Be Careful What You Wish For Monsieur Rocard


Cher Monsieur Rocard

Although I am not one of the “English friends” you urge to “get out of the European Union before you wreck it” – I am Welsh – I was deeply offended and somewhat saddened by your Le Monde tirade against the country whose passport I hold.

I write this as someone who enjoys seeing his rugby side beat ‘Les Bleus’ most years but remains a huge fan of all things French – with the exception of snails, Marine Le Pen, your late night talk-shows and occasional bouts of petulant chauvinism from former prime ministers. Indeed, my partner is from Paris, my daughters have French names and nationality, we spend most of our holidays in your beautiful country and I speak the language of Moliere as well as anyone schooled in Swansea and living in Brussels can be expected to. So I am the last person you could accuse of being a Little Englander or French-basher – which made reading your rant against Britain all the more depressing.

Firstly, publishing an article laced with such bitterness towards the United Kingdom on the day Queen Elizabeth was laying a wreath in Paris for the thousands of British soldiers who gave their lives to liberate France 70 years ago was perhaps not the most diplomatic thing to do. As a former prime minister I would have expected you to have a little more tact than to insult a monarch who was an officer in World War II while many of your compatriots were doling out brie baguettes to Nazi invaders.

I was also astonished at how little you seem to understand both Britain and the European Union. You claim that the ‘English’ – a schoolboy error when referring to the United Kingdom, a country also composed of Welsh, Scottish and northern Irish nations – “do not like Europe.” You obviously have not spent much time in Britain, where it is almost impossible to support a major football team that is not made up of or managed by Europeans, walk down a high street without shopping in European stores like Zara, Lidl or H&M, buy a pint of beer not brewed by Germans, Belgians or Czechs or even pay an electricity bill or take a train that is not run by a French company like EDF or RATP. The millions of Brits who visit France, Spain, Italy and other European countries every year also attest to a people who love Europe but are lukewarm about the European Union. Having spent more time in France than Britain over the last two decades, I would have no hesitation in saying that British people are more open to the world than French – who tend to buy French cars, eat French food and take French holidays (often for good reason).

Of course, if you equate Europe with the European Union – another pretty basic mistake – you have more of a case. Britain did not join the European Economic Community when the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. However, it did apply to join four years later and was vetoed by that “giant” – as you call him – President Charles de Gaulle. His reasons for nixing Harold Macmillan’s application, which he set out in a 1963 press conference, are worth rereading today – precisely because they show a much more profound understanding of the “very special, very original habits and traditions” of this proud island people than you do. De Gaulle again vetoed Britain’s candidacy in 1967 – little over a year after he refused to send ministers to Brussels (the “empty chair crisis’) because the then EEC wanted to meddle with generous subsidies to French farmers, give greater powers to the European Parliament and introduce more majority-voting. Hardly the actions of a model European.

A selective interpretation of history is a common thread throughout your article, which the Guardian helpfully translated in the interests of Franco-British entente cordiale. Winston Churchill did indeed call for a “United States of Europe” in his famous Zurich speech of 1946. But he was also the prime minister who refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community in the early 1950’s and told De Gaulle in 1944: “Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.”

For someone who was prime minister at a crucial time for the continent – during discussions on creating a single currency that has divided the Union and brought misery to millions of Europeans – you also appear to suffer from acute historical amnesia when it comes to the recent history of the EU. You write that Britain “never, ever allowed even the smallest step towards greater integration” – conveniently forgetting that it was the UK that was behind the EU’s first major treaty change – the Single European Act – that a Conservative government signed the Maastricht Treaty (the biggest expansion of the EU’s powers to date) and that the treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon were all rubber-stamped by British premiers.

Likewise, your claim that the French government supported each enlargement hardly tallies when we remember Francois Mitterand’s forthright opposition to German unification, Jacques Chirac’s scolding of new central European states for supporting the Iraq War (“You missed a good opportunity to shut up”) and Paris’ decision to bar workers from new member states from working in France after they joined in 2004. “Double-dealing” Britain – which treats Europeans with “contempt” in your opinion – opened its doors from day one – and over a million came.

You paint a picture of the UK as a wrecker – despite it being behind some of the EU’s biggest success stories – such as the single market French firms have profited so much from, the smashing of state monopolies you protected as prime minister and the enlargement of the EU to extend the Union’s zone of peace and prosperity eastwards.

You also claim that, having watered down new rules, Britain “tore them up by seeking derogations.” If I remember correctly, it was France and Germany that ripped up the Growth and Stability Pact that was meant to oversee the Eurozone. France favours derogations as much as the British – for example its ‘cultural exception’ to protect its ailing film industry. And when it comes to actually applying EU laws – rather than calling for new ones to be added – Britain is always near the top of the league, with France languishing way behind it.

Monsieur Rocard, your argument is forcefully made. But it would have been more credible if it hadn’t been written less than two weeks after a quarter of your compatriots hadn’t voted for the extreme right-wing National Front, which flatly opposes the EU’s two biggest projects – the euro and the free movement of its citizens. Indeed, in recent opinion polls the French appear as hostile to the EU than the famously euroskeptic British. In a Pew Research Center survey carried out in May 2013, only 41% had a “good opinion” of the EU, against 43% in Britain. Most French view the EU as intrusive, inefficient and divorced from their needs – hardly breaking news given they voted ‘yes’ to Maastricht by less than 1% and killed the constitutional treaty in a 2005 referendum.

Countries that would like to see Britain leave the EU should be careful what they wish for. A UK exit would make the European Union poorer – London still pays in more to the EU budget than it gets back – more protectionist and weaker on the world stage. The 28-member club would lose a nuclear-armed, permanent member of the UN Security Council, which – along with France – is the only other EU country able to protect and project its values by force if necessary. That is not in the EU’s interests and it is not in Britain’s.

