Ever the student of Irony, I thought I’d follow up a post generally advocating an eastern grouping opposing a western grouping in the Council with talking about the need for exactly this type of division to be eradicated. The reason why what I talked about in my previous post is necessary is because the dominance of two nations over all the rest is not healthy for anyone (apart from the two nations involved). It is not so necessary that the challenge comes from the east, but it seems as if that is the most likely place for it to come. What is more, the EU is still very divided in exactly this sense and while everyone must work to fight this, in the mean time the smaller and newer member states need to pool together their votes and influence so as not to be overran by the older and bigger members. However this kind of confrontation will not be necessary if the East/West gap is sufficiently addressed.
The overreaching issue in EU politics at the moment is that for all the fanfare of “United in Diversity” (in which I am a complete believer btw) the reality is different. The cracks in the EU structure are legion and they are centuries old. The English mistrust the French, The French mistrust the Germans, the Germans think they are better than everyone, Everyone thinks the Italians and Greeks are lazy and everyone in the west despises and fears the states from the East. This is just a sweeping generalisation of the type of divisions, bigotries and prejudice which still haunts the EU. None is greater however than the East/West divide as it is most recent and most raw. In the Eastern Block the older generations have spent their entire lives being indoctrinated into dismissing western society as consumerist, exploitative and broken. This kind of thing doesn’t just go away. In the west, we are still being indoctrinated whenever the subject of communism comes up with a lot of garbage which leads everyone to view Eastern Block states as stuck in the middle ages. Both of these schools of thought must be eradicated if we are to build a cohesive European society. The way to do that is, of course, through better education.
Since the fall of Communism, eastern block countries have lifted the veil of ignorance and the younger generation has become very open to western ways of thinking and living. In fact, perhaps they have become too open to the point of eroding their own national identity. For the purpose of this discussion however, this is a good thing. Young people in the Eastern parts of the EU are being taught comprehensive world history, as well as western ideas and ideals. One thing which can be said of Communism is that at least outside of the involvement of the Communist party they did allow the teaching of a holistic view of world history which churned out citizens who were not ignorant of the World in this sense.
The same cannot be said of the west. I can only speak of the education system in the UK, where I studied. However, judging from attitudes displayed by politicians and low-middle level western technocrats I have encountered, prejudice is still endemic. The enemy of prejudice is of course knowledge. In many ways, while I get frustrated at what I see it is hard to blame people who don’t know any better. As Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. This is true in very many cases. As an example, the UK education system is woeful when it comes to teaching History. As far as the UK History curriculum is concerned, children need only be aware of the the events which involve England in one way or another-they even only learn of the Roman Empire in the small way it affects them (which leads to an inflated sense of importance of the events occurring in the Britain at that time, which were by comparison inconsequential). It is no wander that this produces students with unshakable national confidence and extremely questionable general knowledge. This is a thread that runs uninterrupted-The Middle ages, Renaissance, the entire history of Europe is taught in England (and I believe elsewhere in Western Europe) as if Europe begins and ends with the West. Almost no mention is made of anything happening further east than Hungary, with the occasional mentions of Poland and Byzantium (usually when they somehow relate to the West).
This is, quite clearly a farce.
Anyone who has spent even a small modicum of time studying the history of our continent should be able to see that reality is much different. Let’s start with the most glaring example. The Byzantine Empire was culturally, economically, politically, militarily greater than any state in Western Europe until perhaps the colonial era. Yet it attracts so few mentions. Any telling of the story of Europe should accord at least as much time to the Byzantine Empire as to any other state and in fairness probably double that of most. Secondly, and this is a subject of particular importance to me since I am Bulgarian, is the omission of my country from medieval and pre-medieval history. This is a glaring hole in any textbook, rivalling the hole left by the scant discussion of Byzantium. It is a historical truth that between the 7th and 14th centuries the two most developed nations in Europe were Byzantium and Bulgaria. This is true of Byzantium even before the 7th century (the situation only ended because both states were occupied by the Ottoman Turks). This is the case for the following reasons. Unlike western states which were feudal in nature, both Bulgaria and Byzantium were much more centralised and were arranged a lot more like a modern state. They had therefore, more developed political systems which also lead to superior quality of life and cultural achievements. Furthermore both states exercised control over the Church and not vice versa, which stopped the period known in the west as “the dark ages” from ever happening in the east. It is during this time that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented in the First Bulgarian Empire and disseminated to the Slavic world. How many western nations can claim such cultural achievement? The two Eastern empires were also more powerful. A few examples to that effect. The battle of Tours is famous for stopping Islamic conquest of Europe, but again it is instructive that this was conquest of Western Europe. Only 20 odd years previous was the Siege of Constantinople which led to a battle between Byzantium and Bulgaria on one side and the Umayyad Caliphate on the other. The forces engaged in that battle were much greater than at Tours and the blow dealt to the Caliphate was consequently much more serious in military terms. Yet it is almost never mentioned. Another example is the battle of Adrianople, between Bulgaria and the Latin Empire which was a crusader kingdom temporarily usurping Byzantium and conveying western power in the east. The battle was more akin to a slaughter, with the Latin Empire’s forces being dwarfed to the extent that Tsar Kaloyan’s army was described as innumerable by one chronicler. This was a vivid example of the disparity between East and West at that time, only in favour of the East.
Yet, it is as if these things never happened. Of course, dig in encyclopaedias long enough and you will find these facts there, but who does? The fact is that it is easy and natural for western pupils to grow up believing people in the east are next to savages if they have not been properly educated in what is, after all, the truth. It is not until we tackle this limited representation of history that we can start bridging the gaps in our collective, European community. I raised this point at a conference/event at the European Parliament this year (an event on tackling prejudice organised by Romanian MEPs I believe) and got some encouraging replies from the panel. Apparently work is being done on a common, European History book which should take accurate account of the history of Europe rather than the rather skewed version being currently taught. Hopefully, the project endures and does not fall victim to rampant austerity, because this project is crucial. Until we educate each other or one another’s achievements it is impossible to breed the requisite level of mutual respect which will allow the EU to function properly, rather than having populist politicians constantly falling pray to the prejudices of their voters and having to kowtow to them, since it is far too late to educate those masses. I can speak with certainty only of my corner of the Eastern block, but I am certain that much of the achievements and history of other Eastern block states are also routinely overlooked in the same manner. This is simply unsustainable.
While the biggest problem is in the West, there is also an issue in the East. Even though the new generation is open to new, western ideas in theory, their application in practice is proving difficult. Concepts such as the Rule of Law, transparent democracy, fighting corruption are struggling to take hold. Furthermore, disillusioned by decades of communism, Eastern Bloc citizens do not see the value in civil participation and voting for example. Voter apathy is a serious problem and re-enforces the problems with corruption etc.. A lot needs to be done by right thinking politicians and by active citizens to challenge the status quo and actually absorb the beneficial experiences of western nations of which they are rightly so proud. Both East and West then, have serious tasks ahead of them. If both are achieved we may begin to see less a distinction made between western states and eastern states and more (if distinctions must be made) between states based on their individual merits or failings. Roughly then, we could really start talking about “Europe” as if it were a united thing.