The story of post-war European integration is a story of peace-building and my generation have been the great benefactors: we grew up on a Continent that had seen the longest period of peaceful coexistence for centuries. Peace is a constant work in progress and should never be taken for granted.
A single night 30 years ago that marked my youth symbolises this: the fall of the Berlin Wall, marked the beginning of a truly unified Europe. This was the first time since 1961 without a physical divide between Western and Eastern Europe and would pave the way for a Europe without internal borders, made up of 28 countries that trade with each other, share knowledge and expertise, and work closely together to bring opportunities for all. It paved the way for the European Union as we know it now, but potentially our eagerness for a quick reunification laid the seeds for some of the unintended challenges the EU faces today.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany reuniting became a political imperative. A special committee was set up by the European Parliament to look at the possible impact of this major moment in history. It dealt with how reunification and accession to the then European Communities could be achieved.
Drafting the report on the reunification of Germany was none other than our own Jarrow-born Alan Donnelly, who served as Labour Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the North East (back then the Tyne and Wear constituency) from 1989 to 1999. His report was adopted by the European Parliament with a larger majority than the unification treaty was in the Bundestag. There was a clear craving for unity, for fraternity.
Alan’s report allowed for so-called observers from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to join the European Parliament. Eighteen of them, all democratically elected, were to take part in debates and consultation until the next European elections in 1994. One of them is still an MEP to this day.
What I hear from my colleagues here in the European Parliament, especially from German MEPs, is that no one wants to see the re-emergence of hard borders in Europe that would hinder the cooperation between Member States and impede on our common endeavour to work together in ensuring a peaceful future for the different peoples of Europe.
A Europe without internal walls is one of the European Union’s greatest successes that has brought us long sought after freedoms. We can travel easily across 28 countries and, if we so wish, we can stop in any of them for any period of time to work, study or live. Less than a century ago, these 28 countries were fighting with each other over power, land and resources, now they form part of a group that cooperates on everything from food safety standards to holiday pay. But it has also raised the challenges associated with Fortress Europe and the failure to agree a common humane external migration policy.
The peaceful reunification of the continent led in large part to the EU being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for the work it carried out on the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” The Nobel Prize Committee commended the EU for the role it played in transforming Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace. The EU then decided to dedicate the Nobel Peace Prize money to children who are denied the chance of living and growing up in peace and doubled the amount.
It’s easy to think that just because history books have been written about it and because it’s in the past, it could never happen again. But recent rhetoric coming from our neighbours across the pond puts things into stark perspective. Talks of physical walls to divide us even further - as if the invisible wall of poverty wasn’t enough - should not have any place in today’s society. So there was nothing more poignant than the letter sent to President Trump this week written on a section of the original Berlin Wall and cautioning against new walls. Let’s heed that call.
Originally published in The Journal newspaper
Image: Jude Kirton-Darling MEP in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall which was brought to the European Parliament in Brussels for the 30th anniversay of the fall of the wal.