Ultimately, I was more saddened than angry by your article – because you are clearly out of touch with the way the EU is evolving. The day after Marine Le Pen’s electoral triumph, your president – sounding uncannily like David Cameron – said the EU “must be more focused on its priorities, show more efficiency where it is needed and not add to things where it is unnecessary.” That is the same Francois Hollande, by the way, who urged the EU to create an “economic government” last year only to rail against Brussels for interfering in French affairs when the European Commission had the temerity to ask Paris to honour its Eurozone commitments and cut its debt.

Mr Rocard, you are also clearly out of touch with many of the French people I meet – whether living in Brussels, visiting London (isn’t curious that young French go to Britain to work, while elderly Brits go to France to retire?) teaching young French journalists in Lille or seeing friends and family in Paris and Montpellier. Most of these French are prouder about being French than most Brits are about being British. But they also see no contradiction between listening to the Arctic Monkeys – that’s a rock-group – and French electro-pop duo Daft Punk. They speak English without chastising themselves for abandoning Europe’s former lingua franca. They are hypercritical of the EU – even daring to question why the Union wastes €200 million commuting to its second home every month at the insistence of the French government. And they accept Britain for what it is – an awkward, uncomfortable member of the European Union that is better to have in the club than out.

Yours in Franco-British friendship

Gareth Harding

Inside the Belgeway


When President Barack Obama visits Brussels for the first time on March 26, he will discover a city that – in many ways – is Europe’s version of Washington D.C.

Both are medium-sized capitals with large commuter belts, fine restaurants and delightful green spaces. They are relatively wealthy cities with large pockets of poverty – Brussels is the third richest region in the European Union but has a youth unemployment rate of almost 30%. In both places everyone seems to be from somewhere else – and in Brussels’ case this is largely true with over half the population born abroad or to foreign parents. And they have a complicated status within their respective nations. Brussels is the glue that holds divided Belgium together, a Francophone city surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders. The District of Columbia, to the befuddlement of most foreigners and many Americans, is the capital of the United States but its elected representatives have no voting rights in Congress.

Continue reading

The Idiot’s Guide to Snooping on Europe


American spies have been taking it on the chin from European Union officials since it was disclosed in the files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. secret agents were eavesdropping on their conversations in Brussels, New York, and Washington, D.C. While spying on your most powerful allies just before the start of transatlantic trade talks may not exactly be neighborly behavior, spare a thought for all those poor NSA snoops trying to translate EU gobbledygook into intelligible English or make sense of the Byzantine workings of the world’s richest trade club. Out of sympathy for our friends at the NSA, Foreign Policy asked our man in Brussels to gin up an A-Z guide to the European Union for U.S. spooks.

Continue reading

Eyes off the Prize

Contrary to the reams of mockery unleashed on Friday and over the weekend, the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is absolutely the right idea. The EU is one of the great achievements in human history, and its contribution to peace in Europe and elsewhere is beyond doubt.

The only problem is, the Nobel comes at completely the wrong time. It would have made perfect sense 20 years ago when the Cold War was over and Europe was whole, free and at peace for the first time in its history. But with the continent mired in its gravest social and economic crisis since the 1930s and the EU project in danger of unravelling, it feels like a consolation prize — like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars or a retirement gift for decades of loyal service.

In his 1950 declaration that gave birth to what eventually became the present-day union, French foreign minister Robert Schuman called for the pooling of coal and steel to make war between France and Germany “not only unthinkable, but materially impossible.” Today, a military conflict in the heart of Europe is indeed unimaginable — as it is between other democratic trading nations like the United States and Canada or Australia and New Zealand.

Despite what the cynics say, the EU deserves much of the credit for this for devising a system in which European disputes are solved in drab Brussels boardrooms rather than on battlefields. But it did not act alone. As U.S. President Barack Obama said when accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world.” The presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops helped keep the peace in Europe. NATO continues to supply a security umbrella for most European states. And globalization has bound countries ever closer together through trade and business ties.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee praised the EU for helping turn Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.” This is only partly true. While its members have kept the peace between themselves — no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting — the European Union’s fringes have been anything but peaceful. In the last two decades alone, there have been wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing with the violent splintering of Yugoslavia.

“This is the hour of Europe,” declared Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1992 as the Balkans started to burn. But instead of demonstrating Europe’s strength, the conflicts in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and finally Kosovo highlighted Europe’s impotence. A club with pretensions to become global a power could not even stop slaughter an hour’s flight from its capital.

As storm clouds gathered over the Balkans in the early 1990s, EU leaders met in Maastricht to sign a treaty that is at the root of many of the bloc’s problems today. Far from uniting Europeans — one of the aims of the single currency that was unveiled in the 1992 treaty — the euro has divided the continent and contributed to the EU’s deepest crisis since its foundation.

It is cruelly ironic that on the day the peace prize was announced, the top four headlines on the European Union page of British broadcaster Channel 4’s website were: “Greek government cracks down on foreigners,” “Greek police clash with protestors during Merkel visit,” “Spanish government set to unveil more cuts,” and “Clashes in Greece as strikers protest austerity measures.”

No wonder the decision was greeted with incredulity on the streets of Athens. “The leader of the E.U. is Germany, which is in an economic war with southern Europe,” retired lawyer Stavros Polychronopoulos told the New York Times. “I consider this war equal to a real war. They don’t help peace.”

This is grossly unfair to Germany, which is helping to bail out the Greek economy. But it is a sign of the dangerous divisions that have resurfaced inside the EU after decades of “ever closer union.” For peace is not just the absence of war. It is harmony between different peoples. It is tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. And it is solidarity between different classes and generations. The EU has constantly fostered these ideals, and authors such as Jeremy Rifkin have argued that these values represent some sort of “European Dream” to rival America’s.

