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Changing European borders: from separation to interface? An introduction

Jen Nelles and Olivier Walther


The aim of this special issue is to address the evolution of European borders from a comparative perspective. This collection of papers spans a wide variety of topics in the realm of borderland studies. Although each engages with a single empirical or theoretical case collectively they identify nuances relevant to the theoretical elaboration of borders, and particularly contribute to the field of sub-national cross-border cooperation. In the course of its analysis each paper contributes to a broader understanding of the definition of cross-border regions; identifies a set of barriers to cooperation in these contexts; explores the role of identities on cooperation and of the role of borders in constructing those identities; and reflects on the socio-political meanings and uses of these international boundaries. This introduction discusses theoretical significance of these contributions to major debates in the study of borders and border regions.

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An uneven geography of cross-border integration in Europe

1Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, European borders have undergone major transformations. Contrary to the provocative thesis of the 1990s on the advent of a borderless world (Ohmae 1990, 1995), increasing flows of commodities, people, capital, information, and knowledge, coupled with the process of Europeanization, have critically changed the functions and significance of borders (Anderson and O’Dowd 1999, van Houtum 2000, O’Dowd 2003). Two contradictory and simultaneous trends have been documented in the literature: the de-bordering of European territory, resulting from the proliferation of functional interdependences and institutional relationships (Perkmann 2003), and the re-bordering of Europe, stemming from the re-emergence of nation-state building processes (Scott and van Houtum 2009). While the first phenomenon has been accompanied by an intensification of cross-border relations and partnerships, the second has resulted in tighter securitization of the border, by means of immigration controls and physical borders (van Houtum and Boedeltje 2009).

2This evolution has led an increasing number of scholars to reconsider the importance of borders, not only for the development of those regions divided by a state boundary but, more generally, for the analysis of contemporary political and economic geography. There are two major consequences of this trend. First, a certain consensus has arisen among border scholars to consider border regions as the main place were the space of flows meets the space of places (Anderson, O’Dowd and Wilson 2003), meaning that those regions provide fertile ground for studying the transformations of states in their struggle to control movement from trans-national networks and to cope with alternative forms of power (Blatter 2003). Second, the processes of de-bordering and re-bordering of the European territory have also helped to highlight that borders can be conceptualized not only as mere political markers, but as political and economic resources that can be mobilized as they are opened or closed. In the 1970s, in the border region between Switzerland, Germany, and France, Hansen (1977a: 12) argued that “A stable border, together with a relatively unimpeded international labor and capital mobility will, on balance, be more advantageous than disadvantageous to a border region”. Surprisingly, it took quite a long time to re-discover that border regions in Europe can benefit from their very particular location and that classical location theories are not well suited to explain the geography of border regions, due to their tendency to reason in terms of equilibrium, whereas border regions are precisely marked by important and long-term imbalances.

3For the last decades, the European Union (EU) has made a huge effort to promote economic integration by creating a free labor market, encouraging the mobility of capital and promoting a monetary union. As a consequence, border effects within the European Union have considerably decreased as of the late 1970s (Fontagné, Mayer and Zignago 2005). Whereas in the past border regions were primarily seen as marginal areas, because of the many administrative, political and cultural obstacles faced by local populations and institutions, it seems that the Europeanization process has created more diversity – some will probably say more inequality as well – between border regions in Europe. European borders have probably become more flexible over time (O’Dowd 2003) and have experienced divergent trends: not all of them have evolved from a situation of separation to a situation of interface, as one would have expected, with the intermediate phases reflecting the increasing complexity of socio-economic and institutional networks.

4Rather, the process of EU enlargement has produced positive and negative effects on border regions (Niebuhr 2008, Petrakos and Topaloglou 2008). The highly symbolic German-Polish border has, for example, not developed into a much integrated economic region (Krätke 1999). On this border the German side has suffered from massive de-industrialization while the Polish side has improved its economic situation (Heimpold 2004). According to the typology developed by Topaloglou et al. (2005), a very heterogeneous picture of the current process of integration in border regions can be observed in Europe, with a strong division between regions from old and new EU members, of course, but also inside the former western and eastern parts of Europe, between metropolitan regions and less urbanized areas.

