First Impressions

It is fitting that a trip dedicated to the study of globalization should pass through these globalized spaces called airports. Here in Helsinki (where I am IMG_4066spending the day waiting for my family to arrive from San Francisco via Washington and Copenhagen), English, Russian, Swedish, and Finnish are everywhere. In the elevator, a woman laughed with gusto into her phone and launched into a humorous anecdote in Mandarin. The curious faces of the other people in the lift made me realize that Chinese is less foreign to me than, until a couple of days ago, Finnish.

Airports represent one of globalization’s promises: the free movement of people–and all their talents and skills–across national boundaries. Goods, ideas, media, and currencies also move about, protected by free-trade treaties or simply unleashed by satellites and undersea cables. (“For all the talk about the ‘cloud,'” Andrea Petersen wrote recently in the Independent, “prahanjin_container_ship_passed_through_the_golden_gatectically all of the data shooting around the world actually relies on a series of tubes to get around — a massive system of fibre-optic cables lying deep underneath the oceans.”)

When I was in California last week, everyone was talking about a new French megaship, the “Benjamin Franklin,” that seemingly barely fit under the Golden Gate Bridge. Its quarter-mile-long deck was piled with what looked like little blue squares, 2,250 of them, each square a container ready to be loaded onto a train car or an 18-wheeler.

But what about people? In 1985, five nations of what was then called the European Economic Community signed a treaty now known for the village of its origin: Schengen. The Schengen Treaty began the dissolution of internal borders in what is now known as the EU as well as in non-EU states, including Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. (The UK has not signed on.)

c396resundsbron_frc3a5n_luftkastelletThe Öresund Bridge linking Sweden and Denmark

And now, Denmark and Sweden are tightening their borders, Denmark with Germany and Sweden with Denmark–specifically on a single bridge. A central complaint is that the external boundary of the EU is not being policed in accordance with the treaty, in places like Greece, so the agreement is void. map_of_c396resund_between_denmark_and_swedenBut there are people who live in one country and work in another–housing is less expensive in Sweden, I believe.  The border control not only makes commuting difficult, it challenges the idea of “Europe” and of a post-nationalist globalized West as well.

Of course, the Swedes are not worried about the Danes and there is a darker side to the call for stricter border control that goes beyond the fear of violence like that recently commemorated in Paris. In Finland, where some migrants cross the 1000 km border with Russia, resources for refugees have been strained, several buildings associated with refugees and migrants have been burned, and right-wing political parties have attempted to use fear of outsiders to their advantage. I am certain that migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East is a topic I will be learning much more about in the coming months!

The question for me here is this: can we have the free flow of information and the free exchange of goods without the free movement of peoples? Perhaps. Mexico and the US do about a half trillion dollars of trade a year, even as the Americans have tried to seal the border against people. Will the number of migrants fall or rise globally? Will new forms of nationalism lead to calls for economic protectionism and thereby less global trade? Will European nations, led by Germany and France, re-conceive their national identities in order to head off more violence? Or will they militarize their borders?


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