Sixty years ago today the Soviet Red Army took Berlin. One year ago I was standing in line at the Immigration desk at Stanstead Airport, near London after a short break. Last Tuesday I went to a meeting of the residents of the apartment block I live in and watched the news on TV when I got home. Three seemingly unconnected events but which form part of the reasons I am fervently in favour of the European Union and believe that, despite all its faults, it is a powerful force for the general good.
Europe is steeped in its history. I live in converted warehouse used to store rum that could well have been used to pickle Nelson for his return from the victory over the French at Trafalgar. A few metres away there is a flagpole supposed to mark the place where Francis Drake laid his cloak over a puddle for Elizabeth I. If I go there and look right I can see the Greenwich Observatory that marks the borders of the east and west hemispheres. On the left, just round the bend in the river, is the spot the Pilgrim Fathers departed from before they stopped in Plymouth prior to the Atlantic crossing. While my place is unusual, it is not uncommon to literally trip over history across Europe but these last 60 years may well be the most significant.

Even as the taking of the Reichstag was being replayed for the cameras, the Iron Curtain was descending across the middle of Europe. The survivors of millions of Soviet deaths had driven the Nazis from the outskirts of Stalingrad spurred on by the violation of Mother Russia and the horrors that had been found in the concentration camps. After an epidemic of rape by the soldiers, the leaders of The USSR set about building a buffer between their old allies and their borders. This was of course a direct result of the agreements about post-war influence hammered out between a dying Roosevelt and crafty Stalin.    

At that time much of Europe lay devastated. The captured Reichstag was virtually a burnt out shell but still was more complete than most of the city round it. Cathedrals from Coventry to Cologne lay in ruins. The docks of England and Germany had been set to the torch to stop supply transport. Historic Dresden had died in a firestorm for no good purpose. Vast armies had rolled across the continent flattening anything that stood in their way. The suffering was not over. That winter was one of starvation and intense cold.  Yet from those ashes there was hatching a phoenix. Visionaries in Germany and France realised that by taking the production of primary war materials out of the control of one nation, they could stop the cycles of war that had plagued Europe for a thousand years. From iron and steel, co-operation went on to rebuild food production so the famines of the post-war period would not return. The European Project had been born.

The other side of the Iron Curtain had a mirror organisation, COMECON that essentially was to integrate the economies of the eastern half of Europe with the USSR in a complex series of swapping. Mandated economic targets meant absurdities like the way nail factories met their quota. As the targets were based on weight, they made a few giant unusable nails at the end of the year. The comedy of this contrasted with the iron control the USSR attempted to use. Protests against their rule were put down. In 1968 tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square to snuff out “communism with a human face”  Alexander Dubcek had promised in the Prague Spring. He was spirited off to Moscow and is believed to have been tortured. On his return he survived but was exiled to a menial clerical job in the forestry service. A student, Jan Palac set fire to himself in protest on the steps at the top of the square, falling opposite the statue of King Wenceslas that represents the spirit of the nation. He died in agony some days later. The day after the invasion I was at a Promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall. Mstislav Rostropovich was to solo in Dvorak’s cello concerto alongside a Russian orchestra. The atmosphere was electric. Plain clothes policemen were liberally sprinkled among the audience, very badly concealing their identity by their dress and the way they studied the programmes. They were there to stop protests but the music became the protest. As the symphony evoked Dvorak’s homeland, Rostropovich wept for Czech democracy. We wept together.  

Twenty one years later the people of that country threw off their oppression in the Velvet Revolution. Dubcek returned to lead the national assembly. In those heady years at the end of the 1980s, the walls fell. In the ceremony marking the formal reunification of Germany they sung a special version of the music that had been adopted in 1972 as the European anthem. For the only time the opening word of the Ode to Joy, “Freune”, Joy was replaced with “Freiheit”, Freedom. By last year many other countries had broken from the ties with the old Soviet Union. Slovakia and the Czech Republic had peacefully undergone the “Velvet Divorce”. Slovenia had emerged from the bloody break-up of  Yugoslavia. Three of the old Hanseatic League had torn themselves from Russia to become the independent Baltic States. Malta, Cyprus, Hungary and Poland made up the 10 nations that joined the EU last year, which takes me back to that line at Stanstead.

I took a fancy to going to Prague for their accession to the EU. In part this was to have the rare opportunity of departing to a “foreign” country and coming back from another part of the EU. I had a deal of fun getting the people at the duty free shop confused when I left as the regulations changed while I was to be away. As well as the sightseeing opportunity it was also a sort of pilgrimage to close for me that time since 1968. Booking a very cheap budget airline ticket and a quick phone call to a pension made it a done deal. I had a wry smile at the little old guard tower on the riverside that most people ignore. Their {not so} secret service had only fairly recently relinquished their control of it which started so they could observe the dissident playwright to lived in a family home nearby. It had thou been a bit redundant after the playwright became the country’s president. I also wanted to lay some flowers on the Palac memorial. This is on the spot where he fell and consists of the paving sets (cobbles) rising over a hump as if they were covering a human form.  In the middle of a bustling cosmopolitan city it is easily overlooked by those not in the know.  

May 1 2004 changed the geography of Europe, the countries we grew up calling “Eastern Europe” took their real place in the centre of the continent. For the people the changes may be subtle at first. Like the girl next to me in the line at Immigration. She was holding her Czech passport and was looking at the little registration card that you may be familiar with. Although she was in the right line – for EU Citizens, she asked me if she had to fill it in. I had to smile as I answered “no, you are part of the Union now”.

The Accession has been a worrying time for the EU15. There were many scare stories here about thousands of Roma flooding into the country, which of course did not happen. There are many challenges like getting the Roma real rights in, especially, Slovakia. On the other hand we have started to see the benefits. It makes me convinced that in the long term we will be able to bring most of the rest of the continent into the family. Those who may not be ready or willing will become good neighbours. The Project is not complete and may not be so for another 50 years but there is a bright and above all peaceful future out there.  

In the UK there is a real shortage of both professionals like doctors and skilled manual workers like plumbers and painters.  The unemployed from the new states are helping to fill these vacancies. The external redecoration on my building was mentioned at that meeting last week. Everyone found the Hungarians who did it very hard working and efficient (and some thought them quite fanciable as well).        

On the television news when I got back Tuesday night were pictures of protests in Belarus on the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. An elderly man was being pushed to the ground by police. In his hand was a small flag. A flag that has represented freedom and aspirations for the future in many recent street protests from Georgia to Ukraine and even Lebanon, that most European of countries at the east end of the Mediterranean. A circle of twelve gold stars on a background of blue.

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