Europe: Tear down those walls!

by David Gow on 9th November 2019 @gowdav
It may be three decades since the Berlin wall came down but too many others have recently proliferated.
‘Die Mauer in den Köpfen’ (the wall in the heads) is a phrase I first heard as a German correspondent in the 1990s, not that long after the October 1990 celebrations of reunification at the Reichstag in Berlin, on which I reported. The famous dictum of the former long-time Social Democrat leader Willy Brandt at the Schöneberg town hall a year earlier—‘es wächst zusammen was zusammen gehört’ (what belongs together grows together)—had swiftly turned to dust. Then, as now, economic disparity had something to do with it, even though on average €100 billion a year has been transferred from west to east over the last three decades. Three million east Germans lost their jobs within barely a year. The overwhelming number of senior posts were taken over by Besserwessis. And today, as the Hans Böckler Foundation’s WSI institute recently reported, east German wages are 16.9 per cent lower than for western counterparts with the same qualifications.
Indeed, in the run-up to the decidedly low-key, typically soul-searching 30th-anniversary celebrations in Germany, there were many reflections on the emotional, cultural, sociological and psycho-political walls remaining between east and west. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in the old German Democratic Republic, told Der Spiegel: ‘Different experiences of life in east and west are a fact. We should talk more about it and make a greater effort to understand each other.’ She blamed an initial lack of curiosity and interest on the part of West German politicians.
And, I might add, the West German media. When I returned from a week-long visit to Saxony in 1991, investigating neo-Nazi attacks on migrants and asylum-seekers, colleagues in the Bundespressekonferenz (official lobby for political correspondents) asked incredulously: ‘Why on earth go there? They’re a different, difficult lot …’ Outside the Zwinger museum complex in Dresden 15 years later, a group of tourists from Düsseldorf admitted to me that it was the first time they had set foot in the east—and insisted they still had little in common with their compatriots.
Now, I imagine, they would be shaking their heads in disbelief at the fact that, together, the Left Party (Die Linke, part-successors to the old East German Communists) and the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland commanded over 53 per cent of the vote in the recent state election in Thuringia or that the AfD came a strong second in Brandenburg and Saxony. It scores 13 per cent in current national polls; it won 23.4 per cent in Thuringia, 27.5 per cent in Saxony and 23.5 per cent in Brandenburg.
But it is simplistic to conceive this merely as a continuing divide between east and west. According to the ‘Happiness Atlas’, east German levels of happiness are running neck-and-neck—at 7.05 points, the highest in 30 years—just 0.17 points behind the western Länder. And the highest level is in … Thuringia, at 7.09.
The latest federal-government report on (re)unification insists that wages, salaries and the disposable incomes of east Germans have reached 85 per cent of western levels, with unemployment down to 6.5 per cent. Having said that, the report adds: ‘It emerged (from a survey) that 57 per cent of people in the east feel that they are second-class citizens. Only 38 per cent feel that reunification has been successful. Among the under-40-year-olds, i.e. those who only knew the GDR as children if at all, the figure is only 20 per cent … almost half of Germans in the east of the country are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working.’
At the same time, sociologists such as Jan Eichhorn of Edinburgh University point out that the greatest differences between west and east lie among the pre-1989 generation—notably east Germans now aged 35-53 who are most attracted by the populist anti-democracy language of AfD leaders such as Björn Höcke in Thuringia. ‘These differences have been with us a long time and have not only just come to light but are now being noticed,’ Eichhorn says.
As in other European states, voters (and citizens) differ in their views and feelings culturally, ideologically and politically across a variety of demographic segments. There are walls within the EU-28 as much as between them.
Walls and fences
Long before ‘Brexit’, walls were being (re-)erected across the European continent—indeed, for at least a decade, certainly since the 2008-09 financial crisis. Fully 1,000 kilometres of border walls and fences have been built, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute.
This is the case especially since the Syrian war and the ‘refugee crisis’, with a further 4,750km of the Mediterranean patrolled by the EU’s Frontex vessels. Fences now divide inter alia Hungary from Serbia and Croatia, Turkey from Greece and Calais from refugee encampments—not forgetting the more longstanding wall separating the (Catholic) Falls from the (Protestant) Shankill in Belfast, among nearly 100 such ‘interfaces’ in Northern Ireland.
As the new, revised EU system for managing flows of asylum-seekers continues to stall, the crisis may have abated for a while. But, given tensions along the Turkish-Syrian border and the ongoing battle for Idlib, a new wave of refugees is virtually guaranteed.
All of this is manna for the far right, most frequently in the post-Communist east but also in the west. Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institute has written: ‘These groups have deepened Europe’s divisions and raised questions about the viability and legitimacy of representative, pluralist, and open democracies in the modern world.’
There is an alarming tendency for the centre-right, meanwhile, to cuddle up to the far right (or think of it) is not only East Germany but also Italy, the UK and France. And the rule of law continues to be trampled upon in Hungary and Poland, with ineffectual raps on the knuckles from the European Commission.
Widening gap
At the same time, the gap between rich and poor in Europe as a whole is widening. Michael Dauderstädt has written in these pages that inequality is even wider than it looks, with an enlarged European middle class (250 million) representing 60 per cent of the population, comfortably off but with the upper decile enriching itself even more at the expense of the poor and very poor. Colleagues at Eurofound have shown how income convergence between and inside new and old member states has stalled, with a steep rise in in-work poverty. A decade of austerity has brought little but misery—and a deepening of rage against the liberal-democratic machine in Fortress Europe.
On October 1st Jan Assmann of Heidelberg University gave a talk in Brussels called ‘The European Dream’, in which he called for a European ‘we’ rather than a federal state, an ‘awareness of shared identity, trust, solidarity and mutual aid’ which might stand as the mantra of the von der Leyen commission (if it ever gets going) and the EU-27. Otherwise, the walls in our heads will continue to grow and, as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, warned in his recent Economist interview, Europe will become an irrelevance in the slipstream of the US, China, Russia and other authoritarian states.
A post-Brexit revival of the great unifying European project—this time embracing and enthusing all European citizens—is essential.
(David Gow is a former editor of Social Europe, editor of and former German correspondent and European business editor of the Guardian.)