The 20th anniversary of German reunification will be celebrated this October
and while its said that a person would need to know where to look to find a
trace of the old border between East and West, an invisible wall endures for
trade. Convergence can take at least 33 years and that has implications for
trade in the internal market of the European Union.
CESifo (Ifo Institute for Economic Research - - Ifo Institut für
Wirtschaftsforschung and the Center for Economic Studies at the University of
Munich) researchers Volker Nitsch and Nikolaus Wolf show in a
paper recently released in English that the wall between East and
West is still alive and well - - at least, as regards
its impact on trade. And this is not the only “deactivated” political border
where its effects on trade are still felt.
The authors ask if the EU has largely erased borders for travel, labour,
study and intra-EU migration, why should an invisible, but nonetheless
effectively, a domestic barrier to trade still persist in Germany?
They say they found little evidence that
political integration is rapidly followed by economic integration. Instead, they
estimate that the impact of the former East-West border on trade declines very
slowly but steadily.
The paper says a large body of empirical literature has established that national borders
reduce trade by about 50% or more. However, there is no consensus
regarding why this should be so. Three kinds of explanations are put forth: the
“political barriers” approach, the “fundamentals” approach, and the
The political barriers approach states that borders continue to affect trade
mainly because of the existence of non-tariff barriers that diminish trade even
after the removal of tariff barriers, or even after the establishment of a
currency union. In other words, the establishment of a free-trade area or a
currency union removes only some political barriers, but anything short of
political unification will still leave plenty to hinder trade. For example,
trade across the US-Canadian border or the Franco-German border may still be
affected by differences in taxation or dissimilar legal frameworks.
The fundamental approach, in turn, asserts that border effects stem from some
source of heterogeneity between regions that exists independently of the
political border and often predates it. Usually, culture, language, social and
business networks, as well as geography, can play a role in this: a mountain
range can pose a significant barrier to trade, while a river or sea can ease it.
The artefact approach claims that border effects are at least to some extent
a statistical artefact that arises from the difficulties of separating the
impact of border-related trade barriers from the impact of geographical distance
and from the non-directional multilateral barriers to trade.
The authors say the particular pattern of change
over time strongly suggests that border effects are neither statistical artefacts nor mainly driven by administrative or
“red tape” barriers, but instead arise from more fundamental factors. After all,
over the period of the data used in the research, 1995-2004, no administrative barriers to trade
continued to exist along the former Iron Curtain in addition to barriers along
Germany's federal state borders. The authors estimate that it will take from 33 to as many
as 40 years to remove completely the impact of the old political border on
In sum, borders indeed matter and it is hard to change them, because they are
related to underlying economic fundamentals. South Korea, watch out. An eventual
political union with your prickly northern neighbour might turn out to be the
easy bit after all.