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.