Posts Tagged ‘European Union’

Zoran Nikolic: The Atlas of Unusual Borders

February 17, 2020

71fgJcLE8kL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Some of my regular readers will already know of my fascination with maps and atlases; if you don’t then a quick search of the blog will convince you. Here is an at the same time fascinating and utterly bonkers selection of weird borders between nations, their origins (when known) and how they have developed, and also why such anomalies haven’t been ironed out.

Despite the crucial nature of borders to the entire premise of the book, on the maps they are not always clearly enough labelled or demarcated for the reader to be able to follow the author’s explanations; the maps are somewhat stylised, and a better use of colours would have helped, I feel. Most of the enclaves and exclaves are very small, so the maps necessarily lack helpful context for one to orient oneself. A smaller cut-out map with the larger surrounding area, perhaps?

I can’t finish this post without a reference to Brexit, I’m afraid. For an entire adult life, travelling through Europe, I have pretty much been able to ignore borders; on a train you often don’t know when you leave a country, while on a road a different country is marked by the same kind of sign that tells you you have arrived in a different town or village. Now I am going to have to get used to borders again.

It was clear while reading the book that in many of the places Nikolic cites, the EU means that the significance of the borders he shows and the differences they demarcated are diminishing, if not vanishing; his examples remain as historical weirdnesses and nothing more. The EU is about co-operation across boundaries, making life simpler, sharing resources, spaces and languages. The UK has withdrawn from all this and it’s very sad…

A tragedy and a shame

January 18, 2020

I was just about to turn 18 when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973. So I have lived my entire adult life (so far) as a European citizen, and have always thought of myself as European first, and English/Polish second. I will also admit, to my shame, that, swayed by Trotskyite propaganda, I voted for us to leave the Common Market in the 1975 referendum.

Shortly, against my will, I will cease to be an EU citizen. To all of my readers in Europe I say that for me this is a tragedy. In my years of travelling, pretty much all of which has been in Europe, I have grown to know and appreciate what we have in common as well as how we differ from each other as individual nations, and what we share feels so much greater than what separates or divides us. I have also learned the deeper meaning of the European project and its symbolism for those nations on the European mainland who suffered so much during the two world wars of the last century: this is at the root of Britain’s fateful decision to leave. We have never been occupied; we have not experienced such horrors as Auschwitz, Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane on our soil.

There are times when I have felt that the EU was basically a neoliberal capitalist club; those aspects still anger me. And yet, the EU is not the unbridled capitalist chaos that is the USA, nor the thinly disguised dictatorship that is Russia, nor the surveillance and pollution nightmare that China seems to be; it is a wavering outpost of social-democratic, welfare state society that by and large seems still to espouse some of the freedoms and decencies hard-won after two world wars on its soil.

And so I do regard our departure as tragic.

But it is also a matter of national shame. Such a major decision, the full implications of which are still unknown, and the full effects of which will take several years to become clear, was taken by a minority of the electorate; in the recent election which allowed the steamroller to proceed, far more voters supported remain parties than those advocating departure: that is all history now, except for the disgrace that is our electoral system, and the disgrace of the liars who manipulated, cheated and deceived the nation’s voters.

Once we were a nation with a huge empire, built on conquest, racism and slavery. The price of US assistance in the last world war was the relinquishing of that empire. And yet, shamefully, we still try and behave like a world power, when we are only a small island off the coast of a continent, and now of far less importance, significance or influence than we have been for the last half-century or so. We are a country living in the past, unwilling to look at, never mind embrace the future. We can blame politicians of all hues for failing to engage with the European project properly, when, given our economic weight, we might have a major influence on the shape of the entire project.

So, shortly, our country severs the ties. I don’t accept that rupture. I will not ‘get over it’. I will not ‘make friends’ with the liars, idiots and crooks who engineered it all. I shall continue to see myself as a European first, I shall continue my travels in Europe and my encounters with its people for as long as I am able, and, as I always have done (bar that 1975 aberration) I shall continue to argue the case for the UK being a part of it all.

Friendly greetings to all my European readers!

Thirty glorious years?

