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Eastern European

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A European Germany, Not a German Europe

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago on Saturday, was one of the best parties I ever went to, and certainly the longest. But when I finally sobered up, it was also quite frightening, because nobody knew what was coming out of the box next.

There had been scary moments in Germany during the Cold War, of course, with Soviet troops in the eastern part and troops from practically every Western country in the western part, but a divided Germany had become part of the landscape.

For many people on both sides, in fact, it was a quite satisfactory landscape. As François Mauriac once said: “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.”

For the older generation of Europeans, Germany had always been the problem (two world wars), and the post-1945 division of the country was a kind of solution, since it kept foreign troops in both parts of Germany. They weren’t formally occupation forces any more, but they served as a sort of guarantee nevertheless. And now, in November 1989, that solution was collapsing.

On a brief visit to Moscow just weeks before the Wall came down, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader: “We do not want the reunification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the (post-1945) borders that would undermine the stability of the entire international situation.”

Indeed, Thatcher added, Gorbachev should ignore any statements to the contrary by the West. The NATO alliance might have to make pro-reunification statements to keep its German partner happy, but the other members didn’t really want to abandon the post-war settlement and “de-communise” Eastern Europe. But she was wrong about that.

Most of the senior politicians in what was not yet called the European Union understood that German reunification was a risk that had to be accepted. There was a new German generation in charge, and you had to trust them.

Western Europe’s other leaders also understood that ‘de-communising’ eastern Europe might finally deliver the free and democratic Europe that should have followed the victory over Hitler in 1945, and they had the steady support of the senior President Bush in both those choices. But it really was a gamble, and it might all have gone wrong.

A reunited Germany could once again have used its wealth, numbers and central position to seek domination over Europe, as it had done under both the Kaisers and the Nazis. The countries of Eastern Europe, freed from Russian rule, might have ended up as a string of squabbling tinpot dictatorships, as most of them did when they first got their freedom after World War One.

The main reason it didn’t all end in tears was the European Union, a more comprehensive version of the existing European Economic Community that was negotiated in 1990-92 and declared in 1993.

Creating the EU (and giving it a common currency, the euro) provided a structure big and strong enough to contain a united Germany and not be dominated by it. It also saved the former ‘satellite’ countries of Eastern Europe from a potentially ugly fate.

The EU countries had all the things that Poles, Slovaks and Bulgarians longed for: prosperity, personal freedom and democracy. And although it is not a charitable institution, the EU decided to let the Eastern European countries join, provided that they also became law-abiding and relatively uncorrupt democracies. So that’s exactly what they did.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did not led automatically to the benign reunification of Germany. It created the opportunity for positive change, but making it happen took clear thinking and hard political work. The happy outcome in Eastern Europe was not some quirk of fate either. It was the product of social engineering on an international scale.

There is no ‘German question’ today. It has been solved. The economies of Eastern European countries are far bigger than they were 30 years ago (four times bigger for Romania, six times for Poland), and average incomes are catching up. In 1990 Poles earned only a quarter of what Germans did; now it’s almost two-thirds.

There are some problems with populist/nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary at the moment, but it’s still far better there politically than it ever was before 1989. It’s better everywhere – so why is the United Kingdom, the second-biggest member of this organisation that has put an end to centuries of war and tyranny in Europe, now planning to leave the EU?

Because the English don’t get it. Britain is an island that hasn’t been successfully invaded for almost a millennium, so they don’t realise that the EU is primarily about preserving democracy and keeping the peace. They think it’s just an economic deal, and a lot of them believe (mistakenly) that they can get a better deal elsewhere.

They are, as Napoleon allegedly remarked, “a nation of shopkeepers.” (Actually, it was Adam Smith who said it first.) A nation of shopkeepers who haven’t even noticed that their shops are closing down.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“For…them”; and “On a brief…about that”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Migrants, Euro, Brexit: The EU at Risk

A recent headline on the leading Franch newspaper Le Monde said it all: “Migrants, the Euro, Brexit: The European Union is mortal.” And it’s true, the EU could actually collapse, given one or two more years of really bad decisions by the 28 national governments that make up the membership.

The most immediate threat is Brexit (British+exit), the possible result of the Yes/No referendum on British membership in the EU that is scheduled for 23 June. Prime Minister David Cameron promised this referendum three years ago to placate an anti-EU faction in his own Conservative Party (Cameron himself wants to stay in the EU), but it is coming at a particularly bad time.

Cameron doubtless calculated that the referendum would produce a large majority for staying in, and force the nationalist “Little Englanders” in his own party to shut up for a while. But the vote is actually being held at a time when many English people are upset by the large flow of immigrants into the United Kingdom and blame it on the policy of free movement for EU citizens.

That is only half-true: only half the foreign-born people settling in Britain are EU citizens who come by right. The rest are legal immigrants from other parts of the world, also attracted by the relatively prosperous British economy, and if the locals don’t like it they are free to change Britain’s own laws. But the half-truth that it’s all the EU’s fault has been vigorously promoted by the right-wing papers that dominate the British media scene.

