Hugo Hamilton, ‘Welcome to the Club’, in The Irish Times, Weekend [cover feature] (Saturday 1 May 2004)

Heading: Today, Ireland holds a party for the 10 new member-states of the EU. What can they learn from our experience, and how will our perspective on Europe change with their admission, asks Hugo Hamilton.

Shortly after we joined the EU in 1973, I queued up for a work permit in Berlin along with people from Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Morocco, all waiting for permission to take part in the great German economic miracle of that time. You could see by the smoke in the waiting room how long it was going to take. Men fidgeting with worry beads. Men dressed up in suits to make a good impression. Whole families with children having their lunch while they were waiting their turn.

Then, out of the blue, I found my name being called ahead of everyone else and went forward to the hatch.

“You’re Irish,” they were telling me. “You’re in the EU now, aren’t you?”

There was no need for me to line up with the others. I was swiftly given a beautiful, grey-blue work permit for an indefinite period of time. It replaced a tattered three-month permit which had just run out and had taken a full two days to get. I tried to suppress the Irish smile on my face as I walked back though the crowded waiting room, past the men in the corridor staring at me with quiet envy.

Perhaps people in Ireland will understand better than anyone else what it means for the 10 new member-states to be joining Europe today. Welcome to the club, we will say in the most positive and generous sense.

We remember the debates on whether it was good for Ireland to join. We remember discussing it all in school essays, lifting contrasting opinions straight from the pages of the Irish Press or The Irish Times and stitching them together for the Leaving Cert. What did it mean for our fishing industry? Our independence? Our neutrality? Our national character? It wasn’t all about jobs and prosperity. We emerged from the schools into the pubs and found ourselves still talking about the nation’s soul. Would we lose our Irishness and become efficient one day, like the Germans or the French. What about our individuality? Would all the “characters” disappear from our streets? Would the men in tweed caps start wearing baseball caps with Texaco written on them instead? Would we stop singing republican ballads one day and forget all that business about nationhood for which our forefathers fought so dearly, only to become Europeans like everyone else?

“If you’re Irish, come into the parlour,” you still heard them sing on the radio in those days, by which we assumed that everyone else should stay outside.

Out of necessity, perhaps, we glorified our isolation. We admired our own chaos and laughed at our failures. Inferiority was part of being Irish. We relied on luck and cunning and maintained the clichés of ourselves as a defence against becoming ordinary. And at the same time, we desperately craved that we might one day belong to Europe. Emotionally as much as economically, we hoped that Europe would save us from ourselves and release us from our history.

Thirty years later, we see how fortunate we were to have been accepted into the EU so early. We bless our luck and wonder what if the Berlin Wall had come down sooner, before the Celtic Tiger had had time to get a foothold? What if the Soviet Union had broken up with the Prague Spring of 1968, as many believed it would at the time? Our boom years might have arrived 30 years after what we now call the Tatra tiger of Slovakia or the latest Lithuanian tiger. We might have found ourselves back at the end of the queue instead.

The new accession states can see clearly how Ireland placed itself on the map, culturally and economically, how we stopped ourselves from disappearing out into the Atlantic as we once thought we might. Ireland is in many ways a model for other small countries. They notice our sudden prosperity. They listen to our music, they read Irish writers and admire the way we turned our adversity into virtues, without losing our soul. In the end, it was the opposite of isolation, the integration into a larger mix of cultures that allowed our Irishness to flourish.

Now the same questions are being asked in the countries joining the EU. All the weathervanes have turned west. The former USSR countries are going through the slow process of de-Sovietisation. They have the same post-colonial discussions about their national character. Schools that used to teach Russian now teach English and German. In the Slovakian town of Mikova, they have erected two giant Campbell’s soup cans, to remind people that Andy Warhol’s family, the Varholas, came from there. Anything to ditch the Soviet image. Anything to make the country attractive for the giant new VW and Peugeot car manufacturing plants who have moved in.

In the Czech Republic, the country that gave us Franz Kafka, the big concern among young people at the moment appears to be whether the EU will bring even more bureaucracy than the former Soviet Union did. The view of the past seems to inform the fears and hopes for the future.

Some see the irony of exiting from one large union only to join another one. The film Good Bye Lenin probably describes this best of all by making the contrast between the red Soviet flags being taken down and the Coca-Cola trucks arriving in East Berlin.

Slovenia, too, is now trying to ditch its Balkan image and underline its former links with Europe through the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Whenever I travelled in post-Soviet countries, I saw for myself how they struggled with simple problems of distribution. Getting frozen chickens from one end of the country to another was not so much a logistical problem as one of the mind. They say it was the gypsies who were quickest off the mark because they carried on an underground trade throughout the Soviet years. But in places where the profit motive never existed, where the state made all the decisions, people developed the skills of queuing up, of keeping their heads down. I remember noticing in Bucharest how you never heard anyone whistling in the street.

Here in Ireland we understand how it takes generations to build up good business intuition. We know the old Irish unwillingness to co-operate, which still lingers in our consciousness. The semi-hostile “Can I help you?” The barman who doesn’t like serving.

The “blind” bus drivers, as my mother used to call them, who don’t really like picking up passengers. If only we had Eastern European attitudes towards public transport, I often found myself thinking.

We are told that the EU will bring better human rights to countries such as Estonia, which has a prison population three times higher than the EU average. The EU will close down dirty industries in the East, such as the two Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors in Lithuania. The EU will bring political stability and put an end to corruption. Freedom of movement.