January 1, 2020

The French, in their supremely French way, have long referred to the years 1945-1975 as ‘les trente glorieuses’, thirty years of success, happiness, greatness and I don’t know what else. And it’s an interesting window through which to look back over my lifetime.

There was a determination to improve everyone’s lot after the horrors of the Second World War, and, as Europe re-built (with American help) there was an economic boom; most people’s living standards improved immensely as did their housing, health and life expectancy, especially with serious development of welfare states and the creation of organisations like Britain’s National Health Service and the European Union.

I grew up during this time. Life wasn’t easy, but the state looked after our health (who remembers free NHS orange juice, rose hip syrup and cod liver oil?), promised retirement pensions of a sort, provided unemployment benefits, and gave me a decent education, including a free university education through which I was supported by grants not loans.

It was a period where there seemed to be some kind of parity between the two sides of the economy, workers and bosses, although there was much conflict, and eventually the bosses had had enough and brought in Reagan and Thatcher’s economic neoliberalism to smash the power of workers for good. We are all still living with the consequences of this.

I do recall some grim times towards the end of the seventies. But what I don’t recall are food banks and thousands of homeless people living (and dying) in the streets of one of the richest countries on the planet. I don’t recall it being incredibly difficult for young people to try and buy a home. I don’t recall people on non-existent work contracts, not knowing whether they would have work the next day or not. I don’t recall being fleeced by companies for the essentials of daily existence like water power and transport.

It’s a truism that as we get older we get more nostalgic about the past, and tend to see our younger days through rose-tinted spectacles: as we grow older, life nears its end and we look back to those earlier, more carefree times when we seemed immortal, and surely those were better days?

And yet, I do feel very strongly that as a society we have lost something since those remote and more innocent days. Increasingly I have the feeling that those 30 years may have been a blip in our country’s and the world’s history, a very happy and fortunate time for those (like me) who grew up and enjoyed their younger years back then. I’m not enjoying growing old, and yet I’d not swap my time for the life of someone thirty years younger today.

On rank insanity

October 25, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

When I read that there has been a survey of over 4000 people, that shows that over 70% of ‘leavers’ and nearly 60% of ‘remainers’ think that violence towards MPs would be an acceptable part of achieving the Brexit or non-Brexit that they want, I no longer recognise that country I was born in and have lived almost all of my life in. I am utterly ashamed to be part of it. My father found a haven here during the Second World War, and then eked out a difficult existence after it, when he and his compatriots were basically surplus to requirements for a lot of the British people. I cannot imagine what he would have made of the current situation.

I make no apology for saying that I have always regarded the idea of leaving the European Union as an act of rank insanity that will impoverish us economically and culturally, and further diminish our standing and status with the rest of the world (although that last may not be such a bad thing). I am proud to have been a European citizen for my entire adult life, and will feel the less when I am only a British one.

No British politician has behaved honourably in this entire proceeding, except perhaps the Speaker of the Commons. The referendum was only ever an attempt to reconcile warring factions in the Tory party, and Cameron was an idiot for allowing it, especially when the parameters were so vague. Farage is a racist and a hypocrite who can protect his family with citizenship of another EU state and fill his pockets with an MEP’s salary and pension. May was out of her depth, Johnson is another liar and hypocrite. Corbyn has dithered and played games just like his opponents, and the Lib Dems do not shine any whiter even if they do espouse what I ultimately hope for. Over my lifetime, our politicians seem to have become ever more self-serving and venal.

I honestly now have no idea what to hope for; although I’d class myself as reasonably intelligent, I find it almost impossible now to make any sense of all the permutations of possible outcomes, but unlike Johnson and his ilk, I don’t just want to ‘get it over with’. I would like the country to find its sense of tolerance again, and to treasure that which it can be proud of, especially the NHS; I would like us to be in the centre of the scrum, struggling to make our Europe a better place. At the moment, I honestly think that if I could rewind the clock some 30 years, I’d leave; certainly I’m rather envious of various friends and acquaintances who did…

On frustration

March 13, 2019

Warning: politics ahead!

