Just over a year ago I was in eastern Poland. The edge of the European Union – a strip of sand between two rickety gates – was quiet.
Over three days and two nights of teleconference, the finance ministers of the Eurozone fumbled their way towards an emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic. No comments were recorded, no minutes taken; the Eurogroup, an ‘informal’ body headed by a president known as Mr Euro, isn’t obliged to disclose the details of its internal discussions. Still, we know that last week’s marathon meeting followed a familiar script. The PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) aimed high with a demand that the Eurozone share the burden of the crisis with a jointly issued debt instrument known as a coronabond. The FANGs (Finland, Austria, Netherlands, Germany) beat them back down, proposing that each member of the currency union bear its debts alone. And Mário Centeno, the Portuguese finance minister and current Mr Euro, brokered a late night compromise. ‘At the end of the day, or should I say, at the end of the third day,’ he announced, ‘what matters the most is that we rose to the challenge.’
Every hour in Pazarkule, the church bells told the migrants how close they were to Europe; and the shots told them they weren’t going to get in. On the Turkish-Greek border, where thousands are still waiting to cross, those who tried were repelled by tear gas and rubber bullets. And all day on Wednesday, as the ambulance sirens came and went, rumours spread of much worse, too: one dead and five injured trying to make it into Greece.
At the House of European History in Brussels, a long display cabinet sets out the forces that have shaped Europe through the centuries: philosophy, democracy, rule of law, ‘omnipresence of Christianity’, state terror, the slave trade, colonialism, humanism, the Enlightenment, revolutions, capitalism, Marxism, the nation state. For each, a historical image is matched with something contemporary: for philosophy, you get a bust of Socrates and a photograph of Žižek; for revolutions, Liberty Leading the People and the uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Square; for the slave trade, iron shackles and a Banksy painting about child labour.
Metternich is supposed to have once said that ‘Asia begins at the Landstrasse’ (or ‘the Balkans begin at the Rennweg’). The idea that the Balkan peninsula and its patchwork of nations are somehow not part of Europe lives on. Last month, Emmanuel Macron vetoed the opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Angela Merkel said the EU should ‘keep its promises’ and begin the negotiations. Jean-Claude Juncker described the French president’s irresponsible decision as a ‘historic mistake’. For once, the phrase may be an understatement.
To say that von der Leyen was ‘nominated’ by the Council and then ‘elected’ by the Parliament is a stretch. It may be more accurate to say the EU’s new leaders were ‘coronated’, much like after a papal conclave. They weren’t put to a public test, but selected in an atmosphere of intergovernmental informality.
On 27 February, the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement cannot apply to the territory of Western Sahara. Morocco alleges that the former Spanish colony, on the Atlantic coast between Morocco and Mauritania, is part of its integral territory. The view is not officially shared by any UN member state, and the UN considers Western Sahara a Non-Self-Governing Territory.
Monte Testaccio is a hundred-foot high, kilometre-round pile of broken potsherds. The great mound of ceramic refuse, started in the first century BCE, was added to daily over the following four centuries. Co-existent with the Roman Empire, it grew into a mass whose sheer bulk and consistency could not be reduced. Unlike the empire, it did not fall. Pottery is an especially obdurate artefact, but every single piece of pottery in Monte Testaccio is of a particular sort: each fragment is a sherd of broken oil amphora.
At the High Court last week, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the parent company of Southern rail, failed to secure an injunction against Aslef, the train drivers’ union. On Monday they took the case to the Court of Appeal, which also dismissed it, allowing the first drivers’ strike in the company to go ahead on Tuesday.
Just over a century ago, ‘plucky little Belgium’ stood against the might of the ‘Hun’ by refusing Germany free passage to invade France. Earlier this month, the plucky and even littler Belgian region of Wallonia took a brief stand against the combined might of the EU and Canada, by blocking the CETA trade pact under the federal provisions of Belgium's constitution. Yesterday, however, Wallonia gave in, 'extremely happy that our demands have been heard'. Viewed in the blear light of Brexit, the Walloon impasse, however temporary, suggests it won't be straightforward to get any deal past the 27 EU rump nations. But it also highlights blindspots in both Brexiters' and Remainers' thinking.
When the issue of Britain joining the EEC was raised following Harold Macmillan’s opening of negotiations in July 1961, Hugh Gaitskell had no time for those who saw the issue as one of principle, whether they were passionate pro-Europeans like Roy Jenkins or passionate opponents like many on the left who saw it as ‘a kind of giant Catholic, capitalist conspiracy’. (All quotations come from Philip Williams’s magisterial 1979 biography of Gaitskell.) Everything would depend on the conditions.