But in 2012, this European Dream lies in tatters. Partly as a result of Europe’s economic woes and the threat to national identity posed by the EU, extremist parties advocating racism, nationalism, and intolerance are on the rise across the continent — a fact recognized by Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland Friday when he warned: “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating.” Nobody would benefit from the re-Balkanisation of Europe, which is why Jagland called on Europeans to “focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

At its heart the EU was, and still is, a peace project. But it is an unfinished one. If the Nobel Prize serves any purpose, it should act as a call to responsibility to EU leaders who often adopt an adolescent approach to matters of war and peace. They complain about U.S. hegemony but are unprepared to pay for their nations’ own defence. They lecture the world about European values but are either incapable or unwilling to stand up for them. And they talk of EU solidarity, knowing perfectly well the union has neither the duty nor the capacity to come to the aid of an attacked member — or even, apparently, one whose economy is melting down, until it’s nearly too late.

Whoever accepts the Nobel Prize on behalf of the EU should have the courage to say, as President Obama did in his 2009 speech, that well-meaning declarations are not enough to protect and promote cherished values. Sometimes, preserving peace means preparing for war — as France and Britain understood in Libya. Sometimes, solidarity means writing checks, as well as delivering moral sermons. And sometimes, promoting stability in Europe — for example by speeding up Turkey’s EU entry — means confronting prejudices and arguing that European values only make sense when applied.

The EU’s Nobel recipients should also have the vision to move beyond issues of war and peace entirely. Harking back to 1945 for a raison d’être is hardly the most forward-thinking philosophy for a 21st-century organization. Likewise, warning of a return to war if the euro fails, as some European leaders have, is not the greatest vote of confidence in the core values the bloc has supposedly embedded. If the EU wants to remain relevant in the world and connect with citizens who are rapidly losing faith in the European project, its leaders should use the Oslo award ceremony to offer a new central narrative for the union that resonates with a generation whose only knowledge of continental conflict comes from history books.

This article was first published in Foreign Policy Magazine in October 2012

10 Tips for the pro-EU Crowd

The European Union is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of its citizens. Public support for the EU is falling, European values are under attack, many of the EU’s biggest projects – the euro, enlargement, Schengen – are under threat and voters are turning in droves to populist parties that are the antithesis of the European dream.

Unfortunately, supporters of further EU integration often don’t help their cause by lacking fresh ideas for the bloc’s future, failing to match words with deeds and being resistant to change, prickly about criticism and contemptuous of the people on whose support the EU project depends. So here are 10 tips for getting the Union back on track from a critical friend of the EU who has worked inside the Belgeway for the last two decades.

1. Don’t mention the war

The European Union is, first and foremost, a peace project aimed at banishing the spectre of the war from the continent. It has largely achieved this goal in western Europe, to the extent that the idea of France and Germany fighting each other again is unthinkable. Instead of harping on about the Second World War – which ended 67 years ago – pro-Europeans need to develop a new central narrative for the Union that is fit for the 21st century and resonates with a generation whose grandparents were born after 1945.

2. What’s the story?

EU officials are often excellent at answering detailed questions about their policy briefs but hopeless at grappling with more existential issues such as: What is the European Union for? What value-added does it bring? What are the core beliefs that bind its people together? Most Europeans take peace, free trade, open borders and a single currency for granted. So what is the EU’s next big idea? Instead of looking to past gains, the EU should be about creating a leaner, keener and greener Europe based on a highly skilled and educated workforce and a low-carbon, cutting-edge economy. It should also be more bullish about enlargement – the EU’s biggest success story – and be more muscular on the world stage.

3. Be radical

EU drum-bangers tend to be terribly conservative and more concerned at amassing further powers than questioning whether they are needed in the first place. Instead of feeling obliged to defend silly policies and useless institutions, they should adopt a more radical and more ruthless approach. Do we honestly need the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee – not to mention the plethora of other agencies that have mushroomed in recent years? Does it still make sense for the EU to spend over a third of its budget subsidising the five percent of Europeans who till the land? Is pumping tens of billions of euros a year to poor countries and regions to build motorways and sewage plants the sanest way to build world-class modern economies? A new narrative requires new policies, new institutions and new budget prioritie

4. Accept criticism

The EU has never been very good at accepting criticism or admitting mistakes. “Criticism of the EU is almost considered a heresy,” said former Europe Minister Denis MacShane. “Its like going to see the Pope and saying ‘I might be a protestant your holiness.’” Instead of endlessly repeating pro-EU mantras, supporters of the European project should create a culture of debate by listening to the people and entering into an honest dialogue with them. They should also occasionally admit they are wrong – on the euro and the admission of a divided Cyprus for example – and have the humility to apologise.

5. Emit less hot air

In the middle of one of the least smart, inclusive and sustainable urban landscapes in Europe – the EU area of Brussels – I recently saw a banner draped across the European Commission’s Charlemagne building advertising a symposium on “paving the way for smart inclusive and sustainable cities.” A small vignette maybe but symptomatic of the mismatch between the EU’s lofty aims and less prosaic reality that reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men:’ “Between the idea/And the Reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow.” The EU should beware of raising expectations that it cannot meet – such as its pretension of having a truly common foreign and security policy or its risible new millennium ambition of becoming the world’s most competitive economy by 2010. Sometimes, it is better to have limited aims – like cutting roaming charges – but actually achieve them.

6. The EU isn’t Europe

The problem with many Euro-cheerleaders is that they constantly confuse the EU (a political construct with 27 states) with Europe (a continent with almost 50 countries). It is quite possible to dislike – or feel no affinity – with the former whilst feeling deeply attached to the latter. Instead of obsessing about passing new laws, adopting new treaties and creating new institutions, fans of the EU would be better off trying to foster a European spirit among people. As former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek said: “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans.”

