Trouble on the hour, every hour

In 1993, while working at a small business university in Barcelona, I was seconded for three months to set up a series of programs at Prague’s University of Economics. There I met Antonio Jiménez, a Spanish noir novelist who now heads El País’ Brazilian news operations. Antonio was then a cadet journalist who taught Spanish while also filing reports on the changing face of the Czech Republic.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc had opened up whole swathes of Eastern Europe to the benefits of the European Union; the possibilities for expansion, both for the EU and for NATO, were endless. The sober light of EU economic and social management was shone across the old Iron Curtain and into the obscure corners of the Slavic zone.

Or so many thought.

From where Antonio and I were working, we could sense the unfolding disaster of the Balkan Wars. In an age just before the arrival of the internet, moods were transmitted through newspaper articles, radio reports, travellers’ tales, and the appearance and number of refugees, rather than through Instagrammed images or fleeting tweets. From Prague we could smell the Balkan conflict on the wind long before all the facts arrived.

In the international press centre, to which Antonio had access, breathless reporters from Germany, England, France, Spain and Italy filed their reports on the drama just a few hours away. Antonio and I realised we had to join in. We both took a week off work and headed to Serbia in a freelance capacity, determined to profile the people of that republic who had up until then – and all too often subsequently – been demonised in the international press.

It was a sixteen-hour train ride from Prague to Belgrade. Under other circumstances, it might have been one of Europe’s great train journeys. But as we entered Serbia from the Hungarian plain, things immediately took on a darker shade. Machine guns were suddenly everywhere; young men in combat gear casually brandished a range of small arms. As if on cue, slivovitz – the local firewater – began to flow. Everyone had a point to make; every part of the jigsaw a claim to stake.

As we approached a branch line, where one track split off towards Bosnia and the other continued down into Belgrade, a polite middle-aged gentleman siting opposite us placed a briefcase on his knees. Opening the lid, he withdrew a series of silver knives. ‘Come with me, to Banja Luka,’ he urged us. ‘Come to help us cutting Muslim throats.’ The atmosphere tightened. This was neither joke nor bravado. Two youths beside him, stuffing themselves with KFC, nodded in furious agreement.

It was the sort of encounter you might write off as an eccentricity – part alcohol, part macho display – if it didn’t soon become evident that this was precisely the sort of thing that was going on. Much of the worst horror of the Balkan Wars was committed hand to hand, face to face, neighbour to neighbour. Much went forever unreported.

Here was the casual barbarity of Europe.

A young Serbian soldier we had befriended on the train insisted on accompanying us, on our arrival, through the ill-lit streets of Belgrade. ‘You will be ripped off at your hotel otherwise,’ he claimed. ‘And probably – even before you get there – you will be robbed.’

We were, in every sense, among the borderlands: places where cultures shift and rub, where expectations count for nothing, where behaviour is volatile and unpredictable. I was to experience the same in post-Ceausescu Bucharest: a city on the edge of permanent psychic violence born of desperation and brutality, a city of hungry dogs and lightless streets. For all their cultural treasures, the borderlands of Europe can be disturbing places – and Europe is, in fact, one borderland after another. Some border zones are safe and well lit; others are spectral, permanently in flux and shadow.


Europe – home of rinascimento and geld, technik and liberté, rabotnik and style; site of clustered tongues and cultures; engine room of empire, science and social revolution – is in trouble once again. Along some of its ancient borderlands are tensions stressed to flare.

The European Union is an ever-more unwieldy monster. Born in the aftermath of the Second World War, she enjoyed a safe and happy childhood, followed by a golden adolescence in the growth years of the mid twentieth century. Now, she enters middle age full of crises; her bones are creaking, her joints cracking. She squabbles endlessly with herself. If only political harmony were as simple as bashing out a memorable tune every year, one that inevitably welds digital beats and folk melodies. That is a game everyone can play – now even Australia is in on Eurovision. But in the longer term, it’s what lurks beneath the fairy floss that matters. How appropriate that this year’s Eurovision was held in Vienna, endpoint for both the Ottoman and Soviet empires, home to some of the continent’s most virulent right-wing sentiment, and crucible for many of the tensions pulling the European project in multiple directions.

