Paul's Column: a Europe without walls

27 February 2018

The Berlin Wall came down 29 years ago and we’ve just passed the point where it has now been down longer than it was up.

In December 1989 I travelled from Newcastle with two friends to do our bit to help dismantle this infamous symbol of the Cold War, a portion of which stands outside the European Parliament in Brussels as a stark reminder of a Europe that was for 44 years divided into the West and the East.

The division of Berlin in 1961 provides the backdrop for the film Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks as the American lawyer James B. Donovan who helped negotiate the exchange of US spy pilot Garry Powers for Soviet KGB spy Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance.

In 2012 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union “for over six decades (having) contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. But before becoming a real political objective, the idea of a prosperous Europe working together was just a dream shared by philosophers and visionaries.

In explaining their decision the Norwegian Nobel Committee made specific reference to the EU’s contribution to bringing about reconciliation between Germany and France pointing out that "over a seventy-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners."  

It then went onto explain the role played by the EU in helping to end the Cold War.

European history is a bloody history and that the nations of the EU are now experiencing our longest period of peace since the Roman Empire strikes many as a major success.  Even now almost two years since the UK’s EU referendum I remain perplexed as to why the churches in England didn’t make more of this achievement in the run up to the divisive vote, for “Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called the children of God”.

Meanwhile Brexit increasingly has the feeling of ‘walls’ being resurrected or constructed where there were none.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a particular example of this. We still don’t know how the Brexiteers think we can simultaneously ‘take back control of our borders’ and allow continued free movement between the north and the south.  The matter was fudged at the end of the first round of Brexit talks back in December between the UK and the EU but we should remember that even at the height of ‘The Troubles’ there was neither a wall nor a fence.

If it does become a ‘hard’ border this, combined with the ongoing breakdown of joint working at Stormont, could put the Good Friday Agreement under threat along with the wider peace process. Have the Brexiteers in Westminster become so used to peace in Northern Ireland that they have forgotten fragile peace can be?

Of course the Brexiteers assure us there will be no check points, guards or barbed wire in much the same way as the East German Head of State, Walter Ulbricht said on June 15, 1961, “Nobody has the intention of building a wall”.  Eight weeks later work began on the Berlin Wall.

The greatest success of the EU is perhaps the one that we all take for granted – lasting peace and a Europe without walls. It was hard won and, in some cases, it required many hammers and chisels. We would be extremely foolish to throw any of that success away.  

This column was originially posted in The Journal newspaper.

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