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A final essay on Europe

Mark Mardell | 08:00 UK time, Saturday, 1 August 2009

Mark Mardell and crew in northeastern Poland (file pic)So this really is the last long goodbye. My next blog will be at the end of the summer from Stateside, over on the Americas index, where I am looking forward to covering not only the progress of the president but much else besides.

My successor here, Gavin Hewitt, will be writing this blog from September. He's covered the most important stories around the world for the last few years as the Ten's special correspondent and before that he was a long-time Panorama reporter, so he'll bring a great depth of experience and knowledge to the job. I wish him all the best. If he enjoys it half as much as I have, he's in for a great time.

One of the best bits has been writing this blog, and an essential component is your comments. There may be millions watching a TV report, but you don't feel the audience, which is why many of us imagine we are talking to a single person. But here I get a much better sense of audience and relish it all, criticism included. You have helped me understand Europe and the many perceptions of it.

When I came to the job I maintained that the story of the EU couldn't be told without understanding the politics of its component parts. I meant that in a rather obvious way: the debate about climate change can't be understood unless you also understand the unique position of Poland, because of its history and economy. But I now also think it is true in a deeper way, that the story of Europe is now a history of countries' differing views of nationalism, their own and others, and this is often expressed in attitudes to the European Union. This anyhow is my farewell From Our Own Correspondent, to be broadcast today.

The Land Rover jolted and jarred for what seemed like hours down a dirt track, deep into the pine forests of southern Spain, the farmer at the wheel talking with incessant enthusiasm.

Amid the heat, dust and chatter I reflected that my determination not to appear on TV outside grand buildings in Brussels with the EU's blue and gold flag fluttering in the background, but instead to put the people back into European politics was paying dividends, at least in terms of my own experience. When you meet the people at the sharp end of EU policies the almost incomprehensible blather of policy documents and directives comes into sharp focus.

In this case it was the EU's environmental policy I was investigating, the farmers' dodgy crop under plastic sheeting - dodgy because of question marks over how they get their water for irrigation. It was destined to be sold, not on some street corner, but from the shelves of Britain's top supermarkets and served with sugar and cream... strawberries.

This voluble farmer was living proof of why being on the road, or in this case a dirt track, is so valuable: it was on this trip, hearing about the plight of some of his mates that I first got an inkling of the then looming crash of Spain's construction industry, before I had ever heard the words "sub-prime".

And while I had long been alert to the consequences of the EU's expansion to the east, in the Land Rover I heard one I hadn't mapped out in my monthly briefing to editors: "The divorce rate around here has soared," said the farmer. "What can you expect, all the workers in our packing factories come from Romania. Very pretty girls they have in Romania," he said, still chuckling.

Four years of covering the politics of Europe has left me with vivid and treasured memories. Of course, after so many years reporting on British politicians at Westminster, it was fascinating to see how other countries' leaders play the game: the jazz bands and razzmatazz of Silvio Berlusconi's rallies in Rome, the controlled aggression of a Sarkozy performance, the low-key Mrs Merkel - more than a rival for the men in terms of substance, if not style. But it is the grittier stuff that sticks in the mind.

Recently a friend and colleague said to me: "You did a good job of giving the impression that you were excited by the European story. But surely you didn't really enjoy it did you?" Well, the sad truth is, I am afraid, that none of it was feigned. I really do find European politics fascinating. Do I understand the EU any better? Of course you can't spend four years at something without emerging with a deeper knowledge of the detail, but I mean do I really GET it? Well, perhaps I am groping towards some conclusions. On patrol in Maltese helicopter

The idea of "them" forcing "us" to do something is rarely true. But what seems to happen time and time again - it is a hallmark of the way the EU operates - is "us" or our political representatives signing up to something European, and grand, and ambitious; but then, through a judicious mixture of cowardice and common sense, failing to honour or finance what they've agreed to.

I reflected on this ideological overstretch on my last European assignment, soaring over the Mediterranean in a doorless helicopter, having carefully but not so gallantly made sure my slip of a producer was between me and a plunge of several hundred metres into the intense blue waters below. We were on a Maltese armed forces patrol, attempting to spot illegal immigrants from Africa trying to make it into the vast, almost borderless empire that is the EU.

Back, not on terra firma, but the open ocean, a Maltese officer with a perfect London accent had commended the sturdy craft to me: "Solid German engineering," he said approvingly. "Made in East Germany!" Given how long ago it was that such a country existed, let alone was building boats, it didn't suggest that the other EU nations were exactly pulling out wads of euros to help the power bloc's smallest country bear the brunt of a common policy on immigration and borders.

It's lucky that I rather enjoy tramping around muddy fields looking fascinated by the intricacies of food production, because the largest part of the EU's budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy.

