The EU’s Once-Open Internal Borders Are Closing Down

Last month, I wrote an article exploring some of the issues associated with having completely open borders between political units within a larger single political entity.

The most obvious example of how this works is the United States. Once within the US’s external borders, there are virtually no barriers at all to prevent free movement of goods and persons across the borders of the nation’s 50 states. Now Europe is providing us with some new examples of how this works in the face of the corona virus panic.

The Ups and Downs of Open Internal Borders

There is a big upside to open internal borders, of course.  They facilitate trade and the free movement of labor in a way that greatly enhances economic growth and human freedom. But experience now suggests that if the preservation of freedom and self determination is important to us, borders must be opened unilaterally by each member state and in the absence of any supra-national government capable of imposing bloc-wide policies. Once a central government regulates or controls the nature of internal borders enters the picture, then the ideal of open internal borders potentially becomes more of a threat than a boon to free exchange.

As I noted in last month’s article, we’ve seen how free movement among member states in the presence of a central authority leads to attacks on freedoms within the member states themselves. For example:

In the gun control debate, it has long been argued that the lack of patrolled borders between states means a greater need for uniform nationwide gun control. In an analysis from National Public Radio, for example, the author concludes that the high homicide rates in Washington, DC, and Chicago are partly to blame on gun laws in neighboring states. According to political scientist Philip Cook, the stringent gun laws in places like Chicago are “only at best partially effective, because the borders are permeable.”

The fact of open state-to-state borders has also been used as an excuse to nationalize both the drug war and immigration policy.

This has been an issue in Europe as well, where the open country-to-country borders that now exist within the Schengen Area have been used by the region’s supra-national state institutions (i.e., the European Union’s bureaucracy) to demand more “uniform” standards for taxation, migration, and gun ownership policy.

In other words, open borders within Europe have served as a catalyst for imposing more “Europe wide” policy and centralizing the political system.

Border Control and the Coronavirus

Yet, unlike the US, the EU member states never totally gave up their ability to manage their own borders. Thus, the countries of the Schengen area have begun to shut down their internal borders out of fear of the novel coronavirus. This comes in spite of the fact Brussels has instructed them not to, and says all member countries should just rely on “frontier health screening” (that is, screening at the zone’s external borders.)

Obviously, many member states don’t trust the EU authorities to manage the matter at the external border, and the internal border shutdowns began on March 13 when “Slovakia, Malta and the Czech Republic announced they would close off their borders to fellow EU member states in an effort to try and stop the spread of the Coronavirus.” On Monday, Germany and five other countries imposed borders controls. Yesterday, Estonia “reintroduced” border controls as well.

There are at least two reasons why these states — and at least a non-trivial portion of their populations — believe they benefit from closing the border.

The first, obviously, is that each country wants to minimize entry of infected persons into their country from the outside. In many cases, such a measure is likely too little too late, but there are still sizable differences between countries in terms of known infection rates.

In Czechia and Slovakia, for example, there is not yet a single death reported. And in Malta, there are still fewer than 50 cases. It only makes sense in each case, the country’s government and population would wish to control access from neighboring countries with far higher known infection rates.

This brings us to the second reason: these countries likely don’t want to be tied to the virus-containment policies of a Europe-wide authority. After all, if countries with few cases implemented social mitigation policies, far less would be required in a country with few cases than in a country with many more cases. Why should Malta, which has a small number of cases that can possibly by isolated, be tied to the same policies is those used in France or Italy? If Europe becomes a single unified entity during the crisis, Brussels is more likely to assert a right to impose bloc-wide “solutions.”

But as it is, a demand from Brussels that Malta keep its border open to anyone and everyone from the Schengen Area is likely to strike many Maltese are both politically absurd and economically dangerous. It is likely at least some member states recognize the potential for Brussels imposing EU-wide mandates in this matter, and these member states have taken action to assert local control in the matter.

In the United States

And what can we learn from this in the United States?

The US, of course, is much farther down the path of unification than is the EU, and member-state borders are now more or less non-functional.  Individual states have not since the eighteenth century really had the option of closing their borders to other states. Such a move is both legally questionable, and most US states lack the resources to impose meaningful border controls. Thus, member states are left with no other choice than to accept national policy. US member states perceive this as necessary although known infection rates vary substantially from state to state.

But a lack of meaningful separation between jurisdictions means we are quickly heading toward nationally mandated shutdowns of local economies, even in places where there are few cases and where less mitigation is required.

After all, as of today, there are 10 or fewer known cases in a dozen US states. West Virginia has no known cases at all. Had these states been able to control the movement of persons a week ago or two weeks ago, it is plausible to claim those states would have no cases today. After all, we do not know how many cases in Colorado came from other states like Washington State or New York. We may never know.


But as it is, if the federal government begins to hand down mandatory quarantine orders and business closures, these states will then be held to the exact same policies as states that have a large number of cases. Were each state in a position to address these issues on its own, however, the central government would be much more hard pressed to come up with a justification for why any federal policy is necessary.

So far, state governments have still retained some control over local implementation, but it’s clear constitutional constraints on federal policy in times of “emergency” are now all but gone. But even if federal policies aren’t handed down from above, a state with few cases that finds itself next to a state with many cases (i.e., Missouri, which is next to Illinois) can’t do much except hope the virus doesn’t move across state lines. This is essentially the equivalent of Austria keeping its border with Italy wide open and just trusting to dumb luck that no infected Italians will cross over.

But because national policy often is formulated to address the most problematic regions, the situations in states like Washington and New York are essentially dictating policy for the rest of the country. In a unified system, policy is often decided by the “lowest common denominator,” so to speak. This outcome is what generally happens when governments are able to use a lack of internal borders to justify a single nationwide policy.

We’ve seen it with guns, we’ve seen it with drugs, and now we may soon be seeing it with COVID-19.

Where border control is a more decentralized, locally-controlled affair, things are different. In those cases, jurisdictions that are well run, prudent, and have better health systems can serve as examples to other, less competent regimes (such as the Italian regime). Political competition is a good thing at all times. It’s been shown to work with trade and taxes. And it’s especially a good thing right now as regimes look for any excuse to seize control of the global economy in the name of “safety.”

[Related: “How Would “President Rothbard” Keep Out the Zika Virus?” by Ryan McMaken]

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