A little over 30 years ago—in May 1989 to be exact—the Communist authorities in Hungary began to dismantle the barbed wire fence on its border with Austria. As a result, televisions and washing machines for sale in Graz became accessible to Hungarian shoppers. In an age of superabundance, that may seem unimportant but the scarcity and poor quality of consumer goods produced under Communism was a symbol of the difference between the world’s competing ideologies.
This small breach in a previously watertight barrier was to prove fatal, as the Soviet authorities had always feared. Soon, thousands of East Germans were pressing to cross the Hungarian border. A trickle became a flood and on 9 November 1989 East Germany was forced to open the crossing points in the Berlin Wall. Within hours, thousands were attacking the structure with pickaxes. In June 1990, the final destruction of the Berlin Wall began as part of the process of German reunification.
I watched these events unfold in nightly news bulletins. It was exhilarating to see the (mostly) peaceful revolutions that swept the continent then and in the following years. It was the most important moment of political hope I have experienced.
Until 1989, my Europe had ended in West Germany and Austria. Beyond the Iron Curtain – and was there ever a more apt and poetic metaphor for a geopolitical reality? – was the Eastern Bloc, composed formally of different countries but indistinguishable from each other or from the Soviet Union. After 1990, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine Latvia and all the other nations of Central and Eastern Europe began to emerge from that grey Communist fog, to gain distinct contours and varied personalities. By the mid 1990s, I was being asked to work there. I met Romanians and Poles, Estonians, Macedonians and Bosnians, and began to learn about their histories, culture, traditions and hopes. I walked the streets of Niš, Oradea, Kaliningrad, Pécs, Lviv, Wroclaw, Tbilisi, Sarajevo, Plovdiv and many other places, discovering the beauty, sorrow and complexity of their endlessly varied realities.
I saw them change, as western money and power flowed in, not always for the better, and I saw them stabilise, again, not always for the best. As they joined NATO and the European Union, my own sense of identity – of the physical and mental space I call home – changed too. States I had been brought up to imagine as threatening enemies I was now to regard not just as friends but as part of the family.
For me, and for many millions of Europeans on both sides of the old Iron Curtain, that has not proved to be a difficult mental adjustment. A whole generation has grown up in a (relatively) stable, prosperous and united Europe, whose internal borders – where, until 1989, thousands lost their lives to cross – have been all but abolished. I still find it disconcerting to fly from Lisbon to Warsaw without showing a passport, but there is a generation of Europeans to whom that is completely normal – and there are more of them with every passing year.
But others have found it much harder to accept a Europe where, as Jean-Dominique Giuliani puts it, people’s identity is defined by history, geography, culture, language and traditions rather than structures of political organisation. There are understandable reasons for their disquiet. European reunification coincided with a triumphant neoliberal ideology that has increased inequality, reduced public services and destabilised many of the institutions that people need in times of change. European unity and neoliberalism are not linked – in many ways their values are at odds – but some politicians have made the first responsible for the failures and injustices of the second. In Britain, the decline of manufacturing, the strain on public services, poor employment conditions and the weakness of social mobility have all been tied to membership of the European Union when, in reality, they are the result of policy decisions made by British governments over 40 years. If, as many hope, these things will improve now that the UK has become the first member to leave the EU, it will also be because of policy decisions made by the British government. But I see no reason to think that the same neoliberal politicians that have run Britain since 1979 will change their policies now. They’ll just find another culprit to blame (or perhaps even not that: the EU can always be portrayed as failing to do right by Britain).
In September 1989, the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, told the Soviet leader, that she was opposed to the reunification of Germany. Mistrusting change and fearful of a threat to her own state’s power, she made the wrong call. She preferred division and borders to cooperation. At midnight on 1 January 2021, her allies and followers succeeded beyond her greatest ambitions in taking the UK out of the EU and all its institutions (including the Single Market that was Thatcher’s principal European achievement). Britain has hardened its borders with the rest of Europe.
For many millions of Europeans, in Britain and every other member state, this is a very sad moment. The hopes of 1989, sorely tested though they have been in the intervening decades, have suffered a huge and lasting defeat. But this is not ultimately, about the European Union, important though it is. The EU is a political construct and, as such, is flawed, open to change and impermanent (which is why it was always a better choice for Britain to remain a member and work to improve it). The deeper issue is whether we, as human beings who share and depend on the same single living space are able to recognise our interdependence and common interests and therefore work to remove the artificial barriers that divide us.
Ten years ago, the political scientist Jeremy Rifkin argued that the survival of humanity depended on our capacity to enlarge the scope of our empathy to take in not just other human beings but all life on this planet. I’m convinced by that argument, which is why the new barriers that Britain erects today against its neighbours are not only sad but self-defeating. The threats that face us – from war and terrorism to disease and ecological disaster – face us all. The most dangerous are also the most indiscriminate. As the Chernobyl disaster proved, borders are no protection against our greatest threats. Only cooperation can help. Unfortunately, too many of us still see life as a Trumpian zero-sum game: we only win by making others lose.
Europe’s recent history has shown that not to be true or inevitable. Its political institutions have played a vital role in that, but only because its people have chosen to build them, to value living together in peace above damaging competition, to see that there is more than unites us than divides us. Britain has left the EU, but the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not left Europe. The human ties that bind us remain—history, geography, culture, language and traditions. Even something as prosaic as the desire for a better washing machine can bring about change. All Europe is diminished by the UK’s withdrawal, and most of all the UK itself. But those of us who believe in European—or simply human— cooperation and solidarity will simply need to work that much harder, without the support of institutions or politics. We’ve done it before.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.John Donne, Meditation XVII