7. Value your values

The values that are supposed to define Europe – peace, tolerance, diversity, solidarity, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights – are often flouted by those states that are the keenest on pushing for greater EU integration. It is difficult to see how opposing Turkey’s EU entry (as France and Austria do) or refusing to back the use of force against a murderous dictator (as Germany did during the Libya conflict) or calling for more EU laws while continuously flouting existing ones (as Belgium and Italy do) tally with the Union’s values. The EU needs to be more consistent, more united and more robust standing up for its values – even if that means annoying the Chinese and Russians.

8. Don’t forget the people

The EU spends tens of millions of euros a year promoting democracy around the world, yet its own decision-making structures are hardly the most shining example of people-power. The Commission, which has the sole power to propose new laws, is not elected and its president has no popular mandate. The head of the European Council is appointed in a similar manner to the Pope. And most decisions in the Council of the EU are made by ambassadors before they reach the desks of ministers. So despite the furious denials of eurocrats, the EU does have a democratic deficit that is opening up a massive chasm between rulers and ruled. The Eurozone crisis has widened this divide. Much to the delight of officials in Brussels, technocrats have replaced elected politicians in Greece and Italy. And the Commission has amassed further powers over national budgetary decisions that are normally the prerogative of elected parliaments. No wonder the president of the German constitutional court recently remarked: “It would be tragic and fatal if we were to lose democracy on the road to saving the euro and to more integration.”

9. Create an EU 2.0 from the bottom up

The EU has been an elitist project since its inception. This mattered little when the Union was primarily a trade club. But now that it has taken on many of the trappings of nation state – a single currency, border protection, increasing control over budgets and the ambition to raise its own taxes – its policies have a much greater impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Without their support and involvement the EU will wither like a vine starved of water. This means more democracy – at the very least elected European Council and Commission presidents – but also more efforts to engage with Europeans at their level and using their language.

10. Just connect

The EU has traditionally been terrible at communicating. It confuses information with propaganda, is obsessed with process rather than results and is incapable of communicating in language ordinary people understand. If the EU – and its backers – want to connect with citizens it needs to explain its policies using simple, clear language. But above all it has to show how it changes people’s lives for the better. If the EU can convince hard-working taxpayers in Milan, Manchester or Munich that it puts more money in their pockets, makes their jobs, streets and pensions more secure and provides better schools and hospitals for them and their families then it will succeed. If it doesn’t it will creak, crack and ultimately collapse.

Scoring an own-goal for Europe United

The European Parliament is used to scoring own-goals. But even by its standards, the assembly’s call last week for the EU flag to be flown at major sporting events and for the European emblem to grace athletes’ shirts was the political equivalent of a defender back-heeling the ball into his own net.

Admittedly, parliament’s report on the European dimension of sport contains plenty of worthy calls for member states to devote a greater share of their budget to sports and for racism, violence and corruption in sport to be rooted out. But as the EU has few competences in the sports arena, this amounts to little more than meaningless political posturing.

Parliament insists the European flag would be displayed alongside national symbols on athletes’ shirts and would be entirely voluntary. What could possibly be wrong with that? Quite a lot actually.

As I argue in the latest edition of Foreign Policy Magazine, there is no such thing as a European people and top-down attempts at moulding one are likely to end in failure.

In opinion polls voters identify themselves much more with their nation state than with Europe. As former European Commissioner Chris Patten has said: “The nation is alive and well and more potent than ever in some respects. It is the largest unit, perhaps, to which people will willingly accord emotional allegiance.”

In fact, even the nation is too big for many people to associate with. Europe has 20 more countries than in 1988 due to the splintering of countries like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and others. And there will be more on the way if Belgium, Spain or Britain shatter.

In September the New York Times ran a front-page article about plans to have a British soccer team representing the UK in the London Olympics this year. Quite logical, one might think. Except there is no such thing. Instead we have Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish teams and all but the English are against joining Team GB. Said the head of the Scottish football federation – “We need to protect our identity and we have no interest in taking part.” The Welsh former goalkeeper Neville Southall asked: “What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well it’s not my flag; my flag’s a dragon.”

The journalist helpfully pointed out that “It is sometimes hard for outsiders to comprehend how deeply tribal Britain is, and how resistant to the idea that there is a unifying notion of Britishness.”

Not just Britain. In Belgium there is such a vicious division between Flanders and Wallonia that the country’s football association recently voted to divide national amateur leagues along linguistic lines.

Call me tribal, but despite living in Belgium for almost 20 years I am Welsh and proud of it. The symbols I identify with are the dragon, the leek and the daffodil, not a flag designed by a committee of experts half a century ago. When our rugby team beat Ireland on Saturday I jumped for joy like most of my compatriots. The pleasure of beating our opponents – because that is what sport is largely about – would not have been any different if the European flag had been fluttering above the Aviva stadium in Dublin or if the players had worn the 12 stars on their shirts. Its presence would simply have been an irrelevance.

This is not to deny that one can have multiple identities. Many Europeans are Catalan, Spanish and European. Others are Muslim and French. But identities cannot be artificially created – they are forged early on and never go away. As the Jesuits’ used to say: ‘Give me a child until he’s seven and I will give you the man.’

Europeans are slowly coming together after centuries of division – and that is a good thing. Most Europeans care more about the result of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League final than the European Parliament elections. Thanks to no-frills airlines like Ryanair and easyJet, Europeans are criss-crossing the continent like never before. And Brits with no great fondness for the EU cheer on French, Spanish and Portuguese soccer stars playing for their ‘local’ clubs and afterwards head to the pub to drink Belgian and German lagers.

Much of the credit for this is due to the EU for scrapping national airline monopolies, granting Europeans the right to live and work in any member state and ending quotas on foreign soccer players – although, perversely, parliament’s report says that an “over-dependence on the transfer of players can undermine sporting values.” But ultimately Europe will not be built by Brussels edicts but European citizens – whether border-hopping footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar DJs like David Guetta or brash entrepreneurs like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.

