Terrorism and turbulence: ABC correspondent James Glenday reflects on three years in Europe


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October 27, 2018 10:26:09

When you walk around Westminster, where the ABC’s London bureau is based, so many people seem to be striding purposefully along, staring intently at their phones.

Journalists, politicians, lobbyists and staffers all frantically tweeting, posting and plotting to keep up with the churn of the constant news cycle.

Of course, that’s not a huge surprise — the historic area is the beating heart of British political life.

But over the past few years the pulse of the place has seemed to quicken, as the global beacon of stable democracy has been rattled by the most complex issue in a generation — Brexit.

Ever since Nigel Farage triumphantly declared “we’ve got our country back” in the faint dawn light in June 2016, there’s been drama — too many scare stories, scuttled plans and leadership rumblings to mention.

Yet with the UK’s exit from the European Union looming, I’m still surprised by how many big questions remain unresolved.

The media is polarised, so is the public and every development is viewed through the grimy periscope of deeply entrenched positions.

Compromise seems a dirty word.

Reporting on Europe at a time of political turbulence

Of course, this fractious political mood is not unique to England.

Across Europe big parties are getting smaller and small parties are getting bigger, making some complex coalition governments seem increasingly fragile.

In this environment the political fringes have been emboldened.

I’ve met well-off Bavarians determined to get a far-right party into parliament for the first time since WWII, French factory workers simultaneously espousing socialist and nationalist economic policies, violent left-wing extremists in Hamburg demanding an end to capitalism, and Polish Catholic campaigners determined to keep Muslim asylum seekers out of their country by any means.

Some of these groups are fiercely — almost fanatically — loyal to their tribe or campaign.

Objective journalists are a target — the vitriol that’s ended up in my inbox has ranged from the comical to the disturbing.

But more interesting, to me at least, has been the significant number of self-described “centrists” or “ordinary citizens” who seem dissatisfied with, anxious about or forgotten by the political status quo.

After spending several days with supporters of now French President Emmanuel Macron last year, I was struck by how many thought their lives would not be as good as their parents’.

These were not, for the most part, activists, social media warriors or student politicians, but relatively well-educated, well-off and well-travelled young people, convinced only a new political “movement” could achieve change.

There’s been too much tragedy and terror

My stay in Europe has coincided with a series of high-profile disasters.

The Grenfell Tower inferno last year is the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.

The nerve agent attack in Salisbury was shocking.

Reporting on it and the so-called presidential “elections” from Moscow was frankly surreal, and anyone who seriously thinks eroding democratic checks and balances is a good idea should spend some time in Putin’s Russia.

But it’s the terrorism — the deliberate mass murder in the centre of normally safe cities — that will stay with me the longest.

I’ve covered nine major attacks and many smaller.

The pictures, sounds and smells after the atrocities in Nice, Berlin, London and Barcelona are seared into my mind.

Much to the frustration of my family, I still can’t sit comfortably in a street side cafe or linger in big crowds.

For a time, I became slightly obsessed with the strategic placement of bollards.

Islamic State-inspired terrorism is just one of the many reasons media pundits claim Europe’s established political order is being tested.

There are many theories:

Is the turbulence driven by a working-class pushback against globalisation and the automation of jobs? Or are people fed up with institutions like the EU? Is this all a consequence of the global financial meltdown? What was the impact of the continent’s more recent migrant crisis? And where will it end?

You could pontificate endlessly.

If I’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that making political predictions is a bit of mug’s game.

From London to ‘the swamp’

There are undoubtedly some parallels with what’s taking place in Europe at the moment and where I’m writing this from — Donald Trump’s USA.

My beautiful, unbelievably supportive wife and I are in the middle of trying to find a new house and get our two young daughters settled in Washington DC as I prepare to start my new job as ABC North America correspondent.

The few times I’ve discussed politics with locals so far, there’s been a distinct sense of fatigue.

In my final days in Westminster I made a real effort to look up from my phone and appreciate my surroundings.

I’ve always been fascinated by the area’s historic buildings, many of which are pockmarked by fragments of wartime bombs.

In a weird way I find them strangely reassuring.

They’re a constant reminder that whatever challenges Europe faces, the continent is currently dominated by stable, peaceful democracies.

The people living in them are in many cases healthy and, on a global standard, wealthy.

Things have been much, much worse.

In this era of turbulence, it seems something worth remembering.

Topics:

terrorism,

unrest-conflict-and-war,

world-politics,

government-and-politics,

disasters-and-accidents,

media,

elections,

european-union,

united-kingdom,

spain,

france,

greece,

russian-federation



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