Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Prisoners of Geography

pic of book on top of EU map

Travelling provides an excellent opportunity to catch up on some reading. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography provided absorbing material for my recent Eurostar trip to Brussels.

Brexit seemed to be on the minds and tongues of everyone I met in Brussels – from the European Parliament to the EU Studies Fair, as well as on all newsstands and points in between. Questions and what ifs abounded. It was interesting to hear and read views on our island nation from outside our borders.

Britain has been blessed by its geography unlike many countries described in Tim Marshall’s book. It has been our fortune to be

“close enough to the European Continent to trade
and yet protected by dint of being an island race” (p91).

Our geography has shaped our independent spirit. We are also seen as being

“at one remove from living with the historical collective memory
of frequent invasions and border change” (p91).

Thanks to our geography we have grown accustomed to punching above our size and weight globally. As the sole Brit, I was outnumbered by youthful representatives from the other 27 member states on the European Parliament tour. There were also young visitors from candidate countries.

I couldn’t help wondering how Britain’s future generations would feel about being outside the “club” whatever its faults. The Union Jack seemed to be on the way out already. Then, I realised that its position at the end of the line was probably due to the diplomatic use of alphabetical order.

Pic of European Union flags in a line inside the reception of European Parliament, Brussels

Our excellent Latvian guide was very open in discussing both the good and bad aspects of the European Parliament. He mentioned the financial wastefulness of the Strasbourg Parliament. (It is still maintained due to the ongoing vetoes of France and Luxembourg). He shared the difficulties of progressing any legislation without Germany’s support. He mentioned the frustrations of smaller nations and parties in getting their voices truly heard.

Pic of the European Parliament's debating chamber in Brussels

Human rights were seen as a strong area for the EU. For example, the EU can criticise China’s human rights’ record and invite the Dalai Lama to speak to the Parliament without fear of trade reprisals. The 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought went to the Saudi Arabian blogger, Raif Badawi. Europe enjoys peace and freedom of expression under the EU’s watchful eye.

Prisoners of Geography is particularly strong in explaining how geography shapes Russia and China. It invites the reader to picture Putin ruing the absence of mountains and watching as the EU encroaches ever closer through the former Soviet bloc. Ukraine was “the red line”. As Tim Marshall concludes:

“It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is tsarist,
Communist or crony capitalist – the ports still freeze,
and the North European Plain is still flat” (p25).

The world’s flashpoints are all enlightened with reference to their geography. The Arctic features at the end of the book. The melting ice cap is changing geography. Climate change is creating new tensions. 80% of Bangladesh is on a flood plain and it cannot relocate. The Maldives will disappear.

In conclusion, the author casts our eyes upwards away from the land. He refers to spy satellites and international cooperation in space. He speculates whether we will learn to meet the challenges ahead as “representatives of humanity” rather than as of a particular nationality. The road ahead seems to require even greater cooperation, rather than a self-interested retreat within our own borders.

Tim Marshall ends on a pessimistic note:

“... we are still imprisoned in our own minds,
confined by our suspicion of the ‘other’,
and thus our primal competition for resources.
There is a long way to go. (p240).”

I hope history will prove that he should have been more optimistic. It is an eye-opener to discover how much world tension is based on geography rather than our neighbours’ actual actions.

Book review details:
Tim Marshall: Prisoners of Geography. Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. Published by Elliott & Thompson, 2015.

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