5The emergence of a much integrated EU has indeed proven to be particularly favorable for cross-border metropolitan regions such as Basel, Geneva, Luxembourg (Sohn, Reitel and Walther 2009, Sohn 2011) or the Oresund region (Hospers 2006), which are part of globalised economic networks and exert much influence over their regional or national areas (Krätke 2007, ESPON 2011). In metropolitan regions, new opportunities have arisen subsequent to the debordering of EU internal borders, transforming such regions from disadvantaged spaces due to their peripheral position to potentially prosperous interfaces (Ratti and Reichman 1993, Herzog 1997, Decoville et al. 2010). As recent studies have shown, having an international border crossing in a metropolitan region can be considered either as a factor of recognition or as a resource (Sohn and Walther 2011).

6The presence of a state boundary can first be used as a branding asset in the national or global competition in which cities are engaged. For the city-regions in interdependent urban systems, the presence of a border environment reinforces the international or multicultural identity of the metropolis. These cities are actively developing a unique and competitive identity for themselves, with the aim of positioning the cross-border region as a destination for investment, trade and tourism (Andersson 2007). The Oresund Committee originating from the region between Denmark and Sweden, for example, has paid particular attention over the last years to develop the Oresund image locally and internationally (Hospers 2006), using the bridge connecting the two countries as a vehicle for promotion. Similar strategies have been used in the trinational area of Basel, with the recent IBA Basel 2010 International Building Exhibition, whose aim is notably to increase the international visibility of the region by setting up a joint marketing strategy (TEB 2008).

7Border differentials also create new opportunities for firms and workers to establish an economic model based on the comparative advantages of each of the states. Firms can specialize their production or managing activities depending on which state offers the best conditions in terms of national regulation, tax burden and labour costs, an intra-metropolitan illustration of the functional specialization process occurring at the global scale. Households can also benefit from border differentials, notably in regards to cultural services, manufactured products, or property prices offered by one state comparatively to another. In well-integrated functional cross-border regions such as Geneva or Luxembourg, recent studies have shown that a strong asymmetry in terms of availability and prices of property resource leads an increasing number of workers to move from the central urban area to the more rural periphery, in order to minimize their housing costs and still remain connected to the economic dynamics of the metropolis, at the expense, though, of stressful and tiring commuting flows (Insee-OCSTAT 2008, Carpentier 2010).

8Regions located on the external borders of Europe do not seem to have experienced a similar evolution under the umbrellas of the Wider Europe initiative and European Neighbourhood Policy (Scott 2005, Popescu 2008). While the main challenges for internal border regions is mostly to enhance institutional cross-border cooperation to minimize the remaining obstacles that could further slow regional integration, external border regions from Central and Eastern Europe are facing the challenge of increasing their functional integration and improving the quality and density of cross-border infrastructure (European Union 2010). For some other border regions, the main objective is to overcome political conflicts and cultural obstacles, such as in the case of Greece and Turkey, or Estonia and Russia for example.

9This uneven geography of cross-border integration is in part explained by historical circumstances, which favored Western European cross-border regions. According to economic theory (Hansen 1977b), economic integration resulting from the elimination of border tariffs leads to a tendency for economic activities to aggregate in two particular types of locations, depending on the scale considered: large metropolitan centers within national territories on the one side, and the most central part of the EU at the European scale on the other side. The losers would then be national peripheries which are not located at the heart of the EU (Niebuhr and Stiller 2002). But, probably more importantly, trends in European border regions diverged because of the various border regimes which arose in those regions through the fundamental duplicity of borders.

10Rather than asking whether borders are barriers or interfaces – a sterile debate because most borders have both functions – scholars have tended to conceptualize those regimes in terms of a set of rules, norms and procedures which regulate borders and control their effects on both social, political and economic actors (Leresche and Saez 2002, O’Dowd 2002). Such regimes contribute to the vitality of cross-border regionalism (Scott 1999), i.e. a process of political regulation which integrates actors from the local, regional, national, and supranational scales. This political regulation takes new institutional forms which challenge the classical view of international relations based on hierarchy, asymmetry in power relations, or state institutions and treaties.

