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Only the British, the offshore islanders, are able to treat borders as a branch of their favourite pastime: gardening. For Continentals, borders are a deadly serious matter. Nothing has proved more radical in the European project than their abolition. It is, however, an experiment that has failed — in part because a necessary condition for demoting internal borders is to create secure external ones. The EU’s failure to provide proper security against a variety of external threats has left Europeans in a state of constant unease. My term for this condition is “border anxiety”.

 The Oresund Bridge: A product of openness has become a symbol of a conflicted continent weighed down by the migrant crisis (Tatjana Alexandrovna CC BY 2.0)
Border anxiety is nothing new to Europe. The idea of “barbarians at the gate” is at least as old as Graeco-Roman civilisation. Since antiquity the primeval fear of the city, the polis, being overrun by barbarians has gradually mutated into the border anxiety of today. As the thousand-year history chronicled by Peter H. Wilson in his magisterial The Holy Roman Empire (Allen Lane, £35) shows, many frontiers only emerged over centuries, during which Europeans lived under overlapping territorial jurisdictions. By the late 17th century these frontiers were marked by customs posts along the trade routes, but still easily permeable even by large migrations.

This permeability of borders into modern times is demonstrated by the Huguenot emigration from France. Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 prohibited both the practice of Protestantism and the emigration of its adherents. Defying his decree, however, about 200,000 Huguenots fled to Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Britain. For the first time since the Norman Conquest, a large-scale exodus across the Channel took place: some 50,000 in all. Most settled in London, which had then a population of some half a million. There was understandable resistance to this influx from Catholic France, with which England was intermittently at war for centuries. Yet Huguenots were not only refugees, but literate, skilled and industrious. Above all, they were Protestants. Though assimilation took decades it was never in doubt. Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn are among countless descendants of this Huguenot diaspora.

However, the Huguenots, the largest influx in six centuries, would today amount to no more than a couple of months’ net UK immigration. Open borders within Europe have not only facilitated internal population movements, but also incited external ones on an unprecedented scale. With millions on the move, bringing cultural baggage that makes integration difficult if not impossible, it is hardly surprising that migration is now the hottest of political potatoes across the Continent. While the long-term demographic effects on Europe of mass immigration from the most violent regions of the Islamic world are contested, there is no doubt about the security risks that it poses.

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