Revisiting Westphalia

In 1998, I attended a conference on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia. The event was co-organized by the Universities of Münster and Enschede on both sides of the Dutch-German border. Given that Westphalia is a standard reference point for the genesis of the territorial system of sovereign states that became the predominant way of organizing world politics in the 20th century, it is no surprise that one of the highlights of the conference was the bus trip from Enschede across the border into Germany. Yet ten minutes into German territory, most delegates had missed the border crossing. To the amazement of many non-Europeans on the bus, and to the dismay of those looking forward to collecting another stamp, there had been no border guard, no barrier – only a small blue sign with the yellow twelve-star circle of the European Union and “Federal Republic of Germany” written onto it. And yes, the color and style of the road signs and the majority of license plates had been changed.

Ten years later, one can assume that readers of the Harvard International Review would not be surprised by the lack of borders. The Schengen Agreement between most EU, and even some neighboring non-EU,countries eventually led to the abolishment of interstate border controls (although notably, the United Kingdom and Ireland have opted out of Schengen). Earlier this year, most of the countries that had joined the EU in 2004 became part of the “Schengen zone”, which now ranges from the Western Atlantic rim to the Baltic States. Yet Schengen is merely the most apparent sign of European integration visible to the traveler. Article 21 (1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which is currently undergoing ratification, establishes the right of EU citizens “to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States,” and Article 26 (2) enshrines an EU-wide “internal market [which] shall comprise an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured.” Similar provisions already exist in the present Treaties. Most economic policy decisions are no longer made at the member states' level but rather on the EU level and there is significant integration of justice and home affairs policies. Even in the area of foreign and security policy, progress toward collective decision-making has been made, although the success of this is contested. Through its regional policy, the EU also has specific programs to provide support to former border regions and enhance cross-border cooperation.

Many observers have therefore noted that territorial state borders as we know them are being transformed exactly where they had originally been invented. The EU is often seen as a new kind of political organization that would transcend territorial borders. John Gerard Ruggie, in a 1993 article in International Organization with the catchy title “Territoriality and Beyond”, called it a “postmodern polity.” Those who see the nation state as inhibiting the full development of democracy because of the exclusionary effect of the state system’s territorial borders often look to the EU as an example of democracy “beyond the nation-state.” So is the EU heralding a new era in world politics? Is it a sign of a world to come without borders?

The answer to the latter question is a clear no. Whether or not the EU is a novel actor in world politics is a matter of much debate. At the moment, it is a complex system of overlapping authorities, where decision-making is spread across the regional, national, and EU level. While all federal systems are characterized by a degree of dispersion of power, in the EU this is taken to an extreme. In the 1970s, Hedley Bull coined the term “neo-medieval” for the then European Community because it reminded him of the patchwork of overlapping authorities that had prevailed in many parts of medieval Europe before the existence of the Westphalian territorial state, with its clear borders and internal hierarchy of power, became the dominant form of political organization.

Bull saw that this “neo-medieval” system presented a fundamental challenge to the state system. Ultimately, however, he thought that the European integration process would succumb to the pressures of the state system and either unravel or lead to a federal state on European level. Neither has happened since. Instead, the EU has developed both its territorial borders and furthered its “neo-medieval” characteristics. The status of borders in Europe today serves as a clear illustration of this ambiguity. Some borders have disappeared, others stay on; new ones have been created and others redefined.

The Continued Existence of Borders

Let us first look at the way borders still matter in today’s Europe. While many people think of Schengen as allowing borderless travel, the corollary has been the construction of a unified territorial border between Schengen and non-Schengen countries. There are of course still idiosyncrasies – for instance, visas are still issued by national embassies rather than an EU consulate. However, one also cannot dismiss the achievement of eliminating border controls in an area that used to be marred by national rivalries regularly leading to war. Yet many of the new outer Schengen borders are less permeable than the old borders. Indeed, the EU has done a lot to support new Schengen countries to align their border controls with the other member states, and the EU’s external border agency, Frontex, continues to provide technical assistance and facilitate the exchange of best practice in border management. 9/11 has done its part in ensuring a focus on tight border controls. This reinforcement of external borders therefore lends some credibility to Bull’s argument that eventually the EU would simply replace the member states with a new state in international politics.

It will be interesting to observe the effect that such a focus on the outer borders of the EU has on European identity. One cannot think of identity without borders – borders define identities. The latest round of EU enlargements in 2004 and 2007 has brought the identity question more than ever to the heart of the debates about integration. During the Cold War, despite a conflation between “Europe” and the European Community (EC), European identity was treated as a given without being seriously challenged. It was clear to all that Europe extended beyond the EC, and the possibility of these two ever coinciding seemed distant if not outright impossible. Now, the EU comprises most of the states that are undisputedly seen as European, while the remaining states either do not want to join or have a clear, long-term membership option. This pushes the EU to consider states, such as Turkey, which the public sees as more ambiguous in relation to European identity, despite the formal commitment of the EU to Turkey as a European state ever since the 1963 Association Agreement. The result is not without irony: while the EU has grown, become more diverse, and includes increasing numbers of permanent immigrants with a Turkish or other non-EU background, the enlargement has simultaneously had the effect of strengthening a sense of or at least a debate over European identity and its borders.

