Alphen, Netherlands. 6 November. Winston Churchill said, “All the great things are simple and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, mercy, hope”. Twenty-five years ago in November 1989 like millions of my fellow Europeans I sat with tears rolling down my cheeks as I witnessed live on television the German people tear down the Berlin Wall. In so doing Germans joined fellow Europeans from across Central and Eastern Europe to rip down the “Iron Curtain” which Churchill had so famously dubbed back at the outset of the Cold War in 1946.
That 1989 act, that moment of dynamic unification, also marked the end of the four great European schisms that had so disfigured freedom; the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War, the 1914-1918 Great War, the 1939-1945 Second Great War, and the 1945-1989 Cold War. For millions of Europeans it was THE moment in Europe when justice, honour, mercy, hope and above all freedom finally came together in a continent-wide anthem of joy. Whatever happened thereafter (and much of course tragically did) Europe would finally one day be whole and free.
Yesterday, I enacted my inalienable right to freedom in Europe. It took me over nine hours to drive from the Netherlands to Wiesbaden and back but it was a matter of honour for me to attend the Change of Command ceremony of United States Army Europe (USAREUR). My purpose was manifold: to say thank you to retiring Lt. General Donald M. Campbell for his service to the defence of Europe’s freedom – my freedom; to congratulate my friend Lt. General Ben Hodges on his new appointment; to pay my respects to the United States and its armed forces for the immeasurable, transformative contribution they and the American people have made to Europe’s freedom; and to pay my respects to the equally amazing post-Cold War contribution Germany has made and continues to make to European freedom, stability and security. However, above all I made the journey because I could. Each turn of my car wheels retraced part of the bloody course my own British forebears had forged less than a lifetime ago to free Europe and Germany from the plague of Nazism.
As I made my progress I was utterly aware of the irony that much of the contemporary debate in Europe today concerns the consequences of freedom. Like many Western Europeans I am ambivalent and at times conflicted about the implications of such freedom, particularly as it concerns mass migration. And yet I have seen the transformative impact of freedom in many post-Cold War EU and NATO members. Go to Latvia or Poland, go to Bulgaria or Romania, go to the Czech Republic or Slovakia. For those of us all too aware of life under the Soviet yoke the transformation (for that is what it has been) these twenty-five years past is quite simply awe-inspiring.
Controversial though free movement is in contemporary Europe it a consequence not of the EU but rather the West’s victory in the Cold War which culminated in the people power tearing down the Berlin Wall in that fateful, inspirational week. Put simply something like free movement would be a fact in contemporary Europe EU or no EU because it is free movement the German people were celebrating when they tore that wall down. That is why I for one will always support free movement albeit free movement grounded in common sense controls and fairness.
Nowhere is the impact of the fall of the Wall greater than in Germany. Indeed, that moment in history still shapes so much of modern Germany and modern Germans. The Germans lived under the yoke of oppression for many years in different, poisonous forms. For Germans the twin-ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘Europe’ are inextricably bound together. Indeed, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of a massive German contribution to the stabilisation of post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe that belies the criticism oft-made of Berlin that Germany does not pull its weight on the international stage. The fall of the Berlin Wall also marked an equally momentous transformation; Germany’s final, irrevocable establishment as the bastion of European liberal democracy. Germany today is a modern state built on the principle that democracy is best served when power is as close as possible to the people.
Regular readers of this column will possibly be a bit surprised that I appear to be implying a pro-EU argument. No, I am making a fundamentally pro-European argument. When I worked for the EU I believed the Union was the embodiment of the principles enshrined in and by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even today my critique of the EU is not an objection to the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European treaties but rather a Brussels that is behaving ever more like a power-elite. Indeed, since that glorious 1989 moment the EU and its ever-more distant leaders have begun to show all of the signs of unconstrained supranational elitism towards whom power drifts upwards and inwards irrevocably. This has happened all-too-often in Europe's past and has never ended well. Ironically, it is modern Germany that is perhaps Europe's greatest defence against the over-mighty, something many outside Germany fail to realise. This is so even if at times Berlin clearly equivocates between what is best for Germany and what is best for Europe as the Germans try to learn how to handle power justly.
Germany must learn fast for Europe is once again at a crossroads between power and freedom. Yesterday in Wiesbaden I saw justice, honour and indeed hope in action. Americans standing with their German and other allies on the field of freedom was very moving. For that reason this week’s celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall is not just another of those historical commemorations that lie scattered like smooth, rocky pebbles across the stony beach of Europe’s political landscape. It is a commemoration of possibly the greatest single act of freedom in Europe’s bloody history made possible by the sacrifice of so many and by the staunch backing of a good friend.
However, the defence of Europe requires constant vigilance from threats without and indeed within if freedom is to be reinforced by justice, mercy, honour and above all hope. If not Europe twenty-five years hence will simply see one wall that divided Europeans replaced by another wall that separates power from the people. It must not happen. Don’t blow it Europe!