Three thoughts – one positive, one neutral and one apocalyptic – as Jutta and I prepare for a month’s tandeming through Central Europe from the Baltics to Bavaria.
To start with apocalypse (but please read on for two alternative views), listening to Farage and his kind I’m afraid I can’t help thinking of the late 1980s when I was covering what was then still peaceful Yugoslavia for BBC radio.
In the autumn of 1988 it seemed far-fetched, but I still have Serbian firebrand Vuk Draskovic on tape warning that “If Europe want Lebanon [as in, civil war, and there’s Europe again…] it can have it.”
And of course, we did, and how.
I’m emphatically not saying the Brexit vote will or even could lead to a Yugoslav-style civil war in these islands. But demagogues willing to build their own power on lies and blame should know that they play with fire.
And as in Yugoslavia (Northern Ireland again, anyone? Or Ukraine? Or Transsylvania? Or civil war Spain? Or Civil War England?) there is in Europe quite enough historical explosive buried in national psyches and waiting to be stirred up.
Thought two now, somewhat more benign.
A couple of years after that interview with Draskovic, and with the wars of Yugoslav succession in full bloody progress, it was Czechoslovakia’s turn to fall apart.
Of course, the Czechs and Slovaks were wise enough to negotiate a velvet divorce, but there is much in common between Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson here and Slovakia’s pugilist (literally – he was a former boxer) then Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, stirring sentiment against the big, powerful and resented neighbouring Czech Republic.
Then as now, economists and experts warned that separation was a really bad idea – economically, politically, socially.
Ordinary working Slovaks (rather like the less well-educated and poorer former Labour voters in the UK) would have none of it. Resonating as our own anti-EU politicians do with his nation’s gut feeling of being pushed about by powerful, arrogant neighbours, Meciar rapidly drove what came to be known as the Czechloslovak Velvet Divorce.
In the end after all, politics (and economics, and indeed all human behaviour) is about emotion, not reason.
In Czechoslovakia, divorce was rapid, painful, but reasonably amicable. Slovaks today remain poorer than the Czechs, but on the whole it worked – in no small measure because both new republics felt themselves to be part of Europe, and indeed relatively quickly joined the EU.
I can’t help feeling that our own British experience of divorce will be a lot more protracted and painful, given that with Scotland and perhaps even in Ireland it will almost certainly lead to internal UK divorces too.
And talking of divorces, a very personal third point.
First, I know all too well that once a party to a marriage has said they want out, it’s entirely reasonable for the other party to say, and insist, well, in that case, go now. End of.
Been there, experienced that, and fair enough….
As Jutta and I know, parties to a dysfunctional relationship sometimes need to separate, sort out their priorities, grow up a bit.
But also sometimes – sometimes – after a break they can find that it was with the old partnership that their true priorities lie.
Could it happen that once we Brits recognise the mess we’ve made of our European relationship so far, we too might one day wake up, say sorry, and ask our neighbours if they will have us back.
In 2013, after 13 years apart, Jutta took six months to test me out before she trusted me enough, to say, out of the blue on the top of Machu Picchu (as one does, hence photo above for the very moment it happened), “OK then, I commit. It’s a yes.”
So, miracles can happen. But it takes humility, and the long, protracted and hard work of personal change.
I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not at all sure our British body politic will have the will or the ability to embark on that path.