Monthly Archives: July 2014

Europe – Where now? Part V

Part IV – Shifting Sands | Part V – Children in the Trenches

Children in the Trenches

Just outside Beaumount-Hamel, on the banks of the River Ancre in Picardy in France, the Canadian Government maintains a permanent memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment, who suffered 85% causalities on July 1st 2016, as they attempted to storm nearby German trenches on the first morning of the Somme offensive.

Looking to the future, over the lip of a trench

Looking to the future, over the lip of a trench

The soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment, who had volunteered from practically every fishing village along the Newfoundland coast, were victims of both circumstance and incredibly bad luck.

Their planned attack was part of a wider attack along the entire front, but due to delays and various reverses, the other units who were supposed to attack at the same time were unable to do so.

Furthermore, the Newfoundlanders were not able to move up to the forward trenches, due to congestion from earlier attacks, and were forced to go over the top from a trench several hundred yards to the rear of the front line. These difficulties were compounded by the poor standard of field communications, where prevented seniors commanders from informing the unit to postpone its attack.

The result was that when the citizen soldiers of Newfoundland climbed out of their trench, they were the only unit visible from the enemy’s trenches, drawing fire from German machine gunners and artillery along a front of almost half a mile. They were also exposed for considerably longer than was necessary, having had to attack from a trench in the rear, which unknowingly silhouetted them against the skyline behind them.

Within 20 minutes, the unit was practically wiped out. No man reached his objective. Of the 780 men who had gone over the top, only 110 survived unscathed, and only 68 were available for roll call the following day.

The memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment is unique in the catalogue of memorials in the area of the Somme Offensive.

The area of the front across which the unit advanced was purchased by the Canadian Government shortly after the war, and is preserved today in much the same condition as existed at the end of the war. This includes the network of trenches which were used in the offensive, through which visitors can walk and peer over the lip.

It is difficult to imagine how any soldier could have had the courage to relinquish such cover, and expose themselves to the horror of German machine gun fire, which would have been fully apparent, given that the Newfoundlanders had remained in their trenches for nearly 2 hours after the general advance began.

Of all the memorials in the area of the Somme offensive, the Newfoundland Memorial Park is by far the most popular. During my visit to the area, it was one of only two memorials (the other being Thiepval) at which I saw children on school tours. It was perhaps inevitable that their attention was divided between the mass grave beneath their feet and their mobile phones, but it was at least encouraging to see that they were there.

The children on the school tours were British, both at Thiepval and the Newfoundland Memorial. I also encountered British school tours at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, which commemorates action from the Battle of Arras in 1918.

North Eastern France is a short ferry and coach trip from anywhere in southern England, so the prevalence of British school tours is inevitable, but it nonetheless gave me pause of thought.

Of all the European Union’s member states, the UK is clearly the most reluctant. Such is the antipathy towards the Union of British voters that the Conservative Party leader David Cameron has been forced into promising on referendum on European Union membership should the Conservatives form the next British Government.

On the one hand, this antipathy is understandable. Britons fought two wars against Germany during the 20th century (not to mention wars with France during the 19th century), so ongoing harmony between these neighbours was always going to be hard won.

On the other hand, it seems illogical. Britons who died in the European wars between 1914 and 1945 died because the political structures of Europe in the early part of the 20th century were incapable of dealing with aggressive nationalism. The self-interest of nation states was more powerful than any obscure concept of unity, and only when there was no one left to fight did the idea of unity gain any traction.

Today, that vacuum has been filled. The European Union has condemned militaristic nationalism to the scrap heap of history, for now at least anyway.

As they plot their way through the trenches of the Newfoundland Memorial, tapping messages on their smartphones and joshing with their classmates, I wonder does this conundrum reveal itself to any of these children. Do they regard the lives of the soldiers who died here, some of whom were their own age, as in any way relevant to the political choices they will have to make in future years?

And if they do, either now or as they reflect on their trip at some point in the future, will they be able to distinguish the significance of unity amid the noise of day to day politics and economic reality?

Their ability to do so, and that of their peers in other member states, which seems lost on many of our current politicians, will determine whether the Union survives for their children.

Europe – Where now? Part IV

Part III – The Weight of History | Part IV – Shifting Sands | Part V – Children in the Trenches

Shifting Sands

In the first decade of the 21st Century, Europe found itself in the eye of a perfect storm.

