Ode to the Road Part 2 – Europe in 2010

Europe in 2010

Europe has been seemingly rendered irrelevant in the 21st century by the new ideas of the brash young guns of the liberal West where every day brings another 24 hours of progress, and lately with its sheer weight, centrally planned debt-free Asia. Disparaging phrases and metaphors about Europe come thick and fast to the mind of outside observers: past its prime, divided and conquered, neatly slotted into the long line of past empires dotting history’s timeline. Outside tourists visit this storied civilisation as a living museum, and if I was given to hyperbolae, I’d say with steps a little quicker for the fear of missing it completely before it disappears. Intuitively, there is nothing surprising about this; creative destruction, the new ideas trumping and killing off the old is one constant we have in human history and any society that doesn’t rejuvenate will turn sclerotic; once the effort turns to control, rather than creativity, the organisation/civilisation, reduced to keep repeating itself, will surely fall. Still, we are of the view that if we dig deeper, the popular first-glance view predicting a bleak outlook ignores the difficult story, the one much harder to tell but more revealing and kinder to the old lady Europe.

It is hard to discuss this living, changing place -with so many mini-laboratories for democracy to measure social experiments, where the only certainty is uncertainty, the only constant is change, and one gets the feeling of being on the cusp of historical moments all the time. Our 2010 trip takes us past the following obvious historical points:

-We arrive at Eurozone’s “now or never” moment as it teeters on the edge of precipice of markets losing faith in the Euro. Will they just plaster over the cracks, or fix the faulty design of the Euro-project (creating a monetary union without fiscal union) that led to it? Will the readjustments lead to popular uprisings? The banks that needed to be saved less than a couple of years ago now hold the gun to the governments that put the money up to save them and force the poor to bear the majority of pain- that’s not going to go down well I don’t think. Very exciting times.

-We will visit England with a possible hung parliament just at the time that very strong measures need to be taken to prevent Britain from defaulting as well. Has the debt-craze finally run out of tracks? The world has been moving to centre-left, but continental Europe has seen a rightward shift. Will this right shift continue to the British Isles as well? If the cosy duopoly on power is broken by the appearance of Liberal Democrats, will we see fundamental changes like the loosening of the “slavish and embarrassing devotion to Washington”?

Update on this: Europe had a very strong shift to the right at least in matters cultural. The Dutch Geert Wilders, Jimmy Akesson of Sweeden (?), and others of similar ilk appeared out of nowhere, and in elections failing to produce outright winners, thrust into kingmaker roles (provided the parties going in bed with them want to risk being associated with extreme views). It seems good ole human nature is unchanged: what was OK in good times is not in the tough times that come after the crisis, and societies will turn on the immigrants, foreign workers and the most vulnerable who rely on welfare benefits like clockwork. 21/09/2010

-We will be in Poland as the country tries to replace its president and entire top-brass (president’s top advisers and chief of staff, head of armed forces, head of national bank, advisors, ministers) killed in the airplane crash in Russia. The fact that the visit itself was in commemoration of the 22,000 Polish leaders killed in Russia 70 years ago gives it incredible irony.

-We will be in Hungary when the country is considering giving Hungarians living on annexed territories (including your truly) the chance to take up “Dual citizenship”, effectively uniting the Hungarian nation after 90 years of separation.

-We will visit Serbia where people have just been given the ability to travel outside of their borders again, after a long period of isolation (a punishment for the Balkan wars) by EU (makes for an interesting social experiment, doesn’t it? Lock up a nation, drive the place into poverty, see what happens…) Serbia is to reciprocate the opening by allowing all EU members to travel to the country using only their ID! (Also, allowing their Hungarian minority to take up the dual citizenship)

-We will observe the east-west integration, which is nothing short of a social revolution: Poland and other eastern countries have already sent their armies of workers to England, with remarkable social changes in all the countries involved. Because of EU constitution, soon other prosperous countries closer to the east like Germany, even insular France will have to allow the same; what is going to happen there? We know that North-South integration will always be slow, but take away the man-made barriers, and the westward flow can be huge.

Like fault lines that provide both fertile soil and the threat of instant destruction for its residents, Europe is a meeting of tectonic idea-plates. Like anything the human genius produced before or since, the ideas of Europe amplify the promise of both good and bad. On the surface of things, the old buildings and long traditions give a feeling that there is nothing much new under the sun in Europe, but that is very deceptive: in between our visits in 2003 and 2007 the changes in how people lived, worked, hoped and dreamed were immense, even for someone just passing through. By driving around in 2010, we are looking to discover the latest chapter of this amazing modern-age tale, story of Europe that has more twists and turns than there are switchbacks in its Alps. That is definitely a lot of twists and turns, then…the question is, is the continent heading up or down?

The metaphor for European history (this actual location is the L’Alpe d’Huez, a highlight of many Tour’d France seasons)

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