GLOBSEC, Bratislava. 14 May. In his famous book Danube Claudio Magris wrote, “History shows that it is not only senseless and cruel, but it is also difficult to state who is a foreigner”. As the GLOBSEC security policy conference bustling and bristling around me the high-rollers are rolling up in their Rollers (well - and inevitably - BMWs these days). Outside the Danube makes its majestic and serene way. The river runs through Europe defining both the place and the idea as much as the Rhine albeit with a sense of the East, a corridor as ever between peace and struggle Indeed, in this new and dangerous age of Machopolitik nowhere in contemporary Europe’s history has a place more defined peace and freedom than Bratislava. Once on the wrong side of a fearsome border between liberty and oppression the Cold War was about ten thousand Bratislavas. Today Bratislava is a city of peace on a river of hope. Will it stay that way or will history again judge Europe with harsh cruelty?
Last night I made a remarkable, unremarkable thirty minute journey from Vienna Airport to Bratislava. As is befitting my lowly station in life I made the trip not in the back of a luxurious limo but in the back of a minibus trying (as ever) to explain why we British are not ‘mad’ to French and German colleagues.
When I was a kid back in the strategic ice-age of the Cold War when politics and life seemed ever so sepia-tinted that thirty minute journey would have crossed from one world to another and would probably not have happened at all. Indeed, the Bratislava border crossing was so notorious it was a scene in John Le Carré’s spy masterpiece Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Back then the Danube was a tangled metal ribbon of mine-laden fear and mistrust; a place where trigger-fingers trip-wired the world for destruction. It was East glaring at West and the West glaring back.
As Russia seemingly endeavours again to define its ‘greatness’ through the fear and intimidation it can impose on other Europeans perhaps the journey I made last night was more pilgrimage than passage in the hope history really can be changed through partnership and inspired leadership. Today, Bratislava is a charming capital of a small central European country that has found its own place but it is only because big leaders held to big values in the face of big pressure. Peace was built it did not simply happen.
This is not just a lesson for Machopolitik Moscow. Living as I do just down the road from Brussels the smell of cynical self-interest dressed up as ‘Europe’ wafts daily over me. To discover ‘Europe’ today one has to come here and then move east. Western Europe has become such a ‘whatever’ place; tired of itself, tired of its leaders and their endless pointless drivel and tired of the false hope and false ideas so many of them peddle.
‘Europe’ today has become so IKEA. Instead of confronting change and crisis little people struggle instead with little flat packs of little problems hoping against hope that heat rather than light will lead Europe forward. They spend their time on trying to put together little things that do not fit very well with screws loose and nuts missing.
Sadly, the ability and the will of political leaders to see the real issues and act on them are rare. They simply lack the requisite vision and courage to confront crises and instead lose themselves in a welter of self-justifying spin so dense that the distinction between truth and falsehood is lost in a thousand sound-bites.
Today, the road to Bratislava is no longer blocked by checkpoints of chastising ideological chill but it is still pitted with the potholes of short-term, self-interested pretence. The current crisis in which a European country is again being dismembered by pitiless power has demonstrated that there can be no IKEA fix. This is a big moment demanding big leadership.
Therefore, if Europe is to win its new battle with Machopolitik Europeans must again remember the road to Bratislava. Europeans must instead return to the first principles of freedom that in the end made that journey possible driven the will to defend them.
History is only senseless and cruel if the politics and strategy that make history are driven by short-term prescriptions in which the easy politics of the moment trumps strategy and security. In standing up to Greater Russia it is time for all Europeans as Europe to stand tall and resist the precedents of macho power Moscow is seeking to re-establish in Europe. Fail and it will not simply be the poor people of Ukraine who suffer the consequences. The very idea of ‘Europe’ will have been demonstrated a hollow, empty lie – a good-time gamble unable and unwilling to stand up for the very values and interests it claims as its heritage.
Then indeed history will be cruel in its judgement everybody will again be a foreigner.