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The EU can help Europeans rediscover the ties that bind us

Europe is united by common values, but borders and boundaries are crucial too - writes a European Commission vice president. 

At the end of last year, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, I felt the need to reflect on the values that were driving the political discourse of the day. In the midst of the headlines, reactions and counter-reactions, I wanted to think about why the issue was such a difficult one to tackle politically. I put pen to paper with a short book published in my native Dutch, which is now available in English too.

My thoughts first settled on Victor Hugo in 1875, elaborating on the values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Hugo saw liberty as a right, equality as a fact and fraternity, or as we might say now, solidarity, as an obligation. He made the point that if we cannot meet our obligation to fraternity then liberty and equality become irrelevant. Because we are all interconnected, the weak must be the concern of the strong and the protection of their rights is a sacred duty. The principle holds just as true for me today.

Yet it seems as though we as a society have forgotten this important lesson. Our world is full of dangers and uncertainties and we are too often paralysed by fear for the future and of others. It’s like walking on a path that is so bumpy that your gaze narrows to the point directly in front of your feet and all you see is that one spot. Our attention is focused solely on the here and now, the next step. We no longer see what is happening around us. This prevents us from looking, feeling or caring.

First comes the notion that we are losing something – jobs, status, identity. Then the argument goes like this: we will get it back and everything will be fixed if we build up walls. This discourse is increasingly setting the terms of the debate in Europe. But building walls will simply not work. That is true for managing the refugee crisis, and it is true within society more generally.

I remain convinced that we can address the refugee crisis if EU countries work better together. We are finally realising the need to take a leap of faith and act together - to better protect external borders, to jointly contribute to taking refugees through resettlement, and to ensure that those with no right to asylum are returned home humanely. If we continue our work to break the sickening business model of people smugglers, by offering safe pathways to protection inside and outside the EU, we'll get through this together.

The main reason why progress has been slow is because Europe suffers from a pervasive lack of trust. We have too little trust in our own ability to cope. And too little trust in one another. This makes solidarity difficult. But solidarity is not altruism. Altruism is giving something with no expectations. Solidarity means sharing something because it makes us stronger collectively. And often, it means giving something today because you know solidarity will also be there tomorrow when you need it.

It has struck me that this lack of trust is also what we are seeing within our societies. The last 15 years have been tough on people and our working and middle classes feel that their contribution is constantly being called upon, and what they get in return isn't always clear. Similarly, in the refugee crisis the self-interest of acting together has been difficult to get across. The understanding that, for the Schengen area, management of the external borders is a common endeavour was not immediately accepted.  

Rebuilding links is also vital in our communities. People today live increasingly separate but parallel lives. But living together should be more than simply existing alongside each other. Global developments will lead to more diverse societies everywhere. We should accept this and make the most of the opportunities while managing the risks. But we need rules and boundaries, as communities also need internal cohesion. With the European Football Championships just around the corner, let me use a football analogy.

Think of a newcomer, a refugee maybe, like someone asking to take part in a football match for the first time. He wants to join in, but he has no idea about the rules, so he spends the entire game in an offside position. Everyone grumbles at him, and after a couple of tries, no one passes him the ball any more. He doesn’t understand what he's doing wrong and decides that the others just don’t like him. He turns around and walks off. He is more excluded than before he went on the pitch; he feels unwelcome, rejected, and different. This is exactly the wretched position in which many migrants and their children (or grandchildren) have ended up in. Of course he needs to make an effort to learn the rules too, but someone needs to be there to show him what they are.

To regain confidence and move forward rather than backwards we need to remember and strengthen the ties that bind us. We should not build walls between each other, but we should also not fall under the illusion that boundaries should cease to exist. Borders and boundaries matter. They are lines between us that show our differences, and allow us to build connections with each other. Mutual respect begins at the point where one person meets and respects the other’s border.

The starting point for making these connections and rekindling the spirit of solidarity is to build strong, cohesive communities at the local and national level. The European Union's role in this context is a modest one. We will continue to help tackle issues which cross borders and cannot be dealt with by individual countries acting alone: national where possible, European where necessary. The values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité have inspired Europe and endured for almost 150 years. Let our generation not be the one that abandons them.

Frans Timmermans is first vice president of the European commission. Community: Discovering ties that bind is published in English by Policy Network

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”