Monday, 15 February 2016

Is Latin America a vision of Europe's fenced future?

Europeans should look at the hassles faced by other continents before they thoughtlessly toss out Schengen's decades of free movement.

I'm spending this weekend at Iguazu Falls, the mammoth waterfalls at the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. It's a truly spectacular sight, more powerful than Niagara and wider than Victoria (the falls, not the queen).

Perhaps even more interesting than visiting the falls has been exploring the three towns at the 'triple frontier', Foz do Iguacu, Puerto Iguazu and Ciudad del Este. It is essentially one large urban conurbation spanning three borders. I've taken to collecting visits to sites like this. It's my fourth triple border, after NL-BE-DE, CH-FR-DE and CH-LI-AU.

People tend to work and live across the borders. Buses run between the three. Commerce is geared around the Itaipu dam shared between Brazil and Paraguay, trade (illicit and otherwise) with Este, Praguay's second-largest city, and tourism around the falls. But as I've discovered while visiting the three sides, travel between them is anything but straight-forward.

All three borders rest on huge rivers, and three bridges are the only ways to cross. They are marked by massive border check facilities at which you can spend hours waiting. Coming to and from Brazil is extra complicated because they have exit checks, meaning two sets of checks when crossing. It took me 90 minutes to cross from Brazil to Argentina today. Cars are constantly stopped on the roads in the whole area by police checking identification and cargo.

This is the first non-Schengen triple border I've visited, and it makes me feel grateful to live in Europe where the borders are marked with unobtrusive markers rather than hostile guards. But Latin America's cumbersome and hostile cross-border relations may be about to return to Europe, with nationalist politicians talking of dismembering the Schengen agreement which has kept Europe border-guard-free for over two decades.

Already some countries are unilaterally violating the terms of the Schengen agreement by re-establishing border checks in response to the migrant crisis, most notably at the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark that has suddenly ripped the greater Copenhagen region in two. 

Perhaps more ominously, I've also noted the presence of large military bases in each of these three cities, with armaments pointed squarely at the others. These three countries were at war with each other in the 19th century, and a return to war was always a very real possibility during the military dictatorships of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Even today, war between these countries is not as remote of a possibility as people generally say about EU nations. Or, used to say.

Is this really where Europe wants to return to? Today, many military bases that used to stare ominously over the borders to other EU states are instead used for common EU defence (see France's Citadel of Lille).

These waterfalls are pretty and all, but frankly I'd rather go over them in a barrel than live here in the triple frontier. Aside from the oppressive heat (it's 40 degrees here today. 40!) daily life here seems to be a constant battle against the restrictions put in place by the fortress-like borders. The triple frontier has done its best to become an important inland power centre in South America, but it is constantly struggling against the difficulties of being divided in three.

And yet the division seems absurd. Two of these countries speak the same language, the third shares a common history and should have no reason to fear its neighbours. But deeply entrenched nationalism on this continent, the result of the same 19th century nation-creating and nation-mythologising that was taking place in Europe at the same time, has thrown up the extreme barriers. One only need to look at the micro-nations of Central America to see even greater absurdity.

To me, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Latin America (and of the Arab world) was its inability to unite and resist the power-hungry provincial barons which sought to create 'nations' out of arbitrary colonial borders. One of the greatest successes of European history is that it has partially thrown off these equally-arbitrary nationalist shackles. But though Europe's artificial borders have been loosened on the ground, recent developments have shown that decades of indoctrination have left these borders just as hard in people's heads. 

Is this Europe's future? Rather than celebrate their success, Europeans seek to emulate the failures of other continents? I look out at these three cities and think, this is what Denmark-Malmo may look like in a few years. Indeed, this is the future that may await Schengen itself, the town at the Dutch-German-Belgian border where the eponymous agreement was signed.

Get your passports ready.

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