The EU at 50
For decades Samy Swasebard has been wandering around Europe, peddling pots and pans. He always returns to Strasbourg, where he has lived for 40 years.
“This is my favourite place, the place I call home,” says the 72-year-old, a retired Teflon salesperson. “And if it wasn’t for Europe, between them the Germans and the French would have destroyed this place.”
Fought over for centuries, the city changed hands between the warring French and Germans four times within three generations until 1945. That a re-run of such horrors now appears inconceivable is due, at least in part, to the birth of the European Union 50 years ago.
A younger generation with scant knowledge of the Third Reich may yawn when political leaders sermonise about peace in Europe. For Swasebard, born in Belgium to a family of East European Jews, the message still resonates. “Most of my family were gassed by the Nazis in Auschwitz,” he says quietly. “So I know what Europe has done for us. Look what we had before. It couldn’t have been worse.”
He marvels at the contrast of his childhood with the current reality of Strasbourg. Tens of thousands of French Alsatians cross the bridges over the Rhine every day to work in south-west Germany. There are no border controls. The fancy French restaurants are full of well-heeled Germans scoffing foie gras. Europe’s success here is a product of the 1950s, when six countries wound around a Franco-German axis created the European Economic Community at a palace in Rome.
To get a glimpse of the very different EU of today, a vast single market of almost 500-million people stretching from Connemara in the west of Ireland to the Black Sea and taking in 27 different countries, you need to travel 640km east across Germany to another bridge on another river, the Oder, marking Germany’s border with Poland. You still need a passport here when you stroll over the bridge from Frankfurt an der Oder into the bustling small Polish town of Slubice.
Hundreds of trucks queueing to head east from Germany to Poland, the Baltic states and beyond testify to the daily impact of Europe’s single market. In the three years since Poland and seven other central European countries joined the EU, Poland’s exports, too, have hit an all-time high.
If Strasbourg is the embodiment of comfortable, prosperous old Europe, Slubice is the rawer face of the new, booming from the cross-border trade and traffic. That means students flocking here from all over Poland to get closer to the West, as well as rampant prostitution, car-theft mafias and people-trafficking, as well as high-minded German-Polish seminars debating the history of the two neighbours.
The French war veterans of Strasbourg fear that the young have forgotten what Europe is for. “I desire with all my heart that people in Europe understand why the EU is really necessary: to avoid war and conflict,” says Eduard Gillet, a retired Strasbourg electrician (83), who entered the city with the victorious allies in 1944 and has never left.
“It’s very easy to forget the big disasters we lived through. The young people nowadays are very different.” Jagoda Olech, in Slubice, is an example. The 24-year-old Polish student was not partying last weekend when European leaders gathered in Berlin for the EU’s 50th birthday bash. “All this 50th anniversary stuff is not for us,” she says.
In contrast to the nostalgia of the old men of Strasbourg, the talk among the young women of Slubice is of new opportunities.
“As a girl from Poland, I used to feel I was not a real European,” says Olech. “If I travelled in the West, people would ask me where I was from. When I said Poland, they’d think I was from Russia or even Asia. But we Poles like to look West, that’s the model for us. And finally in 2004 a dream came true. You see it in all sorts of little ways. I’ve got lots of friends workingÂ in Britain and Ireland, though I don’t know a single one who says they are not coming back.
“You don’t always need a passport to travel; it’s easier to get scholarships abroad. We couldn’t do all this before. Now we feel more European.”
But if Germany and France have laid the ghosts of the past to rest, the same cannot be said about Germany and Poland.
“I’m a beneficiary of the EU,” says Jaroslaw Janczak, a young Polish political scientist in Slubice, working at a university in Frankfurt an der Oder. “But when I told my grandmother I was going to work in Germany, she thought I was in danger, I was being punished for something. They went through the war, and for that older generation, Germany is still the embodiment of evil.”
Before Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany went on a charm offensive to Poland last week, parts of the Polish press depicted her as a Nazi. The problem is mutual. A poll on German television asked Germans who were their “least favourite Europeans”. The Poles won, beating the Romanians by two to one. The Poles were three times less popular than Britons.
Janczak thinks it is just a matter of time before the Poles and Germans learn to like each other. “For my generation, of course, the perceptions are totally different. We don’t blame each other.”
And he thinks the Strasbourg model of European integration is a thing of the past, with the newcomers from the east irreversibly changing the way the EU operates and behaves. As a result of the close contacts along the border, he says, the Poles are becoming a bit more German and the Germans a bit more Polish.
“The EU was founded on notions of German order and French administrative centralism. Around here that just doesn’t work. Things are absolutely different. You can see it every day here, the way we work with the Germans. The Germans end up being more relaxed, while the Poles become a bit more disciplined.”
Last weekend’s birthday party in Berlin would pay tribute to the past, to the Strasbourg model. That is the easy bit. The trouble comes with trying to redefine how the Europe of 27 (and growing) should work and take decisions. At 50, the EU—or at least the Western part of it—is going through bad-tempered middle age. The energy and the enthusiasm come from the east.
“What do we get from the EU?” asks Janczak. “Security, prestige, Western values penetrating Poland. The EU solves problems.” But in Berlin the mood will be one of forced and calculated jollity. Merkel will labour to confect a party mood with a ringing Berlin Declaration meant to get the EU fit for the future, by which she means reviving the EU’s comatose constitution.
But the very way the declaration has been drafted highlights the problem. The favourite guessing game in Brussels now is trying to work out what the declaration will say. It was revealed to the other 26 governments only late last Thursday.
“As of today, we have not received the text, and when we do get it we won’t be able to change anything in it,” Alexandr Vondra, the Czech minister for Europe, said last Wednesday. “Compromise is not when someone writes something and everybody else says yes or no.”
Merkel’s main aim (and the main bone of contention with others such as Britain, the Czech Republic and Poland) is to deliver a formula that might salvage the constitution—which was seemingly ruled out almost two years ago when France and The Netherlands voted against it in referendums.
Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, supports the main changes that Merkel is after—more majority voting, a fixed-term president rather than six-monthly national presidencies, and a single figure in charge of and coordinating “European” foreign policy.
In Slubice, which was part of Germany until 1945 and that barely existed as a Polish town when the EU was born, Janczak is confidently indifferent to the birthday party.
“I’d be optimistic. We’re all very pro-European here. It means democracy and prosperity. But these anniversaries are all about the past.”—Â