I was 20 in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down. I remember with great distinctness a time when the only Eastern Europeans you heard of were, faintly glamourous, refugees from despotic regimes. And there weren’t many of them. I had never met anyone from Eastern Europe. It was an impossibly alien place. When I was 15, I went to Berlin on a German exchange. I stared at the wall in fascination. When we drove through miles and miles of dreary East German countryside to get to the Black Forest in prosperous West Germany for holidays, I was spellbound (it is, of course, just my luck that instead of staying in exciting Berlin, I spent my time with my German exchange walking in Bavaria; they announced the impending trip to me as a great treat on the day of my arrival, sigh). And those countries were lumped together. They didn’t really have individual characteristics. They were just a big homogenous lump of grey soviet dictatorships with poor, poorly dressed people with badly dyed hair. I remember a Finnish colleague telling me that in Estonia they could watch Finnish TV (Estonian is very closely related to Finnish – aren’t you lucky to have me to explain these things to you?) and the state said that the cookery programmes where they said “take three eggs” were just propaganda because nobody has three eggs.
And now, it is so different. These countries are all distinct to me. My friend and neighbour is Czech. I have realised that Czech women are very pretty but this is, most unfairly for Czech women, not true for the men. If you are Czech and a woman, your surname must end in ova or they will laugh at you. This is why Sharon Stone is known as Sharon Stoneova there and Jane Austen as Jane Austenova. I cannot say why I find this hilarious. I have discovered that Slovak is a different language from Czech, I could probably find Bratislava on a map; I have worked with people from there and, if I play my cards right, I may even get to visit. I have worked with lots of Poles. My lovely cleaner is Polish and taught the Princess to sing songs in Polish. The industrious Polish plumber has become a standing joke. I heard an English comedian describe the Poles as “coming to this country and doing our jobs; not taking our jobs, doing our jobs”. I know about the poor East of the country and the more prosperous West. I can name the main regions and pronounce Łódź. I think Ryanair fly there from Cork. Two Estonian women come and clean my parents’ house for a couple of hours a fortnight. The Latvians are particularly unfond of the Russians, which is unfortunate for the significant Russian minority living there. Riga has become the stag party capital of Europe. Thank you Latvia for taking from Dublin that singularly unappealing honour. I have seen Lithuanian politicians in action and they seem to be a strong minded bunch. Romanian is a romance language; Bulgarian is not. Thank you Bulgaria for bringing cyrillic to the EU thereby adding a third alphabet to the existing pair. I have been horribly lost in Sofia and know that next time I go back, I should go straight to Plovdiv. Slovenia markets itself as the sunny side of the Alps and got through the war in the Balkans scot free. The Slovenians are rather glamourous and they are richer than all the other Eastern European countries. I once had to strip off with a Slovenian colleague to go to a sauna while on a work trip. These things form a bond. The Hungarians speak a fiendishly difficult language, one which Irish people are trying to get to grips with as they buy up large parts of Budapest. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop now.
You used to be able to spot the Eastern Europeans in Brussels for their meetings; those clothes, that hair. I’m not saying that all is sweetness and light now but you can’t tell them on the streets of Brussels. They have all acquired this standard eurocrat gloss. As you walk around the streets of the capital of Europe, you see many people dressed in a sort of standard eurocrat costume; for the most part beautifully turned out and expensively dressed (I say for the most part as the European institutions also seem to harbour the odd hippy – touching) and they could be from anywhere, but in a good way. Yesterday, the Princess and I had breakfast in the Pain Quotidien on the Sablon and sitting opposite us were three women; one teenager with hair extensions and a languid manner sporting very trendy clothes with brand names unknown to me, one older sophisticated grandmother and one woman about my age. They looked like the usual clientele, BCBG types having Sunday brunch (the Princess and I like to go there so that people can oooh and aah at our crumpled, grubby, cheap clothes), in fact the only thing that marked them out as different, and not so very different was that they were speaking in some Eastern European tongue (if pushed, I would go for Hungarian, it seemed so hard). So, on this basis alone, I do not generally mock the European Union. It’s not responsible for the collapse of communism but, it is certainly responsible for bringing those countries into the European mainstream and ensuring that they have the funds necessary to promote the kind of growth that supports bored teenagers in the Pain Quotidien.
I believe in the European Union. I believe it has value as an idea and it produces much useful work. However, I would be the first to concede that the writing style of a Union which has 23 official languages can be a little, ahem, special. Also a little cliched (who am I to criticise?). Below is some information on a European strategy. I have deleted the details of the actual strategy and I believe it could be used for almost any of the fine documents which regularly emanate from the Union. Take this and put it in your drawer. If you ever need to write a European strategy, your problems are solved by this one size fits all solution. A small prize, as yet undetermined (perhaps a reply to your comment, for a change) will be given to anyone who guesses correctly the actual field to which this text applies:
Our strategy consists of a number of elements which aim at stimulating the definition and implementation of national strategies that, based on a detailed evaluation of the national situation, establish quantitative objectives for reducing the incidence of X. We will focus on the most common risks and the most vulnerable Y. We also want to improve and simplify existing legislation as well as to enhance its implementation in practice through non-binding instruments such as, guidelines to help companies to implement legislation, exchange of good practices, awareness raising campaigns and better information and training. It also focuses on mainstreaming of Z in other policy areas and finding new synergies and improved identification and evaluation of potential new risks. It requires the commitment of all parties, national authorities, social partners, etc, and the European Agency for Z.
The European Union is 50 on March 25. Happy Birthday to it.