This piece was originally written in May 2019
I’m sitting in the Eurostar waiting room in Brussels reflecting on a two day field trip and workshop I’ve had the privilege of attending in Berlin with other zero-waste campaigners from across Europe. I have learnt a lot about differing campaigns to reduce the plastic and waste in this area, however, what’s hit me the most from the trip is that whilst I was there I discovered my European identity, or at least discovered the potential of my European identity. Just at the point when it is being taken away from me.
Britain joined the European Union in 1973, nineteen years later I was born and raised with British and European citizenship with no idea I would eventually lose the latter. I voted Remain, I’d consider myself an ardent ‘Remainer’ evident by the fact I proudly sport a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker on my laptop and I cried on a stranger’s shoulder the day the results were announced (and at Glastonbury no less, Britain’s longest running and largest festival which certainly lacked a festive air that day), but I never really understood what it was that we were losing until now.
I often go on holiday in Europe and feel dumbfounded at the idea that this might involve a visa and - the horror - longer queues in the future. I’m also aware that the EU is responsible for many of our most progressive policies, particularly in terms of environmental protections, where 80% of our climate regulations come from the EU and there would be catastrophic effects on our climate change goals if there is a trade deal with the United States. In fact, when the UK joined the EU part of the motivation by then prime minister Edward Heath was the risk of having one principal trade deal with one country (the US). And I feel a deep sadness for the areas in the UK that are going to lose vital funding, many of whom voted for Brexit perhaps not really understanding that the EU was looking out for their wellbeing in a way that our emotionally devoid, austerity focused and divisive government never will (that’s my only mini rage against the right wing Conservative government currently in power in the UK I promise).
I considered myself European and although I didn’t understand it fully (and still don’t), I knew that the European Union, although not perfect, is an incredibly progressive institution with the power to achieve real positive change for people and the environment. The D’Hondt EU electoral system also operates on a type of proportional representation -unlike the British electoral system which runs on a First-past-the-post voting system, an unfair system which denies people the representation of their choices - the EU system instead involves 11 electoral regions and 73 British representatives out of the 751 seats of the European parliament. Although I never hesitated to vote in the EU elections – what the people who were elected did I was never really sure.
But I’m only realising now that my engagement with my identity as a European citizen and the rights and responsibilities that come with that was passive at best, and neglectful at worst.
By meeting people who were really and truly exercising their rights as EU citizens and taking up the responsibility that comes with that by campaigning for change across Europe, my eyes were opened to the power and potential of what being a part of the EU involves.
For the others in the room this seemed to be nothing new to them, they already understood how ‘Brussels’ works (I’ve only ever considered Westminster as a target for change) and the benefits of working as Europeans together (I’ve understood the benefits of knowledge sharing across countries but never combined campaigning). Most of them were European in a way that I never knew was possible, and now probably never will be for me (and the rest of my fellow British passport holders).
I met someone from Austria, working in Brussels for a Portuguese organisation who spoke English as well as me; I met someone from Poland who spoke English with an Essex accent (she has no idea where that came from), who’d lived in the Cotswolds and in Galicia and now spent a lot of time travelling to Brussels; I met an Irish person who works for a European organisation and has been based all over mainland Europe, including London and Brussels, but never actually worked in her home country.
These people were active members of the European Union. They spoke multiple European languages, had travelled all over to live and work and are focused on creating change at a European level. They understand the benefits of being European personally, but also the benefits of the EU as an institution.
I’m not sure I ever would have known how to or had the tools to engage with being European before. I had no idea how the EU worked or the kind of laws it created until the Brexit campaign started. I felt I would probably never live in another EU country as I don’t speak any other languages – I have enough French to get me by on holiday but certainly not enough to feel comfortable working or living in France or Belgium.
Everyone on the trip was very sorry and seemed to have a real compassion for the situation we’re in, I guess understanding the benefits of the EU they know exactly what it is we’re losing. They jovially said that whatever happens I can remain part of this new network of European campaigners. But if we leave the EU in October as planned [well that plan didn’t go ahead but seems the January date now is], I can’t be a full member of the network, not really, as my political rights as a EU citizen will be gone.
So I leave with a deeper sadness about the Brexit mess than I’ve ever had before, regret for never actively engaging with my EU citizenship, and anger that I was never taught, as so many people aren’t, what being a part of the EU means and how and why it was set up. And, although this is not new, frustration that languages are such a low priority in the UK schooling system – sure the option to learn them is there, but not at a young enough age and, from my experience, to a pretty crap standard. Plus, why learn a language when “everyone speaks English anyway”?
I feel as though I’m mourning, or preparing for the death of, a relative whom I’ve never really taken the time to properly get to know or never understood before but am now, just as time is slipping away, finding out how important they are to me, how much good they could bring to the world and how much they’ve enriched other people’s lives.
Should they get another chance through some life saving surgery (i.e. a second referendum or the government boldly announcing that they’ve looked into it and, although they respect the vote, they’ve realised Brexit is not possible…) or even an operation that will prolong their life (i.e. another extension for Brexit), I vow to get to know the EU better. I will work with my fellow European citizens to achieve positive change across Europe, I will learn a language and who knows, maybe I’ll take a leap and move to another European city – I’ve always dreamed of living in Paris or Lisbon but never thought it could be more than a dream.