The informal EU summit in Bratislava last week was the object of semi-enthusiastic press speculation as the dignitaries prepared to gather, and bored silence once it was over. Billed as the first summit without the UK, all it could say about meeting as a group of 27, rather than 28, was that 'the EU remains indispensable to the rest of us.’ But it set down a new marker in the European refugee crisis, which Theresa May hammered into place yesterday during her first speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. In Europe and the UK the very notion of asylum has finally been buried under security issues.
By origin the European Union is a deeply Catholic institution. Its six-member precursor took in the main Catholic powers of Western Europe, apart from Fascist Spain; even part-Protestant Germany was led in by that devout Roman Catholic Rhinelander, Konrad Adenauer. The Union's close historical avatar, the Holy Roman Empire, aspired to an imperium that, if not wholly Roman, remained as firmly of this world as papal power itself.
One way round the legal problems posed by Brexit might be to mould it on the EU’s current relationship with the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. I grew up in, or on, Jersey (more on the preposition soon). It’s an odd place, for which the term ‘insular’, if anything, understates its inverted-telescope worldview. Jersey people can tell if someone comes from elsewhere in Britain in two ways. One is that they say ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ Jersey, which irks locals because it suggests, accurately enough, that the place is a windblasted reef jutting from the surf. The other is that they refer to Britain as ‘the mainland’ – because, for Jersey people, the mainland is Jersey. This helps make Jersey a microcosm of the attitudes that ‘Fog in Channel: Continent Isolated’ Englanders hold towards Albion, and a propitious model for its constitutional future.
Springtime for Europe. Magnolia buds jut from the bough, and the Netherlands is gripped by Euro-referendum fever. Or, if 'fever' is too strong, the vibe in Amsterdam's smokeasies is at least lightly tousled. For we're talking not of the UK's in/out poll on 23 June, but the one that really matters, here on 6 April, on ratifying the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine.
This week the queen showed up in Berlin to meet Angela Merkel. Her trip has taken in excursions to Frankfurt and Bergen-Belsen, to which the British seem to feel a proprietary bond through its having been liberated by UK and Commonwealth forces. She looked bemused when her hosts presented her with a painting, based on a photo from 1935, of her sitting on a sub-Franz Marc blue pony in front of her father, George VI. Did the queen recognise him? ‘No.’ Links between Germany and the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha remain robust, despite a couple of regrettable misunderstandings during the last century. But for the vagaries of 18th-century Anglican politics, the queen might have spent a blameless life pickling cabbage in Dortmund. At Berlin’s Technical University this week, she was greeted by a robot imitating the royal wave. It underlines the fact that the queen could have her job done for her by an android.
Taking part in a panel on European border control at the LSE last autumn, I found myself saying that the behaviour of people smugglers over the last twenty years or more was as worrying as the increasing number of migrants and asylum seekers using their services. Cecilia Malmström, then the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, nodded vigorously. She described the mechanics of getting people in danger across frontiers in the last century as an innocent process, a ‘cottage industry’. I remember hearing a similar remark about the older coyotes from an NGO worker on the US-Mexican border in 2011. I haven’t met a people smuggler for 16 years: my evidence that they treat their charges more harshly than they used to comes from sources we can all access – mainly accounts in the press about migrants and asylum seekers who have suffered at their hands, and briefings from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
This week the European Union, with Angela Merkel at its head, fired off a communiqué over the signatures of José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy slapping sanctions on Russia after last month's downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. In the self-important way of these texts, it bemoans Vladimir Putin's failure to accord the EU the respect that it sees as commensurate with its sense of its own importance. Apropos the dusty greeting that the Russians have given its previous communiqués, the Union tut-tuts that our call has been, in practice, left unheeded. Arms and fighters continue flowing into Ukraine from the Russian Federation. Strong Russian State sponsored nationalist propaganda continues supporting the illegal actions of armed separatists. In a parallel world, recognisably similar to but at some distance from our own, EU gnomes behind their plate-glass kraal in Brussels solemnly debate sanctioning Israel for wrecking hospitals and the wholesale murder of civilians, such as blowing children playing beach football in Gaza to pieces.
Sleek, complacent Brussels takes its alfresco chocolate and beer and waffles in the early summer sunshine, untroubled by the European elections or a few anti-semitic murders. The bo-bo Sablon district, which hosts the Jewish Museum, scene of Saturday’s shootings, was thick with drinkers again twenty-four hours later; indeed, the gratification of a man interviewed by Flemish VTM Nieuws soon after the attacks remained undimmed when he learned that the TV crew was there because three people had just been shot dead about a hundred metres away. I went down there on Sunday evening. ‘Ah oui, j’en ai entendu parler,’ a young woman said absently. I’d given her directions to Petit Sablon, and said there were a lot of police were about because of the murders. Nothing much is meant by this indifference – it would no doubt have been the same had the victims been Arab or Chinese. Apathy is a great leveller.