In his magisterial book ‘In Europe,’ the Dutch author Geert Mak writes: “People need stories in order to grasp the inexplicable, to cope with their fate. The individual nation, with its common language and shared imagery can always forge these experiences into one great cohesive story. But Europe cannot do that. Unlike the United States it still has no common story.”

There are huge differences between states in America but at the end of the day Americans feel American and are proud of the fact. Their hearts beat faster when they sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ or watch their athletes winning gold medals in Olympics. Most know their constitution and roughly how their political system works. They speak the same language and are obsessed by the same sports.

The European Union, on the other hand, has created common institutions, laws and even a currency. It has created all the symbols of a nation state – a passport nobody swears allegiance to, an anthem nobody knows and a flag that is only voluntarily waved at the Ryder Cup golf championships between the US and Europe. What it lacks is a people who share a common culture, language or narrative – or at the very least are able to identify with the political construct that has been created in their name. “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans,” was how former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek put it.

The problem is you cannot manufacture Europeans like toy soldiers. It takes time for a people to evolve and imposing artificial political bodies on disparate peoples has ended in failure or disaster throughout history.

Europe Reborn


Berlin +20 – Europe Reborn

Speech to Missouri School of Journalism, September 9, 2009


I have a confession to make. On September 24, 1989 I threw a book out of a moving train window for the first and last time in my life.

Admittedly, this wasn’t just any book. I happened to be reading ‘The Bass Saxophone’ by banned Czech author Josef Skvorecky. And it wasn’t just any train. This was the service that connected Nuremberg in the former West Germany with Prague in the country once called Czechoslovakia.

As the train approached the Czechoslovak border I remembered that my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe warned tourists against bringing books by outlawed writers into the communist country. So as the train passed through the bucolic Bavarian countryside I hurled the book into a field of bemused cows.

At a border that no longer exists between two countries that no longer exist passengers had to wait for three hours as border guards checked visas and rifled through luggage. At Cheb, the first sizeable town in Bohemia, we were then frog-marched off the train to change the equivalent of $20 a day before heading on to the capital.

It is hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, this crossing was a frontier of fear that separated two ideologies bent on destroying each other.

“The Iron Curtain was hundreds of miles of barbed wire, watch tower and minefield, with an awful sameness to it,” writes Jan Morris, probably the greatest living English-speaking travel writer. “Travelling from east to west through it was like entering a drab and disturbing dream, a half-lit world of shabby resentments, where anything could be done to you.”

Prague in 1989 was a beautiful city, as it is today. But it was also a city gripped by fear, crushed by the weight of history and blackened by a thin sheen of soot. Asked what the biggest change between then and now was, a Czech friend recently told me: “You could say the grey changed to colour – like a TV.”

For over 40 years after the communists seized power in 1948, the Czech lands were cut off from the western part of Europe and left to languish in obscurity behind the Iron Curtain.

Czech novelist Milan Kundera has said the Soviet annexation of central Europe “caused western Europe to lose its vital centre of gravity.” In the ultimate triumph of politics over geography, the former Czechoslovakia was consigned to eastern Europe, despite the fact it has gone through the same historical processes as western nations and that its capital Prague lies considerably nearer the Atlantic than such ‘western’ European cities as Athens, Helsinki and Stockholm.

Communism resulted in something of a national trauma for Czechoslovakia, which was as rich as Switzerland before World War II and gave the world writers such as Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek and composers such as Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana. The humiliation of being colonised by Russia – a poorer country that had never tasted freedom – was compounded by the fact that millions of Czechs were forced to make a humiliating choice between cooperating with a system they despised or opposing a system that seemed destined to last for eternity. Most chose to “live within a lie” as absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel described it in his 1979 essay Power of the Powerless.’

Czechoslovakia wasn’t the only country that suffered of course. For over 40 years East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians, together with the people of the Baltic states and the former Yugoslavia – lived in a state of fear and unfreedom. Calls for greater liberty  – like in Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Poland in 1980 – were met with tanks and bullets. Thousands of people died but tens of millions experienced a fate almost worse than death – the extinction of the self. In his best-known novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ Kundera writes: “Many also died without being directly subjected to persecution; the hopelessness pervading the entire country penetrated the soul of the body, shattering the latter.”

Western Europeans also lived in a state of fear. Fear of Soviet tanks motoring across the Fulda Gap. Fear of a world war erupting on the continent for the third time in 70 years. Fear of nuclear annihilation.

So this was Europe in the autumn of 1989 – around about the time many of you were born. A continent divided by an Iron Curtain between a free, capitalist west backed by the United States and an unfree communist east sponsored by the Soviet Union. A continent frozen in aspic by a cold war that relegated Europe to the role of bystander in its own backyard. A continent still traumatised by two world wars and facing the distinct possibility of a third world war on its soil.

But it was not just the continent that was split down the middle. Countries were too. Germany was divided into a western and eastern half. So was its capital city. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” declared Winston Churchill in his famous Fulton, Missouri speech on March 5, 1946. “Behind that line,” he continued, “lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”

And so it remained for over 40 years.

Then came what British historian Timothy Garton Ash describes as Europe’s “9/11 of hope.” On November 9, 1989 – almost 20 years ago today – thousands of Germans started hacking away at the Berlin Wall that had separated the eastern and western halves of Berlin for almost four decades. Little over a week later, communism was toppled in Czechoslovakia and by the year-end almost all the former Soviet bloc countries had been liberated.

The next time I visited Czechoslovakia – in the summer of 1990 – I didn’t need a visa and the border crossing was like any other in Europe, except for the surly guards. In Prague, to quote the Irish poet W.B Yeats, all had changed, “changed utterly.” I was there to teach Russian teachers – who didn’t speak a word of English – how to teach English to high-school students that fall. A Moravian economics student I knew was told to forget everything she had learnt in her first three years in university. Marxist economics, like Russian, was suddenly so 1980s. The Rolling Stones rolled into Prague – the first major western rock band in 40 years – and Vaclav Havel welcomed them on stage.

