Iron Curtain Bicycle Tours

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Iron Curtain TrailEvery five years, European citizens elect their representatives for the only multinational parliament in the world, the European Parliament. At the most recent European elections in June 2009, 500 million people were called to cast their vote to elect 736 members. One of the most important challenges during these election campaigns is to point out what unites citizens and representatives despite the 23 different languages and the even greater number of national identities in the EU. Is there a European identity? And if so, how can we develop it?

It is often argued that low cost airlines can help build this European identity by making flights across Europe affordable. Yet for the most part, these quick trips no more than ‘city-hopping’. Speed is definitely not the key to a European identity. On the contrary, modes of travel that leave enough time to really get to know the country and its people are needed.

This conviction is what inspired me to conduct the last election campaign by bike, as this means of transport is both fast enough to discover a lot and slow enough to get a closer look at things. I therefore organised four guided cycle tours in nine different European countries during the summer of 2009. In doing so, I was also able to further a project that I have been working on for the past few years: The ‘Iron Curtain Trail’. This 7,000-km cycle trail runs through 20 countries along the western border of the former Warsaw Pact states, from the Norwegian-Russian border at the Barents Sea to the Bulgarian coast at the Black Sea. It invites people to retrace and experience the former division of the continent, combining European culture, history and sustainable tourism.

Today there is hardly anything left to see of the former death strip. And the few remnants that remain no longer divide us. However, memories must be preserved! People on each side of the border have very different recollections. This is why I decided to take the cycle tours as an opportunity to appeal to a common European identity on the eve of the European elections.

The first tour started on the Easter weekend in Bulgaria. Cyclists from Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey joined the tour and demonstrated that cycling is not only fun but can also connect people in Europe and provide an insight into the past in an active and participatory way. The region through which we were cycling, Thrace, has an eventful history. It once entirely belonged to Greece and covered the territory of what are now three countries: its East is now the European territory of Turkey, the northern part belongs to Bulgaria and the West is still part of Greece.

Despite this difficult legacy, schoolchildren, elderly people and professional cyclists from all three countries took part in the ride. The idea of cycling along the borders was met with enthusiasm by all participants. Mayors and prefects from the tri-border region expressed their support for sustainable transport and bicycle tourism at a bike festival in Orestiada. On the crowded market place they all spoke in their mother tongue and their discourses were translated into all three languages.

Michael Cramer MEP on tour
Michael Cramer MEP on tour

The second tour took place on 26 April 2009 and led bikers from Austria to Hungary. Over 100 cyclists joined the tour that took us through the tri-border national park “Raab/Örség/Goricko”. On the same day, we had breakfast in Jennersdorf (Austria), lunch in Kuzma (Slovenia) and dinner in Szentgotthard (Hungary).

During the third trip on 2 May 2009, we cycled along the German-Polish Baltic  Sea coast from Ahlbeck to Świnoujście (Swinemünde) and visited the World War II memorial Golm, a place where tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed in the bomb attacks in 1945. A guided tour provided cyclists from Germany and Poland with historical background information.

The final Iron Curtain trip started with a guided city tour through Tallinn on 23 May 2009. The next day we went to Helsinki by ferry and, starting from the harbour, discovered the Finnish capital by bike. The Iron Curtain tours then found their crowning conclusion in the visit of the multicultural festival “Maalima Kylässä”.

Altogether, this form of campaign has been a great success, not only thanks to the participation of more than 100 enthusiastic cyclists at each tour, but also because the tours aroused broad interest of different media all over Europe. Moreover, the tours enhanced the credibility of the campaign and gave it a genuinely European dimension. This strategy eventually paid off: The Green Group managed to increase its number of seats in the European Parliament from 42 to 55 in the 2009 elections. Thanks to, inter alia, the Iron Curtain tours the Greens were perceived as a genuinely European force. This is certainly a successful strategy Green campaigners can build upon in the next European election campaign in 2014 – the year that marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in Europe.

See also the Campaign Handbook chapters:
European Elections
European Topics in a Campaign: the French Example
The Candidates

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