Travelling around the European continent, you get a sense of the identities of different nations, but also of their close connectedness. Across the sea, can we feel those same connections?
European nations often fly flags from public buildings. Often one for the country, one for the region and one for the European Union. A reminder of their nationality, and at the same time of the club they belong to. In the UK, this was not a common sight.
If you fly to, say, Italy, you’re unaware of the countries below, or of passing from one to another. By rail, however, you know you travel through France, Belgium, Germany or Switzerland. You know you’ve crossed a border upon getting off: the signs, and likely the language, are different. You could try to work out exactly when you cross, but it’s tricky; there are no announcements, or signs, and no passport checks in the Schengen Zone where internal borders have been abolished. Frontiers are largely invisible, and that’s intriguing. The Departures board in a German station shows trains destined for Italy, France, Switzerland, Poland or Austria.
After a month of Interrail travel in Europe this summer, we found the only enforced frontier is when boarding Eurostar. Your passport is date-stamped, to show how many days you stay in the EU (to prevent overstaying the maximum 90/180). Despite this, the actual ‘line’ between the UK and France can’t be seen – you’re zooming through the tunnel, then suddenly you’re abroad. While a physical frontier can’t be seen, there is now a legal, bureaucratic one instead.
It’s nothing like Interrailing trips back in the 1980s before Eurostar. You’d clutch your £5 foot passenger ticket on the Dover to Calais ferry, watching the white cliffs fade and France slowly emerging, feeling you were really going ‘abroad’.
Several times a friend and I ventured over the Channel, rucksacks on back, not knowing where we’d go. Sometimes frontier guards did board to check passports. On arriving somewhere, we’d head to the Bureau de Change to exchange sterling travellers’ cheques for whatever the national currency was. This year, we passed through five countries which all use the euro: so much easier!
A friendly German we met in Frankfurt mentioned Brexit within minutes.
“But why did the UK want to separate itself?” he asked, perplexed. I answered that I didn’t think that was what most people were thinking at the time.
“So why do you talk about coming to Europe on holiday?” he said, “surely you are in Europe?” And that’s the odd thing – the UK is in Europe, but maybe we feel a little outside. Perhaps it’s that sea border … or confusing Europe and the EU.
History is not forgotten
Like in Berlin, in Nuremberg past traumas are not hidden. The Nazi Party Rally Grounds, huge stadiums used to preach propaganda to the masses, are shocking to see. The German authorities are funding a new exhibition space to invite visitors to confront the history of National Socialism and be reminded that the ‘marginalising’ and ‘othering’ attitudes of the 1930s still exist today.
The distant past is revived too. Medieval German cities like Frankfurt and Nuremberg, heavily bombed during the war, have been rebuilt replicating the half-timbered buildings. It’s sad to reflect on what neighbours did to each other: but reassuring that it’s far less likely to recur due to alliances forged since then.
Thriving new countries
Slovenia, part of communist Yugoslavia till its independence in 1991, joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the euro in 2009. Ljubljana felt poor and grey in 1981; but Slovenia is now like other European nations and is flourishing. Many reminders of its closeted past still exist though, like President Tito’s enormous summer palace in Bled.
A window into those times is on the Slovenia/Italy frontier. In 1947, when European borders were redrawn, the town of Gorizia was split, putting the western part in Italy and the eastern part, renamed Nova Gorica, in Yugoslavia. A town split by a border is one thing, a patrolled border is another. During the Cold War, a guarded fence bisected the Piazza Transalpina in front of Gorica station. Now it’s open to all. The plaque marks the frontier crossing and recalls when the hard border was finally removed. It’s still a town in two countries, but it works.
Great Britain’s natural boundary is formed by the sea, but on the continent nations are separated by imaginary lines established by conflict or agreement. You can see land masses from space but not the boundaries dissecting them.
On Brenner station platform, signs show the platform split in two by the Italy/Austria frontier. So each country has half the station, but trains still pass straight through.
Mittenwald in Bavaria sits by the Austrian frontier, surrounded by ideal hiking mountains. On some hikes you cross into Austria and there’s occasionally a sign to tell you so, but no matter. It’s irrelevant. Another sign nearby says Grenzenlos – ‘without borders’.
Hiking here, you find the Panoramabrücke, a metal bridge and walkway traversing a 200m deep wooded ravine. Created by a 2006 EU-funded project costing 1.4million euros, this has opened up a previously inaccessible wild area. Now Austrian hikers have a shortcut to Germany, unknowingly criss-crossing the border. There’s even a restaurant with dining room in Germany and terrace in Austria. The authorities have agreed that food is sold under German tax regulations.
The last century in Europe has seen the division of Ireland, frontiers redrawn after wars, the free territory of Trieste, the reunification of Germany, conflict in the Balkans and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Land borders do change, often after wars.
Divisions between European nations run along mountains, rivers, fields or forests. Look over them and you see another country. We inhabitants of the British mainland don’t experience that, with our fixed sea surround.
The sign in the Bavarian forest – ‘without borders’ or ‘limitless’ – symbolises the two countries linked in friendship, and marks the free passage from one to the other.
By putting up hard borders, we box ourselves in, as well as keep others out. Ministers talk about ‘controlling our borders’ as if it was only about those coming here, but we now see we have lost our freedom of movement too. Next year, we’ll be required to apply for ETIAS permits to enter the Schengen area, further emphasising our ‘outsiderness’.
The government is considering special arrangements to allow young EU nationals to work here, filling gaps in our labour market. Our own young people will feel this is unfair if their own freedom of movement is not restored.
Nothing is forever
With Brexit, some have tried to distance us from our continent. Such nationalism contradicts the deeply interconnected reality of human nature, and cannot last.
Younger people know that in today’s connected world, global links are vital. They constantly use the internet to communicate with others internationally for work and leisure, so insularity must seem old-fashioned, restrictive and pointless. In time, closer ties are inevitable as this generation understands we must work collectively on worldwide problems, like security, refugees, pandemics and the climate emergency. For one nation to put up barriers against refugees and ignore what other nations do to support them, that makes no sense and won’t work.
Young people are instinctively global citizens. As they wish to rejoin the ‘club’, it must eventually happen. Whether it’s arbitrary borders or unsatisfactory agreements, what people contrive can be undone.
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