In 1878, as the Russo-Turkish war raged and Britons feared Russian expansion, the music-hall star G.H. MacDermott was crooning the ditty that gave the word ‘jingoism’ to the language. As McDermott pointed out, ‘we’ve fought the Bear before’ and ‘we’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too.' Now we’ve got few men, no aircraft carriers, and we’re broke. All that’s left, like a feedback screech, is the high moral tone.
‘The Subtleties of Organ Smuggling’, a short story by Serhiy Zhadan, is a series of interconnected sketches set on the EU-Ukraine border, where a rag-tag collection of pining lovers, gypsies and ageing prostitutes try to bluff their way over the Schengen line. As an awkward teenage Hungarian border cop searches through the contraband of Ukrainian women ‘smelling of life and vodka, talking in broken English and broken Russian’, he has to take away their surplus alcohol, take away their electric shavers and chocolate, take away their explosives and hand-grenades, take away their copies of Hustler (for his boss), take away their methylated spirits, cocaine, aromatic sticks smelling of hash, herbal oils with heroin extract for Thai massages, haemorrhoid suppositories, glass jars full of gypsy women’s hair for wigs, fish and human blood in thermos flasks, frozen sperm in empty Kenzo perfume bottles, grey slices of human brain hidden in plastic bags with Russian salad, hot Ukrainian hearts folded into fresh Russian newspapers – all these objects they’re trying to smuggle over the border in their rucksacks, bright canvas hold-alls, fake-leather briefcases and laptop bags.
When the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was a young hoodlum on the make in late 1960s Soviet Donetsk – or so the story goes – he made his first money through the following ruse: he would lurk in a cubicle in a public toilet in winter. When a man came into the cubicle next door, he would wait for the opportune moment, then lean over, grab the man’s expensive fur hat and make a run for it: the victim, caught with his pants down, mid-crap, was in no state to give chase. Whether the story’s entirely true or not – Yanukovich was definitely a hoodlum and served two terms in prison, for robbery and assault, in 1967 and 1970 – it captures something of his operating methods.
For the next period, debate over the UK’s relations with Europe, and UK politics generally, will be dominated by Ukip. Because of but also despite Nigel Farage’s persona – about one part Jeremy Clarkson to two parts Mr Toad – the purple people won big in last week’s local elections, and can now enjoy watching the Tories rip out each other’s gizzards in a political version of the Eton wall game. As the general election’s witching hour draws near, the Tory undead have started to rise, stakes uprooted from their hollow chests. Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for an electoral pact with Ukip. From his Telegraph column Lord Tebbit tacks as close to endorsing Ukip as any Tory can who wants not to be blown out of the party. Now Nigel Lawson, dad of the more famous Nigella, has become the first major Conservative to announce that if David Cameron manages to hold his promised referendum on EU membership around 2017, he’ll vote for the trapdoor.
In February the German president, Joachim Gauck, called for English to be adopted as the official EU language, partly to make the UK feel more loved now that David Cameron’s committed himself to an in-out referendum. Another candidate might be Latin, Europe’s lingua franca for over a millennium, but the ancient Romans are not thinking of leaving the union. This has its serious side, as the EU’s 23 languages (to become 24 when Croatia joins) contribute to a democratic defici; as with Belgium, in some ways the EU in microcosm, failure of accountability is often put down to the lack of a common language.
The European Coal and Steel Community and the other elements from which the EU springs were explicitly intended to make war between France and Germany ‘not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible’. That aim has been achieved, though America and Nato also played their part. But what contribution has the EU made to peacemaking elsewhere? I restrict my thoughts here to three conflicts in which I have been personally involved as a diplomat: Palestine, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that 'the union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.' Writing in the LRB five years ago, Perry Anderson observed: The integration of the East into the Union is the major achievement to which admirers of the new Europe can legitimately point. Of course, as with the standard encomia of the record of EU as a whole, there is a gap between ideology and reality in the claims made for it.
Were all Serbs complicit in the crimes of the Milošević era? That’s the view of Ratko Mladić, the man who ran the four-year siege of Sarajevo and orchestrated the killings in Srebrenica. 'You voted for Milošević,' he said at the special war crimes court in Belgrade, after his arrest last week. 'I am not guilty.' Punish us all, in other words, but don't single me out. It's a weight-free argument beside the gravity of the charges, and an insult to the many Serbs who could do nothing to halt the degradation of the 1990s. In The Hague, Mladić will want to do better.