One sanguine view sees the European Union as the most sustained and successful peace process in history, a triumph of political goodwill and financial investment over historical precedent. And it is a triumph, one all the more remarkable considering how far along the road to peaceful coexistence Europeans have come since the horrors committed only a few generations before. In historical terms, the healing has been both startling and rapid.

But at the joints and along the extremities, many signs indicate the body is failing. This is the central thesis of Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, a new book by George Friedman, an American political scientist and intelligence analyst, and son of Hungarian Jews. Friedman joins a growing chorus of voices, following in the footsteps of the late and much-lamented Tony Judt, mulling over the fate of Europe as it slides away from the centre of the world stage, a position it has enjoyed for much of the past 500 years. But loss of influence is not the most important issue here, so much as the threat that conflict dampened by treaty and prosperity will once again emerge. Surely, the argument goes, the European Union is proof of how Europe has tamed its centuries-old propensity to internal wars. Wars whose gravity – in 1914 and 1939 – dragged other nations and continents into conflict. Nowadays, peace reigns in Europe – or does it?

The stresses are both internal and external: from within, the social tensions born from a grievous economic crisis and often uncontrolled immigration; from without, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Palestine, Libya, Cyprus, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are all pressing in on Europe, straining its resources and capacities, adding to the already creaking social institutions designed to build and maintain peace. Banks collapse, boats sink, buildings burn, civil wars erupt. What happens, Friedman asks, when the tide cannot be stopped, when Europe either collapses from within or when the external pressures become so great that the borders can no longer hold? How much longer can this period of peace, these seventy years of calm, last?


In reality – and paradoxically – the peace ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, that counterweight that had held both sides of Europe in a kind of balanced and immobile tension. Now, a full generation since Europe entered its era of post-Communist union, the brief triumph of 1989 is a distant memory; indeed, ‘the years 1945 to 1989 are coming to seem … like a parenthesis’, Judt wrote shortly before his death. Economic growth and political stability have been eroded, and many of Europe’s certainties are falling away. For all the bureaucratic control paraphernalia of Brussels, there is something rotten in the state of Europe, says Friedman, and it’s something cultural and hereditary, rather than merely political.

In Europe, memories are ancestral, an idea that younger nations like Australia find difficult to grasp. Our prosperity has been built from a ‘blank’ slate – albeit, of course, one stained by the original dispossession of Indigenous peoples. There are not centuries of troubled ghosts behind us (once again, with the obvious Indigenous caveat). But the long past in a place like Europe, suggests Friedman, cannot be ‘suppressed by dictatorship, appeased by prosperity … [or] rendered unacceptable by enlightened thought.’ Or, as Judt had it, ‘it is one thing to think an outcome desirable, quite another to suppose it is possible … a truly united Europe is sufficiently unlikely for it to be unwise and self-defeating to insist upon it.’

But insist the Brussels high command most certainly has, for there has not been any other option. Europe understands itself as either unitary or war-torn; a middle ground is hard to find. Most striking of Friedman’s contentions is that Europe’s memories will not be ‘appeased by prosperity’. This, surely, was the EU’s trump card – personal wellbeing, security, improved standards of living. The theory is fine, but in reality too many have missed out.

‘Few choices, all bad …’ writes the pessimistic Friedman. His book has the virtue of clarity: arguments are laid out succinctly, a lifetime of knowledge and research informing his conclusions. The analysis is not as forensic as an academic might require, but Flashpoints is not that kind of book. It takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of European history, then saunters around the broader region, border by fractious border, flashpoint by flashpoint, analysing the pressures these regions and conflicts place on the internal mechanisms – political, social and economic – of the EU. Not only within Europe have there been losers; there is trouble lurking on the fringes of paradise. Europe is, according to Timothy Garton Ash, ‘the continent for every type of unhappy.’


