Are states being wiped off the map?
We are in the middle of one of the most contradictory moments in history. Two currents are flowing in opposite directions and pulling nation-states at both ends.
Refugees are pounding at the doors of European countries. They are pushing and blurring borders. Similarly, terror and war, specifically the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are eroding the frontiers in the Middle East.
In response, Western states are bracing their borders much stronger than ever before. And in the Middle East, while states seem to be dissolving, they are giving birth to new ones. In other words, new borders are emerging.
So what can we make out of this paradox? Are borders wiped off the map and history? Or on the contrary, are they getting even stronger?
Refugees have made the borders of European countries meaningless since Europe is not capable of handling the current crisis and protecting its boundaries. In response, Germany and Austria have tightened their border control. And Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary, have put up border walls. Today Europe is questioning the “Schengen order,” which enables free movement among themselves.
This reaction is coupled by the mounting nationalism on the continent, which was already on the rise. Hence refugees have caught Europe at its most vulnerable point: Its rising nationalism. Moreover, they have negated Europe’s biggest achievement so far: Integration.
The EU was founded upon the principle that physical impediments between its members, particularly borders, would be abolished. For the last 20 years, 26 member states have been moving freely within the Schengen zone.
Now, as German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned, “More border controls would be not only a dramatic political reverse for Europe, but also a mental one.”
Finding itself bracing its borders more strongly, Europe is now questioning its own identity. It is widely feared and quite conceivable that temporary cautions such as border controls might become permanent. In other words, in due course Schengen might be abolished.
So no wonder that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right and anti-EU National Front, recently tweeted: “Bye Bye Schengen!”
The dynamics are quite similar in the Middle East. ISIL has de facto eroded the borders between Iraq and Syria. The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq is getting more and more independent from Baghdad. And Syria has been de facto split into three parts. On top of these, refugees have blurred the borders in this region further.
Therefore, frontiers are getting more and more meaningless. The borders in the Middle East, which were drawn by the Sykes-Picot Treaty signed by France and Britain in 1916, are slowly eroding.
Yet while Syria is melting down, it seems to be giving birth to three new states; one Sunni, one Alevi and one Kurdish. Northern Iraq is on the same track too.
In short, states don’t disappear. On the contrary, they multiply. The more blurred borders get, the stricter people embrace them.
However, there is a huge challenge which states today are exposed to: Even if they maintain their existence and relevance, they are losing control over their territory. This is because they are not able to practice their main function anymore, which is protecting their people from external threats such a terror, war and radicalism.
Then how will they cope with this new reality?
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) between 2004 and 2014, suggested a “panacea” in his recent article for Turkish Policy Quarterly.
Accordingly, states in the Middle East should give up on trying to copy-paste the state system in Europe, which was formed in the 17th century after the Westphalia Agreement. “It is rather the agreements concluded after the Second World War among European countries that should be considered,” he said, referring to the EU.
In other words, Ihsanoğlu argued borders should be made more flexible rather than stronger. They should become lines of connection and cooperation rather than lines of separation and conflict. He underlined that integration not only brings economic development, but also prevents rivalry and conflicts.
The countries of the former Yugoslavia seem to have taken this lesson. In the 1990s, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which caused about 140,000 deaths, gave birth to seven new states. Now they are all trying to integrate under the EU’s umbrella.
So it’s crystal clear: Keep the border and carry on.