Globalisation had slowly filtered its way into the continent’s industrial heartlands, obliterating jobs in places that hadn’t known economic privation since the end of the Second World War.

Hollande - lurching into populism

Hollande – lurching into populism

At the same time, economic migrants from Eastern Europe were appearing in towns and cities throughout Western Europe, as the initial restrictions on free movement of people, included in the Treaty of Nice for the comfort of skeptical voters, expired.

Voters began to make a link between their declining living standards and the EU, as embodied in the free movement of people rules that allowed Poles and Slovkaks live in the same neighbourhoods as they did.

Then, in 2008, the Eurozone debt crisis hit, even deeper economic contraction ensued, and the countries of the European Union divided into 2 camps.

On the one side were the apparently rogue states, who had run up unsustainable public debt, and who now couldn’t borrow any more, forcing them to borrow from their more prudent neighbours, who in returned demanded painful fiscal reforms.

On the other side were the apparently more prudent nations, who had lived within their means, and who were now un impressed with having to bail out their seemingly profligate neighbours.

Every couple of weeks, the leaders of the member states seem to be facing down a new crisis, and the value of the currency plummeted as investors readily speculated that the Euro would not be a part of Europe’s future.

The credibility of the European Unions institutions, particularly the European Central Bank and European Commission, sank to new lows, as both struggled to explain they did not have the legal remit to make the decisions the media demanded of them, and finding a solution to the crisis was the responsibility of elected politicians, not bureaucrats and central bankers.

Gradually, as painful reforms were implemented, and risk adverse investors ran out of alternatives to sovereign debt, the crisis abated, and the Euro began to recover its poise and value.

The political fallout was more sustained, however. Both left and right wing governments were unceremoniously removed from power by angry electorates, pathing the way for further discord as their successors failed to live up to their grandiose pre-electoral promises.

Most notably, the European Parliament elections of May 2014 returned the largest ever quotient of aggressively anti-EU MEPs.

In particular, both France and the United Kingdom returned a majority of hard right and anti-EU MEPs (from the Front Nationale and UKIP respectively) while the Italian populist party, the 5 Star Movement, who advocate Italy’s withdrawal from the EU, and are led by television comic Beppe Grillo, also significantly increased its presence in the parliament.

Even Germany, ever the bedrock of the European ideal, managed to return a neo-Nazi MEP.

While euroscepticism had always been present in the European Parliament, it had never previously been regarded as a threat to the political mainstream. This European Parliament elections of 2014 changed that, and now Europe’s latest batch of political leaders, most of whom have no personal recollection of horrors of Europe’s military history, were tested on their commitment to Schuman’s ideals.

The results were not encouraging. First out of the traps was the French President Francois Hollande, whose Socialist Party  had replaced the centre-right government of Nicholas Sarkosy in 2012. At the time of the European Parliament elections, Hollande’s popularity was at an all time low, after spending the 2 years since his election failing to deliver a series of spectacular pre-election promises.

In a televised address in the aftermath of the election, Hollande gushed with typical hubris:

“I am a European, my duty is to reform France and to change the direction of Europe.”

He elaborated on what he meant by “changing” Europe.

“This cannot continue. Europe has to be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary.”

Hollande’s sentiments were echoed around Europe by other political leaders, but his intervention had a significance all of his own.

Firstly, Hollande’s comments have to viewed in the context of his startling fall in popularity, and his party’s abysmal performance in the European Parliament elections. Hollande’s political difficulties had nothing to do with the European Union, and everything to do with his mismanagement of both the French economy and the expectations of French voters.

Secondly, Hollande is the leader of one the Unions largest economies, and founding members, and of a nation that has probably suffered more than any other from military conflict. It is the same nation from which Robert Schuman derived his ideal of European co-operation, having seen at first hand the potential for destruction in the absence of that co-operation.

Hollande’s lurch into anti-EU populism, in an obvious attempt to shore up his political future, is a perfect example the primary threat to the future of the European Union, namely that Europe’s current political class, both Europhile and Euroskeptic alike, are not imbued with the historical significance of European unity, and instead regard the European Union as a convenient scapegoat on which to project the political failings of the respective nation states.

