Contrary to Tim Ottevanger’s view (Letters, 16 October) of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, a pact that astonished the western world, I think it was one of the most significant in the last 200 years. At that time any intelligent observer, including Stalin, knew that the Nazis planned to eradicate Bolshevism and to gain Lebensraum in eastern Europe. The Soviets were engaged in a gigantic educational, agricultural and industrial transformation lasting less than a score of years, a process that took the UK over a century. They had to ensure that they were capable of defeating an onslaught from the greatest military machine ever known. The pact not only gave the USSR an extra 22 months of further industrialisation, but also allowed it to occupy eastern Poland after the Nazis attacked it on 1 September 1939. But for this extra 100+ miles of “buffer zone” the Nazis would have probably captured Moscow in 1941 and much land beyond it. Instead, as Churchill said, the Soviets “ripped the guts out of the Wehrmacht”. But for this the Nazis would have won the war in Europe with cataclysmic implications for the UK. David Davis Chesterfield
Women’s rights groups have denounced police raids on their offices in several Polish cities that resulted in the seizing of documents and computers, a day after women staged anti-government marches to protest at the country’s restrictive abortion law.
The raids took place on Wednesday in the cities of Warsaw, Gdańsk, Łódź and Zielona Góra. They targeted two organisations, the Women’s Rights Centre and Baba, which help victims of domestic violence and participated in this week’s anti-government protests.
Women’s rights activists said on Thursday that the loss of files would hamper their work, and accused authorities of trying to intimidate them. Prosecutors denied the accusation, saying the timing of the raids a day after the marches was coincidental.
Some fear the ruling Law and Justice party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, is following in the footsteps of neighbouring Hungary, where non-governmental groups have faced harassment under the prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
“This is an abuse of power because, even if there is any suspicion of wrongdoing, an inquiry could be done in a way that doesn’t affect the organisations’ work,” Marta Lempart, the head of the Polish Women’s Strike, which organised the protests, told Associated Press.
The women’s groups said they were told by police that prosecutors were looking for evidence in an investigation into suspected wrongdoing in the justice ministry under the former government. At the time the ministry provided funding to the women’s groups.
“We are afraid that this is just a pretext or warning signal to not engage in activities not in line with the ruling party,” the Women’s Rights Centre said in a statement.
Anita Kucharska-Dziedzic, who heads Baba, said police entered her office in Zielona Góra, western Poland, at 9am on Wednesday and worked until 6pm removing files.
She told AP her group was not aware of any wrongdoing by justice ministry officials it was in contact with.
She also said she now expected problems continuing her projects due to the loss of files, and is also concerned because the documents contained private information on victims of domestic abuse who had sought the group’s help.
Barbora Cernusakova, Amnesty International’s researcher on Poland, called the police operations “very worrying”.
“We understand that the police actions came in the context of an investigation against former staff of the Ministry of Justice, but the NGOs, and the women and girls they support, will suffer the consequences,” Cernusakova said.
Jacek Pawlak, a spokesman for prosecutors in Poznań, where the investigation is being led, said the raids were part of an ongoing investigation but would not divulge what the probe was about. He said there was no attempt to harass the women’s organisations.
This week’s street demonstrations came on the first anniversary of a mass Black Protest by women dressed in black that stopped a plan in parliament for a total ban on abortion.
Despite that success, women’s rights activists marched to protest that abortion was still illegal in most cases, and called for a liberalisation of the law.
The Catalan crisis presents the EU with an unprecedented conundrum. Spain joined the European project in 1986, and its democratic transition has for decades been hailed as a model. Tensions have not run this high in the country since the 1981 failed military coup, when colonel Antonio Tejero seized the parliament in Madrid at gunpoint. The then king, young Juan Carlos, prevented the nation from entering another dark age by delivering a speech on TV uncompromisingly defending the constitution and identifying the monarchy with the country’s emerging democratic majority.
As Catalonia’s nationalist leadership hurtles towards what may be, in the coming days, a unilateral declaration of independence, the current king, Felipe, also took to the television screens. Can he rally consensus within Spain to prevent a full-on confrontation?
The best option, one would think, would be for the EU to step in. But calls for it to mediate between Madrid and Barcelona have been left unanswered. Not only that, the EU stands accused of complacency in the face of what some Catalan activists describe as state “repression” that carries echoes of the Franco era. Is any of this fair?
The EU’s critics do raise valid points. If the bloc’s founding principles are all about values, how can it stay aloof from this crisis? At a time when the EU wants to reboot its democratic message and convince citizens it can address their grievances, surely this would be a good moment to demonstrate sympathy towards crowds targeted by security forces for wanting to express a political belief at the ballot box.
Then there is the question of double standards. This year EU institutions came out strongly against the governments of Poland and Hungary for their democratic backsliding. The EU commission has even raised the threat of sanctions. Why isn’t any of this being contemplated when it comes to Spain?
Catalonia has become a focal point across Europe, with many framing the confrontation as a case of fundamental rights being crushed by force. The Catalan leadership has wasted no time making that argument, and the images of police violence will only have buoyed its case. Radical left commentators across Europe have been up in arms against Madrid, as if this was a rerun of the Spanish civil war. Interestingly, their indignation has been much more strident than when Venezuela’s dictator cracked down on protesters earlier this year, with dozens killed.
The scenes of police brutality in Barcelona were undoubtedly both a watershed and a scandal. Amnesty International denounced the “disproportionate” use of force, and the UN high commissioner for human rights has called for an impartial investigation. But before Eurosceptics start using Catalonia as another opportunity to lash out at the EU for its passivity and cynicism, a few reminders may be useful.
