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Europe's borders are back

Ivaylo Ditchev
Ivaylo Ditchev
April 18, 2020

The coronavirus has not just brought globalization to a standstill. The COVID-19 crisis also shows how fragmented united Europe actually is — not only relations between countries but between generations and classes.

Greek Cypriots gather during a demonstration on either side of the Ledra Street crossing in central Nicosia
Image: AFP/C. Assi

The most astonishing thing about the coronavirus pandemic is how easily borders can come back. The internet metaphor that we use ever more often tells it best: One after the other European countries are installing a firewall with a simple click of the mouse. Then tourism is dead, trade is down, the stock exchange loses trillions, and globalization itself is brought to a standstill.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers return home to Bulgaria, Serbia or Romania, only to be welcomed with mixed feelings. On the one hand, "bringing our children back" had been a constant lament in recent decades and now everyone is back in "their place." On the other, there are no jobs to offer to the returnees, especially not in times of crisis. In addition, national economies will badly miss the remittances they used to send home.

Read more: Rule of law under attack in southeast Europe during pandemic 

The welcoming ceremony in the fatherland consists of a sad quarantine — applied to any foreigner — and is accompanied by a feeling that you are trapped and can no longer leave, which people who experienced communism well remember.

Brain drain carries on

In the meantime, medical personnel are being exported to the West to help out countries like Austria and the United Kingdom. Some find it scandalous as they are most needed at home right now, others reply that Eastern Europe is less affected and this is the moment to express solidarity (and, possibly, send back some money).

Ivaylo Ditchev
Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of SofiaImage: BGNES

The new border between East and West has even acquired a medical dimension. According to one theory, a specific vaccine against tuberculosis that used to be compulsory under state socialism might have a protective effect against the coronavirus as well: Comparisons between the former East Germany and West Germany are underway.

From another, more cynical standpoint, the new disease might be the price to pay for better health systems in the West that keep people alive longer. Both Italy and Spain today have the highest life expectancy — 83 years — as well as the highest mortality rate in Europe.

Paradoxical rise of support

Populists like Donald Trump, who base their policy on an anti-globalist border-ideology, are cheering up; others like Hungary's Viktor Orban profit from the crisis in order to consolidate their authoritarian rule. Strangely enough, all politicians appear to be climbing in the polls, whether they manage the pandemic well or not. Angela Merkel as well as Trump, Giuseppe Conte as well as Moon Jae-in. We know that in times of crisis citizens rally around their leaders. Their support will drop when the crisis is over, not while it lasts.

But borders seem to divide the national tissue itself. Racist episodes with Asian-looking citizens in the West may be only a mild prelude of what could follow. In Bulgaria, some are demanding to barricade Roma ghettos, where the contagion is — falsely — thought to be growing; as usual, racist disgust is combined with pseudo-scientific argumentation. If they are barricaded, other Balkan countries will be happy to follow the example.

Searching for scapegoats

As for Italy's former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, he has blamed the virus on African migrants, even though it is obvious that tourists and global elites had a greater hand in its spread than poor populations stuck in their home villages. The name of the illness itself, stubbornly used by the man in the street and the American president, implies ethnicization: a "Chinese virus" is the fault of our enemies, the bat-eaters, and does not have anything to do with ourselves.

Read more: Coronavirus: Asian-Americans in Seattle 'fear potential physical violence'

The most worrying, yet invisible, border has been drawn between generations. The illness painfully puts young and old in opposition, as it is the latter who appear to be the only ones seriously menaced by it. Thus, the feeling grows that the world economy is being sacrificed in order to save the lives of people who are doomed to die soon anyway. Wouldn't it be better to shut them up some place and let the others acquire "herd immunity?"

A member of the Italian Red Cross visits a patient at home in Bergamo, Italy
COVID-19 pits young against oldImage: Getty Images/M. Di Lauro

Rethinking the pact between generations

Such a decision seems morally impossible for now. Nevertheless, the crisis calls for rethinking the pact between generations: Ethical considerations are being challenged by brutal quantitative data. Health care spending on people over 65 in the European Union is about three times higher than for all younger age groups combined. Furthermore, the elderly pose an ever growing threat to the retirement system, as less young workers replace more retirees; low birth rates — catastrophically low in Eastern Europe — are the fault of the baby-boomer generation as well.

Read more: Opinion: Coronavirus has killed the 'entitled millennial'

Some speak of a ticking pension time bomb of some $400 trillion (€360 trillion) worldwide that will be lacking in 2050 and likely destroy the economy as we know it. But the most dramatic aspect of the clash of generations remains the degradation of nature, caused by those who quietly benefit from their pensions today.

Class conflict in sight?

And that might not be the end of it. We might see growing class conflict between rich and poor. Tensions between the industrial and the developing world. Between democratic and authoritarian states.

Borders have appeared all of a sudden again in Europe. Can we hope that they will disappear overnight, too?

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria. He has been a guest lecturer in countries such as Germany, France and the United States.

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