BBC BLOGS - Mark Mardell's Euroblog

A final essay on Europe

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

Comments (121)

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.

Charming Brussels

Mark Mardell | 08:15 UK time, Friday, 31 July 2009

Comments (45)

Brussels Grand-PlaceSo this is goodbye, although I hope I will see many of you, over the page, as it were. I am off to the USA in a couple of days to settle in, take some holiday and take up the job as North America editor at the beginning of September.

I wanted to leave you with a few final thoughts, which will also go out on From Our Own Correspondent tomorrow and will be posted here tomorrow morning.

But the piece didn't turn out the way I had planned it. I had long plotted that, when I went, I would write a riposte to the man I succeed in Washington, Justin Webb, who was based here about eight years ago. Justin is brilliant, and has been hugely helpful to me and my family in our move, but plain wrong in his most memorable piece from Brussels.

But writing this "FOOC," as they are called in the trade, gave me many more problems that usual. Try as I might I couldn't fit this initial idea with the colour I wanted to get in to emphasise the varied nature of Europe, and the more serious thoughts. So I took the words of the old blue's song to heart: "if it don't fit don't force it" and abandoned the script. But at our final, final farewell bash a Belgian friend showed such disappointment at this news that I have resurrected it, for his and your (this is for you,Tom) delectation:

Perhaps we write the first draft of history - I don't know. For broadcasters, our fine thoughts and words don't even get the honour of being tomorrow's fish and chip wrapper - they just dribble away into the ether. But some words have a power to haunt, and one of my colleague's pieces has been my familiar ghost in Brussels. Berlaymont building - European Commission HQ

Within a few days of arriving I was pulled aside and told: 'I hope you don't agree with that dreadful man'. A little while ago I was nobbled at a dinner party: 'You don't think that way about us do you? If you are leaving us try to say something nice'.

Brussels, Brussels, poor old Brussels. When a city becomes a synonym you know it's got problems. In English mouths the name of the place that has been a good home to me for the last four years is usually spat out, as if a distaste for what is perceived as European imposition has somehow blended with school day memories of being force-fed a pungent vegetable. Even British guidebooks feel free to take for granted a British dislike of the EU and then build on this assumption the right to sneer at Belgium's capital.

Well, I like it better than London and the suburbs of the south-east - not in theory, not on paper, not to visit, but to live with my youngish family.

But Justin Webb's piece for From Our Own Correspondent, nearly a decade ago, had a huge impact on the sensitive denizens of Brussels. Justin said the people were miserable, called it the dirtiest city in Europe, made special play with the dog mess that does indeed litter the pavements and attacked the lack of a service culture.

So why do I like it?

For a capital it is small: and that's a good thing. When we first arrived and someone asked us over for dinner to their home on the opposite side of the city to where we live the almost automatic response was to turn down the invitation. In London you simply wouldn't cross a city for an evening. In Brussels it only takes half an hour.

Our home backs onto a park and is surrounded by greenery, but walk the other way and in a few minutes you are on one of the city's main arteries, full of fast-food shops, night shops and Chinese groceries. It is a ten-minute walk to the metro, which takes me just about to the door of the office in another ten minutes. Going out of town, as I did this morning, it's a lovely slow drive through the dappled sunshine of the park and then through a magnificent forest, just right for weekend walks. Belgian chocolates

Brussels' modest size means that, unlike most capitals, it doesn't suck the life out of nearby cities. Leuven and Ghent are great places in their own right, not dwarfed by their neighbour.

The people are friendly. I love saying "good morning" and "good bye" in a lift, and wishing people a good afternoon, or day or holiday or whatever it is as you leave a shop, is charming. "Have a nice day" sounds so much better in French. When I visit Paris it marks me down as a provincial, and I am always looking for another reason to scorn Europe's most overrated city.

You know about the mussels and beer and chocolate. But the food generally is good. You can stop most places in Belgium and be sure the basics will, nine times out of 10, be cooked well. That is not something you can say about France these days and, despite all the gastro pubs and unbeatable quality at the top end, Britain still deserves its reputation for chronic grub.

Bars and clubs are not really my scene these days, but on the odd night out I've ended up at some pretty decent places and the reports I hear are good. There's a lot more to Brussels than a silly statue of a boy having a wee.

The lack of service culture is a fair point. It's partly because Belgium, bizarrely and charmingly, likes to think of itself as an honorary Mediterranean culture, and people seem more interested in having a chat while they buy their baguette than getting through the process quickly so they have more time to work. I am afraid my Protestant work ethic has me hopping madly in the long queue, but I suspect the fault is mine, not Belgium's.

