The impacts of policy decisions to close national and some regional borders, drastically reducing people’s mobility, are likely to last considerably longer than the actual policies themselves. Importantly, they may also trigger substantial ongoing changes to our societies.
In recent decades framed by globalisation, witnessing our societies and economies being driven inexorably towards hypermobility has become a shared experience. Hypermobility prefigures an exponential growth in mobility. This includes both an increasing number of frequent but shorter trips and a greater time- and space-related delimitation of both professional and private lives. In recent years, our perceptions of distance, place and space, as well as routine and non-routine environments, has changed considerably.
Although these mobility restrictions are likely, eventually, to be lifted, the question remains whether our mobility patterns will reset to ‘a new normal’ or revert back to pre-crisis trendlines.
Current policies designed to combat the corona crisis have however brought this kind of unbridled mobility to an abrupt end. Most prominently, the closing of national borders and in some cases (e.g. China, Italy, Austria and Finland) even regional or municipal borders, has significantly curtailed major flows of people.
National lock-downs and social distancing rules, in principle forcing people to stay at home, entail an even more drastic disruption to our mobility patterns, be it for businesses, social life, in our local communities, or for traveling around Europe or the world. In Europe, they also drastically impinge upon the very essence of the “European project” based, as it is, on the free movement of people, capital and goods. As such, this has exacerbated an already difficult situation precipitated by the increased prominence of populist and neo-nationalistic movements in many corners of the continent.
Although these mobility restrictions are likely, eventually, to be lifted, the question remains whether our mobility patterns will reset to ‘a new normal’ or revert back to pre-crisis trendlines. We argue that the situation will more likely reflect the former than the latter for three main reasons, and that each may necessitate the development of different governance responses. We suggest that the main reasons that our post-crisis approaches to hypermobility and integration will diverge from pre-crisis trendlines are as follows:
(1) Socio-economic impacts of current policies: The policies on closed borders and personal mobility restrictions will reveal their full impacts and consequences only when they are lifted. Indeed, the social, societal and economic consequences can be expected to be long-lasting and will affect our mobility patterns for years to come. Moreover, it is widely assumed that the economic recession set to follow the corona crises is likely to be considerably more severe than that which followed the financial crisis of 2008. Thus, as the demand for products, services and travel declines, mobility patterns will change – at least temporarily.
(2) Lasting disruption due to ‘temporary re-imposition of lockdowns’: The corona crisis can be seen as a disruptive moment (See Kai Böhme’s territorial thinkers blog on this topic). While disruptions are usually characterised by short-term interruptions which change development paths, current discussions around possible lockdown exit strategies suggest that we may experience some further temporary interruptions as exit strategies take shape. Indeed, it is entirely plausible to envisage that, in order to strike a balance between healthcare system capacity and economic necessity, for the next 2 years European countries will routinely shift between 6-8 week lockdown periods (to flatten the curve and reduce the reinfection rate) and 6-8 week periods of free movement (some may argue to establish ‘herd immunity’, though this is, in itself, a deeply controversial issue where the science is not clear). Nevertheless, such temporary exit strategies with recurring waves of lockdown and opening will likely prolong the deleterious socioeconomic impacts further.
(3) Repatriation of industries: We can expect that many countries will develop long-term policies to ensure that essential industries (in particular in the health and food sectors) are located nationally and can function and support the country in times of crisis with limited dependence on imports. The question is whether this is confined to the repatriation of only essential industries or whether it fuels broader trends in respect of autarkic tribalism.
The corona crisis already risks accelerating pre-existing trends in relation to the undermining of democratic decision-making and solidarity. The European integration project has fostered the setting aside of tribalism and a re-focusing on the positive power of joining together to build confidence in families, communities and neighbourhoods. The risk associated with the corona crisis is that it precipitates a descent into tribalism, particularism and the striving for short-term advantage once again. In times of crisis, people focus on looking after their immediate kith and kin, be it family, friends, social groups, neighbourhoods, regions or countries. Unilateral closures of national borders or the closing of regional borders within a country are just one territorial expression of this.
Having already experienced the reality that our own economies are substantially impacted when cooperation partners close their borders (to protect their tribes), this may precipitate a more profound analysis of the risks associated with globally or EU-wide integrated supply chains and the total outsourcing of some production to locations in third countries outside the EU. Moreover, re-industrialisation policies may be viewed in a different light after the corona crisis has passed and both national policymakers and the managers of large firms may be more inclined to discuss the need to reduce the geographical dispersion of their value and supply chains. This could presage a decisive turn in the eternal ‘competition versus cohesion’ debate and tip the balance in favour of national/EU ‘champions’ while providing a boost to EU ‘industrial policy’ proponents.
