In the first half of the 1990s, I worked for the organisation that represented Britain’s mining areas, just as the Tory government embarked on a callous programme of pit closures.
Mu grandfather was a miner, but when I was growing up there wasn’t much of a coal industry left in Stoke.
Sadly, as an adult, I witnessed first hand the trauma, anger and frustration in coalfield communities up and down the country as their pits – in many cases, the very reason for their town’s existence – shut down, and thousands of livelihoods were destroyed.
The UK is incredibly bad at both energy policy and rebuilding broken communities – as a result many former mining communities have still not recovered, decades on from Thatcher’s assault.
By accident, rather than design, the first part of our trip took us through some of the old coal mining and steel producing areas of northern Europe – Wallonia, Luxembourg and Alsace.
These once dominant industries are now virtually gone in mainland Europe too. As is the case in the UK, mining museums are pretty much all there is to remind people of their once proud coal industry.
Iron and steel jobs are also pretty thin on the ground, though we did see one working iron foundry in Pont a Mousson.
But even more traumatic than major industrial decline, the areas we have travelled through had also endured many of the worst hardships of the two 20th century wars.
None more so than the Alsace and Moselle region, which went through an incredibly painful period from 1870 -1945, when it changed ‘ownership’ between France and Germany four times.
The legacy of this trauma, however, is amazingly positive.
After the end of World War 2, a group of visionary thinkers in the French and German governments realised that coal and steel industries were at the heart of any nation’s war fighting capability.
If countries could cooperate with each other to promote these vital industries instead using them to re-arm, then perhaps they could prevent the death and destruction that had scarred Europe for centuries.
So came about the 1952 agreement between six nations – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany – to set up the European Coal and Steel Community.
Its aim was to create a common market for coal and steel in order to raise prosperity for all.
Its success in promoting economic cooperation led the same six countries to create the European Economic Community (the EEC) just six years later in 1958, the foundation of today’s European Union.
The people of Alsace and Moselle were among the most enthusiastic in embracing cooperation between France and Germany.
They did not want to have to go through the terrible trauma of war ever again, and knew that the price of cooperating with former enemies to build a joint future was a price well worth paying for permanent peace.
On successive days, we visited the Alsace Moselle Memorial which tells the story of the terrible violence that almost destroyed Europe, and then the European Parliament Building in Strasbourg – symbolically located on the Franco-German border.
For all the EU’s many faults, we should never forget its truly noble beginning and its very real achievement of making the idea of another war in this part of the world unthinkable.