Europe not quite the paradigm of peace

Europe not quite the paradigm of peace
Vehicles waiting to enter the British territory of Gibraltar at its border with Spain. The British and Spanish spat over the British overseas territory of Gibraltar flares up periodically.

WILL he or won't he?

The guessing game over whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine has once again underlined what is often portrayed as Japan's lack of contrition for its wartime history.

Germany's reconciliation with its European neighbours, on the other hand, is often presented as an example of how things should be.

Many claims about how Europe has overcome its past demons, however, are true only in relative rather than absolute terms. When compared to Asia, Europe has achieved far higher levels of reconciliation between age-old enemies. Today, war between Britain, France and Germany, for example, seems unthinkable. Yet, the continent still holds residual traces of its past that continue to rankle.

Two issues illustrate this clearly: war reparations and territorial disputes. Such controversies are not unique to Asia. Indeed, they still have a foothold even in post-modern Europe.

Former German chancellor Willy Brandt's iconic act of atonement in kneeling at the monument to victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is widely credited with mending Germany's post-1945 relations with its European neighbours.

Yet historical bitterness still bubbles under the surface, exacerbated by the European debt crisis. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens last year, she was greeted by anti-austerity protesters, some dressed in Nazi uniforms.

Earlier this year, the government of Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras resurrected its bid for war reparations from Germany. It also wanted to recover an unpaid loan that Athens was coerced into making under Nazi occupation. The move was prompted in part by public opinion and the anger of opposition parties towards Berlin-imposed austerity measures.

A BBC report in May quoted 83-year-old Giorgos Dimopoulos saying that "Germany must pay us for what we suffered. But even then we wouldn't forgive them. When I hear the word 'German', I think it's the devil".

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble was said to have responded that "the issue was settled a long time ago. Paying reparations is out of the question".

There are similarities here with the argument reiterated recently by Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide.

All issues of wartime reparation, he said, have been "completely and finally" settled by the 1965 treaty with South Korea that normalised relations. The issue arose anew after a Seoul High Court ordered Nippon Steel (now Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp) to compensate Koreans forcibly taken to Japan to work in its wartime factories.

Europe is also not entirely free of rival territorial claims. The British and Spanish spat over the British overseas territory of Gibraltar flares up periodically. The territory was captured by an Anglo-Dutch force during the War of Spanish Succession in 1704 and ceded to London in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

This past summer the issue was revived when the Spanish government argued that Gibraltar laid artificial reefs in waters that "are not theirs".

Adding a dose of jingoistic nationalism, the Spanish mayor of Valencia posted on Facebook a photoshopped poster of an Osborne bull - Spain's unofficial symbol of a silhouetted profile of a black bull - and the Spanish flag perched atop the famous "Rock".

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