No-one now living in Britain can avoid the utter chaos surrounding the Brexit negotiations and manoeuvrings; it really does feel as if the lunatics are running the asylum at the moment. I’ve been clear enough in a number of posts about what I think of the whole business, and what I really want to happen. And, as someone who thinks a lot about politics and the state of the world, I’ve tried to make sense of what is really going on…

It is evident that millions were persuaded to vote to ‘take back control’; it is evident that millions wanted to give politicians of all hues a good kicking. And the desires of those millions appear to have been hijacked by cynical populists. It is worth looking at what lies behind the wish to ‘take back control’. It is clear that larger organisations: multi-national businesses, and also the European Union, exert rather more control over our lives than the national and local governments which we elect. Multi-national businesses find it relatively easy to hide behind a smokescreen, as well as producing the shiny-shiny stuff that they then make us covet through advertising; the nasty bureaucrats of Brussels are a much easier and more visible target who have given us what? – a court of human rights, better working conditions, environmental protection and I don’t know what else. But they have also facilitated – no, wholeheartedly embraced – neo-liberalism and globalism, and helped multinationals trample on us in all sorts of other ways… even if the European project survives, surely it has to change in response to the concerns of so many.

‘Taking back control’ is a nice, and meaningless form of words: ordinary people don’t have and never have had any power other than through withdrawing their labour, and those politicians urging us to take back control have been at the forefront of limiting ordinary people’s right to strike.

Giving politicians a good kicking seems to me a laudable aim at the moment: in my time I have gradually seen the notion of public service demeaned and denigrated, insulted and diminished, and not just by those of a Thatcherite persuasion, but by many who should know better. Too many politicians are now mere venal careerists with their snouts in the trough – and I’m not just referring to my own country although that is the one I know best. And yet, the opportunities for giving those politicians a meaningful kicking are non-existent, particularly in our antediluvian electoral system. Cue the populists and faragists and other mischief-makers who exploit popular frustrations, but have no solutions to offer and are merely edging their snouts nearer the trough…

The right wing are making hay at the moment, unsurprisingly, because it’s always easier to shout abuse, find scapegoats and cause trouble than it is to come up with clear and feasible ideas that might make a real difference. The left has undergone a crisis over the last twenty or thirty years, as a result of the deliberate unleashing and encouraging of selfishness during the Thatcherite era; it cannot counter the waves of shiny-shiny stuff everyone is supposed to be able to buy now that they pay far less in tax and are therefore so much more in control of ‘their’ money. The left does not seem to be able to find an analysis that will allow it to propose a society that takes care of all of its members, nor to convince people that if they want good quality public services, pensions, social care and the like then it does have to be paid for, and that it is worth paying for. Meanwhile some died-in-the-wool dreamers of a new Jerusalem want everything to get far worse so that they can then make it better?

The final elephant in the room behind our Brexit chaos is of course immigration, and refugees, and it’s here that the real nastiness comes out of the woodwork. We could go a very long way towards diminishing the numbers of refugees and their desire to come to the West by not creating the conditions that make them leave their homelands in the first place – by not attacking their countries, fighting our wars in their countries, selling weapons to them and other countries who fight wars in their countries. Immigration is a rather more difficult issue. It’s easy enough to demonstrate factually the economic benefits of immigration. But when people in small towns feel as if there are too many non-natives around, what can we say? There is surely added pressure on jobs, schools and health services: here, neo-liberalism, austerity and the long-cultivated unwillingness to pay taxes are largely to blame. It ought to be possible to encourage greater integration of immigrants, but we are a small island, a much smaller country than Germany or France. And would we not have a better chance of addressing such issues working together with our European neighbours? It is also clear – although not widely known – that current European legislation would allow us here in Britain to do much that we have been told we need to ‘take back control’ in order to do.

Where I’ve got to is my usual paralysed understanding of the issues and what is going on, coupled with the inability to do anything, or to see a way out of the mess.

