A lesson from the Slovenian border

My eldest daughter is travelling around Europe at the moment. After a dreadful start — the very first leg of her journey was cancelled at very short notice due to French strikes at Calais—she is now at Lake Bled in Slovenia, having passed through France, Switzerland and Northern Italy.

But actually reaching Lake Bled by train, even reaching Slovenia by train, has proved quite a challenge and caused her to spend an unscheduled night in the Italian town of Gorizia, on the Italy/Slovenia border.

Over many years, Gorizia has sat on a linguistic and tribal fault line, between Italy and the former Yugoslavia (at the time of World War II), and between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire before that. In 1947, a few outlying parts of the town, including its rather grand-looking northern station (the town has another ‘Central’ station) were handed to Yugoslavia in a post-war carve-up of territory. Slovenes and Italians on the “wrong side” of the border had to move/flee to their home country. The border fences went up and communist Yugoslavia began to develop their side of Gorizia, calling it Nova Gorica (literally “New Gorizia”).

The border fence goes up between Italy and Yugoslavia after partition
The border fence in front of Nova Gorica station

Because of the history of division between the two countries as well as the division of Gorizia itself, it is still the case that there is no direct train route from Italy to Slovenia despite them being neighbours. To get to Lake Bled, one has to catch an Italian train to Gorizia, then get a taxi two miles across town (and across the old border) to the Slovenian Nova Gorica station.

With the collapse of Communism, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the accession of Slovenia to the EU in 2004, the border between Gorizia and Nova Gorica has been largely removed. A particular roundabout just in front of Nova Gorica station now provides a symbolic plaque marking the old border.

View of Nova Gorica station across the official border in the middle of the roundabout
The border plaque — 1947 was the year of division and 2004 was when Slovenia joined the EU

In this remote border town, the European Union is thus seen as having genuine, heartfelt and profound importance in helping unite people who were once divided. People visit and celebrate how the old divisions have gone and how the communities are reconciled. And of course both communities now use the same money.

Many have their photo taken at the new “border”

And this British Brexiteer joins in that celebration of open borders and indeed of what has been achieved, albeit with the European Union appearing to act as a midwife and protector of the new arrangements.

When pro-EU folk talk of unity and maintaining the peace in Europe, Gorizia is what they should explicitly hold up as an example.

But this brings me on to what the European Union is, and how it is seen across Europe.

The EU is like a jolly Uncle — a Father Christmas kind of figure. One who seems to bring people together in love, through the giving and sharing of gifts; who seems to smile upon people’s most basic aspirations: the living of a peaceful and quiet life. It is the EU’s great strength — the unity meme. After all, who can possibly object to something which unifies different people? Surely anything or anybody who does object must want to take us back to the old days of border fences which, for many people on the continent, implies going back to the divisions and the evils of the past?

And anyone who has directly benefited and seen this tearing down of old borders will appreciate this apparently warm approach.

But the EU’s weakness is that it is not just about bringing people together in unity and harmony. At least, it may have the goal of doing that, but the means by which it wants to attain that goal includes some rather unpleasant things.

In short, the jolly Uncle has a rather dark side. The kindly, giving Father Christmas figure turns out to be a kindly, giving Jimmy Saville figure — someone who hides a very different character “in plain sight”. Switching back to the EU context, this manifests itself in phrases like:

  • “The natural order in Europe is tribal but we must actively prevent and suffocate that tribalism.”
  • “People can’t be trusted to think for themselves. We need experts to run things when they go wrong and ideally run them before they go wrong.”
  • “We are in a ‘post-democratic’ era where the democratically expressed will of a people must sometimes be quelled and quashed if it runs counter to the EU’s objectives.”

If the EU had ‘only’ been about the market, the gradual removal of borders, and the free movement of goods, capital and people — all with the peoples’ consent of course— then fine.

But it isn’t.

Despite decades of denial from British politicians, those things are merely a means to an end, and the end is a full political union founded on the distrust of peoples and the distrust of “old fashioned” national democracy. That denial of the popular will is why, perversely, the EU and its ill-conceived euro currency are once again stoking the fires of angry nationalism across Europe with an attendant impulse to put up border fences again.

But in places like Gorizia, the view that we need “more EU” to quell these fires may well be tolerated, despite many British views (supported by growing evidence) that “more EU” has the opposite effect to that intended.

That is why I always thought Nigel Farage’s call to save all of Europe from the EU was ill-conceived. We can’t second-guess what others want or what drives them.

We may (and I do) have a view rooted in history about British exceptionalism with respect to the EU. But if the Danes, the Swedes or indeed the Italians and Slovenes feel differently, that is for them to decide.

Ours must be a somewhat Churchillian stance: if the EU with its anti-democratic dark side is to remain a reality for now, then Great Britain should be “with Europe but not of it”.

Our relations with the mainland should thus be based on trade and openness, without any trappings of political union. And yes, we should endeavour to maintain “free movement” because ultimately it is trade, openness and the entrenching of democracy that unites different people, including the Italians and Slovenes. Consequently we should join in the celebration of a reunified Gorizia.

And should we ever visit, we should have our photo taken by that plaque.

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