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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.”
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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.