If the leader of France can so readily engage in self-interest, at the expense of a political project that quite literally saves lives, many of which would probably have been French, what hope is there for the continuing existence of the European Union?

Europe – Where now? Part III

Part II – The Green Fields of France | Part III – The Weight of History | Part IV – Shifting Sands

The Weight of History

Like Robert Schuman, the politicians who formed the Governments of Europe from the 1950s to the 1980s didn’t need to visit northeastern France to be reminded of the role of war in European history. They lived through it. They had seen the armies, the tragedy, the destruction: unity, if it did nothing else than prevent people shooting each other, was an easy sell.

The European Coal and Steel Community is born is the ashes of war

The European Coal and Steel Community is born is the ashes of war

The politicians who came after them, between the 1980s and the turn of the century, may not have been as haunted by the ghosts of war as their predecessors, but they understood the context in which European unity was born, and the necessity of ensuring that living standards in Europe remained at a level that would prevent European voters from again dabbling with aggressive nationalism, or the new threat of Communism.

The free trade and structural cohesion provided by the various treaties of the European Economic Community was the bedrock on which those living standards were built. Funds flowed out of industrial economies like Germany into the peripheries, and free trade ensured that consumers in those peripheries could transfer those funds back to Germany by buying German goods and services. A virtuous circle was formed, and everybody, more of less, seemed to better off.

In the early 1990s, a new challenge arose. The former Communist states of Eastern Europe became capitalist democracies virtually overnight. Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and East Germans, who for decades had contented themselves with living in grey apartment blocks, driving Trabants and watching black and white televisions, suddenly wanted to be consumers.

The Iron Curtain, which has been a political barrier from 1945 to 1992, had now become a line of economic demarcation. Those who lived on the west of the line were the sons and daughters of 50 years of free markets and political freedom, who wore sunglasses, drove BMWs and went on holiday to the Costa Del Sol; those on the east of the line were the sons and daughters of 50 years of economic planning and political repression, who had never been on holiday in the Costa Del Sol but who now desperately wanted to go on holiday in the Costa Del Sol.

The model of European unity, based as it was then on a set of loosely enforced economic rules, which had worked quite well for the people of western Europe, was suddenly confronted with 200m new consumers on its eastern borders, who for the moment were content with their newly discovered political freedom, but who sooner or later would start demanding their share of Europe’s riches.

Europe had to act. European economic unity was based the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, but the model was still imperfect in many ways. Enforcement of rules was patchy, and left open to interpretation in a way that could easily be manipulated by member states, causing tensions and trade distortions. Monetary policy was also hampering trade, in that fluctuating currencies and interest rates in both member states and regions was causing distortions in the flow of capital.

These deficiencies could be tolerated in the 12 member European Community that existed in 1989, but if that Community was to expand to incorporate the nation states of Eastern Europe, the number of which was increasing all the time, more structure, more enforcement and more commonality would be required.

In short, Europe would have to become both a political and economic union, because the level of economic unity required to prevent east and west getting annoyed with each other could only be achieved on the basis of pooled political sovereignty.

The Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam followed and by the turn of the century, Europe had itself and fully fledged political Union, with a common currency controlled by a pan-national Central Bank.

By 2004, the Treaty of Nice had permitted the accession of 10 of the former communist states of Eastern Europe to join the European Union. Further states joined in the years that followed, and in 2009 the Treaty of Lisbon made the final adjustments to the structures and institutions of the European Union to allow for collaboration between a greatly expanded number of nations states.

The challenge of the early nineties had been dealt with, painfully at times, but dealt with nonetheless.

Eastern Europeans moved west into jobs and houses in France, Germany and the UK, and went on holidays in Spain. Western companies opened offices in Krackow and Budapest, and started hiring engineering graduates from universities in Prague and Riga.

Economic unity was real. It was happening and visible on every street in every town and city. It was another miracle of European history, in a place where farmers were still ploughing up shrapnel form previous wars.

And then the debt crisis hit, and another junction had been reached.

Except this time it was different.

Europe – Where now? Part II

Part I – Schuman’s Epihany | Part II – The Green Fields of France | Part III – The Weight of History

The Green Fields of France

There are very few hedgerows in the north east of France. The landscape is characterised by gently undulating ridges, swathed in a vast patchwork of wheat, corn and barley, with nothing to break the line of the horizon other than the odd church spire, wind farm or random clutch of woodland.