But at the back of our minds, we know that Ireland is still an unfinished project. It is sad to think that our most urgent debate right now is how we must protect our citizenship from an invasion of pregnant women from abroad. At times we seem as isolated as we ever were before we joined the EU.

With any luck the new member-states will soon accelerate into a more prosperous future. They will soon have their own Ryanair success stories. They possibly have less hang-ups about enterprise than we did. They are also geographically and culturally closer to Europe than we ever were. What you often noticed in post-Soviet countries were the remnants of a much older order, still visible in the grandeur of the architecture, even if it was crumbling and set against the backdrop of low-quality, high-rise Soviet buildings.

The EU should bring ethnic security. The EU, and that sense of belonging to a larger group, must have contributed to a change in the way we think about Northern Ireland. In Slovakia, after the separation from the Czech Republic, repressive language laws were introduced against the Magjar minority in the area of Muzla, forcing bookshops to close down. Under the European canopy that minority can feel reunited with their homeland in Hungary next door.

Ultimately, it’s not so much the economic prosperity the new countries generate that will influence the rest of Europe, however, but the cultural impact. Given half a chance, any nation can generate growth. But it’s the cultural contribution that matters more that which of them will run the cheap airlines. It is still mostly in terms of cultural self-assertion that we measure Irish success since we joined. It’s the way we perceive our own history, the way we are see from the outside and the way in which our history has now become a part of the European identity that matters.

There are things you remember in one language that you cannot remember in any other language. Each of the new states may have a communal future to a certain degree, but they each have their own ways of remembering the past. And perhaps that is the greatest part of being part of the EU, the feeling that our Irish history is no longer something exclusive between us and Britain, between nationalists and Loyalists, but something that has affected all Europeans. Our history has become a European issue.

I met an artist named Darius Lehntov from Lithuania who had come to Berlin on a scholarship. His story was a cruel one, of how he had been forced to join the soviet army.

For years he and his friends had dodged the call up by hiding from the very obvious Russian military jeeps going by searching for young men in his town. He could not walk out in daylight for years, until they finally caught him and placed him in the Russian uniform and sent him to military training camp, which was more like an internment camp.

He spent years there and survived it only by sheer willpower, when many of his own friends took their own lives because of the freezing conditions, the near starvation, the repression and the mindless boredom which left scars on all young Lithuanian men. When he was finally released from his duties around the time that the Berlin wall came down, he did something that was beyond his imagination, he became an artist and went to Berlin.

It is clear that each of the new countries has it’s own unique sense of individuality and it’s own contribution to make to European culture. At a reception in the Polish cultural institute in Berlin where they offered vodka and apple juice, I met the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, whose wonderful novel ’House of Day, House of Night’ is now on the IMPAC shortlist. In Berlin they now have a Polish cultural centre, much like the Irish clubs of Kilburn in London, full of smoke and discussions about the Polish soul and how to preserve their Polishness.

This Polish experience will now become part of our own experience. The Eastern European details of history will become part of ours. The Polish writer Andrzej Szczypiorki describes how he was liberated from Auschwitz and how he started the long walk back to his hometown. Along the way he was given food and shelter, and when he woke up in the morning, the woman of the house had washed and ironed his striped concentration camp clothes for him. More than ever before, his story becomes part of our memory now.

The Latvian minister for foreign affairs, Sandra Kalniete, recently drew a comparison between the Soviet Crimes and the Nazi crimes, which caused alarm around Europe because it threatened to resurrect the whole historian battle of the eighties about relativism between these two dictatorships. The argument was settled in the most vehement terms at the time by the conclusion that Nazi Crimes were systematic and racially specific, whereas the Soviet crimes were stochastic or random.

But the comments of the Latvian foreign minister can also be understood, because the Latvians have their own sense of history and their own ghosts which still have to be confronted. Sandra Kalniete herself was born in 1952 in the town of Tamsk, a Gulag to which her parents had been exiled during the Soviet years.

We see these things now as a collective memory, a collective history. We see what the artists and writers of Eastern Europe produce as part of our collective imagination. We see the bomb attacks in Spain as something that happened to us all. That collective sensitivity shapes our decisions about the future.

Of course Europe is good for us all. We stand to profit, not only economically but also in terms of a shared security with our own neighbours. Joining up new countries doesn’t merely represent some grand, altruistic act on the part of the existing members. Let’s be clear, these new countries have large populations who will have the same desires for new cars that we do in Ireland. It’s good housekeeping, new markets for EU products.

The EU is a sound collective enterprise and we can no longer imagine a world without it. / But we also have to remember that Europe enjoys luxuries far beyond its global entitlement. / We pollute beyond our entitlement. As Europe expands, we also exclude even poorer countries.

On a recent trip to Spain, I could see the heartbreaking sight of men from all over Africa, trying to make it across from Morocco, desperately searching for the prosperity that we once sought when our emigrants went abroad. Every night on Spanish TV they show bodies of young men washed up on the Costa del Sol, which we associate so much with holidays in the sun. Every night, these men attempt the big gamble, hoping to trade their national inferiority for a better life in Europe. They come from places where there is nothing left but soul. And every night so many fail to make it and pay with their lives.

Without a doubt, we welcome new member states into the parlour in a gesture of great generosity and unity. But you cannot suppress the uneasy feeling at the same time that Europe still presides over a larger imbalance in the world, from which we have distanced ourselves. There are people who remain outside our collective imagination. There is a great German word that comes to mind at this moment: Weltoffen - an openness towards the world. By welcoming in the new member states, our shared sense of history will, hopefully, make us think about the long queue behind us. [END]

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