By Henry Radice
On the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the familiar rituals of remembrance feel particularly poignant in a year marking the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, yet itself scarred by a grim array of conflicts which seem appallingly to celebrate, rather than to mourn, the innovations in inhumanity witnessed a century ago.
In contrast, our rituals of commemoration of 1989 and its symbolic centrepiece, the fall of the Berlin Wall, remain haphazard and unsettled, despite the far more positive legacy at stake (and the moving celebrations in Berlin on Sunday).
Taking stock of this twenty-five year anniversary in a powerful essay in The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash asks where the 89ers are, contrasting the absence in our culture of such a group with the undoubted resonance of the generations of 1968 or 1939. Garton Ash ponders whether such a generation of 1989 might yet emerge, placing his hopes in those born at or around the end of the Cold War. But, on reflection, I would also like to lay tentative claim to the label, having come of age in an era in which European political consolidation was rapidly taking place through force of will rather than force of arms. For some of us born almost a decade before the fall of the Wall, a political challenge lies ahead, the importance of which directly relates to the events of 1989.
As a seven year old who turned eight during 1989, that year’s salient event was not, unsurprisingly, the political upheaval of large swathes of Europe freeing themselves from authoritarianism, but rather an extended caravan tour of Western Europe initiated by my parents, the objective of which was to explore which European country might represent the safest haven from the private affluence and public squalor of Thatcher’s Britain.
Some months later, France having been declared suitable, began the kind of trans-European childhood that, astonishingly, was mine in theory by right, if, of course, enabled in practice by relative good fortune. Thereafter, the primary political context of my life has been a Europe messily united, rather than one divided by a frozen yet existential conflict.
In British public discourse today, the Polish plumber has replaced the Polish dissident. That should be cause for celebration. Yet the corrosive triviality of Nigel Farage and his ilk has infused debate to such an extent that some, unaccountably, seem more afraid of migrants than of a politician willing to get into bed with Polish ‘dissidents’ of a far more sinister and reactionary bent.
It is reasonable to assume that the democratic body politic will, from time to time, produce minor irritants like Farage. Such ailments should be relatively easily treated. Yet the great failure of the main parties, reflective of a loss of nerve across much of Europe, has been to accept Farage’s negative framing and opportunistic pairing of the questions of Europe and immigration. The opponents of eurosceptic populists routinely concede so much crucial territory by prefacing any comment with those oft-repeated phrases, “of course people are worried about immigration”, or “of course Europe needs reforming”, that they usually render any rhetorical sorties that might follow at best Pyrrhic victories, whatever the underlying facts of the debates involved.
We can, indeed, should, disagree about how to do politics in Europe, yet the political framework of a united Europe of free movement is worth fighting for, and is a fight that could yet define my generation of 89ers, provided we do not fall prey to a complacency that only sees value in political gains symbolised by blood and bodies, rather than mere rubble.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Henry Radice is Editor-in-Chief of Euro Crisis in the Press. He is a Research Fellow and the Research Manager of the Justice and Security Research Programme at LSE.
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Henry, I am dissappointed that your interesting post has not yet attracted any comment, so I thought – as a co-admirer of Timothy Garton-Ash – I would venture one of my own.
First of all, I suspect the 89ers as a generation are not well positioned to offer a defence of Europe precisely because of the limited framing of the both concepts. If the 89ers really are those who were born around the time of the end of the Cold War, then I suspect they are by now caught up in larger debates about globalisation and democracy and – if the polls are to be believed – are quite critical of the EU because of its democratic failings, and now increasingly because of its economic failings. Which generation, for example, is voting for Syriza, for example, who seem to me to pose a pretty serious threat to the EU, or at least its institutional form. Equally if Europe can only be conceptualised as the institutional form of the EU then that seems almost purpose built to protect entrenched interests and pre-determined advantages.
If the 89ers are thought of as people from your generation to my own – I turned 19 in 1989 and was caught up in the blind optimism of the moment as a newly realised adult but had a strong memory of what the division of Europe had meant having grown up with the ever present threat (real or imagined) of war – then at least we have a sense of what Europe might be for. My difficulty commences from what might be a different assessment of what is wrong with the present arrangement. Furthermore, while you remember the private affluence and public squalor of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, I arrived from the paradise of Canada in ’77 and have a clear memory of the contrasting private squalor and public disfunction of Britain at the fag end of industrial collapse. In 1989 we were two years in to a re-elected Conservative government and still 8 years – and two Labour leaders – away from any real electoral dissapointment about the change experienced in 1979.
I have no problem at all in thinking that Europe must mean more than it does, and I would endorse freedom of movement. However, the problem of immigration is less one of people moving for work, than of people moving for better public services. In other words work permits have become a proxy for citizenship which people across Europe are not yet prepared to simply share. That is what – in my view – partly explains the current political dilemma across Europe, so I end up thinking that the ‘polish plumber’ that you cite in your essay, is not really the problem. Not in the UK at least. The British ski-instructor in France however, that is another matter.
Most importantly, one must consider the role of European integration itself in undermining the European ideal. In particular, the Euro is pretty unambiguously implicated in the rise of the far right across Europe. So we are not simply living through a failure of idealism but a failure of instituional design.
So, of course, framing matters, but I wouldn’t wish to forget that 1989 was a transformative year for more reasons than you seem to hint at. There are those for whom 1989 was transformative in a bad way, those who preferred the stability of Cold War politics, or those who think the wrong side collapsed. Nervousness about immigration is a partly a consequence of uneven economic development but partly a consequence of cultural displacement. This will not be overcome by simply expecting everyone to think differently, I don’t think.
However, I fully accept your implication that the debate about immigration and Europe is truncated. I just think this is a regrettable consequence of political oversight, rather than an example of it.