Three decades ago, we celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was the mother of all walls. It symbolized the division of Europe and the world into two antagonistic camps. The wall went down, the Cold War ended and the future looked bright. "Nothing will stop us, everything is possible, Berlin is free!", declared President Clinton at the Brandenburg Gate.
Today, walls are back in vogue around the world, from Hungary and Spain to the United States, Israel and Australia. An ever larger part of the electorate supports politicians calling for the restoration of sovereign nation states. The politics of fear is pronounced as the leader of "the free world" constructs his own wall on the border of Mexico and urges others to do the same.
We are being told that the politics of open borders has generated astronomic inequalities. We are made to believe that open borders invited migrants, who take our jobs and introduce "alien" cultural habits. We are told that open borders make democracy impossible. Decisions regarding our lives are being taken by transnational markets and detached European officials.
The conflict over such walls is as old as human history, so we should not be surprised by the current situation. There were always those who tried to overcome boundaries and those who tried to restore them; those who were building walls and those who were destroying them. Think about nomads and settlers, or about ranchers and hunters: they had different and often conflicting concepts of borders, rights, authority, territory, and identity. Borders became even more contentious with the rise of nation states pretending to provide an overlap between administrative borders, military frontiers, market fringes and cultural traits.
However, the current dispute is not necessarily about walls and borders, but about the interpretation of post-1989 history. The sovereigntists are simply barking up the wrong tree. Inequalities were generated by neoliberal policies that put markets in charge of redistribution. They are also the result of a belief system in which competitiveness is more cherished than solidarity. Open borders have little to do with this.
The rise in migration has also been caused by our misguided policies. We cut development aid, and failed to stimulate investments in North Africa and the Middle East. We supported dictators such as Gaddafi or Ben Ali in the hope that they would keep migrants at bay. We bombed Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and then left them in the hands of local warlords. And then we were surprised to witness an influx of refugees. Open borders have little to do with this crisis. In fact, our borders have hardly ever been open to these desperate people.
For the crisis of democracy we should blame our parties, and not the absence of walls. Political parties no longer have roots in our societies, they treat citizens like consumers, and they entertain dialogue with pollsters rather than voters.
Markets have indeed made a farce of democracy, but this is because the institutions in charge of regulating markets, such as the European Commission, listened more to the 30.000 lobbyists in Brussels than to ordinary people. How else could it support the Fiscal Compact or ACTA 1&2?
The wrong diagnosis leads to misguided treatments. Building walls is like prescribing aspirin for depression or a broken leg. What good can walls do in a world of mass travel, digital communication, climate change, cyber warfare and global trade? Can a solution from the 19th century really produce wonders in the 21st century?
Instead of building walls, we need to make our institutions better able to cope with global financial transactions, communication, and environmental threats. Those institutions ought to be truly transnational and not monopolized by nation states, most of them tiny and/or dysfunctional. Cities, regions and NGOs increasingly perform tasks vital for our lives, but they have no seat at the decision-making table within the EU, the UN or the IMF.
We also need to restore the balance between the public and the private sphere. The public sector has been under assault in recent years, and it has chiefly been used for helping the private sector to prosper. This has left many of us without any form of protection or arbitration.
Last, but not least, we should restore trust between citizens and those in charge of transnational bodies. These bodies should serve us, the people, who come from somewhere, and cherish our peculiar identities. Our identities do not mean that we support economic autarchy, hate persons of different races, and entertain the territorial conquests of our neighbours. All this was pretty normal a century ago, but the world has changed beyond recognition since then – or so we hope. This hope is especially important for the young generation, which does not want to live in a world full of walls.