Timothy Garton Ash has combined work in academia, journalism and political analysis for nearly half a century. Europe – its role in the making of the modern world and the challenges it faces today – has been his unflinching focus. His new book is an insightful analysis of the transformation of central and eastern Europe in the decades between the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Garton Ash first encountered “Europe” as a teenager bewitched by its character and tragic history, very different from the insular and arrogant sense of superiority of much of British – actually English – society at that time. He has been a witness to uprisings in various of the Soviet Union’s European “client states”, and his contacts with many of those who inspired or led the revolts provided much of the valuable material for this book.
The corruption and intolerance that has episodically marked the long transition of these countries into the orbit of the European Union is not glossed over. The bloc’s enlargement has brought difficult political, legal and social changes. Indeed, an explicit warning of this was given by Jacques Delors when, as president of the European Commission, he visited the aspirant candidate countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The sometimes bureaucratic and sluggish dynamics of EU processes rightly meet with the author’s disapproval. But things are very different today from when I was reporting for the Guardian in Brussels in the 1970s. The dynamic of ever closer EU integration continues, but not at the expense of the new European member states.
It would have been interesting to have some discussion of what relationship a more democratic post-Putin Russia might have with Brussels, short of membership. The EU is being pressed to agree to the accession of ever more candidate states in the Balkans and even the Caucasus. What should define the eventual limits of EU enlargement?
Garton Ash lists some of the lessons learned from the past half century. These include the clumsy and inhuman attempt to create a “Fortress Europe” against immigration, which, predictably, has encouraged a revival of the racist far right. Global population movements should be seen as a potential positive, not a threat – especially by countries facing serious demographic decline.
Any states that join the EU in the future will almost certainly be joining something more like a democratic federal European Union. Climate crisis and the pressure to deal with poverty and social inequality seem likely to further redefine the frontiers of democratic governance at the national, European and even global level. One sad fact is how little much of this even registers with the contending political forces struggling in a UK beset by post-Brexit decline and government chaos. Might this be a topic for Garton Ash’s next book?
• Homelands: A Personal History of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.