Europe in Winter

This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a thing I did for Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. They haven’t run it yet, because of certain events in Europe taking up all the news, and they probably won’t now, but what the hell.

On April 13 this year, three people travelled to a spot on the western bank of the river Danube between Croatia and Serbia, and carried out a brief ceremony.

They raised a flag and declared that this patch of wooded land about three square miles in area – over which neither Serbia nor Croatia has held full sovereignty – was now the Free Republic of Liberland, Europe’s newest nation, and invited applications from prospective citizens. A week later, it had received some 200,000 applications.

Liberland is the brainchild of Vit Jedlicka, a Czech politician, and as far as I can discover it began as a bit of a joke, but it seems to have tapped into something.

We tend to think, these days, of Europe as being something of a monolith, this great undifferentiated thing lurking somewhere across the Channel, but that’s not the way it is at all. Europe is nations.

The history of Europe is one of continuous flux, of change, of borders. There are some rather lovely and slightly startling animations available online which show borders changing, countries swelling and contracting, disappearing and reappearing, down the centuries. Germany, as we know it today, is a relatively recent thing, historically speaking. Czechoslovakia only existed for 75 years, Yugoslavia for not very much longer. In recent years Venice has spoken of becoming a city-state, some Sardinians want to become Swiss, and in this country Scottish independence was something of a…contentious issue.

That is, if you’ll excuse the pun, the natural state of Europe. Countries come and countries go. What we have at the moment – the EU, the borderless Schengen Zone – is a recent innovation, and it may still turn out to be something of a blip. There are parts of Europe where the wire is already going back up.

Not so long ago it was reported that Hungary was proposing a 110-mile-long, 13ft-tall fence along its border with Serbia to keep out migrants. In April, it was reported that Ukraine has begun what will be a 1,500-mile line of fencing, trenches and armed guards along its land border with Russia. And these aren’t the only ones.

The problem with fences is that they tend to be moreish. Nations see someone putting up border wire and think, “Hm, I fancy some of that.” Border fences, border controls, may start to look attractive to some countries facing what they see as an immigrant crisis.

In addition, the EU faces years – perhaps decades – of existential navel-gazing as a result of the Greek debt crisis.

I’ve been a Euro-enthusiast for years, but even I can’t deny that the EU has behaved appallingly towards Greece, and as I write this, the fallout is beginning, with Greek public sector unions calling a general strike to protest the EU-imposed austerity measures. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I’d suggest that in future, other nations finding themselves in Greece’s position might opt to go straight to an EU departure rather than go through the Greek humiliation.

Whatever happens, the events of the past few weeks have shaken the idea that the euro is for life, not just for Christmas, and they will have a bearing on Britain’s membership of the EU.

There is an exit clause in the Treaty of Lisbon which provides for member states who want to leave the EU, but no member state has ever held a national referendum on withdrawal, although in 1975 the UK held a national referendum on withdrawal from the Common Market. 67.2% of voters chose to remain in the Community. I suspect our next referendum, whenever it comes, may deliver a closer vote. Eurosceptics will be making the most of the EU’s behaviour towards Greece. “Look,” they’ll say. “Do you want them to do this to us?” And people will listen. David Cameron doesn’t want to leave the EU. In a lot of ways the referendum is a sop to the crazier end of the Tory Party – he only has a 12-seat majority in the Commons and it wouldn’t take many of his backbenchers, many of whom despise him, to rebel in order to derail a lot of what he wants to do – and try to woo back the people who voted UKIP in the last election. What does he do if the referendum returns a vote to leave?

It’s harder than it looks to predict the future of Europe. The EU may struggle along as it is, or in some revised form, or it may start to peel apart, country by country, until only a rump remains, a diehard union composed perhaps only of France and Germany. No one knows, and anyone who tells you they do is having you on.

Whatever happens, I suspect there will not be a shortage of borders in future.


10 thoughts on “Europe in Winter

  1. I was reading your book in Barcelona, home of Catalan identity, last week while nightly with horrified fascination watching the Greek crisis unfold on BBC Workd. It was very very serendipitous reading 😉 I particularly treasured the quick sketch of post Indy Scotland which more or ess matched my own cynical e pentagons:-) Really great book, best I’ve read in yonks, and I loved the Bourdain mane heck:-)

    • – Hi, Lilian. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been watching the news over the past year or so with horrified fascination, and the ongoing Greek fiasco even more so, although after eighteen months of sober reflection I think I may have been just a wee bit harsh towards Scotland. I had to mention Bourdain; he’s the reason Rudi’s a chef in the first place. Kitchen Confidential is a fabulous book. 🙂

  2. It really is:-)
    Can I be snotty and ask about someone you *dont* name heck namely China Mieville? We’re you aware of The City and the city when you were writing it? ( It is my other favourite recent sf book!)

    I’m terribly pleased to find out the end was indeed a cliffhanger!

    • – You’re not being snotty at all. 🙂 No, I started writing the book a long time ago, even before China’s first novel was published, but I see what you mean. I liked The City And The City a lot too. I liked Kraken even more, though; it’s much more accessible.

    • Oh god I love Kraken. It is my gateway drug book for persuading people to read that skiffs stuff. Also it’s *fecund* with ideas. ( Like you).

      • – *chuckles* China’s a bit annoying like that; he sticks in stuff that anyone else would turn into an entire novel, like the solid origami stuff in Kraken.

  3. Dave,

    I have just finished reading Autumn in Europe. I won’t bore you with serendipitous set of circumstances that led me to bump into your novel, but I am glad that they occurred. I find it incredible that the book isn’t being discussed more widely in the context of the total disaster unfolding around us at the moment.

    I loved the noirish, mitteleuropaische shtick of the first half of the novel (I kept expecting Orson Welles to pop his head out of a tram car). And the humour of the characters was refreshing in a thriller. But, what really sets the novel apart is that it (warning Radio 4 annoying cliché approaching) ‘captures the zeitgeist’.

    The Greek and current refugee crises have reminded us that Europe’s natural state is squabbling and petty post-Westphalian protectionism, and that borders are inevitable (see any number of articles about the travails of those currently trying to get to Germany).

    The plight of those from the hidden territory in your book could be seen as an allegorical parallel for today’s Syrians.

    Anyway, congratulations on writing, what I’m sure will come to be regarded as the most rapidly prophetic science fiction novel ever written.

    If I knew how to use social media I would seek to ensure it was ‘trending’, but I don’t, so instead I will tell my mates about it.

    Keep writing


    • – Thank you, Chris! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s been a weird and not very happy experience, watching events unfold in the eighteen months or so since the book came out. It was really just meant to be an entertainment, a bit of a romp, rather than a series attempt at prediction, and I’m finding what’s going on a little scary.

      I’m a big fan of the European ideal – although less so of its execution recently – but it’s always seemed obvious to me that it’s likely to turn out to be a blip in history. As you say, borders are inevitable, and always will be here.

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