Twenty years later: have the walls of Europe really come down?
November 25, 2009 Leave a Comment
On 9th November 2009, feasting crowds in Berlin remembered the 20th anniversary of fall of the barrier that had divided the city and its citizens for 38 years.
The Berlin Wall had also split Germany, and Europe.
From 1961 till 1989, Eastern and Western Europe had been clearly defined entities on the map and in the minds, separated by a visible, man-made boundary.
Exactly two decades ago, people gathered on both sides of the wall and climbed over it, marking by this act the beginning of the collapse of the Eastern block and the Soviet Union. For many across the European continent, the commemoration of this anniversary was not only a moment of celebration but also an incentive for rationalisation and analysis.
From the heart of reunited Europe, Maastricht offered its share of activities, with conferences and lectures on the significance of the event. Science Café, Studium Generale‘s monthly debate organized in cooperation with a student association, hosted an evening with European Studies Association Concordantia. The objective of debate was to look at developments within and outside the European Union since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to reflect on the question: “Has the wall really come down?”
Science Café was held at the Selexyz Dominicanen bookstore. The guest speakers, assistant professors at the Politics Department of Maastricht University Giselle Bosse from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Aneta Spendzharova from Bulgaria, and Hungarian Member of European Parliament György Schöpflin from the European People’s Party, all said that they had been particularly affected by the fall of the Berlin Wall because they were born on its Eastern side.
Gerard Mols, Maastricht University’s rector magnificus, moderated the discussion and tried to bring in the voice of the small and mostly student audience.
After the wall came down
The speakers shared personal memories of the days surrounding the fall of the wall, bringing them to life to the student audience who could barely walk at the time. Aneta Spendzharova described the events of November 1989 a “contingency of history.” György Schöpflin agreed: “It was fascinating. I still remember this existential shock, as I got to the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and suddenly there was no wall. Suddenly, of everything which had been there so solidly since 1961, there was nothing.”
What followed was the crumbling of regimes that had been shaky for some time already, ending in the collapse of the Eastern block.
Four years later, the EU invited the Central and Eastern European countries to apply for membership. The criteria for accession mostly revolved around the existence of a market economy and the rule of law. Spendzharova underlined that in the beginning, despite privatization, many old practices continued. “When the wall came down, we started a transition period, but the elites did not change overnight,” she said.
As for long term developments, the speakers spoke cautiously: “All these countries are doing a lot better than they were doing 20 years ago,” said Schöpflin referring to increased material well-being, visible in the availability of exotic foods such as bananas, nowadays to be found in every supermarket.
Nevertheless, there is still a huge gap in income between many Eastern countries and those on top of the EU list. “Will we ever catch up?” wondered Schöpflin. “The answer is, not in my lifetime. But there has been some achievement, although it is taking long.”
With regard to the rule of law and democracy, many distinctions can be made between countries, but the picture is similar: the process has been initiated, but there is a long way ahead.
However, Spendzharova warned against a too strict measurement of democracy in instrumental terms. “If you asked most of the people who were at the wall back in November 1989 to define the word democracy, they would have told you it is freedom from oppression.” And that did come about, together with freedom of movement after the abolition of internal frontiers.
A world without borders?
Some frontiers, nevertheless, remain, and sometimes even seem to thicken. Bosse focused on the EU’s new Eastern boundary: “At the moment, to me it looks like this border is more or less finalized”, she said, criticizing the EU’s lack of political will to enlarge further. She therefore underlined the need for other solutions for overcoming barriers. This, obviously, also requires a shared understanding of the geographical limit for enlargement.
When Schöpflin invited the audience to try to establish where Europe ends by defining non-Europe, the hall was silent. It can be difficult to draw lines on a map based not only on geography but also on the nature of Europe. What kind of Europe do we want and believe in?
“I worry a bit about defining the European Union too much in terms of defending what we have, in terms of rule of law, freedom and wealth,” said Philipp Dorstewitz, a German lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, who was sitting in audience. “It would be much better to think about what we can do and what we have to do to serve the long run and to improve the world outside,” Dorstewitz added, referring to the restrictions imposed on poorer countries by the so-called ‘Fortress Europe’.
Schöpflin, though, did not share the same opinion. “You see Europe as a moral purpose,” he replied. “But Europe does not dictate the global moral agenda anymore.” In an increasing complex world with many players, the EU might not be at the forefront and will have to play by rules set by others.
The argument, interestingly, linked back to Mols’ question: “Can we have a world without borders?” Whether or not this is desirable is a different issue, but reality shows that borders exist, albeit not always physical such as the Berlin wall, and often invisible. This makes them more flexible, but also more difficult to locate and to tear down.
So has the wall really come down?
After looking at the borders and walls of the enlarged European Union, the debate returned to where it had started: the wall which had divided it for 38 years.
“This summer, I traveled from Istanbul to Germany, and I realised that I could not identify the countries on the map. So I wonder, is Europe perceived as one Europe?” asked a German student.
Bosse replied that for her part, she felt that the East – West division still exists for many in the West, and that it is even used to explain current social issues such as unemployment. “Even younger generations still come up with categories from the past. But it is the wrong way to address problems”.
Schöpflin went even further, stating that these categories stem from historic cleavage, due to the Western ignorance of Central-Europe beyond stereotypes, in terms of literature, art and culture. He argued that there is a lack of mutual knowledge, an essential ingredient for mutual understanding. And in default of that, categories and stereotypes live on.
As a whole, the debate clearly pointed out that although the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, it has left scars. Economic, political and social transformations within Europe are on the way, but reforms take longer than revolutions. The moderator, professor Mols, tried to engage the audience and partly succeeded. If at moments the hall was silent, it was perhaps because of the sometimes excessively specialized economic focus of the debate, especially during the first part.
The inverse relationship between specialized knowledge and wide participation in a way mirrors the transformation of the young democracies in Eastern Europe, as their political scene has become more technical and complex. After what Spendzharova called the “exuberance following the fall”, what has emerged is more apathy. Certainly this is a sign of evolution and maturity, but it also shows that for involvement, a deeper sense of connection is important too.
European flags at the European Parliament, photo by TPCOM via Flickr
This might also be key in bridging the gaps within the European Union. The solution is too often sought in terms of economics and politics, the main engines of integration. However, as the debate showed, these criteria are not always perceived as adequate and do not provide clear answers. A deeper understanding of differences might also be necessary.
The collection of nationalities, generations and beliefs speaking one language and trying to understand each other during the evening may give a hint as to how to achieve such an understanding. Education and cultural exchange will certainly play a role in making Europe more diverse yet cohesive. Although it is a process that will take time, it will be fundamental in demolishing the old walls and recognizing emerging ones on time to knock them down as well.
By Sofia Tussis
Sofia Tussis is an Italian student at University College Maastricht, specialising in European Studies. She loves the town, its people and its bicycles, its weather a little less.