Berlin is, to all extents and purposes, the contemporary capital of Europe. From this re-born city radiates a full circle of dilemmas: if one draws an arc in a clockwise direction, we find trouble on the hour, every hour.

But first, Germany itself. Its present economic hegemony has been hard won, built on years of sacrifice, innovation, sheer discipline and the burial of a horrendous recent past. Methodically – and without fanfare – Germany has rebuilt its position as the pre-eminent power of Europe. Its divided self was healed with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but it has been a healing that makes others wary. Friedman, perhaps unfairly, states that ‘once you have done the kind of things the Germans did, you can never be at ease with yourself, and no one else is at ease with you.’ Indeed, it didn’t take long in the ongoing battle of wills between Germany and an insolvent Greece for the issue of war reparations to be raised, and for Germany’s past to be held against it. It is a sign of just how far Europe has come – or of Germany’s economic indispensability – that the Greek tactic didn’t wash. But just how long can Germany be the dominant power in Europe without once again imposing its will? How long can it remain an ‘accidental hegemon’? How much longer can Germany continue exporting – the basis of its economic and political recovery – if the world can no longer buy? The most dangerous thing in the world is to be rich and weak, said Hannah Arendt. Germany wants the peace and prosperity, but is troubled with the prospect of having to defend it.

Next is the key figure in this game: Russia, where, Friedman says, there is ‘much less of everything, from opportunity to life expectancy’. Between both her own sabre rattling as NATO expands eastwards and the cold shoulder being offered by some (though by no means all) European powers and the US, Russia has once again been positioned as the great adversary. Russia’s drift to isolation under Putin is nothing new, and for all the US–European fallout over the Ukraine crisis, Russia is not without powerful friends elsewhere, such as China and India. For Friedman, this division – the nebulous borderline that runs from the Baltic states and Poland down through authoritarian Belarus, into Ukraine and from there, via Crimea, to the Black Sea – is the starkest and most significant boundary in Europe. This is not a potential flashpoint: it is already the site of some of the most heightened political and military tension in recent years – tensions that, like the Balkan crisis before them, divide European players. Then there are the Eurasian oil and gas pipelines: much of Europe’s critical energy supplies pass through Russian-controlled regions, and the continent is absolutely dependant – for the foreseeable future – on their peaceable passage. Russia has already ‘turned off the lights’ on Ukraine more than once.

Beyond this trouble zone lies the Caucasus. Ignoring the region for its apparent distance from Brussels or Berlin does not diminish its importance, not only as an energy nexus but also as a bridge to Iran and central Asia. Russia herself has cast the Caucasus as a kind of ‘black site’, a breeding ground for separatists and Islamists, yet this has not lessened her desire for control of the region. There is also the open wound of Chechnya, festering for so long, which came into US living rooms via the Boston bombings and the Tsarnaev brothers. Moscow will exploit this threat as long as it suits its own strategic purposes, for it is a fear shared with the US and the West.

The next site, crucially, is Turkey, the source of the majority of Germany’s immigration over the last few decades. Turkey, albeit under a variety of names, has been intimately connected to Europe, politically and culturally, for the last 2000 years; the rise and fall of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires allowed Europe to imagine an exotic Other on the fringes of the ‘civilised’ world. In reality, Turkey is the continent’s doorway. Geographically, it touches on multiple sites of conflict – the Balkans, Syria, Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus, the Middle East – and it is itself tied up with various tropes of conflict: Islamic fundamentalism, weapons, drugs, human trafficking, terrorism. The resistance of some European powers to Turkey’s entering the EU echoes back to the Crusades. Today, the same fears are being played out against the walls of the nominally Christian fortress. And to Turkey’s south, the Syrian civil war is having a direct impact, with thousands cast into refugee camps, into lives of instability – and possible radicalisation. Syria represents a further fault line along which Europe and Russia stand divided.

