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Fall of Berlin Wall - Has Europe Learned Nothing

Mal Fletcher
Posted 10 November 2009
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As Europeans celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall, it is worth reflecting not just on the old Europe with its long-standing divisions, but on the one that has arisen in its place.

With the fall of the wall, the world saw the end of a particularly evil form of tyranny. For generations, self-appointed national leaders denied their countrymen and women the basic rights to travel and migrate as they wished and to lead prosperous and self-determined lives whilst at home.

They had grown so hardened to public opinion and disdainful of the basic intelligence of their citizenry that they lived as a law unto themselves.

When so-called Reality TV programmes like Big Brother were at their height of popularity, I often wondered why people thought their basic premise was such a novel idea. Locking people behind high walls, training cameras on them and encouraging them to manipulate each other's behaviour was no new trick - the East Germans had been doing it for decades.

In all, more than 200 people were shot dead in attempts to escape the GDR, which its government's propaganda declared to be 'the better Germany'. Thousands more were injured and imprisoned because of attempts to make it through the notorious no-man's-land and over the wall.

In the end, the destruction of the wall was the culmination of a chain of events, which featured the relaxation of travel restrictions by countries bordering onto the GDR, and the refusal of Russian President Gorbachev to send his troops to prop up ailing satellites regimes.

Who can forget, if you saw them live on TV, the images of East Germans strolling freely and elatedly into the West for the first time? This was a powerful real-time drama, but it was also profoundly important as a symbol - of the end of Cold War realities and, even if we didn't fully realise it at the time, the deep-seated ideologies that had propped them up.

The end of the wall is an event well worth celebrating. Yet as we mark the end of one form of tyranny, we must be careful not to allow the emergence of another, albeit more gentle and subtle one.

Europe is no longer ruled by individual tyrants who are bent on life-long domination, but a system can be tyrannical too if it is left unchecked. Such a system might emerge if we see the growth of an unaccountable EU juggernaut that pays scant attention to the wishes of the populace it claims to represent.

We see signs of this in the way Europe's various organs of government and management are pushing to select a European President, without any recourse to the popular voice. Democracy is not about selection, but election and democracy, like justice, must 'be seen to be done.'

Of course, there are differing views on what a European presidency should involve. Some member states, such as the Benelux nations, prefer a chairmanship rather than a fully fledged presidency after the American or French models.

Larger states, notably Germany and France, prefer the latter option. The European President, they say, should be someone who can stand toe-to-toe in terms of authority and status with any of the world's leading figures.

The EU says it wants a presidency so that Europe can speak with one voice on global issues, especially as the burgeoning economies of India and China start to play a larger role in world events. The ends may be desirable, but the means are questionable.

It seems that EU apparatchiks feel the people they notionally represent are without the intelligence to properly weigh the issues relating to this new office - including the idea of presidency itself. Let's just push this through as quickly as we can, they seem to say, it's easier to ask for forgiveness after the event than permission before.

How will Europe claim, with a straight face, that it is a beacon for democracy in the world when its highest office has been set up and filled without an election of any kind?

Yet another example of this high-handedness on the part of officials emerged in the UK last week, with the announcement that the British government is to pass legislation insisting that all children, from the age of 15, will receive compulsory sex education.

Sex education has long been a part of the curriculum for the nation's schools, but there have been opt-outs for parents who wish their children to miss these classes. Not any more.

Many parents still want to share the facts of life - and, more importantly, the facts of relationships - in the privacy of their own homes, or at least to be a part of the process of their children's development on the subject.

Apparently, though, British parents are too thick-headed to be entrusted with the proper raising of their children.

The French philosopher Rousseau became notorious for neglecting the illegitimate children born to him by a prostitute, consigning them to starvation and an early death. It was he who suggested that the state should take a much larger role in the raising of children, with responsibility for their welfare and basic development.

We are still living with his sad legacy today, it seems. Again, government isn't willing to trust its own people.

The European experiment has achieved much a great value in its fifty year tenure, most notably the promotion of peace in a previously war-torn region.

Yet it suffers from a low opinion within the populace generally. Its image has long been that it is a club for bureaucrats and politicians who couldn't win a seat in national elections, a free ride on an all-expenses-paid gravy train of privilege and position.

This is wide of the mark, for much important work is doubtless done in the halls of the EU parliament and commission. But the EU will never have the legitimacy it needs to do its job properly unless it starts putting trust in the people of Europe - and demonstrating that faith.

Since the beginning of European elections, the graph of voter participation has shown as steady decline. This won't improve any time soon if the EU continues to unilaterally make such huge decisions as to whether an individual can represent all the nations of Europe and who if anyone should fill that role.

If governments cease to trust their people, acting as if the people are irrelevant to the process of governing, it isn't long before people stop trusting their governments. When that happens, one of two things invariably emerges: revolution or anarchy.

The Berlin wall fell because the people of the GDR had long before lost all faith in their government. They couldn't wait to replace it with something, anything else. And it all started with a regime that ignored totally the wishes of its people and behaved completely as a law unto itself.

Let's hope the EU doesn't make the same mistakes.

Copyright Mal Fletcher 2009, published at

What’s your view?

Is the EU making a mistake by pushing through a new European Presidency without a vote?



Keywords: EU | EU President | Eu presidency | European president | European presidency | Europe | Berlin wall | fall of the wall

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