Guest post: Living in Europe in Autumn in Spring

5 years ago

Living In Europe In Autumn In Spring

Dave Hutchinson

"The word nation is an enormously comforting one. A nation is safe, secure. It has borders and a currency and a means of defence and a place in the world. It gives us a sense of identity, a place to come home to when we’ve been away.

Similarly – notwithstanding the thoughts of UKIP – the word Europe conjures up solidity, a huge monolithic thing off the South Coast of England. Here too is identity, a place in the world.

Neither of these statements is quite true.

Europe is, of course, made up of numerous nations – not all of them yet in the European Union. It’s far from homogeneous; it’s big and fractious and unwieldy and full of strange languages and unusual food and people who quite often actively dislike the people living just the other side of the border.

And the nations themselves are less permanent than we would like to think, as any Pole will tell you. Borders shift, are imposed, shift again. If you go far enough back in history, many of the countries we now consider to be nations are actually accretions of smaller states. Germany, and Italy, as we know them, are actually quite recent things, historically speaking. Yugoslavia came into being in the years following the First World War, survived for a while, and then fractured into its component parts again. Similarly with Czechoslovakia. In Britain, we’re on the final run-up to a referendum which may see Scotland becoming an independent nation again, and in Ukraine the Russian invasion has given rise to something that styles itself The Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

Europe In Autumn imagines a Europe in the latter half of this century where the EU has, for various reasons, begun to crumble and new countries – some of them not much bigger than municipal housing estates – have begun to spring up. It’s a novel about borders and about crossing them. The ‘Autumn’ of the title is, to a large extent, a figurative one. This is a Europe in flux, a Union at the end of its days.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s really not. I’m beginning to think that we live there.
While I was doing background research for the book – and yes, I did do some – I came across the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the rights and duties of states, which lays out criteria for statehood. They’re surprisingly straightforward. ‘The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.’ The Convention goes on to say, ‘The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states.’

Basically, if an entity fits the qualifications it can be regarded as sovereign even if no one else recognises it.

Naturally, I was delighted to come across this because it at least offers some kind of real-life guiding framework within which the numerous new states and polities and kingdoms and republics in Europe In Autumn can exist.

In addition, the concept of micronations is far from being a new one. You could argue – and I would - that Monaco is a micronation, but other real-life examples include Sealand, the old Maunsell fort off the Essex coast which declared its sovereignty back in the mid-1960s and which I was delighted to discover is still in existence, having gone through all the teething troubles of any large-scale nation, including an attempted coup. If an old sea fort can become a nation, why shouldn’t the fans of Günther Grass set up their own microstate in Pomerania? Why shouldn’t a national park in Estonia become a sovereign country, as Rudi and his brother discuss one drunken night?

