It was a pleasure to complete the FK(a)UK Brexit Hara-Kiri tour with visits to Sofia, Bucharest, Bratislava, and then Westerngrund, Spessart-Mainland in North West Bavaria – the geographical centre of the EU28. I spent some reflective moments at its modest monument in something of a beauty spot on 31st October – looking for a ditch for our anything-but-modest PM. But like every other thing he says, you can place absolutely zero reliance on it.
Stage two largely confirms observations from the tour’s first stage earlier this month.
A better future should comprise continental-scale, enabling political unions, of highly distinctive small and mid-size nations and regions, sharing global visions and values. The EU, warts and all, is currently the leading exemplar of this type of approach. It has enough positive work-in-progress upon which to build – if its globally pretentious larger members can shrug off exceptionalism and behave with some degree of generosity and humility. The UK is currently totally incapable of this – hence the requirement for FK(a)UK’s hara-kiri.
Bulgaria, my first stop, continued the joys of Stage One. At around 1.2m population in a country of under 7m, Sofia just about retains the qualities of mid-size. Lunch in beautiful, culturally rich Veliko Tarnovo on the drive north to Romania was a highlight of the tour.
Bulgaria has struggled with population decline of more than 2m residents since the late-1980s. This has been particularly acute in cities like Veliko. Out-migration within the EU (including UK) couples with the pull of Sofia. The latter, arguably, illustrates the strategic tensions faced by too many nation states – including the UK – who place over-reliance on a muscular capital city.
It was wonderful to spend a day with an engaging guide – now a friend – on the road trip north from Sofia. His understanding of Bulgaria past and present brought the journey to life.
We travelled shortly after the shocking racism by a minority of Bulgarians at their Euro 2020 qualifier against England. We share a commitment to tolerance – racial and religious – which he considers a central tenet of contemporary Bulgaria; and disgust at its opposite. This is whether practiced by the mindless soccer fan or the very, very MINDFUL manipulative politician. Johnson, Gove and Farage’s incitement to hate crimes against migrants in and since the 2016 Referendum campaign (including, of course, Bulgarians) puts England players’ experience in Sofia in perspective whilst in no way excusing the abuse during the game.
Bucharest, with a 2.4m population in a country of just over 19m, was perhaps the most problematic visit of the tour. Sixth largest city in the EU, maybe it and Romania are just too big for my ‘model’ of regional states – although, like Bulgaria, its population is declining. It imparts some metaphorical symbolism with our current PM – from the vanity of the monstrous 1,100-room Ceausescu (Romanian Fuhrer’s) Palace to the Old Princely Court of ‘Vlad the Impaler’! It seemingly struggles with congestion, air quality and perhaps tacky visitor economy issues. I wish it well.
My final EU28 visit took me to Bratislava – a much more comfortably mid-sized 400,000 city in 5.5m Slovakia. I must admit I was very disappointed when Slovakia divorced from Czechoslovakia under the autocratic criminally-connected Vladimir Meciar – another read-across to Johnson. I was an admirer of Havel – the great progressive Czech author and European – who had led what might have become a successful confederal multi-cultural European state after their Velvet Revolution.
However, in the spirit of mid-sized-ness, and given Meciar has since been repeatedly humiliated at the polls (another hoped-for read-across to Johnson), I now understand a rationale for Slovakia as a potential positive in the ‘European project’. Bratislava projects an attractive blend of Hungarian, Austrian and indigenous culture – which is quite distinctive from my memories of, say, Prague.
I travelled for Halloween to Westerngrund and its EU geographical centre monument, staying overnight nearby. I had planned to go to Gadheim, the new designated EU27 centre on the morning of the 1st, but dePfeffel’s evil stalled, which gave me the opportunity to visit Aschaffenburg – Westerngrund’s local city.
In the Frankfurt and even Stuttgart commuter belts these are immensely prosperous places with important automotive supply chain industries hosting advanced manufacturing as well as modern services industries.
Aschaffenburg has a rich and sometimes dark history. In the late-1930s it was attacking its large, longstanding Jewish community with what is said to have been feral enthusiasm. In March/April 1945 it was just as ferociously destroyed itself, in street-by-street conflict with advancing US forces.
Aschaffenburg has made strenuous and seemingly successful efforts to make peace with both the Americans and its Jewish communities. It has been rebuilt with attention to detail and a cultural authenticity that celebrates its prouder historic moments, acknowledges its mistakes, and which functions effectively in global Germany. Perhaps there is a model for the UK in Bavaria’s turnaround from brutal Nazi intolerance, albeit I crave some signs in my lifetime rather than my grandchildren’s! Certainly, of the larger EU nation states, Germany, with its strong Lander republics and its enduring WW2 legacy, seems to cope much better with humility and generosity than Johnson’s UK.
I enjoyed both stages of my FK(a)UK respite immensely. I hope the two blogs capture something of my exuberance at having completed the full suite of EU28 visits. But ultimately, of course, the blogs are about UK and our extraordinary failure in choosing a self-destructive dystopia.
I believe anyone undertaking what I have done this month will be convinced that the ‘Best of British’ is placing our distinctive national, regional and city offers alongside and within our EU family from Bratislava to Vilnius or Bulgaria to, say, Wales if we are going with mid-size state models. This is why the Stage One blog suggested an investment in every citizen having this type of opportunity….
And the very worst of British is Johnson/Farage’s little-Englander exceptionalism detaching the UKs own political union (of four nations) from our European family to serve their personal vanities and financial self-interests even if it means they FK(a)UK in the process.
Whilst I was on the second leg of the tour, Parliament agreed a General Election on 12th December. Only in a deeply broken, failing state would political elites believe the attempt to force a winner-take-all General Election result will heal our Brexit divisions in any way at all. Whether we end up with a Government leaving the EU with a deal or no deal; or one with the confidence to revoke A50; or whether parliamentary/executive deadlock continues into the new decade, the UK as a political model for reaching consensus is dead.
The 2020s WILL see Ireland reunited; an independent Scotland; Gibraltar with a special EU status as an autonomous small region; and perhaps drive Wales down a similar path. This is almost regardless of whoever claims to ‘win’ GE2019. I think I will be able to celebrate these changes and expect them to make positive contributions to the development of the EU family.
For FK(a)UK is ultimately SOLELY an English construct and an English choice. Given the current leadership of the larger national parties the prospects for England look bleak. This is a shame, because there are some potentially great city mayors and many decent MPs, Council and other place-based leaders – supported by a breadth of third sector and civil society activists.
Johnson’s wholehearted adoption of FK(a)UK has, paradoxically, provided a catalyst for a better 2020s for Ireland, Scotland and maybe Wales. It has done absolutely nothing for England – except to offer the lies of an elitist Trump-esque breakdown as the new direction of travel.
Perhaps a new generation of leaders will emerge to champion a Scandinavian model, or a portfolio of cities and regions akin to the Baltic States or the successors to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. This presents the beginnings of a positive vision towards which to work. Sadly, though, we will see very little of this in the coming GE. As we enter the 2020s, swallow hard and try to stomach the deceit of living and working in FK(a)UK.