July 23, 2024

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Election exposes paradoxical reactions to open EU borders

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The writer is a psephologist. His latest book is ‘Borderlines’

Viadrina University, according to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, is “a symbol or European thought”, part of a project to build “the house of Europe”. It is based in the cross-border urban area of Frankfurt an der Oder in Germany and its Polish twin Słubice, a suburb of Frankfurt until Stalin drew the new border down the River Oder in 1945. Students and staff commute between lecture theatres, libraries and coffee bars across the international frontier. But what does “Słubfurt”, as the agglomeration is inelegantly known, have to say about where Europe is now?

The European parliament elections last week showed that the politics of borders is still a live phenomenon. Frankfurt an der Oder is set in the most fertile territory in Germany for the hard right, along the eastern border with Poland. The Alternative for Germany polled 27.8 per cent of the vote in the city, and the red-brown nationalists of the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) 16.7 per cent.

Cross the bridge and you are in one of the most liberal parts of Poland. Słubice is a stronghold of Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition (KO), with 42 per cent support for the party, as are nearly all the towns along the Polish side. It is one of the paradoxical outcomes of closer European integration: this border, slipping into invisibility in the single market and Schengen agreement, generates rightwing nationalist politics in the west and market liberalism in the east.

The politics is, to some extent, downstream of the economics. Open borders have meant relatively deprived and peripheral parts of wealthy countries being overtaken by the relatively wealthy and connected parts of poorer countries. Net human wellbeing may increase, but the utilitarian calculation cannot cancel out the strains that economic change…

2024-06-16 00:00:08

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