Twenty years on, Europe is a continent transformed.

Travel to the Czech Republic from inside the EU today and you don’t even have to show your passport. You can withdraw Czech crowns – soon to be replaced by euros – at one of the many airport ATMs, jump in a taxi and discover a city centre changed beyond recognition. Radio Free Europe has its offices in the communist-era parliament, the ticking hand of a clock has replaced a giant bust of Josef Stalin on the banks of the Vltava River and the Palace of Culture – where communist party congresses used to be held – has recently been the venue for NATO and International Monetary Fund summits.

The Lonely Planet’s 1989 guide to “Eastern Europe” – a political rather than geographical term rarely used today – describes the region as “the last frontier of tourism in Europe.” Not any more. Prague has half a dozen low-cost flights a day from Britain alone, making it more likely you will hear English than Czech in the winding streets of the old town. Ryanair flies to Wroclaw, Szczecin, Lodz and half a dozen other unpronounceable places in Poland. The Baltic capitals of Riga and Vilnius – Soviet cities 20 years go – have even become popular stag party destinations for British revellers: much to the dismay of many locals.

Even the countries listed under “Eastern Europe” in my battered old travel guide have been consigned to history 20 years after the continent drew a line under a century of division and devastation. East Germany has joined west to create Europe’s most populous country. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia after a “velvet divorce” in 1992. Yugoslavia has splintered into seven states after a series of bloody civil wars. And the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – which threatened western Europe with annihilation for almost half a century – now has an archaic and faintly comical ring to it.

It may come as a surprise to Euro-skeptics and American neo-conservatives, who see Europe as “old,” sclerotic and incapable of reform, but probably no continent on earth has changed more radically – at least in political terms – than Europe since the end of the 1980s.

Of the 47 countries that comprise the Council of Europe – the pan-European human rights watchdog that predates the EU – 19 did not exist in 1989. But don’t take my word for it. Just tune into the Eurovision Song Contest – that continent-wide extravaganza of kitsch – and listen to the scores come in. Hello Moldova. Bonsoir Azerbaijan. Good evening Ljubljana. It’s as much a geography lesson as a musical spectacle.

Of course, it is central and eastern Europe that has changed the most. Ten countries that once languished behind the Iron Curtain – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia along with the three former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are all members of the European Union and NATO. Albania and Macedonia are both members of the world’s most powerful military alliance, Croatia is on path to joining the EU and the other Balkan states that were racked by war just a decade ago will almost certainly join the Union within 10-15 years.

Many of the changes have been painful and their have been many losers as well as losers in the headlong rush towards capitalism. But just wander the streets of Tallinn, Ljubljana, Bratislava or Riga today and the sense of relief and optimism are palpable. “We have become normal, boring Europeans,” a Lithuanian friend told me recently. “Thanks god,” she added.

But it is not just the east that has changed. The prosperous western half has gone through its own silent revolution too. To get some idea of this, imagine if the United States scrapped the dollar in favour of a ‘currency of the Americas,’ let interest rates be set in Ottawa, had its Court of Justice in Caracas and parliament in Santiago de Chile, completely opened its frontier with Mexico, accepted Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama as American states and rewrote its constitution four times. Only then do you get some idea of what Europe has gone through in the last two decades.

In 1989, the EU had just 12 members. Now its has 27 stretching from the sun-drenched shores of the Algarve to the Polish border with Belarus and from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. Within a decade the EU may have 35 states if the Balkan countries, Turkey and Iceland join. With half a billion citizens the EU dwarfs the United States in terms of population and is only surpassed by China and India.

The EU’s powers have also mushroomed. In 1993, when I was doing an internship in the European Commission, I was one of a dozen people working on EU foreign policy – which largely consisted of faxing well-meaning declarations around the capitals, tippexing out undesirable words and phrases and then re-faxing around said capitals for approval. No wonder the EU was powerless to prevent the Balkans bloodshed of the mid-1990s.

Fast forward two decades and the EU is sending troops to the Congo to make sure elections pass smoothly, it has soldiers in Chad protecting refugees from Darfur, it has virtually taken over the running of Bosnia and Kosovo from NATO and the UN, it has security missions in Transnistria, East Timor and Gaza and leads negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme. It was also instrumental in making sure the International Criminal Court was set up and the Kyoto Protocol to limit global warming was ratified – in the teeth of vociferous opposition from the United States.

Europe, which almost annihilated itself in the first half of the 20th century and was sidelined for most of the second half of the century, is now very much back as a world power – and a world power for good.

The European Union is also the world’s biggest economic power, exporter, trading bloc, aid donor and foreign investor. Not bad for a continent that lay in tatters 65 years ago.

In the past 20 years, EU states have pooled powers in sensitive areas – such as defence, counter-terrorism, immigration, asylum policy and border controls – that lie at the heart of national sovereignty.

Remember the franc, the deutschmark, the peseta, lira and drachma? Once proud currencies that symbolised national power and prestige, they have now been consigned to the scrapheap of history. The euro, a currency many predicted – and some hoped – would fail is now stronger than the dollar or pound and quickly catching up with the greenback as the world’s preferred reserve money.

But perhaps the most dramatic change over the last 20 years has been the gradual scrapping of border controls between EU states. It is now possible to travel from Tallinn to Seville and from Stockholm to Sicily without showing a passport or stopping at a border. Even when ID is called for, Europeans now flash almost identical burgundy EU passports.

The effects of this ‘big bang’ removal of borders have been profound. Practically, it has meant the end of two-hour waits at the Italian-Slovenian or Latvian-Lithuanian land crossings. Travellers can now sleep comfortably in the thought that the days of customs officers barging into your train compartment and barking ‘passports please’ at four o’clock in the morning are now over.

But the effects are also political. After all, it is difficult to argue that a person on one side of the border should be taxed, taught and ruled differently from a person on the other side of that border when the frontier separating the two is no longer there.