The EU has long been ill at ease with separatist issues within its member states. It has no mechanism to sort out a dispute of this kind. Article 4.2 of the 2009 Lisbon treaty states that the EU “shall respect” the “essential state functions” of its members, “including territorial integrity” and “maintaining law and order”. The EU has no power over how a member state decides to organise itself or its constituent regions.
Supporters of Catalan independence may well argue this needs to be fixed, but no one in the EU wants to open a Pandora’s box. The EU will only deal with a case of newly declared independence if that independence results from a negotiated, legally based process. That is not the case in Catalonia, but would have been the case in 2014 if Scotland had voted to secede from the UK.
The Catalan vote was “not legal” and the issue was “an internal matter for Spain”, the EU commission insisted on Monday. Just as it had in the case of Scotland, it also made clear that if the region seceded from Spain, Catalonia would find itself outside the EU, with no automatic way back in. There are clear limits on the EU’s powers of mediation. It’s true that it played a role in addressing the Northern Ireland question (and still does today), but that was only made possible after a peace accord had been reached.
This leaves the issue of fundamental rights. On this point, the EU commission statement that “violence can never be an instrument in politics” is, to say the least, timid. The wording steers clear of laying any blame. The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, may have been spared a dose of EU wrath because of his party’s link to the centre-right group in the European parliament.
But whatever political calculations are at work, the EU commission lacks the tools to determine whether a government has violated human rights. These are enshrined in the 1950 European convention on human rights, which the European court of human rights is responsible for upholding, and which the Council of Europe also monitors. Perhaps a court case will one day be mounted against the police action in Catalonia, but that will be up to the judges, not to EU institutions in Brussels.
Drawing a comparison with Poland and Hungary is also hazardous. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and the government in Poland have dismantled democratic checks and balances, curtailed media freedom and put the independence of the judiciary in jeopardy. However dismal the situation in Spain, nothing comparable has been undertaken by Rajoy. It also takes a good deal of twisting of historical facts to equate the Spanish police’s heavy-handed tactics in Barcelona with the repression, systematic arrests and curtailing of individual freedoms under Franco.
It took a long time for the EU to react to Poland and Hungary’s erosion of the rule of law. As a recent report by the Open Society European Policy Institute points out, EU leaders “are reluctant to criticise one of their peers because they worry about setting a precedent that could one day be used against them”. But the same report stresses that in the end the EU decided to take steps against these governments not simply because they had trampled on democratic practices, but also because their capture of independent state institutions was undermining the implementation of EU law itself. The European club’s integrity was at stake. Spain has not gone down that road.
It is possible the Catalonia crisis will deteriorate to such a point that the EU will need to shed its caution. For the moment it is in a bind and hoping a compromise will emerge. The dramatic scenes in Barcelona have made it look feeble. But the EU is predicated on a rules-based order, and its leaders believe that in an unpredictable world rife with populism it has to hang on to those rules if it is to survive as a bloc. Sticking scrupulously to the law and to treaties means avoiding setting precedents that might lead to an unravelling.
The EU has set itself the goal of countering rising illiberalism and nationalism, and it’s struggling. The Catalan crisis exposes its political limits and its difficulty in making citizens understand how it functions. For Europe, as for Spanish democracy, this is a major test.
• Natalie Nougayrède is a columnist, leader writer and foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian
Brian Barder, who has died aged 83, was one of the most energetic and politically committed diplomats of his generation. In retirement, he campaigned against injustices in the British legal system. From a range of postings from New York to Australia, the Soviet Union, Canada, Poland and Nigeria, his most gruelling but rewarding service came as Britain’s ambassador in Addis Ababa during the great Ethiopian famine of 1984-85. As the crisis developed, he waited with trepidation at an airfield in the capital with his wife, Jane. Media barons such as Robert Maxwell and rock stars including Bob Geldof were helping to fuel massive media and parliamentary pressure for Britain to help to feed the millions of starving people.
The UK government decided to send three RAF Hercules freight planes with aid. But after constant effort Barder had still not managed to get official clearance for them to land. Ethiopia’s socialist leadership was split, with hardliners arguing that no planes from a Nato air force should be allowed inside their country. Their main weapons supplier, the Soviet Union, took a similar line.
All that Barder could rely on was an unofficial last-minute telephone call from a senior member of the Ethiopian leadership, explaining that no agreement would be announced but the RAF planes would not be stopped from landing and could tacitly operate further flights.
It was a tenuous and easily deniable promise. As the Barders anxiously watched, the Hercules appeared in the African sky. There were no oil drums on the runway and no fighter planes ready to shoot them down. They landed safely and for the next 14 months regularly brought supplies for air drops to the famine-ridden highlands without ever getting official permission.
Beside the tension over the RAF’s role, Barder had to cater for “famine tourists” or “grandstanders on ego trips” who, he later recalled, usually expected meals at the residence. He and Jane were happier to give hospitality to genuine relief workers when they came out of the highlands for a rare break.
Born in Bristol into relatively well-off circumstances, Brian was the son of Vivien (nee Young) and Harry, a descendant of Polish Jewish immigrants and a successful furrier. His parents divorced when Brian was four, and he was sent to a boarding preparatory school and then Sherborne school, Dorset.
At St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he gained a degree in classics, Barder was active in student politics and became chairman of the Labour Club. In 1956 he met Jane Cornwell when both were canvassing, and they married two years later. He remained a party member until his death, standing down for a few years towards the end of his diplomatic service only because he felt it was appropriate to be non-partisan while serving as an ambassador or high commissioner.
