Armistice day for warring politicians on Flanders fields
Published 27/06/2014 | 02:30
Ypres is the prettiest of places, its winding cobbled streets and sandstone bricked buildings bathed in warm midsummer sunshine.
It looks like an idyllic spot, yet the soil beneath and beyond this Flanders town is stained with the blood of hundreds of thousands of men and women, killed by bullets, shells, bombs and mustard gas during the most savage of conflicts.
Five battles raged through its narrow streets in World War I. The third, the terrible slaughter of the Battle of Passchendaele left almost half-a-million souls dead, and the town which rose from their ashes, filled with war museums and the soaring memorial arch of the Menin Gate, is a dignified and powerful reminder to the leaders of nations to Never Forget.
And it was into the town of Ypres that the 28 leaders of a European Union forged in the aftermath of the subsequent conflagration, World War II, gathered for their first meeting of the two-day summit.
It was fitting that the opening pow-wow should take place on this hallowed ground, for a war of sorts has broken out among the leaders in recent months over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.
It's a one-sided outbreak of hostilities, though, with the lone figure of British Prime Minister David Cameron leading the charge up the hill. Only Hungary has got his back – the rest of the countries are supporting (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) the former Luxembourg prime minister for the job.
It's all turned quite nasty, though. A belligerent Cameron doesn't want the man he decries as an "arch-federalist" and has demanded that the leaders must cast their votes for Juncker rather than simply select him by consensus – a move which has angered many of the other heads of government.
David Cameron is deep in the trenches, insisting upon ABJ (Anyone But Juncker). He's even dropped hints that our very own Enda is the right man for the job, as the Taoiseach repeatedly declines the offer (albeit with a soupcon of regret).
As the countdown to the summit began, it remained a tense stand-off, with alarmists expressing fears that this strife could rock the foundations of an EU still fragile after the repeated shocks of the financial crisis.
There was talk that the working dinner planned for the evening in the City Hall at Ypres would be a contentious affair, with Cameron determined to argue his case and stay in his lonely trench.
However, earlier in the day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had proffered a small olive branch. "We can give something back to the UK," she suggested, as she arrived at a meeting of the European party, the EPP, in the town of Kortjick.
And perhaps a bit of perspective was needed, which is why the location of Ypres was a timely choice of venue for a bunch of fractious politicians a bit too caught up in their own importance in the wider sweep of world history.
One by one, the 28 leaders swept in cavalcade into the picturesque square in front of the In Flanders Fields Museum. All of them stepped from their cars and headed straight for the red carpet, to be greeted by European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy – except for Angela Merkel. The consummate politician, and only genuine rock star among them, exited her car and headed straight for the ropeline on the far side of the square, to shake hands and chat to members of the public.
Then once assembled, all 28 walked in procession through the cobbled streets and up to the soaring architecture of the Menin Gate, to take part in a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Sarajevo assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand of June 28, 1914, which sparked a chain of events which tumbled into the chaos of World War I.
En route, the Taoiseach was deep in conversation with the prime minister, both looking sombre.
But then it was time to stop with the political selfies. The line of leaders stood arrayed under the soaring arch inscribed with the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died in fighting on the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found.
In the evening sunshine, flags of the union fluttering in a gentle breeze, they stood in silence, overshadowed by the names of the dead. Herman Van Rompuy read from the wartime lament, 'Ode to Remembrance' – "Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn," he recited.
"We will remember them," responded the solemn gathering.
And then a moment of heart-tugging poignancy. From the cupola of the dome, a sorrowful rain of poppy-leaves floated to earth, the colour of blood, the symbol of remembering. They covered the clay at the leaders' feet, falling to the sound of hymn-song.
Then the 28 walked into the garden and encircled the round, white stone peace bench, set in a tranquil tree-lined grove and bearing the word 'peace' written in all the languages of the EU.
Before each leader placed a ceramic poppy and their own small national flag, the council president gave an oration.
The ceremony wasn't about victory in war, said van Rompuy. "It was about how it could start, about the mindless march to the abyss, about the sleepwalking, above all, about the millions who were killed on all sides, on all fronts."
He painted a vivid picture of the horror of the battlefronts – "the blasts, the gas, the stench, the fear – senseless, endless, relentless, a spiral of self-destruction engulfing this continent of civilised nations," he told his powerful audience.
On the walk back to the dinner, the leaders mingled, chatting and laughing together. Angela and David fell into easy conversation. The mood seemed less doomy in the warring camp. Maybe their little conflict could be resolved after all.
Perspective can be a powerful thing.