Post-Gaddafi Libya is a lawless zone. The country has been transformed into a launch pad for uncontrolled immigration into Europe, both for those escaping the war zones of the Middle East and for those fleeing hunger, dictatorship, fundamentalism and misery in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Tiny specks of land in the Mediterranean, such as Lampedusa and Kos, serve as northern counterpoints to our own Christmas Island. However, what the Italians have done, and the sheer scale of the humanitarian challenge they face, is incomparable when viewed against the meltdown running through the Australian body politic each time a few dozen wretched faces appear from over our own horizons. There, thousands are arriving every week, and the flow shows no sign of stopping.

The question of immigration is also a major concern for Spain. Two of its little-known African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, are now encircled by six-metre-high razor wire fences patrolled by armed police and bristling with surveillance. Those reaching here – a stone’s throw away from a world of golf and quilted beds, of blue swimming pools and luxury shopping – are not the most completely wretched. Those have either stayed behind in villages or already perished on the undocumented journey to the border, often across blazing deserts, or over frozen mountains, or through hostile jungles, or along treacherous coasts. Nowhere is the path easy – but like the refugees en route to Australia through South-East Asia, the journey to the border is both the hardest and the easiest part. It contains perils untold, but the most serious barriers – those of sea and technology – are here at the border. Here they face the weapons and technology of absolute modernity, and the wary stare of the state.

Spain, however, has handled immigration with less social friction than any other European country. The south of Europe has a longer and more intimate history of living with Muslims as neighbours than northern Europe and in Spain’s case, the country was itself largely Muslim for 800 years. But not all immigrants are Muslim: there are the Eastern Europeans and, of course, the Roma. It is worth remembering that immigration has most directly affected not the professional classes – those who generally champion its effects on the economy – but the lower and working classes. Hence the swing to far-Right groupings in the UK, France, Hungary and Italy, parties mainly supported by the working class and unemployed. These are not necessarily uneducated rednecks, as the press so often likes to portray them, but the very people whose livelihoods are most disrupted by large-scale immigration.

The entire southern border of Europe contains problems waiting to be solved. Beyond the Libyan debacle lies the rest of the Maghreb. First there is Tunisia – site of two major terror attacks in recent months – and Algeria, for now relatively stable but still recovering from its devastating civil war with Islamist forces in the 1990s. Then there is Morocco, with its increasingly documented connection to ISIS recruitment. Given the ease with which Moroccans pass into Europe via Spain and France, where they form substantial historic communities, this zone is a new battlefront for European security agencies. As for other groups, such as the Algerian diaspora in France, many of whom are French citizens by birth if not by inclination (the French do not have a very good track record of welcoming their former colonials), Europe must find new forms of social accommodation. Marine Le Pen is here today. It was her unpleasant father, Jean-Marie, yesterday. It will be someone else tomorrow. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, Italy and, to the east, Russia, brotherhoods of racial purity are organising – Muslims and the Roma are, as ever, in their sights.

Greece, above all, represents the difficulty of the EU as a financial project. It has been the most extreme example to date – Spain, Portugal, Italy and Cyprus stand as others – of the internal poverty that can exist in a well-oiled financial and bureaucratic machine. Human lives are messier than technocratic plans; the political desire to unite Europe has clashed with the financial reality of vastly different ways of being, both financially and socio-culturally. Friedman posits this as another iteration of the age-old divide: the Protestant, industrious, productive and ethical north versus the Catholic, sun-drenched, siesta-sleeping and corrupt south. These broad brushstrokes follow the Reformation divide of the sixteenth century, and like all stereotypes they contain a certain element of truth. Many countries resented being told how to behave by the Germans. Nor was austerity everybody’s idea of the best solution: radical departures from neoliberal orthodoxy in Greece and Spain have mobilised populations fed up at the way they have been portrayed as lazy wastrels, indigent southerners somehow culpable for Europe’s mess. Yet even now after nearly six months of a Syriza-led government, the Greek crisis, while apparently solved for the time being, remains something of an open wound on the European body politic. The last few months of acrimonious negotiations have seen much dirty laundry aired, to say nothing of bitter history revisited. It may well be that the next great rift in Europe comes not from the fractious Ukraine or Turkish hinterlands, but from within the EU itself.