Picardy - a place of graves

Picardy – a place of graves

Looking out across the land from the crest of any ridge, from where the panorama extends if every direction, you can see for miles. It’s a humbling and serene experience, which is apt, given the much of the land is a vast, unmarked grave.

Between 1914 and 1917, the armies of Germany, France and Britain rolled back and forth across this area multiple times, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake that is unimaginable to most people alive today.

In 1914, the juggernaut of the German Imperial Army rolled up to the valley of the river Marne, threatening the outskirts of Paris, before being stopped by their own incompetence and a desperate rearguard action on the part of the French.

During 1915, the Allied and German forces tried desperately to outflank each other, gradually extending their field of conflict out towards the English Channel and the Swiss border.

With nowhere left to fight, the front settled into place, and the pursuit of the elusive breakthrough became all consuming. The Germans tried first, at Verdun, and were pushed back. The British tried next, at the Somme, and lost 20,000 men in a single day July 1st 2016.

Thirty miles of front changed hands twice over the next 12 months, at a price of tens of thousands of young, vigorous lives. There was scarcely a community in Britain, France of Germany who was not affected by the deaths of sons, brothers and husbands. The nation state had literally started eating itself from the inside out, and worse was to follow 30 years later.

I visited northeastern France in June 2014, 100 years after the fighting of the Great War first broke out. The various sites of battles have become tourist attractions, but it would be wrong to think of them as bustling, vibrant places with rows of buses parked outside.

Cemeteries are dotted all over the landscape. Their distribution seems random, but most were started during the war, at locations close to where fighting was taking place. A cemetery in the middle of a field of wheat may seem a bit odd, but 100 years previously there was no wheat in that field. If was cratered morass of death and destruction, bordered on each side by a network of trenches. The armies didn’t have the time or resources to remove bodies to cemeteries in tranquil locations in the rear. They buried their comrades where they fell, and those cemeteries persist today.

Inside the gate of each cemetery, there is a strong box, which holds a directory of the graves in the cemetery, and a visitors book.

In one particularly remote cemetery, close to what was known as the Munich Trench, I found that the last signature in the book was from a week before, and the one previous to that from another week before that. In fact, there were only about 10 signatures during the year 2014.

It was not a surprise to me that some of these cemeteries are so infrequently visited, but in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, and in June, it was more of a disappointment than I had anticipated.

The shadow of war, which for decades had stretched across the European consciousness, seemed to have receded entirely. This terrible conflict, which happened when my grandparents were children, seemed almost prehistoric, having no more relevance to the lives and politics of Europeans today than that the diet of the Tyranasaurus Rex.

Walking along the rough farm tracks around Beaumont-Hamel, or Serre, of Fricourt, which thousands upon thousands of so-called “citizen” soldiers, many of whom had never experienced combat before, died on the first day of the Somme offensive, it is not uncommon to come across a shard of rusting metal, dug up at some time over the last hundred years by a plough.

This Iron Harvest – of shrapnel, shell fragments and general detritus of war – is everywhere in the area of the Somme offensive. A special unit of the French Army is permanently stationed nearby, to diffuse unexploded shells, and farmers receive instructions regarding how to handle ordnance that is unearthed by their machines.

Turning a corner here and there, it is not uncommon to find a small pile of spent shells, and local cafes and bars display battlefield curios in the same way that Irish pubs display whiskey jugs and vintage Guinness posters.

It’s a vivid, tactile and ominous reminder that war in Europe is still a huge part of our most recent history, and that the political, social and economic forces that conspired to bring about both the Great War and World War II, although abated, still exist today.

Europe – Where now? Part I

Part I – Schuman’s Epihany | Part II – The Green Fields of France

Schuman’s Epihany

“The European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others. The 19th century saw feudal ideas being opposed and, with the rise of a national spirit, nationalities asserting themselves. Our century, that has witnessed the catastrophes resulting in the unending clash of nationalities and nationalisms, must attempt and succeed in reconciling nations in a supranational association. This would safeguard the diversities and aspirations of each nation while coordinating them in the same manner as the regions are coordinated within the unity of the nation.”

Robert Schuman, 1949

Robert Schuman - father of the EU

Robert Schuman – father of the EU

It isn’t easily done, but in this extract from a speech given in Strasbourg in 1949, the then French president, Robert Schuman, considered by many to be the father of the European Union, managed to sum up the breadth of 200 years of European history in a single thought.

