Are Physical Borders Here to Stay? COVID-19 and the Rise of International Protectionism

Dakota Parker

International border control is a relatively recent phenomenon in world history. Unrestricted mass migration only came to an end in the early 20th century when globalisation gave way to world war and the destruction of the global economy, with many leading economies implementing protectionist policies to halt such forces.

The fortification of borders occurred primarily to protect national territories and interests from external threats, with borders representing a symbolic element of security.

However, in the modern era, external threats are no longer military in nature and neither do they possess the same physical basis as their historical counterparts.

Masses of countries across the world have resorted to closing their borders in an effort to restrict the spread of COVID-19, erecting temporary barriers to entry, with the pandemic bringing back borders in countries that have been open for much of their history.

The fear surrounding the spread of COVID-19 and its international transmission has caused nations to respond in this way, with the return of protectionism threatening the global order.

Even countries in Europe’s Schengen Area, a region famous for the unrestricted movement of people and goods, have responded to COVID-19 with fortification. The Schengen Area and its 26 members have not possessed physical borders for 25 years, with the pandemic effectively suspending the agreement.

Although some countries across Europe are gradually re-opening borders, others aren’t, with restrictions remaining in place in Eastern, Central and South-Eastern Europe. This disjunction is threatening democracy across Europe and delegitimising the authority of collective EU institutions.

In fact, leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán have used the pandemic to seize more power, suppressing the free media and the independent judiciary, while simultaneously promoting an anti-migrant view through the fortification of borders.

This sets a dangerous precedent as nations across the world are similarly discouraged from preserving open borders, using the pandemic to concentrate domestic influence and implement protectionist policies.

Across the North Atlantic in the United States (US), the trend towards protectionism is not dissimilar.

Even before COVID-19, President Donald Trump blocked migration from seven countries across the world as a result of an executive order signed in 2017. Similarly, Trump has frequently voiced his concerns regarding the country’s southern border with Mexico, with the president threatening to close the “whole border” in 2018.

Following COVID-19 and impacts on US relations with nations abroad, it is reasonable to assume the number of countries on this list to grow, as the US president uses the pandemic to justify such action.

President Trump has already used COVID-19 to partially close the US-Mexico border, despite the limited number of cases south of the border. Similarly, Trump has used public health laws to significantly reduce all immigration, with his administration planning to extend its border restrictions indefinitely.

However, the increased protectionism of the US does not only affect migration, but also international trade, with some 54 countries following the US and imposing export restrictions on medical goods.

Growing international suspicion towards China has resulted in a new wave of trade protectionism towards the country, with a collapse in Chinese trade with the European Union and the US, and a shock to the China-centred global supply chain.

Despite the origins of the US-China trade war as pre-dating COVID-19, President Trump has used the pandemic as an accelerant in his hostilities towards the country, with the administration using the crisis to push harder for its goal of delinking the US economy from China.

As a result, nations around the globe are being disincentivised to restore liberal trade policies in the aftermath of COVID-19, and rather seek economic self-sufficiency, protecting domestic producers and guarding against international competition and interference.

The COVID-19 pandemic has benefited nationalists around the world who favour greater immigration controls and protectionism, with long-term implications on the free movement of people and goods the international community has celebrated for centuries.

These trends will only rise as the actions of major economies, in particular the US, have a flow-on effect on countries around the world, forcing the global market to follow suit as nations attempt to limit the political and economic damage caused by COVID-19 and consolidate domestic power moving forward.


Dakota Parker is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Diplomacy at the Australian National University.

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