11The aim of this special issue is to address the evolution of such European borders from a comparative perspective. This collection of papers spans a wide variety of topics in the realm of borderland studies. Although each engages with a single empirical or theoretical case collectively they identify nuances relevant to the theoretical elaboration of borders, and particularly contribute to the field of sub-national cross-border cooperation. In the course of its analysis each paper contributes to a broader understanding of the definition of cross-border regions; identifies a set of barriers to cooperation in these contexts; explores the role of identities on cooperation and of the role of borders in constructing those identities; and reflects on the socio-political meanings and uses of these international boundaries. This introduction discusses theoretical significance of these contributions to major debates in the study of borders and border regions.

Borders in space and borders in mind

12The papers collected in this special issue provide an interesting lens for comparative analysis of and insight into changing European borders. Three of the four contributions explore cross-border relations in European border regions. The fourth paper conceptually explores the idea of boundaries and limits from a critical geography perspective.

13Pascal Orcier presents the case of Valka-Valga, a small city of the Estonian-Latvian border. This city was historically significant to the creation of Latvia when the country was divided in 1919 by an international commission. Thereafter, Valka (Latvia) and Valga (Estonia) led a divided existence that has not been significantly bridged by the fall of the Iron Curtain. Orcier explores the glacial re-establishment of intermunicipal ties between the two cities and the barriers to collaborative governance. He observes that, despite their unified past and common urban space, the border still represents a significant barrier to functional integration.

14Anaïs Marin explores the case of the Augustów canal region on the European fringe, on the border between Poland and Belarus. It was also divided from Poland by the Soviet Union and experienced a re-opening in the 1990s. However, since the accession of Poland to the European Union and the ascent of the authoritarian government in Belarus the border has remained relatively closed. Unlike the Valka-Valga case, the Augustów region is not urbanized and comprises mainly rural agricultural and forest. It was the recognition by actors on either side of the border of the potential asset of the region as an eco-tourism destination that prompted the construction of cross-border ties to exploit this opportunity. The apolitical nature of environmental stewardship and recreational development greatly aided the development of relationships between local and national actors in the two regimes. Marin presents this as an example of how cross-border relationships can be established between hostile regimes and as a potential bridge for European socialization.

15Caroline Maury and Sophie Richard also focus on environmental issues and cross-border governance. Their case, the Sègre river basin, is situated on the comparatively open border between France and Spain. This region is united by a common Catalan heritage and heavy cross-border flows of goods and people. Yet despite culture commonalities and relatively negligible barriers to cross-border communication, collaborative governance of environmental resources has proven quite difficult. Maury and Richard note that even though cooperative institutions for the governance of the river basin exist they are largely empty shells that have yet to produce concrete agreements or action. The authors fault administrative and institutional barriers as well as the complexity of the issues as the primary barriers to cooperation.

16Denis Retaillé provides a critical approach to the conceptualization of international borders and limits. He invokes classic literature on globalization and critical geography to construct a more fluid conception of social space. He argues that contemporary geography is limited by its grounding in sedentary axioms and explores an alternative approach based on a mobile frame of reference in which places are not territorially anchored. In this approach, space itself becomes mobile and places are defined not relative to each other but relative to the location of the observer in time and space. From this perspective the idea of borders loses salience to be replaced by nominal limits defined by horizons.

17This introduction to the special issue on Changing European Borders identifies the common themes that emerge from these collected papers. It draws out important lessons, and highlights key questions, for future comparative research on borders and border regions.  

Defining cross-border regions

18In the European context, cross-border regions are most frequently associated with the many metropolitan regions that straddle the Union’s internal and external boundaries (Perkmann 2007, Medeiros 2011). However, the papers in this issue demonstrate that cross-border regions can be found at a wide variety of scales and involve – either directly or indirectly – a broad set of territorial collectivities and interests. The cases examined in these articles illuminate some of the challenges of conceptualizing cross-border regions and the practical difficulties these can pose to comparative analysis.

