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”.
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.
Border anxiety is thus a rational response to a global crisis — the crisis of Islam. The causes of that crisis have little to do with the West, except in the general sense that it is responsible for modernity. But the effects of the Islamic world’s travails are making themselves felt in every city in Europe. On the Continent, border anxiety may sour into outright hostility, but for us it is the discomfort of the Englishman who finds his home is no longer his castle. As long as it is he who chooses whom to invite, his hospitality knows no bounds; but if that choice is usurped by others over whom he has no control, he is likely to become less hospitable.
The migration crisis bears on Britain’s decision about whether or not to leave the EU (“Brexit”). Those who urge the British to stay — let’s call them the Remainders — are usually also those who want open borders, not only to refugees but to migrants of all kinds. They must answer the charge that, by denying Britain sovereignty over its borders, they make it almost inevitable that border anxiety will dominate the referendum. Voters must also beware of “Project Fear” — the attempt by Downing Street and the Remainders to generate a more irrational kind of border anxiety, the fear of being excluded from Europe, to avert Brexit.
The Leavers too should be warned that, in making the case for Brexit as the only way to reassert control over our borders, they must not encourage an atmosphere of hostility to immigrants — and indeed to those who settled here long ago. Border anxiety may be a rational and legitimate response, but it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous on all sides — as Putin has done in Ukraine.
European culture is unique thanks to achievements that transcend borders: music, literature, the arts, science, technology, religion, philosophy. The immortal is universal, but we mortals depend on the particular. We need borders in politics for the same reason that we need boundaries in life: “Only in self-limitation does the master first show himself,” wrote Goethe. The glory of Europe lies in its infinite variety, which requires a polycentric politics of nation states. There is no necessary contradiction between sovereignty and co-operation: it works for the Atlantic alliance. But a “pooling” of sovereignty is bound to strain any spirit of amity by forcing nations to compete for power. Europe’s “ever-closer union” has in reality become ever more fissiparous — to the point of collapse.
At the time of writing, the EU Council of Ministers has not yet agreed the terms of Britain’s “renegotiation”, but it is already clear that they fall short even of the modest promises made by the Prime Minister in 2013. It took Margaret Thatcher six years of negotiation to “get our money back”. So how did David Cameron suppose he would get our sovereignty back in three? That task now falls to the British people in the referendum that is his real achievement.