After taking the civil service exam he started in the Colonial Office in 1957, and in 1964 was sent to the UK desk at the UN on four-year secondment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was the peak of decolonisation, and Barder met most of the leaders of the African independence movements, sparking his lifelong interest in the continent.
Back in London during the Biafra crisis in Nigeria, he made daily visits to Downing Street to brief Harold Wilson. During a stint in Moscow (1971-73) he was subjected to intimidation by KGB thugs who frequently jostled him and his wife in the lift going up to their flat in retaliation for the Heath government’s astonishing decision to expel 105 Soviet diplomats as alleged spies.
As ambassador in Poland (1986-88) when the Solidarity trade union movement was still banned, Barder frequently met its leader Lech Wałęsa in the Gdansk shipyards. Other Solidarity activists were invited to the Warsaw embassy. These encounters were designed to offer them protection.
Barder was knighted in 1992, during his final diplomatic posting, as high commissioner to Australia (1991-94).
In 1997 he was invited to join the newly created Special Immigration Appeals Commission as its lay member, sitting alongside two judges. The layperson was required to have security clearance and experience in assessing secret intelligence, as the SIAC’s job was to adjudicate cases of people whom the government wished to deport without giving defence lawyers the chance to know or challenge the reasons.
In 2004, when the home secretary, David Blunkett, gave the SIAC the additional job of examining the cases of people who were to be detained without trial because they were allegedly threats to Britain’s security, Barder resigned. His opinion, later endorsed by the law lords, was that sending people to prison without charge or trial breached the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Barder moved on to the issue of indeterminate sentences, a procedure also promoted by Blunkett whereby people could be sentenced on conviction to a “tariff” of a fixed number of years but then be held indefinitely in prison after serving the “tariff” if the authorities felt they would pose a threat to society on release. Barder considered it a Kafka-like system, since people had to refute subjective assessments about their future behaviour and there was almost no funding for them to make their case from behind bars or with adequate legal assistance.
Barder blogged and regularly had letters printed in the Guardian and other newspapers to on issues including indeterminate sentences. Always convivial, he was a man of great generosity who was often contacted by partners or relatives of people given these unfair sentences, and he corresponded with many of them.
When the Conservatives took power in 2010 Barder started informal contacts with the Ministry of Justice under Ken Clarke, who also deplored the system and was battling against Theresa May as home secretary to have it abolished. Though it was finally stopped in 2012, some 2,200 prisoners who had been given these sentences before abolition and have served their tariff are still in custody today.
In 2014 Barder published What Diplomats Do, an imaginary account of the typical duties and challenges faced by a diplomat as he or she progresses up the career ladder, interspersed by reminiscences of key events in his own life. The book is probably the most useful introduction currently available for anyone thinking of diplomacy as a career.
He is survived by Jane and their children, Virginia, Louise and Owen.
• Brian Leon Barder, diplomat and civil rights campaigner, born 20 June 1934; died 19 September 2017
My husband and I both studied and lived abroad for many years, and we can honestly say what we find in supermarkets here [in Romania] is not food. Lots of people become vegetarians only because they fear the quality of the meat and meat products available. Many say certain products contain no meat at all. The taste is horrible, the texture questionable, and the cats and dogs refuse to eat it.
Frozen pizzas are smaller here and don’t taste as good, orange juice has less real oranges in it, and nobody touches the fish fingers. It’s scary when even the fruit available is obviously full of hormones. We had a grapefruit for a while and it became an experiment to see if it would ever go bad. After four months we gave up and threw it away – but it still looked fresh.
It’s like they can deliver whatever product and call it food, because we don’t know any better. Check out life expectancy in Romania and why it’s so low. We feel like less than human when we can’t choose to eat healthy food. As to the claim that brands adjust their products to the local taste, I would like to comment that here in eastern Europe, we don’t prefer to eat garbage. Ana, Romania
‘Spitting in the face of consumers’
Visit the border towns in Burgenland at the weekend and you’ll see shops in this once dead-end part of Austria packed with shoppers from Slovakia seeking good-quality products, even for a higher price. The argument about “different local tastes” is spitting in the face of all consumers here. If companies are so sure of this argument, I challenge them to offer both types of products and see how sales go. But the monopoly is something they fear to lose, so unless forced, they won’t. Oliver, Slovakia
‘There is no issue with these products’
As a market researcher, I used to work at different companies in Hungary. There is simply no issue with these products. These companies want to serve the local communities: they produce different varieties, test these on customers, and find out which is the best one they can sell with profit. If it tastes a bit different so be it, as long as this difference doesn’t cause any harm and the products are still considered edible. I think it’s simply [Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orbán and his spin-doctor’s attempt to blame the EU and the west for something that is the result of globalisation and cultural differences. Imre, Hungarian living in UK
‘The yoghurt contained flour’
There have been rumours about food and product inequality for many years here [in Hungary]. In Geneva I bought a yoghurt, and the consistency was entirely different to the same product I bought in Budapest. Later I learned from a friend in Hungary who had flour intolerance that he was not allowed to eat this brand of yoghurt in Hungary because it contained flour! Another example: the liquid detergent I bought in Budapest is less thick and more transparent, as if it were a diluted version of the same brand we bought in Geneva and Zurich. Anna, Hungary
These practices have a more dangerous consequence. It has turned many people in this part of the world against “Europe”, and allowed the authoritarian president to whip up “anti-western” sentiments. These companies are to a large degree responsible for the poor relations that now exist between the different countries in Europe. David, Russia