(4) Psychological damage: Being faced with lockdown conditions will also have severe consequences for us as human beings and for our communities as well as on the functioning of our economies. European societies are based on trust. Although there are differences in our societal structures, trust in others is a key element of all our economic and governance systems. To illustrate this, trust is considered a key indicator in the European good governance index, while much research on regional development underlines the fact that trust is a key feature unleashing development potential. With the current experience of social distancing, trust (in other people) cannot be taken for granted, in fact in many cases it is being replaced by suspicion. Suspicion as to whether others are following the rules, staying safe and not posing a risk to others, suspicion that one might be punished for behaving (according to the old regime) ‘normally’ and not following the new rules. Given the return – both potential and actual – to tribalism and distrust, we can observe the acceptance of the curtailing of fundamental citizens´ rights in Western democracies and, exceptionally, the exploitation of the crisis to side-line democratic principles and the system of checks and balances in some EU Member States.
In a recent article, professor Janne Hukkinen from Helsinki University warned of the risk of our society becoming chronically authoritarian if the ‘Emergency Law mentality’ becomes the norm. “Because crises will be recurring, our beloved democracies may become partially authoritarian societies,” says Hukkinen. This issue has already aroused extensive debate across Europe among constitutional law experts, though the crisis has also generated some positive impacts too in respect of collaboration between researchers and policy-makers (see, Nadia Urbinati: “Un patto tra politica e scienza”, La Republica, 3rd April 2020).
The expected changes will affect our (hyper-) mobility in many different ways and thus also our integration at a global level, in Europe and even within countries. We would here like to highlight a few possible impacts to stimulate debate and thinking about possible policy responses to it.
1) Global trade flows: Global value chains and the reliance on some parts of the world to be the production centre or workbench for others, may become less important post-corona if the above- mentioned ideas of industrial repatriation and re-thinking of global/international value and supply chains gains ground. In this sense, much of the debate in Europe around Brexit and how to handle integrated cross-border value chains may just have been the warm-up for similar debates at a far larger scale. Similarly, the flow of people across the globe may experience significant change if industries become less globalised, particularly in respect of business travel. Private travel may also decrease, not just because of the expected economic recession but likely due to persistent travel restrictions, i.e. who is allowed to go where.
2) EU Mobility patterns: For many of us, the EU was perceived as a borderless space of possibilities and flows. Post-crisis, though perhaps to a lesser extent than the global changes discussed above, we can expect similar flow effects as regards goods and people. Less integrated value chains and less cross-border trade, commuting and travel may all very well be a realistic supposition here. Although the EU will endeavour to maintain as much as possible its strong single market and community, the scares left in some areas affected by the unilateral decisions of others will not be easily forgotten. Border regions, with a strong tradition of integration across the border, where people and businesses rely on cross-border services, or where substantial parts of the workload (also in the health care sector) rely on cross-border commuters, were often severely impacted by national-level decisions to unilaterally close borders. Clearly, in some areas this experience will lead to thinking about how to increase regional resilience in case such developments recur in future. This may very well lead to less cross-border integration and more ‘tribalism’.
Mobility remains at the heart of the European project. As countries resort to closing borders and frantically search for optimal solutions to protect their population and economies, we need to identify the best and most resilient governance mechanisms to keep our democracies alive and protect the tangible gains made through support for ideas around cohesion and interdependence.
3) Multi-locality: With countries closing their borders and even regions within countries also being cordoned off, Corona era policies have played havoc with our integrated labour markets systems and our globalised economies. This deeply impacts some of the new multi-locality patterns that have been emerging over the past decade. Multi-locality refers to trends in respect of the variable functionality of places and spaces, for instance people sharing their lives and identities between multiple locations, internationally and nationally. This could be for work (long-distance commuting), for private life (long-distance relationships, second homes), or for fun (swapping between different exciting locations or between urban and rural lifestyles). The trend towards multi-locality has clearly been impaired by mobility bans and closed borders. In rural areas, those who dare to remain in their holiday homes shy away from contact with the locals, as outsiders are seen as ‘sources of risk’ and contamination while urban centres with dense populations and a low degree of self-reliance are increasingly seen as places of risk and spaces of restriction as the multi-functionality of life spaces is replaced by stay put – scenarios.
