Ian BondDirector of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform
Post-1989 Europe is building walls, but not of the Cold War kind. Then, repressive Communist regimes knew that if they gave their people a choice most would immediately move to the West, so they kept them in with walls. Their demolition, and the end of exit visas and the persecution of those who wanted to leave their country, marked a great historical victory for the people of the Soviet bloc and for the idea of freedom. The people who broke through the divide were rightly greeted as heroes.
The walls (actual or metaphorical) that Europeans are putting up now, by contrast, are designed to keep people out, and to stop them sharing in our peace, prosperity, and good fortune. Instead of welcoming those who want to share in our freedoms, more often than not we now fear them and prefer to exclude them.
The new walls make no more sense than the old ones—while Europe needs an effective migration system to keep out criminals, terrorists, and others with no business in the union, Europe’s demographic situation is such that it should embrace those who want to come and work here and rejoice that so many still see Europe as a promised land.
Ian BremmerPresident and Founder of Eurasia Group
That depends on what you mean by Europe. The new European Commission is as integrationist and strongly “pro-Europe” as any in recent memory. Meanwhile, individual European nations and their citizens are more divided and increasingly oppose a unified Europe. This will get more challenging as the global economy softens.
Martin EhlChief International Editor at Hospodářské Noviny
Intuitively, the answer would be yes. When looking at Hungary or Britain, there is clearly a strong tendency to build new walls within European society.
But on second thought, the answer would be no. The development during the last three decades has destroyed many more walls than it has constructed. And people have gotten used to a life without physical walls and are slowly but surely learning how to dismantle mental walls too—just check out the German-German debate about Eastern Germany not being treated properly after unification and what might happen if the mental (and economical) walls are not tackled in the near future.
And not only Germans have work to do. The Czechs are not using their fully intra-Schengen geographical position to be more open. Latvians take care of maintaining their historical mental walls in their relations with the Russian minority. The Roma people in Slovakia or Hungary live behind walls. So it’s not so much about new walls but maybe about the maintenance of older ones or about not dismantling them quickly enough.
There is a clear tendency for some political forces to build new walls—political and mental. It seems to me that the past three decades have shown clearly that building new walls is at least as hard as dismantling old ones.
Agata Gostyńska-JakubowskaSenior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform
Thirty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the EU can be proud of a lot. It has facilitated economic and political transformation in post-Communist countries, eleven of which have joined the union. The single market’s expansion to the East has undoubtedly been an economic and political success: it created business opportunities for old member states while narrowing the income gap between them and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. The choice of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council in 2014 marked the growing political significance of the CEE region at that time.
Yet after the changing of the guard in 2019, with representatives of Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy taking the four key EU leadership posts, one could be forgiven for thinking either that Eastern enlargement never took place or that fault lines between East and West have reemerged. Rows over refugee quotas and the rule of law have affected East-West collaboration, including the choice of who should run key EU institutions.
The good news is that Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming European Commission president, has pledged to narrow these divisions in the EU. Time will tell, however, whether she goes down in history as a builder of bridges rather than walls.
Daniel HegedusCentral & Eastern Europe Fellow at the German Marshall Fund
Certainly. However, the main question is not whether walls will be built in Europe, but whether building walls, both in the physical and metaphorical sense, remains a policy of populist contenders or evolves into our new European political normality. In this sense, the approaching thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall should serve as a reminder of just how deep and slowly healing the mental wounds left by a political normality using walls to secure its existence can be.
Although the specter of wall-building, right-wing populism has not been driven away, its triumph is also not in sight. On the contrary. U.S. President Donald Trump’s increasingly beleaguered situation, Brexit—one of the most inherently populist products ever—turning British politics into farce, the political miscalculations and decay of Italy’s League and Austria’s Freedom Party all point in the direction that liberal democracy and free societies remain the main political paradigm of the West, at least for a while.