Rudi looked at his brother and tipped his head to one side. “Are you all right?”
Ivari looked at him and sighed. He ground his cigarette out in the ashtray. “Paps.”
“Well, yes,” said Rudi.
Ivari shook his head. “He’s…he wants the park to declare independence.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“He wants the park to secede. Become an independent nation. A…what do you call it?”
“Polity,” Rudi said, feeling numb.
Ivari made a half-hearted gotcha gesture. “Polity. Yes.”
“You talked him out of it, though?” said Rudi. He saw the look on his brother’s face and put his hands up. “Sorry. Pretend I didn’t ask that.”
Ivari lit another cigarette. “A park in Lithuania did it a couple of years ago, I don’t remember the name.”
Rudi nodded, though he couldn’t remember the name either. But it included part of the great primeval forest he had been telling Frances about earlier. “It didn’t last long,” he said.
“Yes, well, the old man says they were a bunch of amateurs. He says he’s got it all thought out.”
Well, at least that would be true enough. Rudi rubbed his face. “He can’t possibly make it work. He needs a big percentage of the population to agree to his proposal in the first place, before he goes anywhere with it.”
“There aren’t more than seven hundred people living in the park these days, Rudi,” said Ivari. “Most of them are as pissed-off as he is that the Government keeps all our tourism revenue.”
“And gives it back,” said Rudi. “Upkeep of the Manor and the visitor centre. The tram-line. Maintenance of the roads.”
Ivari shook his head. “He’s right about that, at least. We only ever see a fraction of it. We get the absolute minimum that we need. We’re having to cannibalise one of the humvees just to keep the others going. The rest of it?” He shrugged.
“It wasn’t always like that,” said Rudi, thinking back to when he was young and they moved here for the first time. “The Government used to hurl cash at us. You remember President Laar? ‘Estonia’s most precious natural resource. We will never neglect it.’”
“Laar was a long time ago. We were just kids, Rudi. Back then Paps could go to the Ministry and ask for anything his black little heart desired, and they’d give it him. Not any more. Now we’re a big tourist cash-cow, and most of the cash goes into someone else’s pockets.”
“It sounds as if the old man’s got you convinced.”
“He’s got a point about the money,” Ivari insisted. “When I took over from Paps as head ranger, we got on all right with the Government. They didn’t let us bathe in asses’ milk, but they granted us funds for a lot of projects. Nowadays I spend half my time in Tallinn with my cap in my hands.” He poured himself another drink and looked at the glass. “Oh, sure, the President comes up here a lot. The Prime Minister, as well. Lots of ministers. And what do we get?” He knocked back the drink in one swallow. “Flowers. Fruit. Fluffy toys.”
“Governments change, Ivari.”
“Nah,” Ivari said, pouring another drink. He held up the bottle. “You want?”
“Yes,” said Rudi, taking the bottle from his brother. He topped up his drink, put the bottle on the floor by his feet, out of Ivari’s reach.
“Nah,” Ivari said again. “It’s institutionalised now. This arsehole, he’s made everyone realise just how much we can help them feather their own nests.”
Rudi shook his head. “It can’t work. The park can’t possibly earn enough from tourism to be self-supporting.”
“Paps is talking about getting the Laulupidu moved out here.”
“The song festival? That’s never going to happen.”
Ivari looked at him. “Why not? It wasn’t in Tallinn originally; it was in Tartu.”
“But the Festival Grounds are there, the Lauluväljak. It’s where the Singing Revolution happened. Nobody’s going to move the festival from there.”
Ivari looked sourly at him. “With Paps’s contacts in the folk-song community? All it takes is his pals to decide to boycott the Festival and come here and have a rival one of their own.” He shook his head. “Not even difficult. Those old guys love him, Rudi. They’d walk into hell if he asked them to. Nah.” He shook his head again. “All he has to do is say the word, and the Laulupidu happens right here. Let Tallinn keep the Lauluväljak for heavy metal concerts.”
One of the biggest song festivals along the Baltic. Tens of thousands of people. If they could turn it into an annual event, rather than every five years, it might generate enoughrevenue to make a difference. If they could build a suitable venue for it here.
Rudi said, “He has to go to the UN with the proposal. Their fact-finding study alone could last ten years.”
“He’s got a precedent.”
Rudi felt his blood chill.
“That place in Berlin. The one with the anarchists.”
“New Potsdam,” Rudi said dully.
Ivari nodded. “That was a spontaneous thing. Paps thinks that if it happens spontaneously enough here, the UN will concede to it, just like they did with New Potsdam.”
“The Government could keep him in a UN Special Court for the rest of his life, arguing about that,” Rudi said, grasping at straws.
“True. But in the interim, the UN has no power to prevent a provisional Government being set up here. We’d have to accept Peacekeepers, but let’s face it, they might come in handy.”
Rudi put a hand to his face and rubbed it in a horrified, circular motion, as if trying to erase his features. “The old bastard,” he said, not without admiration. “He wants to hand the UN a fait accompli and let them sort it out.”
“And by the time they do have it sorted out…”
“…this is a functioning country and they have no right to abolish it. They have to recognise it.” Rudi blinked. “Fucking hell.” It was, he thought, either the work of a genius or a madman. With his father, it was usually impossible to tell which.
“Of course, we’d have to prove that we were a functioning country, in the interim,” said Ivari. “But Paps has it all costed out. He’s got spreadsheets, he’s got presentations, he’s got the results of divinations from the entrails of chickens. God only knows what he has. He’s bent the figures so far out of shape they don’t even look like numbers any more. He’s got a Constitution and a Parliament. In an emergency he’s got a Government that looks a lot like the Divine Right of Kings.” Ivari held his hand out flat, about a metre above the floor. “He’s got a stack of notes and proposals and suggestions this high.”
“Could it work?”
“I don’t know. I’ve seen all his paperwork. Half of it looks as though it was written by Aleister Crowley. On a costings level? We’d have a few tight years in the beginning, then we’d start to show a profit. We’d licence settlers, sell visas. Make the visas really arty so people would regard them as souvenirs. We should have a park mascot. Villem The Bear. Everyone loves bears. Especially if we design him right.” Ivari put his hand to the side of his head as though massaging away a pain.
“There aren’t enough people here to defend the borders,” Rudi said.
“Haven’t you been listening?” Ivari shouted, taking his hand from his head. “The United Nations will do that for us.”
Rudi raised a hand. “Okay. My mistake.”
Ivari sighed. “Can I have a drink, please?”
Rudi looked at the bottle of Scotch. After a while he picked it up and passed it over. Then he sat back and lit another cigar.
“Either he’s going to be the saviour of the park,” Ivari said, pouring a very large measure of whisky into his glass and carefully putting the bottle down where he could get at it when he needed it again, “or he’s going to destroy us.” He picked up his glass and took a big drink. “And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know which it’s going to be.”
Rudi looked at his brother, caught between a rock and a hard place. “We could always kill him,” he suggested.

One of the things I didn’t really address in Europe In Autumn is the human cost of all this. The creation of new nations, the imposition of new borders, causes tremendous upheaval. People wind up displaced. Families are torn apart. The Treaty of Rapallo, which in part codified the new nation of Yugoslavia, cut off about a quarter of Slovene territory and left around half a million Slavs in Italy. As Rudi, Max and Dariusz discuss in the book, after the Second World War the populations of German towns like Breslau and Oppeln suddenly found themselves living in the Polish towns of Wrocław and Opole, as part of the ‘compensation’ for the incorporation of the formerly Polish lands to the East – including Lwow – in the Soviet Union. It’s not often a painless process.

The Schengen Treaty aimed to remove border controls within the European Union. As someone who once spent five hours on a coach waiting to cross the Polish-German border, I can only applaud the sentiment. But Schengen, like all treaties, is a fragile thing. The borders could come back.

The Twentieth Century in Europe saw borders come and go, saw nations assembled and then dismantled. I don’t see why the Twenty-First Century will be any different. Some commentators have described the world in Europe In Autumn as dystopian. Personally, I’d beg to differ. The world in Europe In Autumn is actually what we would get if we were quite lucky. It is, at least, a world which is mostly at peace.
I think the world we live in now is the dystopia."

About the author

Dave Hutchinson is the author of SF near-future spy thriller Europe in Autumn which is out now from Solaris and is also available in print and ebook from Amazon in the UK and in North America.

He is the author of five collections of short stories and one novel, and his novella “The Push” was shortlisted for the 2010 BSFA award for short fiction. He has also edited two anthologies and co-edited a third. His short story ‘The Incredible Exploding Man’ featured in the first Solaris Rising anthology, and appeared in the 29th Year’s Best Science Fiction collection. He lives in north London with his wife and several cats.