The reasonable demand that we should know how our money is being spent wasn't uppermost in my mind arriving, rather later in the day than we had intended, on a hillside in Transylvania, not far from one of the many places claiming to be the original Dracula's castle. The herdsmen had corralled their cows into a wooden pen and were sitting around on little boxes milking by hand, the warm stream of white liquid jetting into a metal bucket. Yes I did take a draught, yes, it was good. Romanian cowherd

Communicating mainly by gestures one of the herdsmen, in a battered trilby-style hat, his face lined by sun and wind and warmed by a gap-toothed grin, gestured towards a small wooden hut. In the centre a very rough and ready fire of old sticks and twigs burned in the middle of the earth floor. This was where they made their cheese. A wooden press was produced and enthusiastic hand signals demonstrated how it was used. I took a piece, rubbery, and smoky, but not in a good way. But it wasn't the EU's health regulations that worried me - more its bureaucracy. How would these people fill in the forms that farmers all over Europe had told me were too complicated for anyone without an accountant. And without the forms how can we make sure our money is not being wasted?

But it was a frustrating and ridiculous experience on a hillside in Picardy that made me reflect on the purpose, the mission of the European Union. Tip-toeing through the tall grass towards a flock of sheep, hoping they would scatter at just the right moment to make brilliant TV pictures, a distant sound startled both me and the sheep. It was the bang of an automatic bird-scarer in a faraway field, sounding a lot like intermittent gunfire. Generations ago, on this very spot, the sound of exploding shells and whizzing bullets echoed all around. The farmer spotted something glinting in the earth and stopped to pick up the casing of a World War One shell. This was the Somme. Picardy sheep farmer

If the EU is constantly, sometimes irritatingly, seeking out new ways of making itself relevant it is because it has so successfully completed its original mission: to keep the peace after more than a century of war. An achievement so obvious, that it's pocketed without a thought by all the millions of citizens of this unique organisation. Of course that doesn't mean its current ambitions are right, or indeed wrong, but it does provide a bit of historical perspective.

Critics of the EU will say that it was Nato that kept the peace in Europe. But they are talking about keeping the Bear at bay, rather than solving the problem that plagued Europe for hundreds of years.

From the top of a control tower near the Rhine I stared out on a sprawling steelworks. There is no rust belt in Germany, this is a country which has kept her allegedly old industries alive. The panorama before me was lit by the dull orange glow of a video game dystopia. Spread out before me were smoking chimneys, an endless framework of railway tracks, the steelworks' own docks, vast buildings and beside them scuttling figures.

"It's like a city," I gasped. This was obviously an understatement our guide was eager to correct. "It is bigger than Luxembourg," he said with pride. That is what the very early forerunner of the EU, the Ruhr authority and then the Coal and Steel Community was created to do after World War II. A pan-European body, chaired by a Belgian civil servant, it was set up to control the raw materials of brute German power and bind the most nationalistic, most aggressive country in Europe into an international organisation dedicated to peace and co-operation.

This project has so obviously succeeded that to even mention this past sounds gratuitously offensive. But it is not meant to be: Germany is still the most important economic and political power in Europe, but with a sense of responsibility, an ability to reflect upon its past, a horror of war, that is I think unique and little short of a miracle, an outcome few historians studying the aftermath of past conflicts could even have dared to predict. It's probably the most grown-up country in the world today.

The magnitude of the change struck me as I was travelling for what seemed like an endless night-time journey across the biggest of the new member states, Poland. "This used to be Prussia," I marvelled early in the journey. A few hours later still travelling, looking for the home of a politician we had unwisely agreed to interview late at night, I thought: "This is still Prussia!" And we could have gone on travelling into what is now part of Russia and it would still have been old Prussia, the heart of the original German state.

This is part of the EU problem: it has completed its most important task, burying the destructive nationalism of the past, cementing this so firmly that most of Europe shares a currency, has no internal borders and has many basic standards and rules in common. So the search for a sort of European nationalism and more political union can look like scrabbling around for a raison d'etre.

This has many manifestations in perceived faults and failures that critics in Britain love to highlight. But the deep roots of the British problem with Europe are in our attitude to World War II. We British don't quite get the horror of this past. Of course, enough British people died and suffered as a result of the two world wars. Indeed, it is our defining way of looking at Europe and Germany. Bookshops groan under the weight of tomes about the Third Reich and Hitler, although you will be hard-pressed to find anything on Bismarck, let alone Willy Brandt or Chancellor Kohl.

Even otherwise intelligent friends of mine have been known to imitate Spitfires - "neeeeowwww rat-a-tat-tat!" - when Germany is mentioned. Our view of Europe is defined by "the few" and "our finest hour" - heroism that paid off, rather than by shame. The shame of being the defeated bad guys, the shame of conquest and invasion, the shame of collaboration.

Take a Flemish friend of mine. His great-uncle was a member of the resistance, he stashed guns under the floorboards of his uncle's farmhouse, to fight the Nazis. Pretty heroic, huh? Well the Nazis called on him to give himself up to certain death, and because he didn't, my friend's uncle and grandfather were tortured and sent to work camps, where they died a few weeks before the war ended. The rest of the family barely talked to this "hero" until the day he died. And this is just one among thousands, millions of such stories of moral complexity. And it's why Belgians, French, Germans, Italians may not always like the actual EU any more than sceptical Brits, but why, to them, the ideal of a political Europe is something precious.

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