‘Dumpster of the EU food market’
I visit western Europe once or twice a year. The same products, marketed under the same name, are of inferior quality in Romania than in Germany or France or the UK. Not just prepackaged foods but fruit, vegetables and meat as well, when comparing brands available from the same chain of supermarkets. When I hear the excuse of catering to “local tastes”, I start to hyperventilate. Nobody has an appetite for inferior food – and the solution is, most of the time, “add more sugar”. If you add to this the fact that food is generally more expensive in Romania, you get a clearer picture of why Romanians might think they are considered the dumpster of the EU food market. Dorin, Romania
‘Only their hypocrisy upsets me’
How convenient “local tastes” are: more sugar, lower percentage of fruit, lower percentage of meat; never vice-versa. But it makes sense. People want to buy western brands because it makes them feel good – but if western companies delivered their standard products, they would be too expensive for local consumers. If these companies wanted to be honest and create a sub-standard local brand, then advertising would be far more expensive than just adapting the existing brand. The natural solution was controlled damage to their standard brands. It’s only their hypocrisy, pretending that this is the “local taste”, that upsets me. Mihai, Romania
‘Inferior comfort food’
I have one particular product that triggered my (amateur) research on the topic: frozen pizza. It was my favourite comfort food. Suddenly it looked and tasted different, definitely inferior. I also noticed that, for the first time, the cooking instructions were not in German, Dutch, English or Spanish. Instead, they were in the languages of central and eastern Europe. Years later I lived in the Netherlands, and noticed the same pizzas looked like the old versions I loved. Comparing the boxes, I noticed the “western” pizza contained seven slices of cheese, compared to five in the “eastern” version. The eastern pizza weighed less, but contained more saturated fats and sugar; hence also more calories. Lara, Slovenia
‘Laundry will never smell as good’
In Poland you can find shops reselling goods bought in Germany, especially cleaning products and chocolate. My uncle in Germany still brings washing products for my mum. Your laundry will never smell as good and for as long if you use Polish versions of washing liquid brands. My cousins were always jealous of my nice-smelling clothes (now they get their washing products from Germany too). Roza, Pole living in France
‘Salmon is a disgrace’
One of the biggest culprits is fish – salmon is a disgrace in the Czech Republic. It is usually cooled to a point before it freezes, then thawed before being passed off as fresh salmon. The cooling data and thawing is written on the side of boxes – but the retailers take advantage of the fact consumers cannot generally read English-language storage instructions. Savvy buyers know to buy goods where labels on products have Czech language labels stuck over the original text. This means the product that is sold in western markets is identical to the Czech market product. Nigel, Czech Republic
‘Cling film doesn’t cling’
We’ve known for years the goods here are of lower quality, but are sold at greater cost. Well-known brands of wine that are “bottled” in the Czech Republic taste rancid compared to their UK counterparts. Toilet paper is rough, flimsy and will actually give you paper cuts. Cling film doesn’t cling, stock cubes add no flavour. Maie, Czech Republic
‘Capitalism hasn’t delivered’
We are used to buying basic groceries in the west and transporting them to our home countries. The tediousness of it contributed to the end of communism. However, it seems capitalism hasn’t delivered “what we paid for” either. Sandra, Slovenia
Food industry statement
We take the accusations of alleged “dual quality” very seriously. Consumers are core to our business, and equally important wherever they are. It must also be stressed that whatever the recipe, our food always meets European standards and remains the safest in the world. The companies currently in the spotlight have rigorous quality management systems in place to ensure consistent quality across their brands, all over the world. The composition of products may sometimes be slightly different between countries for various reasons, but this does not necessarily imply “dual” or “inferior” quality between east and west European markets. For example, differences in composition can also found between the UK and France, or between Italy and Sweden. Florence Ranson from FoodDrinkEurope, the industry’s lobby group in Brussels
A Japanese woman living in London with her Polish husband has been threatened with deportation, had her child benefit stopped and driving licence revoked even though she is lawfully in the country under EU law, it has emerged.
In a two-year ordeal, photographer Haruko Tomioko, was also threatened with separation from her eight-year-old son.
She told the Guardian how her life was turned upside down, how she was ordered to pay back £5,000 in child benefit for their son and report to a Home Office immigration centre every month. If she did not comply with the reporting order, she was told she was liable to detention, a prison sentence and/or a fine of up to £5,000.
Despite several protests and futile phone calls to the Home Office, two weeks ago she was given seven days to leave the country.
“This means they can come and arrest me. I was really frightened,” she said. “I was afraid I would just get a knock on my door and I would be separated from my son and, with my husband working, who would look after him,” she said.
Lawyers say the ordeal throws the spotlight on the human cost of the “hostile environment” policy operated by the Home Office and is a taste of what could be to come for EU nationals post Brexit.
“She has been treated like a criminal,” said her husband Greg, a gaffer in the film industry, who asked that his surname was not used for fear of reprisals.
After her child benefit and driving licence was stopped. Haruko sought advice from an EU helpline, Your Europe Advice, who confirmed she was entitled to be with her husband provided he was economically active.
She said she could not understand why she was “bullied” by the Home Office when its own website states the same.
She said she was repeatedly asked she why she ”did not go back to Japan” by enforcement officers in Becket House in London even though she explained to them she was married to an EU national exercising his rights.
Immigration barrister Jan Doerfel said Haruko could now have a case against the Home Office as they had acted unlawfully and she should never have been made to report to Becket House.
“I hated going there, it was very depressing, it made me sick. Sometimes you have to queue up outside of the building with people passing by look at you as an illegal immigrant,” she said.
