Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Dispassionate Accounts of the Border in the Greater Geneva, the Lille–Kortrijk–Tournai Agglomeration, and the Bayonne –San Sebastian Conurbation

This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms. As part of this initiative the full article, on which this piece is based, will be free to access here for the next month.


Time to read

4 Minutes


Ander Audikana
Garance Clément
Alexis Gumy

Guest post by Ander Audikana, Garance Clément and Alexis Gumy, research associates at the Laboratory of Urban Sociology at EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne), Switzerland.

a border post
Custom post in a Swiss town

What are the feelings of belonging of the inhabitants of European cross-border regions? Does the cross-border experience of the inhabitants of these regions contribute to the development of cosmopolitan identifications? Or by contrast, is the border condition a determining factor fuelling nationalistic or localistic sentiments? What is the role of the border in structuring and shaping feelings of belonging in these areas?

These are the main questions addressed in our recently published paper in Geopolitics. The paper relies on a research project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF 10001A_179555) and led by the Laboratory of Urban Sociology at EPFL, on daily lives in the Greater Geneva (209 municipalities covering approximately 1 million inhabitants between France and Switzerland), the Lille–Kortrijk–Tournai agglomeration (152 municipalities covering approximately 2.1 million inhabitants between France and Belgium), and the Bayonne–San Sebastian conurbation (24 municipalities covering approximately 650,000 inhabitants between France and Spain). These regions display various forms of urbanisation, diverse cultural and socio-economic configurations, and different functional and institutional levels of integration. The case studies include four countries (Belgium, France, Spain, and Switzerland) that share a comparable geopolitical framework (in particular, they are all part of the Schengen zone) and have in all three cross-border contexts France as a common country. The research project that our paper draws on was conducted between 2018 and 2022 and included a telephone survey (3,215 total respondents) and 65 interviews with the inhabitants of these three regions.

Our paper is focused on identifying the patterns of belonging that seem largely shared by our interviewees in these three disparate border contexts. We argue that the way in which our interviewees elaborate and express their identifications shows that although the national border continues to significantly structure the feelings of belonging in these areas, its centrality and capacity for social polarisation are limited. The border differentiates but does not generate neither insurmountable social divide nor antagonistic feelings.

In other words, our hypothesis is that the social, economic and cultural differences observable around European borders are experienced and communicated in a relatively dispassionate way by the inhabitants of these areas: differences created by the border are experienced in a (dispassionate) way that the social cohesiveness of these regions is not at stake.

the front oh some shops
Shops at the Franco-Spanish border

In the paper, we show first how the border continues to differentiate the feelings of belonging of the inhabitants of cross-border regions: the border continues to act as a marker of social, cultural, and political differences for the inhabitants of border regions. Inhabitants declare themselves able to differentiate the populations of the neighbouring countries, express cultural and sometimes essentialist views of their neighbours, and feel stereotyped by them.

We then turn to three main ways in which the border’s relevance appears to fade.

First, there are situations of strong familiarity with the neighbouring country leading to phenomena of “transcending the border”. The existence of cross-border family origins, mixed couples (composed of partners from different sides of the border) and binational individuals are clear examples of that. Also, other types of non-territorial identifications (social class, gender identity, environmental attachments, etc.)  contribute, and in some cases mitigate, the differentiative role of the border, intentionally or not.

Second, national borders define only one territorial scale through which the feelings of belonging of our interviewees are structured. Interviewees are keen to refer to different geographical scales but neither conceive of them as exclusive to one another nor antagonistic. Beyond the national divide, the multi-layered geography of cross-border regions relies on both supranational and infranational personal affiliations.

Third, there is, we argue, an increasing banalisation of the material and symbolic dimension of the border through everyday life practices. With the term banalisation, we refer to a process through which the possibility of crossing the border and accessing the space and resources on the other side is largely diffused and not experienced emotionally as an exceptional moment of otherness. Crossing the border (sporadically, daily, commuting, migrating, virtual mobility, etc.) is part of the universe of possibility of a large majority of our interviewees. Certainly, the way in which this possibility is appropriated by each interviewee depends on biographic, social, and economic factors as well as the distribution of resources within each cross-border region.

Whereas border societies are not overdetermined by their geography towards nationalistic or transnational attitudes, cross-border regions need to be considered as distinctive places in which the border can contribute  to foster or prevent these types of attitudes. In other contexts, where the political configuration of the border differs, the same conclusion will be hardly replicable. Indeed, stereotypes and negative perceptions of the “other” seem more predominant in other European contexts. Equally, for undocumented and irregular populations, borders in the three cases analysed, as in other many European cross-border regions, are likely to be experienced as sites of struggle.

Tobacco shops at the Franco-Belgian border
Tobacco shops at the Franco-Belgian border

The (dispassionate) results presented in the paper contribute to nuance some analyses that seem often prevalent in European and border studies.

On the one hand, the focus on European identification, Europeanisation and Euroscepticism in border regions can lead to ignore the complexity and imbricated way in which the feelings of belonging are constructed in the border areas as elsewhere. Cross-border regions remain “laboratories of European integration” not because it is more likely that a European identity will emerge in these areas, but because the negotiation and composition work among different types and levels of belonging, as key ingredient of the European integration process, is more demanding.

On the other hand, the central role that border studies have logically granted to the border as explanatory variable of the feelings, daily lives, and organisation in border areas seems in contrast with the results in terms of “indifference” and “dispassionate” feelings highlighted in our paper. The need to problematise the border not as an entity taken for granted is certainly not new, but it is especially worth empirically assessing this question when the results rather suggest a relatively lack of centrality of the border.

In sum, the dispassionate way in which the inhabitants of the three European cross-border regions analyzed shows the complexity, nuance and compromises in terms of belonging, and leads to a paradox:  cross-border regions are extraordinary geographic locations in which relatively ordinary territorial and non-territorial belongings are reproduced.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Audikana, G. Clément and A. Gumy. (2023) Dispassionate Accounts of the Border in the Greater Geneva, the Lille–Kortrijk–Tournai Agglomeration, and the Bayonne –San Sebastian Conurbation. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/04/dispassionate-accounts-border-greater-geneva-lille. Accessed on: 18/07/2024

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