Over the centuries, tens of millions of Europeans have died fighting over sometimes illogical, often arbitrary and almost always unnatural frontiers. But with the Schengen treaty many of the frontiers European nations fought over – for example between Poland and Germany – have effectively ceased to exist, making the prospect of war between EU states even more unthinkable.

Last week, European nations commemorated the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two in Poland and other places. For millennia Europe has known war, suffered war, been defined by war. The First World War – the ‘war to end all wars’ was meant to banish conflict from the European continent for good. But instead it sowed the seeds of an even more savage bout of bloodletting – the Second World War.

Sixty million people were killed in this war, including 20 million Russians. Six million Jews were gassed, shot, bayoneted, starved, burned and beaten to death. One in five former inhabitants of Poland and the Baltic States was dead. Twelve million ethnic Germans were forced to flee their homes and tens of millions of other Europeans were homeless or left injured or traumatised by the horrors of the war.

Great European cities – Berlin, London and Nuremberg had been virtually wiped off the map, agriculture production was halved and millions faced the threat of starvation. This was Europe just over 60 years ago.

For the first time in over 500 years Europe was sidelined. The continent that had given the world Socrates, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rubens, Darwin and Galileo had entered into a reverse enlightenment. Europe had simply imploded.

Five years later, on May 9, 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman launched a plan to pool French and German coal and steel production in order to make war between the two countries “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible.” Two years later, the European Coal and Steel Community was born and five years later came the founding of the European Economic Community with just six members. Europe was on the road to a second renaissance.

50 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome the European Union has 27 members with half a billion people. For the first time in its long and bloody history, Europe is whole, free and at peace and almost all its states are prosperous free market democracies. Finally, Europe can breathe with two lungs again.

Of course the EU is not perfect. 15 years ago, while EU leaders were squabbling about ways of fine-tuning their rulebook, 200,000 Bosnians, Serbs and Croats were slaughtered in the greatest bout of bloodletting on the European continent since the Second World War. It is a stain on the conscience of Europe that will live with those of my generation forever.

The EU’s problems are well documented – especially by the British and American press. It has to create more jobs, become more competitive, better integrate its growing immigrant population, reform its bloated welfare system, reverse plummeting birth rates and learn to punch its weight on the world stage. But it is only by appreciating how far Europe has come that you can judge how far it still has left to go.

When deciding whether a potential story is a real story I always encourage my students to ask three questions: why does this matter? What difference will it make? Why should I care? In two words: so what? So what lessons can we draw from this turbulent two decades of European history and why should you care?

Firstly, nothing is inevitable; everything is possible. I was brought up to believe that the cold war was a fact of life, that the east-west division of Europe was permanent and that the threat of conflict in Europe would always hang in the air. Nothing led me to doubt that for the first two decades of my life.

Even in September 1989 – 20 years ago today – when I visited the communist bloc for the first time, there was little to suggest the post-war order would come crashing down like a house of cards.

And then Europe’s 9/11 happened. The Berlin Wall was torn down, the Czech Republic and almost a dozen other countries shrugged off half a century of communist dictatorship in a series of largely non-violent revolutions. Within a year Germany was reunited, the dissident absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia and the electrician turned trade union activist Lech Walesa was the Polish head of state. Two years later the Soviet Union had splintered, Czechoslovakia had split in two and the map of central and eastern Europe had been completely redrawn.

So don’t let anyone tell you there is a natural, immutable order of things, that change is impossible – as if you need reminding of that after the release of Nelson Mandela, the outbreak of peace in northern Ireland or your presidential election last year.

Secondly, don’t forget, belittle or underestimate Europe amidst all the hype about China and India. Europe’s decline is not terminal. Many of the countries that once ruled the world are now small to middling states, but united they represent possibly the most powerful bloc on the planet.

Remember, Europe – the continent that was in ruins 60 years ago and powerless to affect its destiny 20 years ago – is now the world’s biggest economy, exporter, trading club, overseas aid donor and peacekeeper. More importantly, perhaps, its people enjoy the highest standard of living on earth. For most of the world Europe is not just the name of a continent; it is the dream of a better life.

Of course Europe can be infuriating. It is slow to act on the world stage, snail-like in reforming itself and riven by rivalries. But fights now take place around conference tables rather than on battlefields. That, in Europe, is progress.

Some analysts predict a G2 alliance emerging between the United States and China. But it is difficult to see how a communist dictatorship that outlaws opposition and oppresses its own people can be described as a reliable partner. I’m afraid the EU is also the only powerful ally the United States has when it comes to advancing its core values – from Afghanistan to the WTO to fighting for freedom and against global warming.

Thirdly, history may not have ended – as Francis Fukuyama predicted – but Europe is a lot less burdened by its past than at any time since the war. Just 25 years ago Milan Kundera wrote about Czechoslovakia sinking under the weight of its own history. Now communism is textbook stuff to the young people of the Czech lands, who have known nothing else but freedom.

Of course, the past still weighs heavily. Take a stroll around Berlin and you pass Holocaust memorial after terror museum after crumbling wall remain. It is a surreal city where the no-man’s land created by the wall still snakes through the centre, creating a rust belt of decay and dereliction in the heart of the German capital.

Or go to Sarajevo and try and live in the present. On that street corner was where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. And in that market 66 shoppers were blown to pieces by a Serb shell in June 1994 during the long, painful siege of the Bosnian capital. And those makeshift cemeteries that encircle the city like a ring road? Testimony to Europe’s shame and impotence in the mid 1990s.

Europe cannot and should not erase its past.  But it is slowly learning to live with it rather than in it.