19The Valka-Valga region described by Orcier (2011) is relatively common type of border region, a single conurbation on the border of Latvia and Estonia. In this case, the built environment, largely unbroken by the international border, is what spatially defines it as a cross-border region. The Polish-Belarusian eco-region centered on the Augustów canal, by contrast, is a sparsely populated agricultural and ecological zone defined primarily by a set of natural landscapes that is being effectively exploited for specific activities – in this case, ecotourism (Marin 2011). Here the cross-border region is constructed, and is therefore defined, by relatively recent patterns of activity and economic opportunity, rather than an agglomeration of infrastructure or durable community structure. The Pyrenees-Catalan region examined by Maury and Richard (2011) complicates the accurate classification of cross-border regions even further. The French-Spanish border divides a community that shares a common linguistic and cultural identity. Yet this community resides within a cross-border territory defined by hydrographic regions and river basins (Maury and Richard 2011). The water management boundaries identified by the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) do not perfectly conform to those of the cross-border Catalan cultural community. This demonstrates that multiple and variously-defined cross-border regions can exist simultaneously and raises questions about the implications of spatial overlap and the nature of “inter-regional” interaction.

20These cases demonstrate that cross-border regions are fundamentally social constructions. Sometimes they conform logically to geographical features – such as urbanized spaces or hydrological districts – but sometimes they don’t. Linguistic communities often ignore geography. Economic opportunities can create collective spaces even on isolated fringes. As a result, while some cross-border spaces such as metropolitan regions appear to exist a priori to their institutionalization, others may not exist at all until the territorial boundaries of opportunities are established by the actors that aim to exploit or defend the space. This suggests that, even where cross-border regions are institutionalized, there may be other, latent or lapsed, regions that have not yet been identified and appropriated by working communities or that are no longer relevant.

21Border scholarship has typically skirted this difficulty by focusing on regions that are defined by legal status or governance institutions. These studies have produced typologies that classify cross-border regions based on the characteristics of cooperative institutions that have evolved to manage collective space. These can be classed based on the origins of cooperation (see Medeiros 2011), the level of functional and institutional integration (Martinez 1994, Brunet-Jailly 2006, Perkmann 2007, Sohn, Reitel and Walther 2009), or differences in how collaborative institutions are structured (Perkmann 2003). Medeiros (2011) proposes a synthesis of these approaches with his four model typology of cross-border cooperation: these include genuine, structural, surging and pseudo models.

22The empirical papers in this volume provide examples of three of the four types of cross-border cooperation. Not surprisingly, only the “genuine” model of cross-border cooperation is not represented in this sample. For instance, the Pyrenees-Catalan hydrographic district conforms to the “structural” type where high cross-border permeability and flows are juxtaposed with high institutional barriers to cooperation. In this type collaborative cross-border institutions might exist, such as the case with the Sègre River Basin Committee, yet can be crippled by administrative and other institutional challenges. In terms of cross-border water governance the Sègre river basin exhibits structural, but very little functional, cross-border cooperation. The Augustów canal eco-region is an example of “surging” cross-border cooperation. This region has only recently been created as a result of cross-border initiatives built on the collective desire to exploit and protect the natural environment of the border canal. This cooperation is partly the result of access to external funding and positive effects of cooperation are only beginning to manifest. Finally, the Valka-Valga case conforms to the “pseudo” model of cooperation, where links between communities on either side of the border are very weak and barrier effects are very strong. Actors pursue a strategy of separate development with only limited contact with cross-border counterparts. This type of region is considered a pseudo case of cooperation precisely because none, or very little, takes place despite the fact that it is one urban space.

23Medeiros (2011) argues that this weakest pseudo-type is increasingly difficult to find because of the prevalence and integrating effect of INTERREG projects. However, this analysis suggests otherwise. If the hallmark of the pseudo type is weak (or non-) cooperation then there are potentially many latent or lapsed regions that may conform to this category. Should the Augustów canal region prior to the emergence of eco-tourism have been considered an example of the pseudo case? Could it have been identified as such before the ecological project? Probably not.

