As we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, Christos Mouzeviris asks if we have taken account of the lessons learnt from that moment in time and ensured that the same problems of division and isolation do not return.
On the 9th of November 1989, Europe was changing forever. The Communist Block across the continent was collapsing and the divisions that once existed, were crumbling. No other event could portray this historic development better than the the fall of the Berlin Wall. A city divided in a country partitioned by war and ideology decades ago, was finally tearing a landmark, which manifested those divisions, down. People from both sides were taking part and the whole world was watching. Europe, just like Germany itself will never be the same again, in fact their fates would be entwined more than ever.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the crescendo of a process that started some time earlier in neighbouring Poland, when after months of campaigning and civil unrest, the trade union “Solidarity” won overwhelmingly in a partially free election. Soon after, Hungary and then Czechoslovakia followed suit, as the movement was spreading to East Germany and every other state in the Communist Bloc. It led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Europe was once again at the epicentre of a global shift.
A new resistance
The collapse of the regime brought about a series of civil resistance movements which opposed communist one-party rule, demanding change. This series of the revolts across Europe that became a full-blown revolution, came to be known as the “Autumn of Nations”.
Wired fences between Hungary and Austria were removed and thousands of East German refugees were escaping from Hungary and Czechoslovakia into Western Europe. Soon after, as East Germany was becoming destabilized, the Berlin Wall was being dismantled by the same people it was supposed to hold back and separate from one another.
The eventual outcome of this was the reunification of Germany and ultimately, that of Europe. The euro, the Schengen Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty or the EU expansion to include most of former Soviet Republic states – none of that would have happened had the Berlin Wall remained.
There was for many decades a euphoric sentiment in our continent; that of brotherhood and unity, of European integration, dialogue and free movement, lack of borders, walls and anything that separated people, ideas, goods and capital from moving from one corner of the continent to the other.
Fast forward thirty years and Europe is at the epicentre once again, while this time things appear to be moving in reverse.
Barbed wires are being erected on Hungarian borders, this time not with Austria but with Croatia, to keep another wave of refugees out. These people who try to escape war and oppression, do not come from within Europe’s borders, but from predominantly Syria. Poland and Hungary are now not leading a change to more freedom and democracy, but rather showing signs of liberalism fatigue and isolationist tendencies. Two countries that were in the forefront of the collapse of Communism, that inspired a change so drastic for millions in Europe and beyond, now prefer to shun Europe and further integration, while preferring to elect Eurosceptic governments.
The euro itself, one of the symbols or European unification, barely survived the economic crisis a decade ago, still feared by many across the continent, who see it as the cause of their country’s economic woes.
Britain has decided to leave the EU, primarily after objections and fears deriving from “waves of immigration” coming from the Eastern European states. They want to “take back control” of their borders and escape the EU’s “interfering,” in their internal affairs. Polish people and other Eastern Europeans, who were once welcomed in Britain and other Western states, are now being scapegoated for “stealing jobs” and causing a strain on social cohesion, services and national resources. Together with all EU nationals, are now under threat to “go back” in order to save the British economy and way life.
Across Europe Euroscepticism and populism thrive while there is an overall indifference to the EU and its institutions, if not borderline hostility and suspicion. And all it took was one economic and eurozone crisis, combined with a refugee emergency to completely change European minds. EU expansion is under “fatigue,” and many states in Western Balkans like Albania have been put in the long waiting room, while eurozone membership is not as appealing. Seemingly, the European public opinion just does not want any more foreigners entering, no matter where they come from.
Yet, nowadays the average European is taking what he has gained thirty years ago for granted. They can travel with ease – many times a year – live or study in every country they want, gaining experience and maximising their potential, however that is trivial now that immigrants from other regions are knocking at our door. The fact that the decisions that we took collectively 30 years ago, made Europe one of the most stable and prosperous regions of the world and that is why so many others are wishing they could live here, or achieve similar standards is outrageously forgotten. Infighting over resources, national interests, money, power, status and our inability to abandon our nationalism and chauvinistic mentality are threatening to tear what we have built over all these years. People are willing to come to Europe now, for the same reasons Eastern Germans were so desperately trying to escape their regime back then.
The European integration process and the single market are the only reasons why Europe is so rich and a magnet for investments, and to try and destroy this would mean that Europe would not be as appealing anymore. Is it worth it I wonder, only because we do not like to live among “newcomers”?
No excuse for a return to barriers
Not that immigration and the refugee crisis do not pose a serious challenge, however we could learn from the mistakes made so far by Western European countries, when dealing with such issues. There is no need why their failures should become a catalyst for regressing to what Europe was once; divided and poor. It is true that the corruption and scandalous arrogance and indifference of the European governments and elites, as well of those very EU “bureaucrats,” have soured the European people’s relations among them and added to their frustration and scepticism towards the EU.
However, if we destroy what we have built for the past thirty years, it is we who will have to pay the price and face the consequences, not the elites that we so much want to punish and hold accountable.
The last time we turned against the establishment in Europe, we brought down barbed wire fences, the walls they built to separate us, and we welcomed one another; We chose to live in borderless societies and travel freely within our continent. Now why do we choose to do the opposite?
Africa is about to create its own integrated market and political bloc, modelled after Europe’s achievements, yet we are seeking to destroy what others are trying to copy from us. And not just Africa, but many other regions of the world.
I hope they are watching how Europe is ridiculously shooting itself on the foot and try to avoid our mistakes. Perhaps in the future, they will be the ones to remind us of how great Europe once was.