The extent of Schuman’s vision is considerable. Even prior to the end of the war, after 4 years of Nazi occupation of northeastern France, and the further invasion of the “free” French zone in 1944, Schuman was already speaking about the need for structured unity in Europe, which would include Germany.

His analysis of recent European history is strikingly accurate.

In 19th century Europe, the age of divinely invested empires was beginning to crumble away, as subjected peoples began to organise around the concept of a the nation state, in which they found the necessary resilience to endure the painful transition from imperial repression to political freedom.

Having invested so much sacrifice in their infant nations, the peoples of Europe would thereafter defend them with their lives, which provided the necessary foundation for a string of totalitarian regimes to plunge Europe into successive wars between 1914 and 1945.

Nationalism, which had once been the key to unlock so many chains, had become a poison, which Europeans couldn’t get enough of, even when they were dying in their millions.

In was in this context that Schuman’s epiphany occurred.

Put simply, Schuman, who had witnessed German, French, British and American armies roll forward and back across his country 4 times in less than 30 years, conceived that the only way to prevent further war between Europeans was to unlock the “fortress” of the nation state, and replace it with the concept of “supranational” collaboration, the mutual benefits of which would always outweigh lure of aggressive nationalism.

Schuman’s powers of persuasion were such that his ideas began to take hold, and Europe began to unite, through the gradual transition from the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 to the European Union that we know today.

In that time, no armed conflict has occurred within the borders of the nations who have adopted Schuman’s vision, despite the ever destabilizing threat of the Soviet Union, various economic ups and downs and a terrible war in the Balkans on the very periphery of the European Union’s borders.

Moreover, the political ideology of the European Union has become the gold standard for peoples in other parts of the world who continue to suffer the sort of oppression that Europeans have long since forgotten.

Political, cultural, economic and religious freedom are the hallmarks of European governance, taken for granted by Europeans in a way that would have been imaginable to their immediate ancestors, many of whom lived in fear of being shot on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality or religion of their parents.

By the end of the 20th centruy, the future of Europe appeared to have become uncomplicated. The formula, so painfully unearthed, was beautifully simple: stick together and nobody gets hurt. Or at least, that’s how it should have been.

The complication is economics, in that the economic profile of Europe in the post-war era is very different to that of today.

While Europeans of late 19th and early 20th centuries discovered their love of the nation state, nationalism alone was never enough to plunge Europeans into war. Had everyone had a job, a roof over their head and food on the table, Europeans would have been happy to indulge their nationalistic impulses by waving flags, singing national anthems and following their national football teams.

In the 1930s, in the teeth of the Great Depression, that wasn’t the case, and having successively used their nation states to resist the dynastic oppressors of the 1900s, Europe’s impoverished millions now turned their guns on their neighbours, encouraged at every step of the way by popular dictators who convinced them that their various problems were the fault of people who lived on the other side of random lines drawn on a map.

Hundreds of millions of deaths later, Europe had been destroyed to the point that their was simply no one left to blame, and the US, having realised that if it would continue to suffer by proxy if it continued to ignore Europe’s proclivity to war and dictatorship, decided to rebuild Europe in such a way that economics and nationalism would never again achieve the high-octane mix of the 1930s.

The Marshall Plan pumped billions into rebuild the European continent. Europeans would have the economic security they required to lure them away from handing power to demagogues, particularly ones who sought to convince that joining the Soviet Union was a good bet.

It was in this economic context that Schuman’s vision was able to take hold. In 1949, after a decade of privation, the Marshall billions were giving Europeans a reborn sense of security, and the idea of pooling sovereignty with their former enemies was at least palatable, particularly among political leaders who had seen the horrors of 2 European wars at first hand.

Decades of economic stability followed. Germany, France and Italy became industrial super powers. People bought houses, cars, electrical appliances and went on holidays. Communism, which policy makers had feared would spread organically through western Europe, receded to the east, sustained by the military muscle of the Red Army rather than the consent of voters.

Europe’s leaders, and peoples, for whom the memory of war was fresh and ever present, had done something remarkable. They had created peace in the world’s most dangerous place.

Unfortunately, no one lives forever, and all memory eventually fades.