24These questions highlight the slippery notion of space and limits discussed in Retaillé’s conceptual paper. He argues that the “sedentary” lens employed by most academic fields to define and explore the impact of borders is becoming less salient in our globalized world (Retaillé 2011). Given the plurality of ways that space, and limits, can be defined – such as, for example, the coexistence and overlap of cultural/linguistic and ecological/institutional spaces on the Spanish-French border – he argues for a conceptual shift away from borders towards horizons. Identities, and therefore frames of reference, are increasingly mobile and context dependent. This militates against the trend of considering networks and territories as opposites and opens up a broader conceptual realm in which space itself can be mobile. In this fluid conception of space cross-border regions are at once just another sedimentary artifact and a challenge to the traditional notion of boundaries and limits.

25The proliferation of different ways to conceptualize cross-border regions poses a challenge to comparative research. This type of region is often selected and studied as a consequence of its functional or institutional integration. However, as these papers demonstrate cross-border regions can take on many forms. In the study of metropolitan regions on international borders spatial dimensions can be more easily controlled for in case selection. These papers show that there are rich opportunities for comparative research on non-metropolitan regions and cases in which cooperation is not institutionalized. There is also an opportunity to develop a typology of cross-border regions based on a wider set of variables in order to more rigorously structure comparative research.

Cross-border relations: The evolution of and barriers to cooperation

26The three empirical cases in this collection explore the function of borders as barriers and interfaces and focus on the dynamics of public relationships in cross-border spaces. In each of these cases civic and political networks have followed different trajectories towards institutionalization and have integrated (or failed to) in different ways. It is often easier to identify barriers to the construction of lasting partnerships than catalysts (Nelles 2009), and these cases are no exception. Each analysis points to a set of barriers to explain the current status of cross-border relationships and why, in the absence of change on these variables, they are unlikely to intensify further. Significantly, across the three empirical cases there is very little overlap in the impediments to institutional integration. Furthermore, the barriers identified in one case may be present in others, yet do not function as an impediment in those contexts. This pattern confirms that there are a very wide variety of factors that can and do affect the construction of cross-border relationships and demonstrates that their effects on cooperative relationships vary by context.

27In Valka-Valga political and civic relationships are limited by the border between Latvia and Estonia. In this case both functional, day to day, use of the cross-border space and institutionalized governance of a shared urbanized region are quite weak (Orcier 2011). On balance, this paper concentrates on the impediments to functional integration in an urban space that has been divided and recomposed by the changing meaning of the international boundary. Orcier argues that the most significant barriers to functional reintegration are differences in currency and language. The increasing marginalization of this urban interface on the border as the trade, travel and tourism that fed the region went elsewhere has also diminished local incentives for cross-border governance and external interest in forging regional ties. There is some hope that the modest INTERREG projects that have been attempted in the region the process of Europeanization that should occur as Latvia transitions to the Euro will increase cross-border integration.

28Cross-border relationships have a very different flavor in the Augustów canal region. In this case links are primarily between civic actors at the local scale and the national level governments these actors have lobbied to loosen border controls in the area. The obstacles to cooperation in this region are largely geopolitical. These are related to the Polish, and EU, condemnation of the Alexander Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime in Belarus and his regime’s tight control over its borders and international relations. Marin’s paper presents the collaborative governance of the Augustów canal eco-region as an “under the radar” case where cooperation is possible between actors in hostile regimes. Because the preservation and exploitation of the ecological space is not a highly politicized issue, and the benefits to both sides are relatively desirable, civic organization has been successful. Marin further argues that exchanges that occur through the “breach” in the border created by the region may help stimulate processes of Europeanization of civil society within Belarus.

29The Sègre river basin cross-border region demonstrates that the governance of water resources that was so apolitical in the Augustów context is anything but on the Spanish-French border. Despite favorable relations between national (and regional) governments across the border, integration in the EU, and linguistic, trade and cultural affinities the governance of the Sègre basin resulted in more cross-border tensions than cooperation. Maury and Richard (2011) show that tensions over water management are related to differences in administrative structures and processes that have inflated the number of actors involved in governance structures. Power struggles between Spanish and Catalan authorities have also complicated the policy environment rendering it difficult to identify which actors have the competencies to address collective water management issues. However, the most intractable barrier to cooperation between political actors springs from a surprising source and runs much deeper than mere institutional differences. Maury and Richard suggest that despite the presence of a relatively strong cultural community in the region the roots of this collective action problem can ultimately be traced to a lack of trust between French and Spanish actors. The conviction by actors on one side that water-use reduction efforts will only profit the water guzzlers on the other side of the border has so far stood in the way of any serious effort at collaborative resource management. This finding challenges conventional wisdom that cultural affinity functions as a type of social capital that can help mitigate tensions in cross-border contexts (Herzog 1991, Anderson, O’Dowd and Wilson 2003, Gualini 2003, Brunet-Jailly 2006, Konrad and Nicol 2008).

