4 Reasons You Should Be Paying Attention to Borders

By Courtney Kayser, Student, PhD in Political Science

Borders divide one country from another.

This concept appears simple enough in theory, yet it is often riddled with complexities, nuances, and conflict in practice. On maps, borders appear as mere lines across a page. There are treaties negotiating their placement. In some countries, borders are delineated by walls and demilitarized zones; in others, they pass through cafes and towns.

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line, Vermont, for instance, is known as the only library in the US without books, and the only opera house without a stage. While the main entrance and most of the opera seats are in Vermont, the library’s books and the stage are located in Stanstead, Quebec. This oddity is relatively conflict-free; however, it seems to be the exception, rather than the norm.

In the following four situations, borders are at the heart of growing international conflicts.

1. Brexit Stall and Ireland

The United Kingdom’s exit from the EU also stemmed from a referendum vote in 2016. The higher voter turnout (about 72 percent) counteracted the bare majority that voted to leave – 51.9 percent. In mid-October in 2017, the fifth round of negotiations concluded in deadlock due to two issues: the fate of EU citizens that have settled in the UK and the land border between Ireland, which will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK. Currently over $650 billion worth of goods and services are traded between the two parties. As many economic deals hinge on the nature of this border, Brussels has demanded that the UK sort out this border before moving forward to the second stage of negotiations.

For the UK to reach an agreement with the EU, it must also satisfy its domestic audiences, and unionists are especially thorny obstacle for Theresa May. A hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be nigh impossible and a potential violation to the Good Friday Agreement, a key component of the peace process between Ireland and the UK in the 1990s. Northern Ireland could be granted a special status within the EU, which could lead to Scotland demanding similar treatment. The Irish government has suggested wither a hard border in the Irish Sea or Irish reunification. Both are unpopular in the UK. The UK’s plan consists of CCTV and other methods to prevent a hard border. If left unresolved, this will have longstanding impacts on both EU and UK markets.

2. North Korea and Crimea

In March of 2014, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Kremlin official statements claim that they are respecting the Crimean citizens’ right to self-determination, though much of the international community disagreed, citing that the referendum was plagued with fraud. Ten countries have recognized Russia’s claims, and without military action, it is unlikely that the peninsula will be transferred back the Ukraine. One of those to recognize Crimea as part of Russia was North Korea – they did so in 2014. On October 11, this fact resurfaced in Russian media: both Sputnik and RIA Novosti, controlled by Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), reported on North Korean recognition of Russian Crimea. The first maps in North Korea with Crimea drawn as part of Russia were published at this time. Pyongyang also recognizes the Kuril Islands, whose ownership is contested between Russia and Japan, as part of the Russian Federation.

These announcements come at a time of heightening tensions between the US and Russia and between the US and North Korea. The ever-rising hostilities and tit-for-tat measures between President Trump and Kim Jong-un have both sides concerned over the likelihood of armed conflict. It is natural, then, for North Korea to make appeals to potential allies. The strain between the US and Russia makes them an ideal country to turn to in order to expand their list of allies beyond China. The fact that this made headlines on two state-owned media sites in Russia and was reported on both in English and Russian indicates that the Kremlin is amenable, to some degree, to North Korean overtures – overtures made through recognition of Russia’s border claims.

3. Catalan Referendum

On October first, the Catalan government held an independence referendum to separate from Spain. Although around 92 percent of the votes were in favor of independence, voter turnout was below fifty percent. The referendum has failed to meet minimum international standards for elections due to both the turnout and the Spanish government’s use of force through the National Police and Civil Guard. As of October 16, Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia, though, has not clarified whether Catalonia will officially declare independence or not.

If Catalonia does declare independence, then this will have effects that ripple not just through Spain, but through the entirety of the European Union. If successful, Catalonia can inspire similar movements in the Basque region and Galicia within the country. Spain loses a fifth of its economy if Catalonia leaves, but Catalonia will not be part of the EU, potentially damaging its own economic productivity. To join, one of the EU members Catalonia will have to convince is Spain. Catalan debt is another issue: Spain’s national debt was $1.18 trillion in 2016, and Catalan debt was roughly $72.2 billion at the same time, accounting for 16.3 percent of Spain’s debt. Spain will expect Catalonia to assume this portion of its debt. However, if the newly independent country declines or absolves itself of this debt, then this could undo the slow recovery process of the Eurozone since 2008.

4. The Fate of Kurdistan 

In late September, 2017, an independence referendum was held in Iraqi Kurdistan, with 93 percent of the votes being in favor of independence. Leaders intended this vote to start negotiations with the Iraqi government, much like Catalonia with Spain, rather than it being an automatic declaration of independence. This vote comes at a time when ISIS is losing its foothold in Syria; the Kurdish military is likely to lose some of the influence it has gained over the past years combating it. If they were to push for independence, Kurds will see more success while their aid remains needed. The oil reserves in Iraqi Kurdistan, which amounts to 12 percent of Iraq’s total supply, guarantee that Kurdish forces will have to fight for their independence.

Moreover, the area of what could be a Kurdish state incorporates parts of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, though they are best established in Iraq as a semi-autonomous region. Clashes over Kirkuk this week between Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi federal forces have prompted the Turkish Security Council to recommend closing Turkish airspace to Iraqi Kurdistan. Kirkuk, though not part of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been controlled by Kurdish authorities since being liberated from ISIS by Peshmerga forces; the region also voted in favor of independence in the referendum. Further oil reserves are found in the region around Kirkuk. The Iraqi government has declared the referendum illegal, while Turkish officials have heavily criticized it. The referendum has the potential to embolden their own Kurdish minorities – much like how Catalan independence may trigger similar movements in other parts of Spain.

Taken together, these four cases – all escalating in October of 2017 – demonstrate that borders can be tricky things. Borders are the location of violence when they are disputed, and most of these disputes have been brewing for years, if not decades. Rather than being set in stone, borders are highly malleable and prone to redefinition. These changes, however, are rarely, if ever, readily accepted.

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