No Nation

I crossed the border just south of Aachen—the French name is Aix-La-Chapelle. I’d been driving east for ninety minutes, after escaping the evening traffic in Brussels.

I was hopping over to Germany to look at a car, marveling at how easy it is to trade across countries in the EU. Two things make it extremely simple to buy a vehicle in any European country and transport it within the union.

The first is the four freedoms, which were established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and subsequently reinforced, culminating in the Treaty of Lisbon, fifty years later. This is one of the brexit blocks, and part of the great nationalist groan —businesses and citizens alike will only realize how convenient the freedoms are when they’re gone. Young people who have no idea what a border really is will clamor to roll back.

The second is the internet, which acts to reduce market stickiness, letting you visualize, price, and compare a vast range of products and countries.

As I drove past the historic city of Liège, overtaking trucks from Poland, Hungary, Portugal, and Romania, I was focused on spotting the sign with the gold stars separating Belgium from Germany—perhaps it was hidden by a truck, but I  never saw it.

Observant fellow that I am, I noticed I was in a different country because of the highway signs and the quality of the road—the autobahn was a couple of notches above Belgian freeways. The speed limits on my GPS disappeared, I saw the wonderful white sign, and I put my foot in the tank—the big Volvo surged forward, and I wondered why we don’t take a leaf from the German playbook.

According to Eurostat, the five most dangerous traffic areas in Europe are in Bulgaria (two), Portugal, Luxembourg, and Greece.

The most dangerous roads in Europe. Germany doesn’t feature.

Luxembourg? Hmmm… I’d never guess, but the rest are easy. When it comes to freeways, many countries don’t release data—but for those that do, there’s no evidence that inexistence of speed limits is dangerous. Calculated per billion km driven (about 600,000,000 miles), highway driving in Germany is pretty safe, even though 35% of drivers exceed 130 km h-1. In fact, counterintuitively, the US has the lowest speed limits but the most fatalities.

International Deaths per billion km driven
Country All roads Highways
Austria 6.88 1.73
Belgium 7.67 2.07
Czech Republic 15.73 2.85
Denmark 3.40 0.72
Finland 4.70 1.94
France 1.70
Germany 5.00 1.74
Slovenia 7.77 3.17
Switzerland 5.60 2.90
United Kingdom 3.56 1.16
United States 7.02 3.38

Across Europe, nationalists had voted with enthusiasm—none more so than the Brexit party supporters, who (as expected) trounced the Tories. But France also showed a preference for Marine Le Pen’s hard right, and in Belgium the ultra-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang did well.

I went to a working city in North-Rhine Westphalia and amused myself people-watching. This is the land of beer and sausage, and I sat in a bar with ordinary folk as I worked through a plate of pig’s knuckle and sauerkraut.

I felt right at home, as I do in any European country. Around me were people eating and drinking victuals that were quite different from the fare in Southern Europe, the piped music was German, and some young guys were playing cards around a large table.

Germany continues to have an extended number of national rules—they’re very fond of rules—and I didn’t see signs of a European ‘culture’ forced on them. The last time I’d been in this area, I bought my very first turntable, made by a company called Dual. It was the early nineteen seventies, only a handful of countries were in the EU, and my family smuggled it back home—as I recall, any family trip involved smuggling to some degree.

This is not because we were criminal masterminds—pretty much everything that went across borders paid duty, either because it was too valuable, too cheap, or too something else—everyone smuggled.

I remember the trip very well—my first time in Germany, and I was beginning to get a taste for beer–I only knew a couple of words, and one of them was Schallplate. What I don’t see, almost fifty years on, is a dilution of German identity—a common accusation by nationalists.

Graffiti on the restroom door in a Rhineland supermarket. Since German Nationalists wouldn’t write in English, I expect Farage ducked in for a piss.

I don’t see it in Britain either—if anything, Britain has become prouder of all things British—beer still comes in pints and is still flat and warm—no one makes any effort to speak a foreign language, and the xenophobia I experienced when I lived there in the seventies and eighties is still prevalent.

It is exactly because of the gap between country and (European) community that nationalists are wrong. Countries that have produced their own independent legislation have the same limitations as the EU, but few of the benefits.

In the quest for my car, I prepared a list the evening before, told the salesman to leave me alone, and went through it methodically point by point.

As it happens, the product didn’t tick enough boxes, but that’s okay. I  see it as a dry run, an opportunity to establish personal relationships—which despite the internet continue to be paramount—and to learn about the process. Documentation in Germany is different from France, Italy, or Spain, and there are a couple of European requirements you need to know about, so I certainly don’t consider it time wasted.

The art of the deal is knowing when to walk away.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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