As Europeans remember and celebrate at this time the fall of the Berlin wall, it is worth reflecting not just on the failings of the old Europe with its long-standing divisions, but on the shape of the new one that has arisen in its place.
With the fall of the wall, the world saw the end of a particularly evil form of tyranny. For generations, self-appointed national leaders denied their countrymen and women the basic rights to travel and migrate as they wished and to lead prosperous and self-determined lives whilst at home. They had grown so hardened to public opinion and disdainful of the basic intelligence of their citizenry that they lived as a law unto themselves.
When so-called Reality TV programmes like Big Brother were at their height of popularity, I often wondered why people thought their basic premise was such a novel idea. Locking people behind high walls, training cameras on them and encouraging them to manipulate each other's behaviour was no new trick – the East German authorities had been doing it for decades.
In all, more than 200 people were shot dead in attempts to escape the GDR, which its government's propaganda declared to be ‘the better Germany’. Thousands more were injured and imprisoned because of attempts to make it through the notorious no-man's-land and over the wall.
In the end, the destruction of the wall was the culmination of a chain of events. It featured the relaxation of travel restrictions by countries bordering onto the GDR and the refusal of Russian President Gorbachev to send his troops to support ailing satellites regimes.
Who can forget the live TV images of East Germans strolling freely and elatedly into the West for the first time? This was powerful real-time drama, but it was also profoundly important as a symbol. It signified the end of Cold War realities and, even if we didn’t fully realise it at the time, most of the deep-seated ideologies that had propped them up.
The end of the wall is an event well worth celebrating. Yet as we mark the end of one form of tyranny, we must be careful not to allow the emergence of another, albeit a more gentle and subtle one. Europe is no longer ruled by individual tyrants who are bent on life-long domination, but a government system can be tyrannical too, if it is left unchecked. Such a system might yet emerge, particularly if we see the emergence of an unaccountable EU juggernaut that pays scant attention to the wishes of the populace it claims to represent.
We see early signs of this in the way Europe’s various organs of government and administration are pushing to select a European President, without recourse to a popular vote. Democracy is not about selection, but election and democracy, like justice, must ‘be seen to be done’.
Of course, there are differing views on what a European presidency should involve. Some member states, such as the Benelux nations, prefer a chairmanship rather than a fully fledged presidency after the American model. Larger states, notably Germany and France, prefer the latter option. The European President, they say, should be someone who can stand toe-to-toe in terms of authority and status with any of the world's leading figures.
Whatever form the presidency takes, the EU says it needs one so that Europe can speak with one voice on global issues. This, they say, will become increasingly vital as the burgeoning economies of India and China start to play a larger role in world events. Yet while the ends may seem desirable, the means being employed are highly questionable. It seems that EU apparatchiks believe the people they notionally represent are without the intelligence to properly weigh the issues relating to this new office. The approach seems to be one of saying, let’s simply push this through as quickly as we can because it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness after the event than permission before.
If EU leaders continue along this line, how will Europe claim, with a straight face, that it is a beacon for democracy, when its highest office has been set up and filled without an election of any kind?
A similar example of the high-handedness of officials emerged closer to home last week. It was announced that the British government is to pass legislation insisting that all children, from the age of 15, will receive compulsory sex education. Sex education has long been a part of the curriculum for the nation's schools, but there have been opt-outs for parents who wish their children to miss these classes. Not any more, apparently.
Many parents still want to share the facts of life – and, more importantly, the facts about meaningful relationships – in the privacy of their own homes. At the very least, they want to be a part of the process of their children's development on the subject. Apparently, though, British parents are thought to be either too ignorant or too lazy to be entrusted with the proper raising of their own children.
The French philosopher Rousseau became notorious for neglecting the illegitimate children born to him by a prostitute, thus consigning them to starvation and early death. Yet it was he who first suggested that the state should take a much larger role in the raising of children, with the ultimate responsibility for their welfare and basic development. We are still living with his sad legacy today, it seems. Governments both national and trans-national aren’t willing to trust their own people; they choose instead to see officials as the proper definers and defenders of the people’s values.
The European experiment has achieved much which is of great value in its fifty year tenure. Most notably, it has promoted peace in a previously war-torn region. It has also provided unprecedented opportunities for free trade. Yet it suffers from a low standing in terms of opinion polls. In the public domain, which is the only one that ought to matter in a democracy, the EU’s image has long been that of a club for bureaucrats and politicians who couldn't win a seat in national elections. It is seen as a free ride on an all-expenses-paid gravy train of privilege and position.
This may be a little wide of the mark, for important work is done in the halls of the European Parliament and Commission. Yet both will continue to lack legitimacy in the public domain for as long as they show a lack of trust in the people they are meant to serve. Since the beginning of European elections, the graph of overall voter participation has shown a steady decline. This won’t improve any time soon if the EU continues unilaterally to make momentous decisions about its own make-up and senior leadership.
If governments cease to trust their people, acting as if the people are irrelevant to the process of governing, it isn't long before the citizenry returns the favour in kind. When that happens, one of two things invariably emerges: revolution or anarchy. The Berlin wall fell because the people of the GDR had long before lost all faith in their government. They couldn't wait to replace it with something, anything else. The overthrow of the government and its bloated bureaucracy started with a regime that ignored the wishes of its people and behaved completely as a law unto itself. While its cause is far less oppressive than that of the GDR’s leadership, let's hope the EU doesn't make the same basic mistakes.