The deportation order was cancelled just last week after Haruko, 48, phoned the “returns preparation team” who had sent the letter to protest that she was the spouse of an EU national. The woman she spoke to was the first person who “listened” to her in two years. When Haruko told her she was married to an EU national, she should not have received what was a “standard letter”.
She said officials at Beckett House treated her poorly.
“All of my experiences show how disorganised the Home Office is; officers don’t know immigration rules. Where are the all information I provided? “ she said.
Doerfel said the authorities’ conduct “constitute repeated violations of EC law” and their “very heavy-handed approach is indicative of the hostile atmosphere surrounding immigration”.
He said “enforcement machinery” in the Haruko case was triggered far too readily” without “scrutiny of the facts”.
Haruko and Greg met in London in 2003 and and married in 2005. For 10 years, she opted to get five-year entry clearance stamps on her passport and was not concerned about her status until David Cameron announced he was going to hold a referendum on the EU in 2015. She decided to apply for a permanent residence card for peace of mind.
After that, she was bombarded with threatening letters, emails and texts which started to roll in like, she says, “a tsunami”.
In October 2015, she was told to “make arrangements” to leave the country when her application was refused.
“I was devastated. I remember the day well because I was supposed to go to a Halloween party with my son, but I couldn’t go I was so upset and shocked. I thought I would be separated from my family and sent back to Japan,” she said.
Three months later, she received a text from Capita indicating enforced immigration procedures were under way.
This was followed by an email telling her she must make “immediate” plans to leave, followed by a letter from the Home Office ordering her to report to Becket House immigration centre with little explanation other than warning her she was liable to detention, prison and a fine if she failed to comply.
Five months later, the DVLA wrote to her to say they had cancelled her driving licence. Three weeks after that, her son’s child benefit was stopped with a demand from HMRC for £5,044 in back payments.
“I was really scared because I thought I would have to pay them £5,000 and we didn’t have that kind of money,” she said. “I tried not to cry in front of my son, but sometimes I just couldn’t stop myself. It’s been really really tough.”
Reporting to Becket House last month was a frightening experience, she said, because an official threatened to separate her from her son. “I remembered clearly when I was called for an interview to the back of office, the officer told me: ‘We can remove you from the UK anytime. We can separate you from your family’ when my son was in the waiting room,” she said.
But Haruko eventually found a volunteer lawyer who wrote to the Home Office telling them she had entered the UK lawfully “as a wife of an EU citizen exercising his treaty rights”.
Within days, her driving licence and child benefit were reinstated. Now the Home Office has admitted she will not be removed from the country.
After a Guardian inquiry, the Home Office said: “Ms Tomioka is not subject to removal from the UK. We are currently working with her to explain how she can make an appropriate application should she wish to do so.”
Lawyer Doerfel says the Home Office should not have triggered enforcement proceedings because Haruko had informed it twice in 2016 and again in 2017 that she was married to an EU national. He said she was “subjected to unlawful reporting requirements, within five weeks had her driver’s licence unlawfully cancelled, and received a shocking letter from HMRC cancelling and reclaiming child benefits to which she was lawfully entitled.”
In the quiet of the forest, Aleksander holds a rusted pistol and turns it over. Others gather round to admire the handgun, each feeling its weight before shooting an imaginary bullet into the trees. More detritus of war is placed on a picnic table – a swastika-adorned badge, shards of shrapnel, a Soviet medal inscribed “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” The remnants of fallen regimes.
The men are among the thousands of detectorists across eastern Europe hunting for relics of the Red Army, the Third Reich and Imperial Russia. Beneath ploughed field and remote woodland is buried treasure from a turbulent, vanishing past. Even today, the war dead lie in these lands. Sometimes bodies are found.
Each weekend this group, calling themselves the Masovian Guardians of History, heads to the Polish backwoods to escape the city. There is a builder, barman, factory worker, office clerk, postman and sushi chef, among others. Fuelled by vodka and a passion for history, they strip old battlefields of artefacts while trying to dodge the police.
On a drizzly summer afternoon 24 hours earlier, I meet Aleksander in a station outside Warsaw. The 30-year-old, with cropped hair and an athletic frame, has just finished his shift at a railway parts factory. He gives a polite yet calibrated smile and leads me to his car.
As we drive across flat, open country, I try to imagine the bloodletting that passed on this, the former Eastern Front – the armoured clashes, the scorched-earth policies, the millions dead. But it is impossible. It’s not long until conversation turns to politics. “Immigration is not good,” says Aleksander, unprompted. “We should stop the mix of people and cultures.” What about his compatriots who face similar hostility in the UK? “They should not be in Britain in the first place,” replies the amateur kickboxer-turned-triathlete. “These Poles are exploited and should stay here to make our country great.”
The countryside grows emptier and, beyond the nondescript town of Międzyrzec Podlaski, we reach a small dwelling with rundown outhouses, guarded by a yapping mongrel. A middle-aged man dressed in camouflage trousers and black T-shirt opens the gate. A few detectorists stand around, drinking beer. Several more soon pitch up, dressed in the outfit of choice – khaki fatigues.
Suddenly, someone lets out a cheer. Dariusz has arrived. In sweat-stained army surplus, he swaggers over – metal detector slung over his shoulder, paunch protruding from his vest. A silver cross hangs on a heavy chain around his neck. His right arm is tattooed with a Winged Hussar of the old Polish cavalry. After greeting his friends, he challenges me to a fight but gets distracted by our photographer – a Mexican. “Ah, you’re from the Zetas cartel! You are my boss!” As a joke, he holds two knives to the throat of our translator then heads off for another beer, tripping down the steps to the house. “Ha!” he guffaws. “Instant karma!”