30Each of the empirical cases provides a very different assessment of the impediments to integration and cross-border cooperation. What is striking is that in each of the cases similar conditions have had different influences on cooperative outcomes. For instance, in both the Augustów and Valka-Valga cases the border functions as a divide between linguistic communities and currency regimes. Yet neither of these factors was mentioned as a significant barrier to the functional integration of the eco-tourism region across the Polish-Belarusian border. Furthermore, in the one region where currency, cultural and linguistic barriers are low collaborative water governance still proves quite difficult. This pattern, evident even in this small number of cases, demonstrates that the factors that limit or stimulate cooperation in one case will not necessarily have the same effect in others. Understanding why, and under which circumstances, different factors can hinder or encourage cross-border cooperation represents an important agenda for comparative research and holds the potential to improve prospects for functional and institutional integration in a wide variety of contexts.

The nature of borders: identities, meanings and uses

31Borders represent different meanings in each of the regions presented in this special issue. In these cases borders are presented as limits, horizons, bridges, breaches, opportunities, and assets. How these boundaries are perceived has shifted over time and often differs from one side of the border to the next. In each case the constructed identities of communities relative to the border determines how they are used in political discourse and development strategies.

32In the Valka-Valga case the border took on a different meaning in the identities of the Latvian and Estonian communities on either side of the border. Valga, on the Estonian side, has incorporated the idea of a cross-border urban space into its identity. Its logo and marketing strategies build on the benefits of its position as a transboundary city and emphasize the positive aspects of cross-border exchanges to its development and future growth. Where Valga literally embraces the border in its marketing strategies Valka turns away from it. It bills itself as “the place where Latvia starts”, emphasizing division from Valga rather than proximity and nationalism rather than regionalism. Orcier (2011) points out that, given its geographical and functional marginality to the Latvian state it might more accurately be characterized as “where Latvia ends” – literally, it is the end of the line for transport, communication and trade infrastructure. The border is therefore an end for the inward-looking Valka, and an asset to the more cosmopolitan Valga.

33In the Augustów canal region the character of the border between Poland and Belarus has changed a great deal over time. As was the case with the Latvia and Estonian border, a previously fluid space was divided as Poland lost its eastern frontier territories to the USSR in the 1940s. After the fall of the Iron Curtain flows of goods and people resumed only to be stopped again with Poland’s accession to the EU and increasingly authoritarian control from within Belarus. As a result, the contemporary border is very much a barrier, tightly controlled and penetrated only with difficulty. Marin (2011) identifies the development of cross-border cooperation in the eco-region as a “breach” what is otherwise as a solid frontier. Having breached the boundary, she argues, collective governance of the Augustów canal has built a “bridge” between Polish and Belarusian actors through which European socialization can reach a nascent Belarusian civil society. In this case a previously impermeable boundary has become an economic and political opportunity for social forces on either side of the border and has proven to be more porous to certain types of cross-border interaction than it has been in the past.

34The southern part of the French-Spanish border does shape national sub-cultures and contribute to a bifurcation of identities within the broader community. Maury and Richard (2011) note that individuals in the region identified minor differences between the practices and political cultures of community members on either side of the border. This indicates that the border remains a division even within a relatively homogeneous cultural community. In their analysis of cross-border relations the authors find that local actors have simultaneously portrayed the boundary in positive and negative lights in order to reap political benefits in different situations. Depending on circumstances it has been presented as an easily crossed boundary, an administrative reality sanctioned by European institutions, a line of demarcation between two cultures or a symbol of unity (Maury and Richard 2011). In employing these practices political actors use the boundary “à la carte”, selecting whichever characterization suits the policy challenge. In the case of water governance both sides have invoked the “otherness”, and particularly the untrustworthiness, of Catalans on the opposite side of the border as a justification for inaction.

