Flying the EU Flag

I’m delighted to see the European Union flag flying (or, more accurately, hanging limply) in the foyer of our office building in Prague. Part of a Czech Ministry has taken up residence just a few metres away from my desk. I look forward to the happy buzz of busy bureaucrats.

euczflag

A few weeks ago a Romanian friend asked me, with an unfeigned air of perplexity, if I thought it likely that the United Kingdom would leave the EU. I said I thought it very possible, perhaps even 40% likely, though I, myself, would be sorry if it were to happen.

For Romanians, and for many citizens of the new member states, most of them formerly members of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union, joining the EU felt like a homecoming, the reassertion, in many cases, of values they had once lived by or aspired to live by. ‘Joining Europe’ has brought economic benefits, as investment and subsidies have flowed eastwards, and as new markets have opened, but it’s the emotional sense of belonging to Europe, of a belief in common values, that fixes these nations in the Union.

Though the average citizen might find it hard to articulate the meaning of ‘Europe’ if stopped in the street and asked, it’s more or less obvious to the newcomers what Europe stands for – very often things they didn’t have, such as freedom of speech, human rights, democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, property rights, the rule of law (including equality under the law), open and efficient Government, qualified capitalism, equality of opportunity. And more, no doubt.

By contrast, the argument in the UK is presented as a technical one, not an emotional one. Will we be better off or worse off, in or out of the EU? Perhaps because the values and standards I’ve listed are second nature to the British, any politician who recited them would be ridiculed as talking sentimental piffle. We take these values for granted, as if they’ve always belonged to us, were even invented by us. We’ve lived by and fought for these values over centuries.

For us, these ideas are endemic, so there’s no sense that we’ve gained very much by joining a club that promotes them and protects them. We’re up to the task of protecting our way of life without the help of others. So the idea of ‘Europe’ exerts no strong magnetic attraction, certainly insufficient to prevent the United Kingdom drifting off into the Atlantic. In fact, we seem only to resent the EU’s administration of these ideas, and especially if we disagree on their detailed interpretation.

The real shame is that the EU has failed to blow its own trumpet. It’s been useless at promoting itself and the hugely successful, hugely precious values that underpin it. My own view is that ‘European’ politicians lack the stature and celebrity of our national representatives. I would like to see a short European Parliament peopled by the heavyweight politicians we already know. That way we might feel part of it.

Sadly, the current debate in the United Kingdom is dominated by those who want Out, and no one argues passionately for the In case on matters of principle, preferring merely to rubbish the case for Out. We need some positive rather than negative arguments.

I see the EU’s circle of stars here and there as I travel about Europe, even in countries outside the EU where money is being spent to raise the standards of education, transport, and other institutions. For example, in  Moldova, the EU’s investment is a benign political influence, and as the EU’s values spread, so the world will become a better and a safer place.

It’s great to see limp EU flags hanging in the foyers of Government offices, but seeing them only reminds me of how much more work the EU must do to convince the British and many others that the whole project is worthwhile.

Borders – Back Where We Were?

Over the next three days we’re holding our company-wide LLP Group ‘consulting’ weekend in Visegrad in Hungary, in a spa hotel overlooking the Danube, just where the river bends down towards Budapest from the Slovak border. We have these conferences once a year. They’re expensive in terms of direct costs and opportunity costs, but they’re educational and they’re good for morale. The drinks are on us.

My colleagues are coming from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Luxembourg. Those travelling far are flying, but most of us are travelling by car, crossing as many borders as we must. Four of us made the journey yesterday, and it took eight hours to get from Prague to Visegrad. Two hours too many, but not, in fact, because borders have become more difficult, but because of a minor accident involving some trucks and a huge traffic jam. In 23 years of travelling on the dreadful Prague to Bratislava highway I can remember only a few occasions when the road was clear from one end to the other.

rajka

We were apprehensive that the closing of some Schengen borders in response to the refugee crisis might delay our journey, but we crossed the border between Slovakia and Hungary without delay. Only the long queue of cars and trucks crossing from Slovakia to Austria was a reminder of the reversion to the old restrictions on travel.

It’s depressing that after so many years of free movement borders are being closed in Europe. That we have taken open borders for granted for years now has never been more clear than during these temporary inconveniences. Perhaps we’ve already seen Europe at its most open, and won’t be criss-crossing as easily again for a lifetime or two.

A Belorussian colleague dared not travel at all, since his passport is currently with the British Consular authorities in Warsaw awaiting the granting of a British visa. These were the kind of inconveniences I thought we’d long ago put to rest.

The real border, of course, is the Schengen one, and the worst border is the one between Serbia and Hungary. Refugees/migrants are massing in ever greater numbers and trouble is inevitable. Indeed, yesterday there was tear gas. Let’s hope that tomorrow there aren’t bullets.

I sympathise with Hungary. Perhaps no one at the EU’s top tables took the problem seriously enough when there was time to do something about it – properly to finance and accommodate an orderly and humane acceptance of migrants arriving at the borders, and to ease their travel to safe havens all over Europe.

But Hungary’s policy of prevention, will surely not work, neither for Hungary in the long term, nor for the EU.