The dig will start in the morning. The plan now is to get plastered. Lager flows among innumerable shots of vodka flavoured with cherry, plum, quince or walnut. Dariusz prepares a campfire for a pot that bubbles with potatoes, onions and chunks of pork. This hearty dinner fails to soak up all the booze and, by the early hours, the detectorists pass out. Three collapse fully clothed on to a single bed.
Two hundred miles away lies Krakow, the base of DCI Bartłomiej Morek. This policeman runs the Vinci unit, targeting unaccredited detectorists, art thieves, forgers and relic smugglers. “We don’t want to fight hobbyists, but my job is to protect archaeological sites,” he says. “We must stop detectorists destroying them.”
Finds are often flogged on the black market, with online bazaars distributing artefacts to countries around the world, including the UK. “We have tools to locate people on the other side of the internet,” says Morek. “Once we know an item is illegal and inside Poland, there’s no problem securing a search warrant.” Landing a prosecution is harder. “Detectorists know how to escape a conviction and share their knowledge about how to stay free.”
Metal detecting without the right permit can incur a £1,000 fine or a month in prison. Those guilty of possessing salvaged weapons and explosives – even if rusted or deactivated – may be jailed for several years, though sentences are often suspended. Critics say Polish law on historical objects is ambiguous, leading to arbitrary punishment and offering no financial incentive to hand in artefacts.
Back near the Poland-Belarus border, as the Masovian Guardians of History gather on Saturday morning, Dariusz is jovial despite last night’s heavy session. His fascination with the past was kindled by his grandfather, a Second World War veteran captured by the Nazis and used for slave labour. “I am surrounded by history,” says Dariusz, 35, in broken English. He graduated with a history degree and now, after a turbulent 20s, works as an itinerant farmhand, picking fruit in southwest Germany.
“My mother was a civil servant, my father committed suicide when I was 19. After his death, I drank hard for three years. One litre of vodka per day sometimes. I was very aggressive and fighting in the streets, so my girlfriend said: ‘You have a problem, go see psychologist.’ One day, I just wake up and decide to stop. Now I’m better. Sometimes I see my father in me, but I make a choice and fix it.”
As with most here, Dariusz is a nationalist. His right-wing views extend to Islam (“I get my machete for all the Muslims”), gay rights (“This is a Catholic country – I think most people don’t like the gays”) and recent demonstrations against the government’s controversial plan to take control of the Supreme Court (“This protest is sponsored by Soros and run by old communists”). On American politics, he is nonplussed (“Obama or Trump – same shit”).
Despite his views, Dariusz is affable, all bluster. As a fellow detectorist explains: “He’s the most popular guy here. He has a big heart. If he saw a Muslim woman in trouble, he’d be the first to help.” He’s still single. “Girls don’t like it when I’m away digging,” he says. “Maybe I have wife one day, but now digging is winning.”
Over breakfast, the group knocks back coffees and beers and then, dressed in combat gear, piles into a van for the bumpy ride into the mosquito-infested woods. This area was once scarred by a series of clashes – between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in 1944, between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires during the First World War, between Polish rebels and the tsar in 1831 – along with assaults during the 17th-century from Russia, Sweden and Zaporozhian Cossacks.
No one here bothers with the bureaucratic rigmarole of obtaining accreditation to dig. One of the regulars, a policeman, is usually on hand to help them evade the law. “Once we got stopped by two cops,” says one detectorist. “But he was more senior so they let us go.”
Before the dig, the group gathers round a recently salvaged collection of weapons from the battlefield – rifles of Imperial Russia, semi-automatic Mausers, a pair of Ruby and Tokarev pistols – along with rare medals, coins and military insignia. Then they fan out into the green glow of the forest. Their instruments buzz, bleep and hum as they head through stands of birch and maple, oak, pine and spruce. One of them stumbles across a wartime trench, already ransacked.
I spot Aleksander, his sensor flicking from side to side. He and his grandfather – a survivor of massacres carried out by Ukrainian nationalists in 1943 – enjoyed long conversations about history, which nurtured his passion for the past. There is another reason for his love of metal detecting. “My factory is stressful and dirty, but the forest is clean,” says Aleksander. “I rest my brain and escape from reality.”
But his pursuits have created a family rift. His sister, an archaeologist, does not approve: “We don’t talk much any more.” Their relationship is symptomatic of the tensions between detectorists and archaeologists, about whom Aleksander is scathing: “They just attend conferences and spend money. They’re the real thieves.”
The feeling is mutual. Dr Tomasz Nowakiewicz, from the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Archaeology, says: “We’re no longer in the 19th century. Calling yourself a collector is no excuse.” Institute director Dr Krzysztof Jakubiak tells me the detectorists’ slapdash methods destroy an object’s context – critical for interpreting past human activity. “We know how to do proper excavation and extraction. We don’t just tear objects out from the soil. Within 10 years, we risk losing all these objects.”
The detectorists scour the forest and find medals, coins and shrapnel, but not much more. Sweaty, bug-bitten and ready to refuel, they stop at a pizza parlour. Artur, a factory worker, orders a carafe of vodka and passes out before we arrive back at the rented house.
They consider themselves custodians of history. “For me, these objects are priceless,” says one. “They connect me to the past. I don’t want to leave them to rust. This is our national history, but they’re my artefacts.”
That night there is axe-throwing and vodka shots while Marek, a sushi chef, plays the same patriotic military tune on repeat. After too much boozing, he is carried to bed, but by breakfast the next morning he has already necked three beers.
