Brexit has awakened us to the threat of new ‘hard’ borders being established within the European Union, which has for decades striven to do away with such barriers to free movement of labour and goods. The UK Parliament’s recent decision on backing Theresa May’s exit plan effectively means that Britain is very likely to leave the Union in 2019 or soon thereafter, and that in turn – despite what May might hope for – means a return to the old customs border services and various kinds of restrictions on people’s movements across the borders into the UK.
In the academic world, this prospect has already given rise to a great deal of concern in both the UK and elsewhere in the European Union. It has also begun to be reflected in researchers’ wariness of engaging in long-term research collaboration with colleagues in the UK. In turn, academics there are increasingly worried about the future of their collaborative research projects and especially about their future opportunities to benefit from research funding from EU sources. As the largest beneficiary of, e.g., Horizon 2020 funding, the academia in the UK will certainly feel the difference if, and when, all that funding drains out.
This reality has begun to dawn on even many of the ‘leave’ voters. On the continental European side, there does not seem to be any willingness to give Britain special favours in the eventual exit deal. Somewhat paradoxically, this means, for instance, that border posts will have to re-erected between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, despite the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK. This would be in conflict with the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement and thus open up an international dimension to the question. In an interview with the Observer (11 Feb 2017), the former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic Bertie Ahearn expressed his concern about the loss of what he calls the “calming effects” [of an open border] and about the “bad feeling” that would follow from any attempt to re-establish a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Ahearn also points out some figures which testify to the absurdity of having a hard border between the two countries: 200 crossing points between the Republic and Northern Ireland, 177,000 crossings by lorries a month, 208,000 by vans, and 1.85 million by cars. Add to these the corresponding figures for the cross-Channel traffic and you soon realise that May and the British Government haven’t quite thought the matter through.
Closer to home, Brexit is also making its mark, e.g. in the numbers of students wanting to study in British universities. Traditionally, Britain has been the destination of most of the Finns admitted to British higher education institutions, with currently some 2,000 enrollments of Finnish students. While the number of applicants from Finland has for long been going up year by year, this year marked a clear drop, from 910 to 760, according to the statistics published by UCAS, the UK’s central Universities and Colleges Admission Service. Interestingly, this decline does not concern Finland only; applications from the EU as a whole fell by 7 per cent. Of course, there may be other factors at play, too, but many observers put the decline down to the imminent threat of Brexit and its consequences. In any case, we seem to be heading towards a Europe with more borders and less mobility. A lot will also depend on the outcome of the upcoming general elections in France and Italy, which may turn the tide in one direction or the other.