It was not the first time on this Tuesday afternoon that Stefan crossed the border between his hometown in Austria to cycle to Germany to visit his girlfriend. But on this Tuesday, the 19th of March, for the first time, he did it illegally.
It was a beautiful spring evening. No one was on the road because everyone was in lockdown and supposed to stay home. Leaving the house was only allowed for important things, nursing relatives and getting exercise in the immediate neighborhood. It was already dark when Stefan put his bike in the back of his black Ford Focus. He hadn’t seen his girlfriend for four days.
It was just a five-minute drive to the stone quarry, where he parked his car. The quarry is next to a hike path, which leads into a small wood. He parked his car, unpacked his bike and started to pedal. He wasn’t nervous, telling himself he was just out doing sports in the local neighborhood. It is only a small bridge across a small stream separating Austria from Germany. The sign saying Bundesrepublik Deutschland was barely visible as it is hidden between branches and leaves. Someone who didn’t know there was a border would not recognize it.
Stefan is an athletic young man, tall, communicative and smart. If he was afraid at anytime crossing this border, his wouldn’t have admitted it. “I didn’t feel I was doing anything illegal. I was just fed up with not being able to see my girlfriend. It made no sense to me that we were separated, even though we live just 17 kilometers away from each other.” Still, when he reached his girlfriend’s house five minutes later, he was relived. And from now on, this would be his daily routine until Austria allowed Germans to visit partners for 48 hours, and his girlfriend could legally visit him.
A Fate Many Shared
Stefan’s story is a symbol for cross-border relationships during the corona crisis. Under the Schengen Agreement of 1995, there were no border controls at all anymore. More and more people with cross-border relationships were challenged by this situation. They could not imagine being regulated like this. According to the Austrian Federal Environment Agency, there are over 60 legal border crossings between Germany and Austria. “Rat run” detours are not mentioned. Some were closed by fences, some were open for commuters controlled by police, and others just separated the two countries with low barriers that people could easily step over. The latter was almost an invitation to do something illegal. Some people with loved ones on the other side stepped over, or, like Philip and his girlfriend, were having a cup of coffee at the border. They put some folding chairs on the particular border crossings and met there with friends. They could talk, have fun and sometimes, when there was no one paying attention, hug each other.
“It was strange,” Philip said. “We felt like dangerous criminals even though we didn’t really break any laws. It was strange, and I am glad that it’s over, hopefully.“
Austria reopened its borders on the 4th of June, 2020, Germany on the 15th, two weeks later. After that, Stefan and his girlfriend were not separated anymore. Would he do the same thing again, if the borders were closed again?
“Unfortunately, police later began to check the small border crossings, because they knew people were crossing illegally. I would rather try to get a paper for structurally important professions, like hunters. They could pass easily. But I don’t know if that is easier.