Farewell to the EU

September 22, 2018

I am becoming more and more despondent as the days tick by to 29 March 2018…

It was during a conversation with a Luxemburger whose studio I’d rented for my last walking holiday, that I realised I’d spent my entire adult life as a citizen of, first the European Economic Community, then the European Community and finally the European Union: I was 18 when we joined back in 1973. Although I felt happy then joining all our neighbours in the twelve (as it was then), two years later, in my serious but short-lived very left-wing phase, I voted for us to leave, in the first-ever referendum. We didn’t, I got over it pretty quickly and over the years came to enjoy the – mostly unseen – advantages that being part of the union gave us. Travel gradually became so much easier as borders, though still visible, disappeared in practical terms as one made one’s way about the continent. The quaint old idea of the ‘duty-free allowance’ of cheap booze as you came home vanished, and you could bring back anything you’d paid VAT on in any European country. Because travel was easier, I went to more places, experienced more of life and customs in other lands.

The real border shifted to the Elbe: Eastern Europe was still much harder and more complicated to access, but eventually with the fall of the Soviet Union, other Eastern nations eagerly joined the EU and those borders also vanished… Money – exchange rates and currencies was still rather a pain until 2001 (I think) and the advent of the euro; I’m still cross that we never joined as that would have completed the simplification of movement and travel.

Forty-six years later, all this is due to come to an end. If I can get to a port, and I have secured (bought) my authorisation to travel to the Schengen area, I could still go for my walking holiday in the Ardennes. But I will need to go to a post office and queue up to buy at least one kind of international driving licence if I’m taking my car, and currently I don’t know whether I will need to buy any form of extra, special insurance for my car – a replacement for the old ‘Green Card’. I think my EHIC – which entitles me to medical treatment on the same basis as citizens of the country I’m visiting – may still be valid, but I don’t know. I’m assured that it won’t suddenly cost me extra to use my phone while I’m abroad, but I’m not convinced. And I’m pretty sure that it will all be horrendously expensive, given that the value of the pound is likely to decrease still further.

First world problems – I’m complaining about my travel and holidays getting costlier and more complicated. I’m retired, and don’t have to worry about work: plenty of my fellow-citizens are likely to suffer rather more than I will. It’s the tiny-mindedness and the short-sightedness of what we are going to do to ourselves that appals me, our insular inability to see any of the bigger picture or to find common cause with others in an attempt to solve the real and pressing problems facing our continent, and our world. Never mind, when it comes up for renewal in 2021, if I still need one, I can have a nice blue passport… and if even if we are no longer in the EU, I shan’t feel any less European myself.

De Roma antiqua

September 17, 2018

I seem to be having a binge on Romans, Roman history and Latin at the moment; I had a week up on Hadrian’s Wall the other month visiting all the sites at the limes, the frontier of the Roman empire, and have just come back from travelling in Provence, where a lot of my focus was on the history of the Roman province and the sites that you can visit there. I’ve also been reading quite a lot about the subject.

At one level it is all quite astonishing: an empire built up over two thousand years ago, which endured for far longer than the British empire or the Soviet empire did, and will surely outlast the hegemony of the United States. The level of organisation and construction was amazing, given the technology of the time; the colonisation of the Sahara and bringing it into cultivation for the grain supply of Rome was an achievement which has never been equalled since those days…

The Roman history I learned at school was all about personalities and conflicts, wars and conquests and conspiracies, with little about the life of the average Roman citizen. That has been changing over recent years, through archaeological excavations and discoveries, and through newer generations of historians taking a radically different approach: Mary Beard’s SPQR was the first book out of this new approach that I read, and it was quite an eye-opener. She was not debunking all of the things I’d learned all those years ago at school, but broadening the perspective and bringing Rome to life in a different way, showing the economic and social aspects of the society. One of the most wonderful things I saw in the museum at Arles on my recent trip was a complete Roman river barge which had been recovered from the Rhone about a dozen or so years ago and meticulously preserved: it was 30 metres long, three metres wide and had a draught of two metres; it could carry tonnes of stone, as was shown in the museum. The merchantmen would have had a cooking fire on board… once you start seeing objects like this, your perspective develops quite quickly. Similarly, I’d never known that Roman traders had traded with China, and India.

