Posted by: elambend | September 10, 2008

European Isolationism and the Development of the Frontier

Over the last few days I’ve been reading Paul Theroux’s “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.”  The book is an account of Theroux’s jouney by train through Europe and across Asia and back, a repeat of a journey he took over thirty years ago that formed the basis for his book “The Great Railway Bazaar”.

At the very beginning of his book, he gives the account of his travels through southwest Europe, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria.  His description is one of a dreary, backwards landscape, filled with sullen people, universal in their desire to escape west to the more developed lands of Europe.

“Stubborn seediness has great appeal, and this ramshackle railway had not changed in thirty-three years.  It was, if anything, worse, almost a parody of my previous experience.  The Hungarian border was farcical too, the customs-and-immigration people tramping through the carriage in wet boots and ill-fitting brown uniforms.  The Romanian border at Curtici was even grimmer, as though another act in the same farce:  big beefy-faced brutes with earflaps and gold braids, a dozen of them swarming ove the train demanding passports, opening bags.

The Third World sting and disorder were strong in Bucharest, its suburbs looked blighted, its farms muddy and primitive.  Romania was another country people were leaving, all of them headed west.  The look of Bucharest was desperate and naked, the look which is without shame or self-conciousness: everyone struggling, everyone dressed as though for a hike on a rainy day or dirty job.

Certainly, these aren’t happy places, people are leaving or just not having children, and not participating in old customs and institutions.  In short, they are cultures in collapse.

Arriving in Istanbul, he sounds like the explorer, happy to return to civilization.

“Nikolai [a fellow passenger, a Romanian] was speechless.  It was obvious that he had prepared himself for a shabby Asiatic city of oppression and torture, crumbly mosques and fez-wearing Turks and backward-looking Muslims.  Instead he was greeted by a grand and reimagined city of laughing children and beautiful women and swaggering men which had been ignored by Europe and sneered at by the Islamic republics.  It was a city of ancient gilt and impressive modernization.  He could see that the old city had been preserved – we were passing through it…Nikolai shriveled into a country mouse and, with his forehead pressed against the train window, looked as though he were going to weep in frustration.”

I was especially intrigued by his descriptions of southwest Europe because my city is home to many recent immigrants from those countries.  If his descriptions are close to accurate, I can see why they left and I’m happy they made it here.

It struck me that these countries form an undeveloped and uncontrolled frontier for Europe and they represent a huge challenge for the EU if it is to expand its common market and infrastructure eastward.  Indeed, it might be analagous to the US’s expansion and development westward accross North America. Taking the analogy a step futher, during it’s western expansion, the US underwent a period of some of its strongest isolationism.  Simply put, it had bigger issues at home.  Seen in this light, Europe’s reluctance to spend more on defense or entagle itself in external matters to a greater degree, may be an indication of the level of work it has to do at home.  No doubt, the European welfare system consumes a lot of capital, but given the condition of Europe’s frontier, it may be a while before Europe can be counted on to contribute more on the global stage.

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