The Covid-19 pandemic has brought back borders as different countries put their own interests first.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia today opened their borders to each other and created a bubble of free movement between themselves.
From today, the more than six million people are free to move across each other’s borders, but arrivals from outside the Baltic bubble will have to undergo a two-week quarantine period.
As the coronavirus spread throughout the Europe Union, the much-vaunted Schengen Zone, which guarantees visa and border-free travel in 27 states, came crashing down as member nations closed borders to each other.
Germany and the Czech Republic banned the export of medical equipment and analysts started wondering whether the whole edifice of the EU was being dismantled.
Now the Baltic bubble threatens to create a multi-lane Europe and deepen divisions in the bloc as countries increasingly strike bilateral agreements as they seek to open up their countries.
The Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said, “We showed a good example by stating, very clearly, that only countries which successfully dealt with the situation can open themselves up.”
Germany and Austria have similarly struck a deal to open borders with each other as both nations believe that they have the virus sufficiently under control.
The Greek tourism minister, Harry Theoharis, has also floated the idea of bilateral agreements between countries in a bid to resuscitate the tourism-dependent economy.
But now there are fears that with different EU countries going their own way, hard-hit countries like Spain and Italy will feel ostracised just at the time they may feel solidarity is important between member states.
The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson warned countries that “member states cannot open borders for citizens from one EU country, but not from others. This is essential.”
In practice, however, with the Baltic bloc going their way and Germanic kinship striking a common deal, Johansson seems to have little power to enforce the EU’s “no discrimination policy.”
Even the French President Emmanuel Macron, a flag bearer for the EU, has questioned whether the Schengen zone is still viable.
A repeat of the 2015 refugee crises?
The death of the visa-free Schengen zone has been proclaimed before. The 2015 refugee crisis saw more than one million migrants move across the EU.
There were doubts then, and people are once again questioning the longevity of the bloc's most significant achievement to date.
The Schengen zone has undoubtedly helped to entrench the economies of different members in each other's labour forces, however, with the pandemic affecting countries in different ways, there are reasons to suggest that this time could be different than the 2015 crisis.
According to research published after the migration crisis of 2015, the authors argued that it resulted in “Schengen Member States to reject cooperative norms of multilateralism in favour of unilateral defensive practices.”
A loss of trust between member states to achieve a common goal resulted in national governments deciding ultimately what’s in their best interests.
Now the movement of people from different nations within the EU may result in stigmatisation if a particular nationality spreads the virus into an area that previously contained it.
Pressure from citizens to open the borders towards some countries and not others may also grow. And some nations, such as Italy and Spain, may be in a cordon sanitaire for a long time to come, despite tepid efforts to loosen the lockdown.
Going forward, the Schengen zone could be one of many areas of tensions between member states.
Far-right parties in Europe that have long campaigned for the reimposition of borders and nation-first politics will feel emboldened.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian right-wing party, Lega, is already using the coronavirus pandemic to fight another battle, recently warning that “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the [corona]virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.”
Tensions between Eastern European countries, which have largely escaped the worst of the virus, and hard-hit Southern European countries could emerge, in particular around the allocation of budgets.
With all EU countries suffering economically some, in the end, could be tempted to save themselves first.