Monday, 30 December 2013

Framed by History

It's fascinating as a historian to see the degree to which the political debate of 2013-14 is framed by the events of more than a generation ago.

Arguably, the most significant event of my lifetime was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe was as significant an event as the collapse of the autarchies in 1918-19 when the fall of the German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires radically redrew the political geography of Europe.

Yet the huge opportunity to create a peaceful and democratic Europe was squandered by the twin evils of isolationism and vengeance. A dreadful series of peace settlements at Versailles, Trianon and elsewhere created national minorities full of resentment while the French desire to contain Germany left these fledgling states to fall under the spell of nationalist dictatorship. In the end, the French settlement to diplomatically encircle Germany failed disastrously and the vacuum was filled by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

1945 was by definition simple - the Red Army marched in as the defeated Germans and their allies either fled or were destroyed and Russian military control was swiftly followed by Russian political control. Between 1945 and 1948, Communist dictatorships were established across central and eastern Europe and the de facto Russian border moved to within three hours drive of the Rhine.

The West responded after 1945 by the formation of new economic and political structures - NATO, which tied American nuclear and military power to the defence of western Europe was followed in 1957 by the fledgling EEC which brought the Benelux countries, France, Italy and West Germany together using economic prosperity as a weapon against Communist political influence which was very strong in both Italy and France.

Within a few weeks at the end of 1989 and quite unexpectedly, the Communist system collapsed from within destroyed by its own internal contradictions and its inability to compete with the West which had "won" the Cold War on every level. As the Communists fled or were captured (and in Nicolae Ceausescu's case, brutally executed) what would follow ? Most had fallen to popular uprisings though these had involved either non-political or very loose alliances of often quite differing political forces.

The consequence of these events would be far-reaching - Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait which might in the Cold War era have either been prevented by Moscow or might have led to a dangerous stand off in the Gulf instead led to a huge triumph for the West and the Arab world. Politically, the Cold War victors received little thanks - Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her own backbench MPs in 1990 while George Bush Senior was beaten by Bill Clinton in the 1992 Presidential election.

The speed and suddenness of the fall of Communist power left the West almost paralysed. Helmut Kohl was unstoppable in his drive for German re-unification while the caution of Margaret Thatcher (one of the few areas where she was correct) and Francois Mitterrand was dismissed as old-fashioned. Conservatives, socialists and liberals all argued for different reasons that the former Communist countries needed to be part of the new Western Europe, of NATO and of course the EEC. Much of this was an attempt to create an economic and military glacis against Russia, whose size and influence remained considerable.

So the likes of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and (in due course) Slovenia, Croatia and eventually Romania and Bulgaria were invited to join the western club.

This has turned out to be a dreadful mistake, the consequences of which we live with today.

The European Union has failed to adapt to the club of 27 members and while those who saw the economic union as a step to political union have tried to march on via the Euro and other measures, the backlash (exacerbated by the financial crisis) has left the pan-European ideal looking tarnished and irrelevant. Conservatives wanted the former Communist countries to join as an antidote to Franco-German federalism but instead countries like Slovenia and Poland have seen EU membership as a route to prosperity while its inhabitants have seen the freedom of movement inherent within the Single Market as an invitation to head for the wealthier western countries to find work or in crude terms a better life.

The failure of western policy since 1989 has been the failure to recognise just how backward the post-Communist countries were, just how polluted and just how far behind. Unfortunately, the short-term desire to find a new pool of cheap labour to power the west European economies proved too tempting so the borders were opened and the Polish plumber could exchange Warsaw for Westbourne Park and enjoy a standard of living far beyond anything imaginable under Communism.

We SHOULD have invested, significantly and meaningfully, in all the post-Communist countries keeping them for 20 years as associate members of the EU while their social, political and economic infrastructures were overhauled. It's interesting to remember that the reaction to the painful adjustment of national economies from the Communist command structure was often to throw out those who had led the popular uprisings and return Communists to positions of authority in ways that would have been inconceivable pre-1989 - democratically, via the ballot box.

The current debate on immigration, the rise of UKIP and even the debate on Scottish independence can be seen in the context of the events of 1989. The hurries response of western Governments to the fall of Communism created huge tensions within societies and has raised equally large questions about the relationship of individuals to the State and States to each other as people have come to be estranged from political classes taking unaccountable decisions and with whom they can no longer identify.

The irony is that the fall of Communism has led to a crisis in western capitalist democracy and no one seems to have any answers to that at this time so into the vacuum have stepped populist movements such as UKIP which are either anti-business or anti-EU or often both.

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