And then there is Britain, with its eternal flirtatious dance. Will we, or won’t we? Are we in, or are we out? Caught between its special ‘hands-across-the-water’ relationship with the US and the continent it holds at arm’s length from across the Channel, Britain is once again unsure about where it stands. Recently triumphant Prime Minister David Cameron has locked himself into the promise of an in-out EU referendum that will see the British press agonising for another year or so over the identity of the UK, of Englishness – as if they hadn’t done enough of that in the lead-up to the Scottish independence referendum. Britain’s resistance to full immersion in the EU system is partly understandable – much of the economic and social policy that emanates from Brussels is absurdly prescriptive – but at the same time British haughtiness with respect to Europe is just a continuation of an age-old chauvinistic game. We in Australia are well placed to understand how the British belief in their cultural superiority appears to the rest of the world.


‘Europe’s history of conflict is far from over,’ writes Friedman. The re-emergence of Germany, the new isolation and defensiveness of Russia, the fracturing of Europe along lines of economic disadvantage, the ongoing distrust of immigration and the stress waves flowing into Europe from neighbouring wars in the Middle East and Africa may all tip the continent once again towards dark times and stark choices.

Back in 1993, on the return journey from that week in Belgrade, I was arrested on the Hungarian border with Slovakia and taken off the train at gunpoint. My visa was for the Czech Republic only, not for Slovakia, explained the Kafka-loving border guards. The two nations – known for 85 years as Czechoslovakia – had split just weeks before, and having not caught up with the new bureaucratic procedure, I was held for four hours at an isolated train station. Not even US$60 slipped into my passport – well over a month’s pay for the guard – could smooth my passage across the border. Sitting at the station while my fate was decided, I was an unwilling witness to a minor but appallingly brutal border spectacle: one by one, a group of Bosnian refugees were kicked and beaten with batons. They fell groaning in pain, hands held up pathetically, their few belongings trampled into the dirt. More than fear, it was a terrible feeling of impotence that swept over me: these were the days before phone cameras, and the assailants were heavily armed and, crucially, still had my passport.

In his book, Friedman relates an anecdote from the 1970s: in a late-night discussion, a group of seemingly urbane Croatian Marxist intellectuals fell to cursing Serbian animals and wildlife. This suggests an atavistic hatred – imagine Australians truly loathing (as opposed to gently mocking) the little kiwi bird. If it seems far-fetched, recall that during the Second World War the British – otherwise renowned for their love of animals – shot larks because they were ‘Nazi’ birds and had declared themselves animal non grata by singing on German trees. This anthropomorphising and ascribing a nationality to migrating animals is, of course, absurd, and yet it offers an odd window into the heart of the troubled European identity. We humans wander and migrate, too – none have crossed the globe as extensively as Europeans – often on the tail of conflict and political instability. Economic hardship, hunger, civil war, hope and despair will all continue to drive thousands to the shores of Europe, and to move around within its borders. Rather than having reached its ultimate triumph over the past half century, it is perhaps only now that the inheritance of the Enlightenment and its humanist project – democracy, reason, liberty, tolerance, compassion and social justice – will be truly put to the test.


Luke Stegemann

Luke Stegemann is a writer, editor, translator and former media business manager. He has spent nearly three decades living between Europe and Australia. He is most recently the author of The Beautiful Obscure: Australian Pathways through the Cultural History of Spain. He currently lives in rural Queensland where he teaches media, film and television.

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