Finally, I would plead for America to be patient with Europe as it enjoys this rare moment of relative peace and prosperity. “Don’t tell me peace has broke out,” says a character in Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘Mother Courage and her Children.’  When you study history and you look back at the inquisitions and pogroms, wars and revolutions, famines and despots and intolerance and extremism that have scarred Europe for centuries – if not millennia – you begin to understand why Europeans look at the world with a weary eye, see things in shades of grey rather than black and white, are suspicious of all-knowing religions and ideologies and are reluctant to get involved in foreign military adventures.

I am part of the first generation of Europeans to be brought up without the shadow of war, tyranny or hunger hanging over me. That’s the good news. I’m also part of the first generation to be brought up in a continent where the twin bedrocks of modern civilization – the all-powerful church and the all-powerful state – are crumbling beneath my feet. Maybe that’s good news too.

Ladies and gentlemen, the journey Europe has travelled over the last 20 years is an extraordinary one. In the east, almost 20 countries have shrugged off communist tyranny and rejoined the European family of free nations. And in the west, the EU has undergone a silent revolution from a sleepy western European trade bloc to a continent-wide fledgling superpower with global ambitions.

But perhaps the most important thing is that few people talk about east and west Europe anymore. Europe has become one. Europe has been reborn.










The Myth of Europe

Foreign Policy Magazine has just published a long-form article I wrote called the Myth of Europe:

It argues that underlying the EU’s political and economic crisis is a profound identity crisis faced by a people who don’t know what Europe is, where it ends, what it stands for and against, what direction it is heading in and what common ties link European nationals to their neighbours. In short, after over 60 years of EU integration we remain wedded to our regional and national identities and simply don’t feel ‘European’ enough to offer trust and solidarity to ailing states like Greece. In short, we have succeeded in building a European Union without Europeans.

The article has sparked some strong reactions. Here’s one of them:

This vile little guy, Gareth Harding, seems to enjoy spreading panic just as the EU is fighting a sort of “financial Battle of Britain” fight. I am generally very much in favor of free speech but this sort of hateful propaganda should perhaps be curbed until the immediate danger has passed. It is absolutely not my desire to force Dutch, Poles, Italians, Brits or Germans to be “Europeans” but how they want the EU to work, and how much union they want, is an important decision that should not be forced out of their hands by panic and fear. This Harding is nothing but a vile little jackel snapping at what he thinks is a corpse but I think is anything but. If he’s American, revoke his visa and send him home. Otherwise, intern his little ass to prevent panic from spreading and letting people know that trying to induce complete collapse and chaos to Europe, and then the global economy, is not acceptable in the middle of a dangerous crisis.

If the euro or EU collapses, now you know who to blame!


The euro meltdown would make a great Hollywood blockbuster. It involves big money, features colourful, conflicting characters and evokes an atmosphere of looming menace that fits neatly into the disaster movie genre.

The movie would, of course, be directed by Roland Emmerich – who has previously made films about aliens invading earth (‘Independence Day,’) seas swamping the planet (‘The Day After Tomorrow’) and a global cataclysm that brings an end to the world (‘2012.’)

Hiring a scriptwriter for the film would be easy. Given their recent pronouncements on the fate of the euro, leading EU politicians appear to have a very vivid imagination and are perfectly capable of drafting a scenario where the currency’s collapse would trigger a disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

Former European Commission president Jacques Delors, one of the architects of the euro, has talked about Europe being on the “edge of an abyss,” while French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently warned: “Allowing the destruction of the euro is to risk the destruction of Europe. Those who destroy Europe and the euro will bear responsibility for the resurgence of conflict and division on our continent.”

In the British sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers,’ the hotel manager played by John Cleese famously advises his waitress “Don’t mention the war” when serving German guests. Nowadays, it seems like a reference to Europe’s darkest hour is almost obligatory for politicians warning of the euro’s disintegration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that Europe is facing its “biggest crisis since World War II” and that that the collapse of the euro would spell the end of the EU. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe cautions: “The dissolution of the eurozone is not acceptable, because it would also be the dissolution of Europe. If that happens, then everything is possible. Young people seem to believe that peace is guaranteed for all time.”

Even journalists are at it. A front-page teaser for a Roger Cohen op-ed in the International Herald Tribune ahead of the crunch euro crisis summit in late October asked: “What’s saving Europe from Hell? The E.U.”

All this apocalyptic talk reminds me of reading ‘Leviathan’ as a student in the late 1980’s. In his classic treatise on power, Thomas Hobbes claimed that without a strong sovereign power man is reduced to a state of nature in which life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Or as indy-rock group ‘The Smiths’ sang at about the same time: “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb that will bring us together.”

Nobody doubts the euro is facing a serious, possibly terminal, crisis. But to make a causal link between the end of the euro, the demise of the EU and war on the continent is both an insult to the public’s intelligence and terrible PR for a bloc desperately struggling to calm jittery markets.

There was no fighting between EU members before the euro and there will not be if we return to national currencies. Liberal free market democracies tend not go to war with each other and the ties that bind EU nations together are unlikely to be unravelled if the euro disappears. A customs union, the single market, progressive social and environmental legislation and the right of goods, people, capital and services to move freely across borders existed before the euro and there is no logical reason to suppose they would vanish after it.

A second reason why it is not sensible to indulge in doomsday scenarios is that dire predictions have a habit of becoming reality if they are repeated often enough – and no action is taken to counteract them. In any media training course participants are told on day one not to repeat negatives when answering questions. Use the word ‘collapse’ or ‘calamity’ often enough and the public – and the markets – will start to believe the euro is about to fall apart and that this would spell calamity for Europe.

In the epic disaster film ‘The Towering Inferno,’ firefighters repeatedly fail to put out the blaze until they plump for the ‘big bazooka’ option of detonating a one million gallon water tank at the top of the skyscraper. In contrast, instead of extinguishing the fire threatening to bring down their carefully-constructed edifice, EU leaders are acting more like firemen staring at a burning building and warning passers-by it is about to collapse while they debate what hose to use and how much water to spare.

Image attribution: Flickr Creative Commons Sharealike License.


Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.