Divided or undivided?

As we’ve celebrated the fall of the wall in Berlin in November 1989 – 30 years seem to have flashed by in a wink of an eye – I have been reflecting on a subject examined by a number of historians: Europe, divided or undivided? What constitutes European unity and what are the common characteristics that shape a European identity? I guess there are no simple answers to these questions. In retrospect it would appear that the re-unification of Germany after the Cold War was a momentous step forward in a pan-European project, which subsequently has struggled under the weight of numerous contradictions in the 21st Century.[1]

Apparently the ex-communist, ex-People’s Democracies in the east have proven so unattractive to young people that between 20 and 25 per cent of the population have moved to countries in the west. Meanwhile some English extremists have been so hostile to pooling sovereignty in the European Union that they’re willing to risk the break up of the United Kingdom in their nostalgia for Victorian values and empire. Back in the east many Hungarian and Polish voters are turning away from the path to a liberal democratic future. And so on, there’s a host of obstacles in the long march towards liberty, equality and ”fraternité.”

I’ve been on the road around Europe with my caravan since the mid-1970s, participating in various forms of international exchange and collaboration, including advocacy with peace and development NGOs, etc. I’ve hitch-hiked on the autobahns, slept on night trains, hired cars for holiday trips to coastal resorts and joined easy-jetters traveling to assorted desirable destinations. In 2019 these wanderings continued; the following brief notes on six recently visited cities aim at providing some clues to the conundrum of ”unity in diversity.”

Almost two thirds of Scottish voters opted to remain in the EU when they took part in the 2016 “Brexit” referendum. Thus, while Edinburgh (population: 500,000) has been a devolved regional capital for many years, if the UK does divide up then it will become the political centre of an independent Scotland. Maybe at the same time another (absurd) dividing line will disappear and Ireland will be re-unified… Anyway, there’s much of distinction on display in Edinburgh, from the castle and the Scottish Parliament to fantastic galleries and museums, from the Botanic Gardens to the volcanic crags of Arthur’s Seat. With the EU encompassing microstates such as Luxembourg and Malta, surely there’s also room for Scotland?

There are dramatic views of Århus (350,000) from the top of the ARoS museum, where the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has installed a circular rainbow corridor of glass. The city seems to be buzzing with modernity, particularly in the harbour where new construction showcases Danish design. In recent years the people of Jutland have asserted the need to reduce the centralisation of government in Copenhagen, which has meant moving agencies and services to other locations, including Århus. Although there’s no fully-fledged independence movement in Jutland, there are many jokes about the differences between the east and the west in Denmark: from dialects to lifestyles. However, for the most part the stereotypes and clichés are not to be taken too seriously…

Amongst Europe’s southernmost cities, the Greeks founded Siracusa (125,000) on the eastern Sicilian coast almost two thousand seven hundred years ago. There are ruins of a Greek temple and the Duomo (Cathedral) on the central square is a white stone Baroque marvel on top of Doric columns and foundations dating back to 500 BC. To emphasise the strategic significance of the city, Tunis isn’t far away across the Mediterrean. This proximity to North Africa has been readily apparent to Sicilians over the last ten years or so as thousands of migrants have taken to the sea in all manner of vessels seeking better lives in Europe. But are they, the Italians or even Europeans, willing to offer safe havens and brighter futures?

Stockholm (1,000,000) is sometimes marketed by tourist agencies as the capital of Scandinavia, which annoys the people of Copenhagen and Oslo! It is a sprawling city of waterways and islands, in winter darkness for several months, but sparkling with cafés and restaurants, art galleries and exhibits ranging from Abba (the band) to the wreck of the Vasa Galleon (ship). Sandwiched for hundreds of years between expansionist Danish kings and Russian tsars, since the early 20th Century Stockholm has been the capital of a powerfully neutral nation. I have visited the city many times since the 1980s and am always impressed by the no-nonsense efficiency of the Swedish way of life; from welfare systems to waste disposal these enlightened and serious people always seem years ahead of almost everybody else!

It is hard to believe that just over 50 years ago Russian tanks were rumbling on the streets of Prague (1,300,000). The capital of Bohemia is the beating heart of Europe, under the influence of the Austro-Hungarians in their imperial days, abandoned by Britain and the allies in 1938, occupied by the Nazis and then by pro-Russian communists. Since the velvet revolution in 1989 Prague has become a tourist magnet par excellence and there’s a lot to explore as well as good beer to drink! In addition to the spectacular castles, palaces and bridges, the tragic history of European Jews is preserved in the graveyards.

Finally, a short stay in one of the wealthiest European cities was an opportunity to review the curious story of Swiss exceptionalism. Basel (175,000) is full of bankers and chief executives of big businesses. There’s an attractive maze of old streets and Rhine riverside views, as well as lots of churches and ornate houses on the gently sloping hills. It is easy to get around on the excellent trams, with good transport links to France and Germany underlining the Euro-centric location; happily the Swiss signed up to the Schengen agreement despite being outside the EU, so cross-border travel is uninterrupted. We ate Indian and Lebanese food during our visit, listened to a young French musician, admired the cacti in the hothouses of the Botanic Gardens and checked out very stylish but expensive backstreet shops. There’s something for everybody in Basel, as long as your bank account is well balanced!

In different ways these six cities have been success stories of globalisation, particularly in so far as tourism has become an important driver of economic growth. There are other cities I could describe – including Catania, Freiburg, Glasgow, Lund, Malmö and Oslo – but I think these vignettes suffice. There may be a customs union, a single market and assorted (often contested) common policies on matters such as data and agriculture, but the people speak many different languages and history has juxtaposed European tribes in ways which homogenising forces are unable to suppress. In a sense diversity underpins the unity of the imagined communities across the continent. But sadly inequalities are on the increase…

IMG_3412N.W. Europe – Arthur’s Seat above Edinburgh viewed from Calton Hill

IMG_3666Southern Europe – the Duomo in Siracusa

IMG_3908Central Europe – crossing the Rhine River in Basel

[1] On the post-1989 creative euphoria and lost opportunities in the last 10-12 years, see a recent article by André Wilkins: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/13/europe-another-cultural-revolution-artists-writers-rock-bands

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