How does all this resonate with our governance options and instruments? Is our territorial identity being re-nationalised beyond repair or is there still justification to hope that a post-Corona anticipatory territorial governance, with a cosmopolitan approach, will emerge to replace the current introspective overtones of national-level decision-making?
It seems inevitable that the current crisis will produce long lasting impacts. In order to address these impacts, we propose three vectors or lines of thought for discussion:
Cooperation instead of unilateralism:
Clearly, a successful response to a global challenge which ignores societal or territorial borders can only be found in cooperation. Unilateral responses – putting “my territory first” – will never be powerful enough and only risk accelerating fragmentation, tribalism and nationalism. Joint responses are needed in respect of both the immediate public health response to Covid19 and in relation to the post-crisis economic reboot. In response to the crisis, Europe needs to keep its borders open and limit the geographical spread of the virus by asking people to avoid unnecessary trips. Border closures threaten European integration and solidarity when cross-border commuters in the health care sector can no longer travel to work or when essential intra-European value chains break down. Perhaps we need to ‘think the unthinkable’, go beyond the Cross-border healthcare directive (2011/24/EU) and embrace shared European healthcare systems – at least at a regional level – ensuring that people see that we are all working together and sharing equal access to the same resources. The immediate post-crisis period is also likely to witness an increase in social despair, unemployment and economic recession and while these issues are intimately inter-linked, they will also be spatially differentiated. Again, joint solutions will likely prove more productive than competition between groups and places, pitting winners and losers against each other. Would a shared European social welfare or unemployment system, or even an EU-wide basic income programme, be at all thinkable in this context? How then, in the wake of the current crisis, can we effectively address the re-emergent, often unconditioned (for EU most countries) response that defaults to tribalist and nationalist mindsets? What positive ideas can we put forward to buttress the European territorial solidarity project?
Governance without a budget, mobilising resources beyond the obvious: Governance and regional development may look different after the current crisis. In recent years, we have grown used to an attitude where many players only engage in processes if they are paid or can expect a direct monetary benefit. The sums currently made available for emergency packages across Europe have been, historically, unheard of and beg many questions in relation to the previous decade lost to ‘austerity’. Nevertheless, they remain insufficient and much more will need to be done to boost local and regional development while dampening socioeconomic disparities and fragmentation. Given the sums currently being spent, it appears likely that after the immediate crisis subsides, the public sector will be asked once again to bear the fiscal burden. This however raises significant questions over how to mobilise and engage players in complex regional development and governance approaches without financial incentives. Or have we already reached the point where the market-driven logic of our society has exceeded its limits and a fundamental rethink is necessary? In relation to services of general interest, Hummer (2020) argues that “under the immediate impression of the ongoing Corona pandemic, a pure market-driven economic growth logic appears ever more questionable for regions.” This poses questions about future means of governance and also about future non-budgetary measures to avoid increasing regional disparities where the distance between shrinking and thriving places becomes ever more iniquitous.
Other methods of management and governance towards an anticipatory mode: We need also to be better at thinking on our feet and at embracing co-creation and collaboration in order to improve our ability to foresee future needs, rather than simply seeking to address today’s problems. One way of achieving this could be through promoting multi-level initiatives on social cohesion and territorial dialogue, as well as urban level development platforms, bringing together technological and social innovation through RDI-funding instruments, citizens’ movements and 3rd sector organisations to produce concrete business ideas designed to serve local populations and their interests. This could be attempted, for instance, through urban experimentation and innovation platforms, ideation between expert organisations, local urban and rural communities, third sector organisations, as well as businesses.
In sum, the current crisis and the policy response to it will undoubtedly impact territorial governance patterns and flows across Europe, with manifold repercussions for social and territorial cohesion. We urgently need to acknowledge that European responses and cooperation are not a luxury, nor are they irrelevant political mantras of yesteryear but rather, a very immediate necessity. Europe can win the fight against Covid19 only if it plays as one united team, building on mutual trust and the commitment of all team members, as well as by acknowledging that even the most global of crises do have a territorial and spatial impact.
This article is an output of discussions and sharing of concerns between Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith and Kai Böhme, two ex-colleagues from Nordregio (2000-2004), who share a strong belief in the European project and an interest in all things Nordic. Kaisa currently works as a consultant at MDI in Helsinki and Kai is the CEO of Spatial Foresight in Luxemburg.