The million-plus wave of refugees and economic migrants that has surged into the EU in the past year feeds the British panic even more, although Britain still controls its own borders and none of those migrants can enter the UK without London’s permission. The result is that the polls now show the “Leave” and “Remain” votes almost neck-and-neck.

The refugees and illegal economic migrants really are a problem for most other EU countries. The vast majority of them enter the EU through Greece and Italy, but they almost all want to travel on to the richer EU countries – which, with the admirable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, want nothing to do with them.

This is rapidly leading to a breakdown of the “Schengen” agreement, by which all the EU members except the United Kingdom and Ireland abolished their border controls with other Schengen countries. New border fences are now springing up everywhere as EU members try to keep the migrants out.

Dissent with EU policies is growing as some Eastern European countries refuse to accept any refugees at all, and ultra-nationalist parties are growing in strength almost everywhere. In Hungary, and now in Poland, they have even come to power.

Then there is the euro, the common currency shared by 19 EU countries including all the big ones except the United Kingdom. It was a bad idea from the start, because a single currency without a single government behind it cannot deal effectively with big issues like debt and inflation. It was bound to end up in crisis as the economies of the member states diverged – and they have.

The EU was transfixed all last year by the threat that Greece would crash out of the euro. The Greek crisis has been put on hold for the moment, but it is clear by now that Italy, Spain and Portugal, at least, would also benefit from leaving the euro zone. This is a currency that has no future, although its demise is not necessarily imminent.

So: three separate problems, none of them likely to be fatal to the EU on its own. The EU survived with separate national currencies for four decades before it adopted the euro; it could do so again, although the transition back would be painful and probably chaotic. The Schengen treaty was a nice idea, but not essential to the Union’s smooth functioning. And Britain’s departure could be nothing more than a spectacular act of self-mutilation.

It’s the fact that all these crises are hitting together that endangers the EU’s very existence. The only immediate and certain consequence of Brexit would be Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom (so that it could stay in the EU), and nobody would have much sympathy for England’s post-Brexit difficulties. But the walk-out of the country with the EU’s second-biggest economy would trigger a political earthquake.

The various populations of the EU are seething with dissatisfaction about immigration and refugees, about the euro, about all the compromises and bureaucracy that must be tolerated to keep a 28-country “community” going. Mini-Trumps are cropping up everywhere, offering radical solutions that usually include an explicit or implicit commitment to leave the Union.

It could snowball. Where Britain (or rather, England) breaks trail, others might follow. We could end up with a severely shrunken EU, back down to the original six members plus a few others, while the countries of Eastern Europe try to get used to being once more the buffer between Russia and the West.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and . (That is…scene”; and “Dissent…power”)

Germany and Refugees

No good deed goes unpunished.

Two months ago Chancellor Angela Merkel amazed the world by opening Germany’s borders to all the genuine refugees (mostly Syrians and Afghans) who could get that far. She must have known her own people well, because ordinary Germans showed extraordinary sympathy and generosity to the new arrivals.

Even when the first estimate of 800,000 refugees coming to Germany this year went up to 1.5 million, the “welcome culture” stayed strong. Only one month ago Merkel’s action still had the approval of half the population, with only 40 percent thinking her policy was wrong.

Now those numbers are reversed, and the voices of dissent are multiplying. Even Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of the state of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union,(CDU), has lost patience, saying that “no society can cope with an influx on this scale.” In fact, he’s theatening to challenge her policy before Germany’s Constitutional Court.

That’s just “compassion fatigue”, you might say, and you would be right. Bavarians have seen 175,000 refugees arrive in their midst in just the past month. That’s almost 1.5 percent of the state’s population in just thirty days. Many of them will move on to other states eventually – but another 175,000 will probably arrive in the coming month.

The scale of the refugee influx into Germany is almost unprecedented in modern European history: one and a half million people in six months (for the refugees only started arriving in large numbers in July). It’s as if the United States, with four times Germany’s population, were taking in one million Syrian and Afghan refugees every month. Americans would never accept that.

What’s surprising is not the fall in support for Merkel’s policy. It’s the fact that it is still so strong, even though no other member of the European Union is being anything like so generous in its refugee policy. (Britain has offered to take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years.) There must be something special about the German response.

There is certainly something special about modern German history, though most people elsewhere have forgotten it or never knew it. Not the Nazis and the war, but what happened at the end of the Second World War and just afterwards. As the Soviet army rolled west across eastern Europe in early 1945, huge numbers of ethnic Germans fled before it.

Hundreds of thousands of them died of cold, hunger and the constant bombing, but between six and eight million made it into what is now Germany before the fighting ended. Almost as many more were expelled from Eastern European countries in the following five years, mostly from Czechoslovakia and the parts of Germany (about a fifth of its current area) that had been given to Poland by the victors.

Between 1945 and 1950 some twelve million German refugees arrived in Germany – a Germany that had been bombed flat and was desperately poor. Even food was scarce in the early post-war years. But the Germans took the refugees in, shared what they had with them, and together they gradually pulled their country out of the hole it had dug for itself.