Even in Central and Eastern Europe, in Hungary, where the tide of right-wing populism started its rise after 2008, the political hegemony of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s illiberal regime is now broken .
The challenge posed by wall-building populists will obviously persist, but they will most likely continue to challenge, not determine, mainstream political normality. Against this backdrop, one should also consider how the social wounds in the UK, Hungary, or Poland, caused by populists’ decade-long polarizing, can be healed so that their repercussions do not haunt Europe throughout the first part of the twenty-first century.
Anna-Liina KauhanenGermany Correspondent at Helsingin Sanomat
Yes, post-1989 Europe is building walls again. This time they are mental, cultural, and digital. Actually, we are facing a complex system of new ideological walls. The blocks divided by these new walls are, however, basically the same as thirty years ago—liberal democracy versus authoritarian hybrid dictatorships.
For instance, Hungary has already locked itself inside one of these new ideological walls—one built by Hungary itself. Orbán is destroying his country’s democracy, and the pessimist in me thinks Hungary’s lost. Here, the EU is in trouble indeed. That’s the bitter price of the optimism and hubris the West had thirty years ago.
The complex of walls we are now looking at are often digital. Unfortunately, we are late when trying to take them down. The speed of social media, the politically controlled state media, and fake news that create new ideological confrontations are dangerous. With the help of algorithms and analytics it’s easy to divide humans. As a result, we see polarization and fragmentation of the political landscape.
The new walls lead to political deadlocks. If we need some walls we need firewalls against political manipulation. One step is to regulate more digital technologies.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK Minister for Europe
It is very modish on the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to see Europe moving backward and leaving liberal democracy and open borders behind—in the spirit of Brexit and Trump, or Orbán, League leader Matteo Salvini, and Alternative for Germany. Modish but wrong.
There is now more movement between European peoples and different categories of European people than at any previous moment in European history. More people—men, women, LGBT, BAME, young citizens—live with the freedom to be, say, write, and think what they want to, and to do so in freedom across thirty European countries.
Even the most illiberal of EU leaders in Budapest or Warsaw do not dream of shutting borders to other Europeans. There is a problem handling the refugee influx that followed from the follies of the Iraq, Libya, and Syria interventions, but these are being handled, albeit with difficulty.
But Europe is not closing down. Investments, ideas, culture, education ignore national frontiers. The disaster that is Brexit shows that those in the UK who want to build a new “Channel Wall” to keep out Europe have flopped badly. The rest of Europe has learned from Brexit that building barriers to the freedom to move capital, goods, services, people, and ideas is a dead end.
Mary C. MurphyLecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at the University College Cork
For decades, Northern Ireland has been dominated by political, cultural, territorial, and psychological divisions. The physical markers of that division—over a hundred so-called peace walls—dot the Northern Ireland landscape, delineating a division between two communities with opposing aspirations. These walls are a legacy of the conflict, and they endure.
Trust and reconciliation are necessary prerequisites for enabling the deconstruction of both the historical and contemporary mental and physical divisions. However, a faltering peace process, interrupted by sporadic political crises and challenges, has prevented the creation of an environment where Northern Ireland’s two communities fully trust each other and feel sufficiently secure to challenge and ultimately remove the many barriers that divide them.
The possibility of the erection of new physical barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island has been part of the recent Brexit narrative. The prospect of a hardening of the Irish border in this way potentially further deepens the political and psychological divisions between communities in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland.
In this long-troubled corner of Europe, there is a cautionary lesson: although new barriers are resisted, existing walls are slow to fall, and the deep divisions they symbolize persevere and linger.
Mariann ŐryHead of the Foreign Desk and Senior Editor at Magyar Hírlap
Despite the efforts of the institutions and certain old member states to deepen integration, the EU is deeply divided.
“Hungary contributed to the reunification of Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now it’s building walls again.” Four years into the migration crisis this narrative is well-known in Hungary, but it’s really not the Hungarian border fence on the EU’s external border that creates further divisions within the bloc.