The group walk through an orchard and cross a marsh amid birdsong and the buzz of insects. It is bucolic, another world from the one that Jan Demczuk remembers from his childhood. We meet the 90-year-old, retired farmer chopping firewood outside his barn. He doesn’t seem bothered by the khaki-clad strangers probing his land for trinkets and trophies.
“There was fighting around here in September 1939 between Germans and Poles,” recalls the old man. The frontline returned in summer 1944 as the Soviets pushed back against the Wehrmacht. “I remember soldiers running past. There were many explosions.”
As battle raged, Demczuk describes his mother taking him with their piglets to hide in a field. The sow, missing her litter, escaped from her pen and joined them, as the terrified young boy cradled the tiny animals. Asked about life under occupation, he answers: “As hosts, the Nazis were perfect. There was order. Sure, they killed innocent people, but it was war.”
His recollections do not capture the horror that unfolded in this area, home to a large, centuries-old Jewish community. A ghetto was established, then came the mass deportations by cattle wagon to extermination camps. Less than 1% of the local Jewish population is believed to have survived.
The detectorists survey a meadow then move to a raspberry plantation, occasionally crouching down to dig up the goods. Dariusz is unconcerned about unexploded ordnance. “No problem. It’s not dangerous. If it blows up, my brain is dust and I don’t even know.”
Like Aleksander, an obsession with past heroics is not his only motivation for rummaging in the dirt. “When I am digging, I am escaping,” he explains. “I just forget.”
There is a beep and Marek and Piotr begin excavating with great purpose. They hollow out a few inches then test the soil with a detector. Another beep. Piotr grabs his spade and digs out clumps of earth. He reaches in, clasps his fingers around the object and lifts it out. A helmet, perhaps? An SS officer’s Luger? It’s a rusted horseshoe. He tosses it away.
Bottle tops and farm junk may account for most finds but, very occasionally, something extraordinary is unearthed. Back at the house, a builder called Sebastian is knocking back a late-morning beer. This father-of-two in his late 30s is going through a divorce and has come to the countryside to clear his head.
He describes how, several years ago, he went looking for militaria near Bohukały, a village by the Belarus border. German Panzer divisions had rumbled through here on their lightning advance eastwards in 1941. Three years later, this tiny village was again at the centre of fierce fighting during the Soviets’ counter-offensive. Sebastian heard that following the battle locals had buried the dead in bomb craters. He set out across this necropolis and his detector soon started beeping. He dug up a flask then burrowed further and found a dog tag, and then a skull. The more he dug, the more bones he found, finally exhuming 26 skeletons.
“I was excited and emotional,” says Sebastian. “It was intense.” He took the dog tags, covered the bones and informed a German organisation that repatriates the remains of missing soldiers. “It doesn’t matter if they’re Polish, Russian or German. They’re soldiers with loved ones who don’t know what happened.” He also pocketed spent ammunition, shell fragments and a medal awarded to those wounded in action. Is this grave robbing? “I never take jewellery or gold teeth from the dead,” he replies. “But medals – that’s OK.”
The group gathers for one last beer, inspecting the weekend’s haul. Besides shrapnel and cartridge cases, there are coins and military buttons from the 19th century, a 1660s shilling, a bronze medallion from the Russian-Turkish war (1877-78), a Nazi map-reading instrument, and a handsome piece of silver. But they’ve not made that dynamite discovery that could earn a fortune and generate a legend. “No problem,” smiles Dariusz, shrugging his shoulders. “We try again next weekend.”
In the 1970s, Michał Cała began shooting the ironworks, slagheaps, power stations and coal mines of northern Poland, and the workers who lived among them in soot-blackened housing. The astonishing results won him awards – and a spell in jail
Jean-Claude Juncker has declared that the “wind is back in Europe’s sails” in an at times deeply personal State of the Union speech in which he gave his vision for the future of the European Union after the UK makes its “tragic” departure in 2019.
The European commission president said he would always deeply lament the UK’s decision to leave the EU. “This will be a very sad and tragic moment in our history, we will always regret this”, he said before responding to heckling from Nigel Farage, by retorting: “I think you will regret this soon, I might say.”
Calling for a special summit in Romania on the 30 March 2019, the first day of an EU of 27 member states rather than 28, Juncker said he hoped the continent would “wake up” that day to a new more unified bloc.
“We have to respect the will of the British people”, he said. “We are going to make progress. We will keep moving. We will move on because Brexit isn’t everything. It isn’t the future of Europe. It isn’t the be all and end all… On the 30 March 2019, we will be a union of 27 and I suggest we prepare very well for that date.”
He added: “I have lived the European project through my entire life. I have fought for it, I have worked for it. I have been through good times, and I have been through bad times … I have sometimes suffered with Europe and agonised over Europe.
“I have been through thick and thin with the European Union and never have I lost my love for the European Union. As we all know there is no love without disappointment, or very rarely.”
Juncker’s annual address to the European parliament in Strasbourg was notably more upbeat about the future than his speech a year ago, with economic growth outstripping the US and unemployment at a nine-year low. The commission president and former prime minister of Luxembourg, insisted the bloc should seize the moment to make widespread reforms. “As Mark Twain wrote, years from now we will be more disappointed by the things we did not do, than by the ones we did,” he said.
Juncker proposed more help for all EU countries to join the euro, so that it could be truly “the single currency of the European Union”, along with a wide range of institutional changes, including the creation of an EU finance minister and the widening of the Schengen area, in which passport-free travel is allowed.
In a call for the presidencies of the European commission and the European council, the body comprising the member states’ leaders, to be combined and directly elected in the future, Juncker said the EU needed to be more flexible and streamlined. “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship,” he said.
