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The fall of The Wall: This was the new epicentre of a new Europe

    Looking back, it is strange how many of us thought it would not happen in our lifetime – or at least not for years to come.

    Of course we had been confidently assured by foreign policy experts and analysts galore that the USSR was here to stay and that ‘realists’ would have to learn to ‘engage with’, i.e compromise with, a half Communist world.

    And yet suddenly ,in a cloud of cement dust and amidst cheering crowds there it was, Checkpoint Charlie swept away, guards no longer shooting – a new world smashed open and within almost instant reach. Dominoes toppled – Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, all becoming accessible, a short flight away, nearer than the Costa Brava. Soon, too, there would be the end of the GDR, rapidly seduced into one Germany by an absurd one-for one-exchange rate (Deutschmark for Ostmark) which Karl Otto Poehl forecast would be an economic disaster – which it was.

    Of course we should have believed our own eyes and ears and not the pundits. Television from the West, plus the microchip, had long since turned the Soviet Empire into a colossus out of time, hopelessly over-centralised, neither necessary nor efficient, nor loved nor able to cope with the irresistible pressure from below for freedom. Its military had to tell their Kremlin masters they could no longer match their weaponry with the amazing electronic creativity of the West. Its government could no longer keep up with the craving for higher living standards that went with free markets and free societies and which they could see every night on their screens.

    A short while later I flew down to Prague with Peter Shore, representing the House of Commons. We were met at Prague’s wonderfully preserved-in-aspic thirties airport by Karly Schwarzenberg, much later the Czech Republic’s august Foreign Secretary, but then the major domo of Czechoslovakia’s brand new President, the diminutive, inspirational Vaclav Havel.

    He drove us perilously over potholed roads into the centre of| Prague, a city, or cluster of cities, still brushing off the Communist dirt and dust. We dined with the new Cabinet in a cheerful brasserie with many toasts and speeches – and from my side apologies again for Munich and thanks for brave Czech airmen in the Battle of Britain.

    The Government’s new Foreign Minister, Jiri Dienstbier, whom I had last met when he was washing windows, told how he had found his telephone still being tapped .When he asked the Chief of Police whether he was aware of this and why, the reply was that no-one had given the order to stop what had been normal practice under the former regime.,

    Later, as midnight struck I stood in the Old Square in Prague. This I felt, was the new epicentre of a new Europe, about to be enlivened by the resurgent cultures of the brilliant Czechs, the sparking Hungarians, the determined Poles and many others.

    There were to be many ups and downs and false starts ahead. But two and a half decades after that tumultuous Berlin night it is happening. The countries of Central Europe are setting the pace and making their impact on EU reform. Britain should have been much closer to these unchained nations in recent years than it has been. For they are the ones who like Britain, reject centralisation and want less power sucked to the centre. They ought to be Britain’s best friends in the struggle to create a prospering, democratic 21st century Europe.

    Lord Howell served as Secretary of State for Energy and then for Transport under Margaret Thatcher, and was Minister of State in the Foreign Office from the election in 2010 until the reshuffle of 2012.

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