The North-South gap is growing because of economic reasons, while the East-West division is more about social, moral, and cultural issues. The distrust in EU institutions has been growing, Brexit being one of its most significant results. The impression that EU institutions have lost touch with reality and harm national sovereignty with centralized decisions has been increasing for years. The post-1989 Europe is indeed building walls, but it’s a false narrative to blame it all on “populists.”
The reintroduction of border controls within the Schengen zone is also a kind of wall-building, not for political, but for security reasons. So the new European Commission has to face a number of challenges, and if the EU leadership fails to reform itself, we’ll have even more walls, both physical and figurative.
Eleni PanagiotareaResearch Fellow at Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy
Europe was always a kind of “land of the free” construct. Bringing walls down à la Berlin 1989 reinforced in Europeans and would-be Europeans alike Europe as a mental and geographical space of political stability, economic prosperity, and social justice.
This Europe was bound to falter. Freedom begets freedom, but national political elites failed to rein in markets or, worse, create a European level playing field for adequate social protection, decent wages, and progressive taxation. As for European elites, they remained submerged in their cognitive and decisionmaking inertia. Weak hedges against economic and political shocks remain the norm.
The walls built in post-1989 Europe, physical and virtual, are reigniting a historically pernicious “ins-and-outs” discourse. Framed in the context of “migration numbers”, “security”, “national identity”, and “encroachment on traditional values”, walls are a powerful political tool in the hands of anti-Europeans. As the borderless union shows cracks, however, where are the responsible and responsive Europeans and their leaders?
The authoritarian regress should not be inevitable nor make deflecting migrant flows to someone else’s border the new normal. It is up to Europe to prove, with policies that restore trust in its ability to stand up for democracy, promote inclusive growth, and help address the root causes of migration, that walls will not necessarily make its citizens safer or better off.
Tessa SzyszkowitzUK Correspondent for Profil
In some ways, Brexit Britain is just another nationalist project similar to other right-wing populist movements. Overwhelmed by globalization and change, Brexiteers nurture the fantasy of bettering their fate by erecting a wall between their neighborhood and the next.
But there is more to it. Since small-minded Brexit madness in its specific English brand has taken hold of formerly globalist, conservative “upper classers”—think of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a previous incarnation as mayor of London—it carries not only the danger of erecting a wall toward the EU.
“Brextremists” threaten to build them also within the United Kingdom. One internal border Johnson already agreed to according to his withdrawal deal with the EU is the new customs border running in the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
If Johnson wins the general election on December 12, his hard-Brexit program will push Northern Ireland, whose population voted for remaining in the EU, toward the Republic of Ireland. The harder the Brexit, the easier it will be for pro-European, social democratic Scotland to call a second referendum on Scottish independence.
In a particularly twisted way, this will then be just another brick in the wall for Little Britain.
Ivan VejvodaPermanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences
Nor did history end nor were walls only falling in Europe after 1989. They were being erected in Yugoslavia, a European country, as history roared toward its dark corners. It seemed as an aberration at a time when all were returning to Europe and opening up to each other. It turned out that this was a harbinger of political and social dynamics to come in other parts of Europe.
In 1999 in the Czech Republic, then a poster child of the transition to democracy, a wall was erected in the city of Ústí nad Labem to separate the Roma citizens living on the other side of a street from the rest of the citizens. And let’s not forget that an EU member state, Cyprus, is still divided after forty-five years.
But it was the razor-wire fence erected by Orbán’s Hungary on its border with Serbia in the summer of 2015 that epitomized the populist raising of the drawbridge toward “outsiders.” It was pitting the nation-state—the sovereignist-identitarian concept of it—against a Europe of open borders.
But one must ask as well whether the growing gap between the 1 percent and the rest is in itself an invisible socioeconomic wall that is helping reinforce the physical and mental walls.
The battle for a Europe without walls in many guises remains as important as ever.