He also put his weight behind calls for the European parliament seats previously held by British MEPs to be elected on a transnational basis.
Juncker added that the council should adopt qualified majority voting, rather than unanimity, on foreign policy issues and drive forward in European defence. “By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European defence union,” he said. “We need it. And Nato wants it.”
He also added the EU would establish a European cybersecurity agency. “Cyber-attacks know no borders and no one is immune,” he said.
Juncker told MEPs he intended to start trade talks with Australia and New Zealand, and promised to legislate to protect strategic interests from foreign purchases through industrial screening.
A joint statement from the French, German and Italian governments following the speech endorsed the move. The German minister for economic affairs, Brigitte Zypries, said: “We must avoid other states benefiting from our opening to advance their own industrial policy interests.”
Juncker added that the EU would respond to the “collapse of the ambitions in the US” on climate change by stepping into the vacuum and ensuring that Europe protected the world. “Let’s catch the wind in our sails”, he told MEPs.
However, he ruled out Turkey’s accession to the EU in the “foreseeable future”, and, in his strongest comments to date on the issue, he condemned the country’s slide into authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Turkey has been moving away from the European Union in leaps and bounds,” Juncker told MEPs. “Journalists belong in editorial offices amid a heated debate, and not in prison. I appeal today to the powers that be in Turkey: let our journalists go, and not just our journalists.”
Juncker was also scathing about Poland’s recent judicial reforms, which have been criticised as an attack on the judiciary, although he did not mention the country by name. Brussels has threatened to trigger a process under which Poland could lose its voting rights in the council of ministers unless it rethinks a series of recent legislative reforms.
Juncker said: “The rule of law means that law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. Accepting and respecting a final judgment is what it means to be part of a union based on the rule of law.”
The EU is also to step up its deportation of illegal immigrants, improve its “pathways” for legal migration and tackle the “inhumane conditions” in Libyan reception camps, which, according to some reports, are reminiscent of second world war concentration camps.
Farage, the former Ukip leader, told the Strasbourg chamber that Juncker’s speech was “worrying”. “More Europe in every single direction and all of it to be done without the consent of the people,” Farage said. “All I can say, is thank God we are leaving. You have learned nothing from Brexit. If you had given [David] Cameron concessions, particularly on immigration, the Brexit vote, I must admit, would never, never have happened.”
Not all that long ago the European Union seemed to inspire doubt not hope: a project reaching its 60th anniversary looked to many as if it might be heading for its death bed, or at least the emergency room. The eurozone, some said, would soon crumble as a result of faulty construction and rash policies. A populist wave was certain to sweep away institutions based on liberal democracy and shared sovereignty. Citizens would irreversibly turn their backs on a club which apparently combined high-mindedness and inefficiency.
With Brexit, 2016 was the EU’s annus horribilis. The year before that the refugee crisis, critics said, had exposed the EU as a fair-weather construct – unable to cope with the unforeseen. In 2014, extremist parties had already made spectacular gains in the EU parliament. In its bleakest moments the EU, it was said, had been a reputable and worthy project but one with perhaps a limited lifespan. The politics of fear were about to send it to the dustbin of history. Today, this doomsday narrative no longer applies. For one thing, Brexit has produced no domino effect. Britain’s despondency serves as daily proof that the path must be avoided by others. Far from breaking up, the eurozone is set to grow at the fastest annual pace since 2011. The migration issue hasn’t disappeared, but with the numbers down, its disruptive impacts on politics seem for now contained. Populism is no longer seen as an irrepressible force. Far-right slogans calling for a continent-wide Patriotic Spring in 2017 have come to nothing.
On Wednesday Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU commission president, will echo this sense of renewed confidence in his annual “state of the Union” address, notably outlining a more robust approach to foreign takeovers to win support among European citizens for trade deals. In France, president Emmanuel Macron will face a stern test over his proposed changes to the labour market with thousands of protests planned. The French president was wrong to describe those who oppose his plans as “lazy”. He is perhaps too confident – with the trade unions divided and a big majority in parliament. Nowhere is this being more closely watched than in Germany, where Angela Merkel looks poised to be re-elected later this month, quite a political feat given that her downfall had been described as all but inevitable after the 2015 refugee crisis. It’s true the anti-immigrant AfD party is set to enter the Bundestag for the first time, but the traditional parties are still in charge. Elsewhere, in Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, populists have failed either to reach power or remain in government coalitions.
The mood in the EU is, if anything, upbeat. Plans for deeper eurozone integration are being floated, as are moves to enhance security cooperation, and the creation of a common digital market. Public trust in the EU is rising. No doubt, there are still tensions and uncertainties. Poland’s and Hungary’s populist governments are up in arms with the EU institutions over rule of law and migration quotas. The bloc’s cohesion on values is its biggest challenge. Doubts hang over the future of eurozone governance. France and Germany have a chance to correct monetary union’s flaws, which they should seize. Italy’s politics, with elections next year, and the state of its banking sector are a concern. Post-Brexit, 80% of Nato defence spending will be non-EU. An upcoming Russian military exercise has already put nerves on edge.
But those who believed Brexit and Donald Trump would be nails in the EU’s coffin need to rethink. Viewed from the continent, Brexit is all but a side show – not even mentioned once in the German election TV debate. Trumpism has helped convince more Europeans they need to stick together, not come apart.
Europe has been under strain, but it has not cracked. If anything, the setbacks have given the EU a stronger sense of what it is – and what it is not. Better awareness of this in Britain is long overdue.