The debate over Turkey's EU membership has made particularly clear how deep-seated the notion of an outer European border is. To many, integrating Turkey would dilute Europe’s borders and European identity. By contrast, the European credentials of Bulgaria and Romania - or for that matter Cyprus, which geographically is so far in the Eastern Mediterranean that it is often excluded from maps of Europe -- are beyond doubt, once the Byzantine-Eastern Christian tradition was accepted as part of the European heritage. Through such identity constructions, borders are being drawn – and vice versa.

All of this suggests that the EU may not be so different from other federal states, and that the talk about a “postmodern polity” changing the nature of borders is exaggerated. Indeed, any federal or consociational constitution, including that of Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, establishes a divergence from the blueprint of territorial sovereignty. This divergence is implied when the EU is seen as a novel form of political organization. While there are some who shiver at the thought of the EU being a federal system, in many respects it is. True, the member states have a larger say in EU-level decision making than in most other federal arrangements, and the European Parliament still lacks control over European Security and Defence Policy, placing the onus of democratic checks on the indirect representation of member state governments. Yet none of this per se marks the EU as a complete aberration from the territorial norm. Its arrangements are simply more complex.

Considering the relationship between member states and the EU, it is perhaps fair to say that Bull’s scenario of the EU falling apart into its constituent states seems at this stage the least likely one. Of the big international organizations during the Cold War, the EU has been the most resilient. It has not been without its crises – chief among them the rejection of a new Constitutional Treaty by the publics of three of the founding member states – and of course there are many for whom integration is not proceeding at a high enough speed or who question the effectiveness and accountability of the EU’s complex decision-making procedures. Yet stepping outside these debates, they seem more like a question of the glass being half full or half empty. Whether or not individual EU policies are appropriate or effective, so far the EU has come out of enlargement quite well, notwithstanding the recent rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by Ireland. All of this, it needs to be stressed, does not make the member states superfluous. Many governmental and administrative tasks still reside with them, and borders thus continue to matter in relation to taxation, professional accreditation or social services, often complicating cross-border cooperation even when the visible border has disappeared. Furthermore, even in areas where decisions are taken on the EU level, member states continue to play a decisive role through the Council.

The Redefinition of Borders

So in what sense is the EU a novel, post-modern, or neo-medieval polity that fundamentally challenges the nature of borders? The answer lies primarily in the conundrum that while there has been a significant degree of integration, member states do remain sovereign. It would be too easy to dismiss the current complexities as mere symptoms of a federal system in transition towards a more unified state. The way that the EU has evolved has reinforced rather than eliminated some of its intriguing features from a Westphalian point of view. To see what this means for borders, one has to consider the sub- and trans-national level.

One of the core features of European integration is that the movement of decision-making toward the European level has been accompanied by decentralization within most of the pre-2004 enlargement member states. In countries where there has been a tradition of federalism, the regions have become more assertive. Belgium’s Flanders and Wallonia barely hold together these days. Other member states have begun a degree of decentralization that will not make them quite federal, but is remarkable nonetheless – devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom is but one example. At the same time, regions have established their own representations in Brussels, and the 1991 Maastricht Treaty that formally founded the European Union institutionalized a Committee of the Regions on EU level. The latter is often dismissed as an expensive talking shop without much purpose (it only has consultative rights in the legislation process), but set against the longer historical context, the sheer existence of such a Committee is remarkable. Instead of a disappearance of borders within the EU, the emphasis on regions instead suggests a proliferation of borders, albeit of a different kind. These are not the grand, rigid borders of a territorial state that separate a whole range of functional systems; these are borders that delimit some administrative functions that are also identity markers in a much more complex way than how the old nation-state borders propagated an all-encompassing national identity, or the new external borders may become for an EU identity. Of particular importance in this context are the manifold series of cooperation of regions adjacent to a border between European states in what has come to be known as “Euregios,” regions that form a new level of political organization across the old borders. Such border regions have traditionally been underdeveloped in the nation-state, and infrastructure across borders has been limited. National borders often forced an identity onto people living in border regions that was not always shared by the people themselves, not to speak of families being torn apart. Cross-border cooperation in Europe tackles these issues by providing financial assistance through the EU’s Interreg program toward such cooperation, and by enabling people living in the region to re-articulate their identities so that the border is no longer a line of division but a focal point for identification. These Euregios have proliferated over the last two decades such that it has become difficult to keep track of them. There are now several dozens, taking a variety of legal forms and pursuing different levels of integration. Examples include Regio TriRhena at the French-German-Swiss border triangle or the Euroregion Bug involving regions of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Yes, some of them may exist predominantly to obtain EU funding. Likewise, not all people living in these Euregios have a strong sense of regional identity, and red tape resulting from different administrative structures still bedevils many a practical measure to engage, for instance, in common infrastructure programs. Yet whoever visits some of the more established Euregios such as TriRhena will notice that the discourse on borders and identity has markedly changed, in particular if compared to pre-European integration.

A Radical Challenge, But Only in Parts

Analogies are always problematic, but Bull’s scenario of a neo-medieval Europe clearly captures something of the spirit throughout most parts of Europe better than statist terms. This, however, is largely a picture of what is happening within the EU. At the external borders of the EU, there is little to suggest that borders are being redefined or even abolished. While there are Euregios at the EU’s outer borders, such as Euregion Bug, and while the EU has allowed the provision of local border traffic permits for people living in the immediate vicinity of an EU outer border, security discourses nonetheless tend to override attempts to cooperate as much as identity discourses. In this sense, the EU would really only provide an alternative to the society of states as Bull saw it if the integrative ethos inside were to be applied to its outer borders. This is not out of the question, but it is not yet the right time for such a move.