When you stand inside the colossal theatre at Orange, or the amphitheatre at Arles, or – perhaps most impressive of all – stare at the Pont du Gard, you realise the scale of achievement that is perhaps only matched by the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, at which time all was in the service of God, whereas the Romans were building an empire and a civilisation for all their citizens. And so much of what was built in the Middle Ages was pillaged from Roman remains, anyway.

In these days when the UK is about to take its most disastrous political step for I can’t think how long, leaving the European Union, I find myself considering the parallels with the Roman empire: when the Romans left Britannia in the early fifth century, things fell apart pretty quickly. But in a way the EU is a similar project, a Europe-wide construction where people travel freely and work wherever they need to, just as people moved from one end of the Roman empire to another, whether officials, managers, or common legionaries. There was a common currency, a common language and civilisation, a sharing and exchange of ideas and products, and within certain limits, freedom: you had to sign up to the Roman ‘project’ as it were, and respect the emperor, but you could live as you liked and worship your own gods…

Yes, I know that there was slavery – I didn’t know, until recently, that slaves could and did own slaves – and that the Roman army was brutal in its suppression of revolts, but all armies are brutal: Rome didn’t have a monopoly. My travels and my reading have given me a lot to think about…

On Europe…

February 8, 2016

There’s a lot of talk and argument about Europe at the moment, and it’s not going to go away. So, I’ll add my fourpence-worth, at least, from the perspective of my blog.

Sense of belonging is a curious thing. I’ve never felt British; it’s a weird concept, and alien to me. I know it says it on my passport. If I acknowledge anything, it’s Englishness, as England is where I was born, brought up and have lived; however, half of me is Polish, and I feel an affinity with that nation, too, some of the time, although I feel alienated by its currently bonkers politics… so I’ve never really been sure where I properly belong.

Most of my travelling has been in Europe, a place I feel at home in and understand to varying degrees, depending where I happen to be visiting. We share a great deal in Europe: the past, the Romans (for a sizeable chunk of Europe) Christianity, which for better or worse has shaped our beliefs and philosophy, and our approach to literature and the arts links us together, too. There’s a great deal we can be proud of as Europeans, and probably rather more that we should be acknowledging is shameful.

Although other parts of the world, perhaps tutored by our past example, are beginning to approach the savagery let loose during two world wars, those wars blight our history and collective memory in aeternum. And somewhere, the European project of the last sixty years or so has been about ensuring that we do not slide into that kind of anarchy and mayhem again; apart from the Balkans in the 1990s, on that front we have done quite well. Many nations are increasingly closely tied together by economy, law, travel and culture, and it’s pretty difficult to see those bonds disintegrating.

And yet, the cynic kicks in: despite all those lofty ideals to which our petty leaders pay lip-service, the EU is actually a gigantic capitalist club, increasingly forged in the interests of big business and profits, if not actually run by those businesses, as they pull the strings of the Brussels puppets. It’s not the Europe I’m really interested in, and feel part of.

Then there is the refugee crisis and immigration, which is being exploited by nationalists who would be happy to see the European project dismantled. Those of us who are reasonably comfortable with immigration, and want to help those in need, nevertheless must recognise that we live among other people who are profoundly unsettled by what is going on, who would like to restrict or end immigration and asylum. To this I can never subscribe, being the son of a Polish exile. So what should Europe do?

Because Europe is prosperous and peaceful, it’s attractive to people who live in war zones. And, to begin with, Europe should be looking at its contribution in creating those war zones in the first place: invading Iraq, bombing Libya, bombing Syria: as we collectively trash those countries and interfere in others, we both make ourselves more attractive to our victims, and also make ourselves the potential objects of revenge. It doesn’t take an Einstein to put that two and two together…

So, yes, I feel European, and want my country (England) to remain an integrated part of it. I’m not worried about loss of sovereignty (whatever that may mean); I’m concerned about lack of democratic accountability within EU institutions, but that doesn’t mean I want to throw my toys out of the pram. And I hope to continue enjoying travelling in Europe, visiting its cultural treasures and marvellous landscapes, and enjoying its amazing music and wonderful literature for many years yet. English and happy to be European!

 

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