The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

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We Wish Europe Well

This moment in our country's history offers us the opportunity for national renewal.

As we extricate ourselves from the institutions of a European Union which have done so much to make us reflect on our own Parliament and our need for sovereignty, it is also worth reflecting on how, once we leave, we can leave in a state of grace, wishing the EU well, for the EU has its place in the continent of Europe where people may see it as a necessary consequence of their experiences; experiences with levels of complexity perhaps beyond our British comprehension.

For us, Europe has been a place where we have gone in times of great crisis and great sadness; to rescue Europe from its experiences of invasions, subjugations and forced transportations. These are after all, its origins. They lie in a catholic social democratic tradition which given our experiences, we can, perhaps, never really understand.

How different the EU may look to the countries east of us!

I travelled to Serbia.

My driver asked, "Are you noble, Mr Carl? I mean, are you from the nobility?"

We tend to view Europe through modern eyes, seeing a free, prosperous and sophisticated continent, but perhaps what we see is only "Western Europe". On this 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment which meant the armies of West and East were left without a role; which for me meant my ambition to command an armoured division one day had gone; which for Eastern Europe meant new hope of freedom and some share in Western prosperity. How strange it was to be in Serbia and see glimpses of "old Europe."

Straddled between the borders of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, Serbia still looks to Russia as its ally. There are billboards proclaiming Gazprom and Putin swathed in the entwined flags of Russia and Serbia. Serbia wants to join the EU.There is nothing left of its industry now and Russia will not bring it any wealth.Longingly, Serbia looks to the EU whilst desperate to reconcile its historic friendship with Russia. Can it have it both? They think so. "Let our entry to the EU be Russia's eyes and ears there … Let Serbia become the communication channel for Russia there".

How might a Serb look around and see itself in Eastern Europe? Greece is a friend because it is Turkey's enemy and shares its Orthodoxy. Bulgaria shares its Orthodoxy but is its enemy because Bulgaria's allies were Austria and Hungary. Russia is its ally and shares its Orthodoxy, but never came to its aid in either WW1 or during the civil war and dissolution of the Former Yugoslavia in the 90's. Croatia and Slovenia were its neighbours and federated within Yugoslavia, but they are Roman Catholic and far closer to the Austrians and Italians by instinct and "modernity". Bosnia is Muslim and had more in common with the Turks. Macedonia became federated with Serbia when the Former Yugoslavia comprised them both, but even they broke away in 2000.

Might its history make Serbia more aware of its own failings or the failings of others? For 600 years they were ruled by the Turks. Then there was a brief 30 year period of independence until WW1 which some say they started with an assassination when the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians occupied it. Freedom again between the wars and the makings of modern Yugoslavia, until WW2 when the same three countries invaded again, joined this time by the Italians and aided by the Croatians who were ruthless in their application of power against the Serbs. The Russians liberated it in 1944. But Serbs say its bombardment did more damage to Belgrade than that done by all the other four countries combined over four years.

If you are a Serb today, I think you may see entry into the EU as an escape from a geographical reality which has left Serbia fearful and hateful of all around it. Looked at from Belgrade, I thought the equivalent might be Newfoundland joining the EU. It would and could never escape from its geographical reality.

'But what was it like under Tito?' I asked. "It was fine.We were the most free of all the Communist countries. We had passports, we could travel. The only deal was not to say too much. If you did that, then they left you alone."

Walking along the streets, past great cathedrals to Orthodoxy, past vast fortresses which had failed it, into tea-rooms from another age; on the confluence of two of Europe's largest rivers (only one of which we know), it is clear that, just as Serbians are engaging, full of smiles and wonderfully courteous, so too are they more "street-wise" regionally than any of us in Britain. Just like their neighbours, each one of them has a "history", as do the gangsters and politicians. Powerless, Serbia has been bullied. In the Former Yugoslavia, its army domineered and bullied, and now that it is left with no real economy, it expects those with power to bully it.

The driver said, "I want a yacht. I want to be rich but I am a normal guy. Every day is a struggle, against corruption, against the Government, the bureaucracy. I do not know if we will ever get into the EU, but what other hope is there?"

Address to the Bruges Group by the Rt. Hon. Priti ...
Independent-thinking in Poland
 

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Saturday, 20 October 2018