The German-Polish border, re-bordering and the pandemic: centers vs. peripheries?

Jarosław Jańczak

Date: June 9, 2020

Borders are in constant motion and are the objects of never-ending ordering. The same also – or especially – applies to the internal borders of the EU. This has been rather dramatically demonstrated (and painfully for many individuals) by the recent massive (re-)bordering caused by the Covid-19 pandemic [1], affecting, among others, the German-Polish border – a line that only three months ago was considered just another European integration “boring” location whose key problems had been overcome and were a thing of the past.

Covid-19 and re-bordering of the German-Polish border

But how has the current pandemic affected the border? Covid-19, like most of the material and non-material elements shaping Polish reality over the centuries, entered Poland from Germany. The Polish “patient zero,” living near Słubice, returned from a family visit across the western border (celebrating carnival in the district of Heinsberg) at the beginning of March. Eleven days later, the Polish government, after introducing the state of epidemic risk, practically closed the border, suspending passenger train and bus connections between both states and limiting the number of crossing points to six which were available for private cars, and leaving some others open for pedestrians. This immediately resulted in enormous traffic jams on the highways and queues of Poles trying to enter Poland on foot, as was seen on the bridge between Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice. The protests of lorry drivers and local inhabitants resulted in more crossing points being opened and simplified border formalities.

The real problem for the border actors started, however, when on March 27, 2020 the Polish government banned border crossings, requiring a 14-day quarantine for returnees, including cross-border commuters [2]. This has heavily affected the local cross-border economy – especially shopping and services and, more importantly, labor relations. About 150,000 Poles working on the German side of the border, and numerous enterprises employing them, were cut off from each other. The German regional authorities reacted to the problem immediately, by offering financial assistance to Poles in order to encourage them to stay on the German side. However, high levels of uncertainty about further developments made most of them stay on the Polish side. The quarantine provisions introduced in Germany on April 10 excluded border commuters from this obligation. The end of the month saw massive protests of Polish cross-border commuters against the de facto closed border [3], which undermined their material existence [4]. Their voice was supported by the regional-level leaders of the German Bundesländer petitioning the Polish government. Eventually, on May 4, the Polish government decided to abolish the quarantine for cross-border commuters, thereby defusing the atmosphere.

Figure 1: Protesters near the border bridge, Słubice, Poland; source: Marcin Krzymuski

Borderland(ers) vs. national center(s)?

The above developments inspire several interesting questions regarding the German-Polish border.

Firstly, about its liminality (understood as a state of transition and “in-between” space)[5]: where and how does it manifest itself? The most affected victims of the sudden pandemic re-bordering were the cross-border commuters and enterprises. This made the economic ties (and not cultural, identity, or cultural ones) across the border the key indicator of what the “third space” on the German-Polish border is. Long-lasting efforts to create a cross-border community based on mutual knowledge and understanding – as present in EU programs and postulated by academics in constructivist logics – did not result in visible effects under the circumstances of the crisis. The actors involved in functional cross-border interactions were the most vocal in the attempts to overcome the sudden and unexpected isolation. When observing the reaction to the border closing, and asking if there is a cross-border community, the answer would be – yes, there is one. But it is first of all a community of (economic) interests, not a community of territorial cross-border identity.

Secondly, about the permeability of the borders: who negotiates and decides, and how? During the crisis, the Polish central authorities used border closing as a tool of protection. Exclusive territorial control served as both a practical and symbolic instrument of taking responsibility and the lead in overcoming the epidemic crisis. But the Polish commuters were the most active actors in opposing the central decisions, alongside the German regional authorities that actively proposed and implemented solutions enabling Polish labor to remain on the German labor market. Local Polish and regional German actors managed to influence the central institutions and increased their sensitivity to the problems of the peripheries, embodying a form of multi-level governance in its (asymmetric) cross-border form. Still, the argument related to economic stagnation seemed to be the most persuasive.

Thirdly, about the durability of the border: what is the real and current purpose of borders in state structures? At the time of the corona-crisis it was, at least in Warsaw, a power-territory vision of central control over space that clashed with functionally oriented arguments, which could be reduced to economic activities determining the satisfaction of basic needs.

Market forces, (re)integrated borderland and lesson for the future

The pandemic is still affecting cross-border life on the German-Polish border. One of the realistic scenarios is that it may, together with a second wave (or later waves), cause further problems in the future. The question is what the current situation reveals about the border and cross-border cooperation on the German-Polish border, and whether its alternative shaping should be proposed. It seems that market forces are the most dominant in creating the cross-border reality as well as (neo)functional links operating as cross-border fibers linking both sides. On the one hand, this is not what many cross-border cooperation supporters or scholars observing this border dream about, but this is possibly the firmest base that has been created over the last three decades, which should be more appreciated as an achievement. Moreover, the border itself is much more sensitive than expected. The long-lasting stability and one-dimensional perception of integration processes (although undermined by border restrictions during the immigration crisis or Brexit) had eliminated hard re-bordering from realistic scenarios in the minds of most of the borderlanders. Finally, border areas need to be more vocal in articulating their interest vis-à-vis central authorities. Their future activities will determine whether they become an element of multi-level governance in its cross-border form, or whether they end up (again) as the interface of the state, with their main role being to protect the mainland.

Prof. UAM, dr hab. Jarosław Jańczak, researcher in the Department of European Studies of Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany and at the Faculty of Political Science and Journalism, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.


[1] Ayelet Shachar (2020), Borders in the Time of COVID-19, “Ethics and International Affairs”, March.

[2] Christian Bangel, Christian Vooren, Erinnerung an dunkle Zeiten, “Zeit”, 11.04.2020.

[3] Filip Ziarek, Koronawirus. Nie pomogły protesty na granicy, rząd przedłuża obowiązek kwarantanny „do odwołania”, „Gazeta Wyborcza”, 27.04.2020.

[4] France 24, 28.04.2020 – video material:

[5] Werner Schiffauer, Jochen Koch, Andreas Reckwitz, Kerstin Schoor, Hannes Krämer (2018), Borders in Motion: Durabilität, Permeabilität, Liminalität, Working Paper Series B/ORDERS IN MOTION Nr. 1, Frankfurt (Oder): Viadrina, doi:10.11584/B-ORDERS.1.

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