35This collection of empirical papers presents a wide variety of ways that borders have been incorporated into regional identities and discourses and used by socio-political actors. Retaillé’s critical approach to borders and state spaces at once affirms and opposes this trend. On one hand, the construction of cross-border space is an example of the plural and shifting types of identities that characterize modern globalization and are deconstructing the idea of state sovereignty. On the other hand, that these identities are very much constructed around the presence of a state border demonstrates the salience that the boundaries of nation states still have in modern space. States may no longer have the monopoly of control they once enjoyed but the meme that their boundaries represent, however they are exploited, are still very powerful influences on human interaction.


36Four articles and one introduction are certainly insufficient to fully grasp the evolution of European borders and build a general theory of borders. It is also likely that a greater number of contributions would hardly be sufficient, in light of the sheer diversity of the forms and functions of European borders. Nonetheless, the articles selected for this issue allow exploring two aspects of border studies that so far have been somewhat neglected. The first aspect relates to the forms territorial discontinuities may take in a world where flows are more and more present. The second aspect concerns the function institutional and political actors of border regions may play in the implementation of border regimes.

37Even though the radical opposition between space of places and space of flows is somewhat dated, it must be recognized that the growing mobility that characterizes the contemporary world affects the forms societies have given to territorial discontinuities, of which national borders – the focus of this issue – are only one out of many. In other words, the social sciences must seek to theorize limits when movement is no longer a temporary state between two stable states, and instead becomes the main form of production of space. The articles in this issue show that modern borders still play a major role in functional and institutional terms. However, these frontiers are the legacy of a geopolitical model, in which the mosaic of nation-states was expected to cover the whole surface of the Earth and control flows between states. With the increasing mobility of goods, people, knowledge, capital and information, came new forms of limits, adding to the better-known ones: modern borders. As Retaillé (2011) shows in this issue, these new forms of limits can materialize as fronts or as horizons, i.e. as limits that are partially or totally open in terms of movement. The tools of the social sciences seem ill-suited to grasp the full complexity of this process of (b)ordering, which does not take place only at the spatial scale of states but also concerns ordinary places, the self and the other, here and elsewhere, the known and the unknown etc. (van Houtum and van Naerssen 2002).

38This issue attempted to show that the creation of the EU did not result in all European frontiers being transformed from barriers to interfaces. However, the strategies used to benefit from the positive aspects of the opening and closing of frontiers and the ensuing border regime still need to be studied in greater detail. Within a space characterized on the whole by a lowering of borders – as in the EU – these strategies, developed by political and economic actors, allow questioning the generally supposed adequacy between the functional integration that results from cross-border interactions, through the labor market for instance, and institutional integration, effected most notably by the creation of cooperation institutions. As a matter of fact, certain regions or states can find interest in maintaining a situation that, from a theoretical point of view, is far from optimal in that institutional integration does not match its functional counterpart. These regions or states benefit both from European and international openness and from regional and sometimes major differentials as compared with neighbors on the other side of the border (such as Luxembourg where the busiest European border in terms of cross-border commuting is located). An analysis of such dynamic balances is still needed so as to contribute to a theory of borders able to go beyond the limits of the dichotomy between barrier and interface, a dichotomy that is fundamental and yet too reductive.

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Electronic reference

Jen Nelles and Olivier Walther, “Changing European borders: from separation to interface? An introduction”Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 6 | 2011, Online since 28 March 2011, connection on 04 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Jen Nelles

Jen Nelles is a Researcher at the University of Toronto and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Population, Poverty and Public Policy Studies in Luxembourg. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto. In Luxembourg, Dr Nelles is conducting a research project called Relating to the Region: City-Region Governance and Multilevel Policy in Cross-Border Regions. Email:

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Olivier Walther

Olivier Walther is a Researcher at the Department of Geography, Centre for Population, Poverty and Public Policy Studies in Luxembourg. He holds a PhD from the University of Lausanne and the University of Rouen. His major research interests lie in informal economic networks and cross-border integration in West Africa. Aside from West African studies, Olivier Walther is involved in several research projects dedicated to cross-border metropolitan integration in Europe. Email:

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