Germans don’t like to dwell on this period of their country’s history, but it hasn’t been forgotten. Indeed, one-fifth of today’s Germans are those now elderly refugees and their children and grandchildren. Deep down Germans have an understanding of what it is to be a refugee that no other Western Europeans can share.

Does this explain why Merkel did what she did? Nobody can say except herself, and she isn’t saying. She certainly hasn’t been a strong advocate of large-scale immigration in the past.

At a meeting with young CDU party workers in Potsdam five years ago, she said that the idea of creating a multicultural society in Germany had failed utterly: “The concept that we are now living side by side and are happy about it does not work.” Indeed, she even said that Germans had Christian values and “anyone who doesn’t accept that is in the wrong place here.”

But she grew up in the town of Templin in northern Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany. When she was a child and a young woman, that area, not very far from the new Polish border, had a population that was 40 percent refugees.

Does their own refugee heritage explain why half of Germany’s 80 million people still support a policy that, so long as it lasts, will be adding one and a half million more non-German-speaking Muslims to the country’s population each year? Yes, it probably does.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“At a meeting…here”)

Israel: Everybody is a Minority

Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, is an outspoken man, but he knows when to hold his fire.

He condemned the killing of an 18-month-old Palestinian child in an arson attack in the West Bank by suspected Jewish settlers last Friday as “terrorism”, but he did not say that the suspects were from the extreme wing of the “national religious tribe”.

Rivlin has not yet commented publicly on the knife attack on Gay Pride marchers in Jerusalem the previous day that wounded six people (one of whom, 16-year-old Shira Banki, has now died of her wounds). But if and when he does, he will not point out that the killer, Yishai Schlissel, belongs to the extremist fringe of the “Haredi tribe”, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not even recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

It would be wrong to use language that paints all the members of the tribes in question as accomplices in these murders, because they aren’t. Even if some of them sympathize with the actions of the murderer (and some probably do), it would still be a political mistake to alienate them further from the mainstream of Israeli society.

But maybe we should rephrase that last sentence, because in Rivlin’s view there no longer is an Israeli “mainstream”. There once was, when secular Jews, mostly of Eastern European origin, formed the majority of the population and everybody else belonged to “minorities”. But higher birth rates among those minorities have turned the secular Jews into just another minority—and he says they should really all be seen as “tribes”.

He said all this two months ago, in a startlingly frank speech to the Herzliya conference, an annual event where the country’s leaders debate issues of national policy. “In the 1990s,” he told them, “Israeli society comprised…a large secular Zionist majority, and beside it three minority groups: a national-religious minority, an Arab minority, and a Haredi minority.

“Although this pattern remains frozen in the minds of much of the Israeli public, in the press, in the political system, all the while, the reality has totally changed,” he continued. “Today, the first grade classes (in Israeli schools) are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, about 15 percent national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Haredim.”

The demographic changes, Rivlin said, have created a “new Israeli order…in which Israeli society is comprised of four population sectors, or, if you will, four principal ‘tribes’, essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size. Whether we like it or not, the make-up of the ‘stakeholders’ of Israeli society, and of the State of Israel, is changing before our eyes.”

The most important implication of this change is that barely half of the children now in Israeli primary schools will grow up to be Zionists. The Arabs will not, of course, but neither will the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe that the Zionist project to recreate Jewish rule in Israel is blasphemous. Only God can do that, by sending the Messiah, and the Zionist attempt to hurry it along by human means is a rebellion against God.

Neither of these “tribes” even serves in the military, once the great unifying Israeli institution. Arabs are not conscripted for military service, and very few volunteer. In practice, the Haredim have been exempt from military service for all of Israel’s history as an independent state, although parliament passed a law last year that seeks to end the exemptions.

The Zionist tribes are also divided between the secular Zionists and the “national religious” tribe. The latter reconcile their Orthodox religious beliefs with the Zionist project by arguing that it was God who inspired the early Zionists in eastern Europe to build a Jewish state in Palestine, even if they did not realize it themselves. Most Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and most of their supporters in Israel proper, belong to this tribe.

All these former minority tribes are to some extent alienated from the secular, liberal-democratic Zionist assumptions that underpin Israel’s current political structure. A few members of each tribe are already so alienated that they turn to violence, like the settlers who attack Palestinian children, the Israeli Arabs who run amok and kill Jews, or the Haredi fanatic who attacked the Gay Pride march.

President Rivlin, “Ruvi” didn’t say that explicitly—it’s too upsetting—but he was pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. The current secular Zionist domination cannot continue; the other tribes must also come to feel safe and welcome in a different kind of Israel. Specifically, in a “one-state” Israel that includes all the territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

Rivlin, though an Orthodox Jew, doesn’t really belong to any of these tribes: his family has lived in Jerusalem for more than two centuries. He doesn’t believe that the “two-state solution”—one country for Jews and one for Palestinian Arabs—is viable any more, if it ever was. So he is driven to the “one-state solution”, which requires reconciliation and cooperation between all the tribes.

It’s so radical that it almost makes sense. It’s just hard to believe that it could actually happen.