The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a veritable outbreak of delusions and magical thinking concerning border controls. For the most part this emanates from the trailer park Trump blog brigade whose watered-down Christofascism covertly advocates the type of ‘conservative’ American values that were so popular during the Great Depression with the Klu Klux Klan. American shouts of ‘Immigrants out’ and ‘Close the borders’ sounded pretty lousy coming from a country so recently made great by the huge influx of immigrants. Coronavirus has affected every country in the world irrespective of their leniency or super-strictness with border restrictions.
The San Diego-Tijuana model is often used as the example in blog and social media posts. In the rest of the world, however, the border philosophy often has nothing to do with this dysfunctional model. Border towns the world over are often among the wealthiest cities in their respective countries. One of the most striking examples is the case of Switzerland - the inconvenient truth in the open-borders debate. Switzerland, with no coast, is flanked by enormously wealthy areas of Baden Württemburg in Germany, prosperous regions of Austria and France, and Lombardy, Italy’s industrial powerhouse. The reason for the affluence is that for over 100 years, the Swiss have maintained an open border policy that mutually benefits all regions involved. Some 70,000 Italian ‘frontalieri’ commute across the border daily, then happily make the journey back south at the end of the day. (Bureaucracy is near non-existent. As an Italian resident, I got my Permesso G work permit within two hours of securing a job in Mendrissio, Switzerland). Italians receive a wage akin to double that of their fellow countrymen working in Italy. The Swiss meanwhile get cheap labour and get to maintain their ultra high-standard of living and their even more plentiful pay packets. Who’s complaining? Apart from the occasional populist ultra-right politician aiming to score cheap-shot campaigning points among the xenophobic electorate, nobody complains. The Italian and Swiss border towns are among the richest on the planet. Good luck trying to find the bad neighbourhoods in those towns.
But the great delusion continues. The closed-border advocates fail miserably. Their entire argument hinges on a form of magical thinking. The Trumpites in the U.S. and the Leavers in the U.K. want to see an end to the influx of ‘human capital’ (to use enemy parlance). But they don’t want the tap turned off on the monetary capital. The two are inseparable. Two years ago when a right wing surge in Switzerland forced a national referendum over whether the country should put a cap on cross-border commuters, the Swiss actually voted in favour of it. However, the European Union got the decision overturned, threatening to block the flow of Swiss-bound capital that enters the country from the EU. Never was such a rapid U-turn made when the Helvetian country realized the cash might dry up. Likewise, the idea that the modern world’s ultra-easy international money transfers, remittance services, the SWIFT system or even cryptocurrencies, which all render land frontiers virtually obsolete, should likewise be closed or dismantled is equally ludicrous.
Globalization may be a dead man walking as far as much world trade goes, but for movement of capital there is no going back. The rise of nostalgia for mercantilism is wishful thinking. It only works when rich countries’ incoming borders are closed, while other countries’ incoming borders must remain open. Mercantilism sees countries gaining advantage by colonialism, slavery, trade barriers, export of inflation and taxation, and other sinister forms of exploitation. It’s a slave – master relationship that simply doesn’t work.