried to find out whether she could enter France this month. The answer? Maybe. And what about the friend in the transatlantic relationship who married her French partner so they could be sure to see each other? Their travels, too, are in doubt: The United States has closed its borders to foreign nationals who have been to Europe or China in the previous 14 days. Spain opened its borders with France this week, and will open its frontier with Portugal next week.* On June 15, Germany, Italy, and France began allowing in EU nationals without requiring them to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, though France still requires arrivals from Britain to self-isolate for two weeks. Britain requires the majority of travelers to quarantine upon arrival as well.
“Things were clearer in the Cold War days,” another friend, this one a Briton who lives in Rome, recently wrote me. We were trying to figure out if I could get from France, where I live, to Greece, on an American passport. Desperate for tourists but aware of its fragile health system, Greece announced that it would welcome visitors from 29 countries—but for a while the list didn’t include the United States, Britain, France, or Italy. It now says all tourists are welcome but will be subject to COVID-19 tests. Overall, Europe’s reopening has been gradual, patchwork, and uncoordinated. (The European Commission has asked its member states to consider reopening Europe’s external borders at the end of this month, and to coordinate as to which countries’ nationals would be let in.)
There are bigger issues at stake than summer holidays. These border closings intersect with major shifts in the geopolitical order. After China began cracking down on Hong Kong, for example, Britain offered to allow 3 million Hong Kongers the right to live and work in the United Kingdom. Since Britain voted for Brexit in 2016, Britons who live across Europe or have ties to the Continent have been applying for EU passports, which they hadn’t previously needed.
For weeks now, my social-media feeds and WhatsApp threads have been a steady stream of globe-trotting professionals trying to sort out where they might be able to travel. During the pandemic, the conversation has shifted from “What’s the best passport to have?” to “What borders are still closed?” My friends and I are lucky. We are among those cosmopolitans—urban-dwelling, multilingual, in many cases with multiple citizenships. The pandemic, and the accompanying border closures, will wreak even greater havoc on the millions of refugees fleeing war, conflict, or famine, and those who are stateless. Geography may be destiny, but so is nationality. Especially when the border rules keep changing.
Although the current flurry of border closings is ostensibly motivated more by public-health concerns than by questions of national identity, it still reveals an undercurrent of xenophobia. The pandemic has given fuel to right-wing governments in places such as Hungary and Poland, which seem to delight in closing their borders, much as they did in 2015, not wanting an influx of refugees, even though they’ve benefited greatly from being part of the EU and from European financial largesse. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally opposition party lauded France’s closing its land borders (they’ve now reopened). Italy’s far-right, populist League party, also in opposition, wants that country’s emergency measures to ensure that ports are closed to arrivals by sea, including the many boats carrying migrants and would-be asylum seekers. President Donald Trump has also made an issue of closing U.S. borders, banning most noncitizens from arriving, though within the country, people have been free to travel from city to city and state to state.
My friends locked out of Beijing, Liz and Daniel, have to stay a bit longer in Budapest—flights out of Hungary have been scarce, and foreigners are not allowed into China. Hungary extended their tourist visas for the state of emergency, but after those run out, then what? When China will reopen its borders is anyone’s guess.
Their limbo is not just logistical; it’s spiritual, even world-historical. “We used to feel like we belonged everywhere—our passport countries, the places we got to live, all the places we got to travel. Now it sort of feels like we belong nowhere,” Liz, the American, wrote me. “We are stateless by marriage since we do not share a common passport, and I have lived overseas for almost 15 years. For people like us who do not live at ‘home,’ what does the future hold? And where?”
I, too, miss open borders, and the sense of possibility they offered. There’s a difference between choosing not to travel and knowing we can’t travel. For many of us in Europe, today feels less like a new future than an unwelcome return to the past.
* This story previously misstated that Spain opened its border with Portugal this week. In fact, the border will open on July 1.
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