The end of the nation state has been touted for decades, to be replaced, allegedly, by globalisation, a world without borders. A world in which goods and people move seamlessly with a perceived loss of individuality and culture. But Covid-19 rapidly reinstated those borders, even in the European Union, an organisation which has worked hard to remove barriers to trade or people within its limits. This clearly reverberates with Michael Billig’s idea of ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ nationalisms. That idea being that nationalism is forever waiting in the wings to become inflamed in times of need or war. Nationalism heats up and becomes ignited, ready for action, as opposed to times of peace and prosperity when it is cold and dormant. The nation speedily reaffirmed its potency when confronted with a pandemic.
When faced with Covid-19, many governments rushed to impose travel bans, close borders and impose export restrictions, sometimes making it difficult for those who were non-nationals, to enter many countries. The closing of borders was presented as something of a necessity from a medical perspective, and many emigrants returned to their country of origin, sometimes leaving countries with low infection rates to travel back to countries with much higher rates. Some countries closed borders to non-nationals while doing all in their power to repatriate nationals, as demonstrated by the UK allocating £75 million to get British travellers’ home. Clearly, the expectation is that after the pandemic passes, most barriers to travel will be removed. But, in the meantime the nation-state is reasserting its strength, fuelled by the pandemic.
Benedict Anderson’s idea of an ‘imagined community’ (allegiance to those one has not met purely due to a shared experience of nationality), is demonstrated by the actions of the Irish government, who brought nationals home to work in the health service, at the cost of accelerating the spread of the virus, stating ‘your country needs you’. One can thus deduce that the implication is that, your national loyalty, your political duty supersedes all other obligations. Furthermore, travel bans and border closures, have emphasised the exclusivity of nationality, and reinforced the notion that borders provide protection from dangerous outsiders. As these responses recreated an emphasis on nationality, the state has been cast as a caring, patriarchal force.
The return to the nation-state has been exceptionally noticeable in Europe, as previously the European Union was thought to be the organisation that has gone the farthest to transcend ideas of the nation-state. What is interesting to note is that each European nation had an individual reaction to the pandemic, ranging from Sweden’s laissez faire response to the more hard-line stance taken by Ireland as soon as there was one recorded death from Covid-19. Whilst ultimately the outcomes differed, nation to nation, for many different reasons (access to healthcare, obesity levels, aging populations), this type of varied response illustrates the independence of each nation state and demonstrates that the European Union’s member states have autonomy when desired. There was no European wide response, nor even an agreed set of actions, clearly undermining any idea of a European ‘super-state’. Each member state quickly reverted to national rhetoric and laws. As there is currently no cure for Covid-19, it is apparent that some sort of measures will have to be in place for some time. While the implications for nationalism in Europe or globally are unknowable, we can, however, surmise that reports of the death of the nation-state have indeed been greatly exaggerated.
Dr Judith O’Connell is a Lecturer in Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway.