I’m thinking back to 1987, when I got the chance to go to West Berlin on a school trip. I can remember seeing the Berlin Wall, one side of it covered in defiantly hopeful graffiti, the other flanked by a massive literal dead zone of concrete and search towers. The Cold War was something that was part of our lives, the threat of nuclear annihilation something that hung over our heads, the idea that this wall might come crumbling down in under three years faintly ridiculous.
I’m thinking about going back to Berlin in 2012, where the dead zone had been filled with towers, where we spent a day exploring a market that filled the space where that dead zone had been. A continent that I’d grown up in expecting its future to only be devastating war had chosen peace, openness and trade instead.
I’m thinking about how we spent a day in Guben (Gunther Von Hagens’ Plastinarium is a fascinating place) and were casually able to stroll over the bridge across the Neisse into Poland and back again. No passports, no papers, no visas were needed.
Mostly, I’m thinking about my brother. In 1990, when the walls were crumbling and the fences were being torn down, he chose to go and live in France. Through a combination of luck and dedication he found himself a job at Eurosport, rising from ‘the guy who occasionallydoes the English voiceover for the news’ to a full-time producer, travelling the world to cover various sports and bring them to a channel that covered a continent.
It was in France that he fell ill, in France where his doctors diagnosed and treated a brain tumour, looking after him in exactly the same way as they did anyone else who lived there. It was in France where he got the all clear, then the news that it had returned, and it was in France that he died and was buried. But by then, France wasn’t the distant and exotic country it had seemed when I was growing up, it was a neighbour where I could travel from the North Station on my Colchester doorstep to the Gare du Nord in Paris with ease, where borders were just lines on a map.
I’m thinking that until this morning it never occurred to me to think that my brother’s resting place was in a foreign country, and that my right to go and visit it without restriction was something that could easily now disappear.
And I’m thinking: how will we explain this in the future? How will we explain how we went from a Europe divided by suspicion and paranoia to one of friendship, partnership and open borders in such a short time and then we decided ‘no, we don’t want that’? How will we explain that we were willing to give away so much because a bunch of demagogues let themselves believe that their political careers were more important than anything else? What are they going to think about us?