There is another reason. Those long queues in all sorts of shops at the weekend is because the thought of employing a Saturday boy or girl (there is no Sunday shopping) is a non-starter: the tax is prohibitive. The price for middle-class dinner parties not being full of people whining about the local school and worrying about health care and fretting about going private is a tax system that can discourage employment and cripple enterprise. A Brussels dog

Anyhow, one can be too selective about this. I must admit on a recent trip to Washington, going into a very well-known clothes store, I was delighted to see about ten people serving - such a contrast to Brussels. But when I tried to pay, four of them directed me to the till. The surfer dude behind it pointed me towards another till, which he said was working. He continued to chat to a pretty girl while I queued. And he probably doesn't have healthcare.

The dog poo? Well the francophone love of small dogs is horrid and their toilet habits are indulged on the streets, but Brussels isn't generally filthy, just lived-in. I like my cities on the grimy side. My wife tells me that my fondness for Brussels is increased because I am rarely here, always on the road in some corner of Europe. But surely that is what home is, a safe and comfortable harbour to which you return, before setting off on another voyage. I fear I would get bored in any one place. It does not have the glory of Rome, probably and predictably my favourite European capital, nor the buzz of Berlin or the magnificence of Madrid, but it has been home. And, Justin, they even have pooper scoopers in the park these days.

Lisbon: A Pandora's box

Mark Mardell | 10:50 UK time, Friday, 19 June 2009

Comments (1455)

The latest anguished wrangling - it would be wrong to call it a row - over the Lisbon Treaty sounds obscure and legalistic, about the strength of a protocol versus a legally binding international agreement. Dull, huh? But at heart it is about the raw stuff of politics: fear and failure.

The Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, is frightened he will fail by losing a second referendum. So he wants strong guarantees about what Lisbon does and does not mean to reassure Irish voters.

The other leaders are viscerally fearful about anything, anything at all, that will give people the slightest excuse to reopen the debate on Lisbon. Their fear of failure is heartfelt. They believe a new treaty is needed to run the European Union and they are fed up with the immense difficulty in getting it past the people.

Remember, first there was the European Constitution. That was killed off by voters in France and the Netherlands. Painfully, slowly, a new treaty, Lisbon, emerged: the Constitution stripped of some of its pretensions and fine words, but with most of the rule changes intact. Then the Irish people voted that down.

In their wisdom the Irish government decided this was down to various (in their view false) fears about what Lisbon would mean, for Irish neutrality, for abortion law, for workers rights. So they want guarantees setting out that Lisbon doesn't mean any of that.

Most observers think they will win the second referendum, more because of the economic crisis than these guarantees. Perhaps. I would just observe that the Irish government are very, very fixed on this one solution, and are meticulously hammering gold-plated, reinforced, tungsten-tipped nails into one particular stable door which they have identified as the exit route of that fine filly "Lisbon Treaty". If another stable door, perhaps marked "I don't like the EU's current direction" was the real route of "Lisbon Treaty's" disappearance they could be in very great trouble.

What the other leaders are worried about is that this whole kerfuffle will open the door for others to demand this, that and the other.

You see a protocol, making an agreement part of an EU treaty, is stronger than a mere agreement in international law, which is what today's form of words would amount to on their own.

The Irish prime minister put the cat among the pigeons by demanding this in a letter to the others, without apparently squaring them or doing any advanced diplomatic work. He wrote to "provide maximum possible legal reassurance to the Irish people... I need to be able to come out of our meeting and state, without fear of contradiction, that the legal guarantee... will, in time, acquire full treaty status by way of a protocol." This would have to be attached to a new treaty and new treaties need ratification, by parliament or a referendum.

So what gives pro-Lisbon leaders the heebie-jeebies is that there will be a campaign in Britain for a referendum on this, or someone will pop up and ask for their own reassurances, or the Czech or Polish president will find a new reason for not signing off Lisbon, or there'll be some other democratic diversions.

It slightly puzzles me why Gordon Brown is worried about this. The new bit would be tagged onto the next treaty allowing a new country to join the EU. That would probably be Croatia or Iceland. Perhaps Mr Brown is optimistic enough to believe that he will be prime minister when this happens. But it is more likely it will land on the plate of a Conservative government.

Those in Mr Cameron's party who hate Lisbon may see this as an ideal opportunity to deliver a retrospective blow to the hated treaty by demanding a referendum and voting down the assurances. It would be poetic, rather than practical, but symbols are important in politics.

But then the guts of this new treaty would be about a new country joining the EU. It has always been Conservative policy to encourage the expansion of the EU: could Mr Cameron happily encourage people to deal a blow to this longstanding approach?

But there's another consideration. Mr Cameron wants to wring new opt-outs, even a new relationship from the EU. The word is that the fruits of any such negotiation would be made law by attaching yet another protocol to this new treaty. So could the Conservatives end up holding a referendum on the EU and urging people to vote "Yes"?

Or would Mr Cameron be just as keen as current leaders to tiptoe around the whole awkward subject?

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