December 9, 2019

Memories of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall, constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1961, physically divided the city, acting as a political and ideological barrier between East and West Berlin. The Wall acted as a symbol for the instability and division of the time, at the height of the Cold War. Thirty years ago, in 1989, a series of revolutions in several Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland and Hungary, ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and, a year later in 1990, the reunification of Germany.

With the European Youth Parliament having been founded in 1987, our efforts for democracy and intercultural dialogue go beyond these historical events. We were therefore able to get insight from some of our Alumni that were involved in EYP at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we are glad to share their thoughts and recollections with the network. We sure were inspired by what Sophie Honey, Enikő Csontoss and Solon Molho had to say!

Sophie Honey, EYP Alumna and British Ambassador to Slovenia, shared on her Twitter account on the 9th of November, as celebrations were taking place:

We were inspired by this Tweet to reach out to Eniko Csontoss, currently Deputy-Head of the European Commission’s Representation in Hungary and a participant in six of our International Sessions between 1990 and 1994, as well as having been involved with the Board of the Hungarian National Committee between 1993 and 1998; and Solon Molho, contributor for the Economist Intelligence Unit on Greece and Evaluator for the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Commission, who attended five International Sessions and numerous National Selection Conferences between 1989 and 2001.

Q: Why and when did you join EYP?

Enikő: The first session I attended was in Lisbon 1990, still pretty much in the “we have just been liberated from communism and Russian occupation” spirit. There was no Hungarian delegation in Thessaloniki. According to my recollection, the first ever Hungarians attended a session in 1989 in Fontainebleau. But we were the first delegation as observers in an EYP from Hungary in 1990 November in Lisbon.

Solon: It seemed like a good idea at the time. My school was among the first proponents in Greece, and they put forward the idea to us, and some of us latched on. I had already started to look outside Greece for my tertiary education and was intrigued.

Q: What impact has the EYP experience had on your life so far?

Enikő: EYP was such a fantastic thing. We could really feel part of the family, there was no “you Eastern Europeans, second rank people” kind of feeling at all. In my case, the EYP really changed my life. That was when I became interested and committed to European integration. And now, I am Deputy-Head of the European Commission’s Representation in Hungary, after having worked at HQ in Brussels between 2011 and 2018. I am a Commission official. Before that, I was a Hungarian diplomat.

Solon: The EYP was a formative experience for me. This could be for a number of reasons. Either because (a) I was at a formative stage in my life when I joined, and/or (b) because it was designed in such a way as to shape and mould young minds in a certain way, and/or (c) because by chance I happened to be in the EYP at a game-changing moment in European history.

The result of that
last element was that policy recommendations that we put forward which we were
told were ‘unthinkable’, ‘folly’, ‘a youthful pipe dream’ and ‘wishful
thinking’, were official EU policy goals less than a year later.

The EYP has, by
design, a way to get young people interested in European issues and to go to
amazing depths without fully realising it at the time. And it bakes into you
the need to follow through. This has shaped me into a voracious consumer of
news and analysis, and created a need to examine multiple, often opposing
points of view. To have a sceptical view of conventional wisdom and yet to
strive for consensus. In short, it has contributed to my becoming a very
annoying person. And a devout European federalist.

It has also given me a ‘family of peers’, whom I run into many a time and who I respect and appreciate. Nowdays I am increasingly finding EYPers amongst my students, which always makes me smile.

Q: Do you remember what role did the existence of the wall play in your life and what it meant for you personally that it fell? Where were you at the time? 

Enikő: I was 16 when the wall fell. It was freedom again. Unimaginable before. Belonging to Europe again (just like for the previous almost 1000 years). We were much poorer than our fellow Western Europeans but full of optimism that we can build our country and soon catch up with the rest of Europe.

Solon: We (my generation) grew up in a deeply divided Europe. We had little knowledge of what went on in the East despite, being in Thessaloniki, very close proximity with Yugoslavia. Imagine growing up in a house where one of the windows is bolted. Now you can kind of make out there is supposed to be a window there, and you hear stories, but you can’t really see very much at all. And the stories are not very nice either.

For me the feeling was
like the opening of a window which we knew was there but had never really been
able to see through. I had no direct impact (i.e. no family behind the ‘iron
curtain’ to use a term of the time) in my life, but a keen interest in the
ideological battle of the time.

When the wall fell, I
was in bed. In the morning, I was in attendance at the opening of the plenary
of my first EYP session. Now the wall had fallen, but we had no idea. We had no
smartphones at the time you see, no email, and the internet was a military
thing. International calls were expensive, and the opening ceremony was early
and the time difference meant that even delegates of other European countries
had not communicated with their families. Also, Greece did not really have much
other than state-owned television, though at about that time in Thessaloniki
some rebroadcasting of CNN (quasi-pirated) was happening. But there was no real
24-hours news cycle, news was something you bought a newspaper for.

So we have all arrived
at the opening of the plenary, clueless, tired (it is a gruelling week), and
the session president makes this announcement. The gravitas is indescribable.

Of course all eyes are
on the German delegation. They all rushed to the payphones (I think there may
actually not have been enough for all of them, so they had to take turns),
which use coins, which we are all scrambling to provide. Everybody was crying.
We may have been late to the party (eight to nine hours late)? It is a
testament to the time that, even though of course all parents had the phone
numbers of the families the delegates were staying with, none used it in the
middle of the night as events unfolded.

Some of us found it
difficult to concentrate in the day’s proceedings, and would break into small
groups chatting. But there was not much else we could do then wait, let it sink
in. There were no social media remember.

One thing that sticks to mind is that,
counterintuitively, that day the debate really started when the session ended.
Thirty years later, it still goes on.