On Europe

Riding bike on the Danube

I am pretty wild about Europe. I have been for as long as I can remember. I fell in love during those early family holidays consisting of days spent wandering through cornfields in southern Germany; gazing upwards to admire the twin spires of Europe’s most beautiful cathedrals; the sprawling, speckled-grey chateau our parents and friends rented for several weeks. Days shelling on the vast blonde beaches of Brittany; collecting rose petals to sieve into perfume from bushes running riot on Austrian roadsides; sitting down to supper at Breton restaurants, fingers soaked in the creamy sauce that is so often a vessel for mussels in that part of the world. Days spent queuing to see Van Gogh, and Monet, and the attic where Anne Frank penned her famous diary. I would spend my pocket money – francs, deutschmarks, peseta – on keychains and pocket knives, practising my s’il vous plaîts and auf wiedersehns as I passed shiny coins across the counter. Even then the thought was thrilling: this wealth of foreign cultures on our doorstop and the thought that we – as Britons – were part of a greater good, an umbrella culture. Europe. 

I was never more certain of the miracle of the European Union and all that it stands for than the long, hot summer I lived on the banks of Lake Neusiedl in Austria, a long spindly shallow of reeds that stretches, like fingers, across the border into Hungary. Living so close to a border gave me great admiration for what the founding fathers of the Union were aiming for when they decided a pact of nations, united by shared ideals, was something to strive for. On sweltering dusty noons, my friends and I would grab rusting bicycles from behind the old straw-thatched barn and cycle south towards Hungary, pausing en route to pluck plums from laden trees at the peak of their ripeness. We sampled grapes from the vineyards we would pass en route and filled our bicycle baskets with the sunflowers for which the region is known. We’d cycle on until, eventually, road signs would inform us that we were nearing the border with Hungary. The boundary itself was unremarkable, over-achieving sunflowers in place of the barbed wire you might expect in other parts of the world. A modest sign marked with the European flag announced our right to enter, unchecked, into another country. The blue of the flag represents the ambivalent sky of Europe and its dozen stars symbolise the peoples of Europe in a circle – a motif of unity. You are welcome here, the sign inferred. For what are borders, after all, if not man-made human constructs, cemented by history? We are all Europeans, the sign inferred. Ride right on through. And we did, exploring the borderlands of Hungary and her onion-domed spires, dirt roads and Kürtőskalács pastries for ourselves. We’d cycle home in the twilight, back across the border we had crossed in the midday heat, returned to Austria by the evening. Europe. I felt part of it.

Similarly, the year I lived in Germany aged twenty-one on the spine of the blue Danube, I was able to reap the benefits of the EU, receiving thousands of pounds in Erasmus grants and the opportunity to work in a secondary school without a visa by virtue of my European passport. I couldn’t quite believe that I – an Englishwoman born and bred – could so easily build a life in another country many hundreds of miles from my own, with few questions asked, purely for the fact that we were part not just of a shared continent, but a shared institution. Europe. I was welcomed and I repaid what I took, as the vast majority of economic migrants do. We all benefit from the easy ebb and flow of people across this diverse, storied continent. Freedom of movement has its flaws, true, but it works pretty well most of the time. The odd mishap is, surely, a small price to pay for such unparalleled liberties.

My experiences abroad, so easily garnered, with so few hoops to jump through, have shaped me as a person. They have made me a better citizen here in Britain. They have strengthened my professional contributions both as a translator, and more generally and given me the confidence to contribute to my society, wherever I am, and to accept other cultures with open arms. To embrace the foreign, to revel in difference, to learn from communities different from my own. Europe, and its union, unites cultures. We have so much to gain from it. We are so much better together than apart.

A lot has changed since I lived on the continent. In many ways, Europe is unrecognisable. Streams of desperate refugees fleeing unimaginable suffering in the Middle East have reshaped the fabric of European society, particularly in Germany. I have immense respect for Angela Merkel and her open-door policy, though it has been widely criticised elsewhere. Compassion and empathy are traits rarely seen in national leaders and her decision to fling open her country’s proverbial doors to people from wartorn regions is something to admire and emulate. Some have exploited free movement, of course, but that figure is miniscule. Leaving Europe will not stop would-be terrorists entering via the Balkans. Staying in, however, allows us access to the European arrest warrant and the cooperation that prospers in pan-continental institutions. Its benefits are manifold.

I realise that my perspective, my upbringing and my life’s experiences to date have been unusually Europhile. I feel as much a European as I feel English. But even if you don’t feel particularly European, what good would come of turning our backs on the very institution that has secured peace in Europe, after centuries of ignorant, violent, sorrowful war? To turn our backs on those fleeing conflict of a magnitude many of us can never know? To wave farewell to a single market that has allowed our economy to prosper? It is not my place to wade into the economic arguments for staying in here, they have already been examined in great detail by others far more qualified than I, but one need only glance at the list of economic experts and world leaders who have voiced their support for our continued membership of the EU to see the financial sense in voting to remain.

I do not want us to become the little island that we, literally, are – an afterthought, a racist hide-out, shut off from the rest of the world. An eccentric right-wing nightmare ruled by the kind of anti-immigrant fanatics that are not so different from those who helped the National Socialists ascend in Germany in the 1930s. (Just look at Nigel Farage’s poster, the similarities are as repulsive as they are unmistakeable.) When economies falter, there are always those who look to pinpoint a cause, a scapegoat, someone to blame. Behold, Europe! These dirty Europeans helping themselves to a slice of the economic cake – they’re after your jobs, buying your houses, filling your doctors’ waiting rooms, speaking their own cryptic languages in your tube carriage! They’ll bring their children and their whole families and their strange unknowable cultures and we’d rather not have it, if you please. Get gone and shut the door behind you, if you’d be so kind?

That isn’t Britain, at least not the Britain I know and love. I love British people – specifically, in my family and friends, and more broadly. At our best we have so much to offer: community, a sweet and baffling eccentricity, a reservedness countered by profound kindnesses, a sense of civic duty, a belief in traditions – baptised by our long and ancient history – juxtaposed with the innovation and forward-thinkingness that is easy to see in London’s skyline, streets and shopfronts. I love our strange, one-of-a-kind customs – street parties, scones bathed in cream and jam, Queen’s jubilees, the Olympics. Goodness, remember the Olympics? That spirit of openness, of pride in both our country’s unique place in the world and its liberalist, internationalist spirit seems a long time ago. I hope our countrymen remember that sense of goodwill and openness on Thursday.

The EU isn’t perfect, far from it. But at its heart, it is good. If a window shattered, would you burn your house to the ground? Of course not. You’d patch it up, install a new pane of glass, maybe even paint the window frame while you’re at it, ensuring the integrity of the whole. I hope we do not leave Europe simply because it has its cracks, its flaws, its faults. I hope we stay, work things out and commit to reform. I hope we take pride in our twin identities, as Britons and Europeans. We can be both; we don’t have to pick and choose. We live in a global society and it is ridiculous to think that shutting ourselves away, rolling up the drawbridge and reverting to a homogenous society would solve the problems modern Britain faces.

Please vote this Thursday and please, for your own sake, for Europe’s sake, for your children’s sake, vote to remain.

Further Reading

*Regular international readers, apologies if you’re from far-distant lands and this piece bears little significance for you. Back to regular scheduled programming shortly.