“What happens now?”
It is a question I have heard a lot in the past couple of days, ever since the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe woke to the news that the seemingly impossible had happened and the voters had – just – decided for LEAVE, for Brexit and for the end of a 43-year relationship with the rest of Europe. The question means different things, depending on who is asking it. What happens now for the UK, in England and Wales, in Scotland and Northern Ireland? What happens now in Germany, or France, or the Netherlands, where the far-right and Eurosceptic politicians spent Friday celebrating as the rest of the continent looked on in horror and disbelief. And what happens now to me, still an EU-citizen living in Berlin thanks to my British passport, and to my daughter and others of her generation for whom the world, all of a sudden, seems a little smaller?
“Are you going to get German citizenship?”
This is another question I have heard over the past couple of days, to which the only answer possible when no one seems to have any clue what is going on or what is going to happen next is: Maybe. And maybe, having lived in Germany for fifteen years, I should have got my German citizenship already. After all, having committed to living in this country, I should have made the next logical step. But until now it was not, for me at least, a logical step. I did not want to get German citizenship because I did not – I do not – feel German. My own sense of identity is as mixed up as many peoples, I imagine. Part northern English. Part British. And yes, part European. And it was always that third part, the European part, which allowed me to feel there was no contradiction in living in one part of this Union of ours while maintaining citizenship in another.
To feel European… what does that mean? For me, I think, it is the only part of my identity that has developed consciously. My northern-ness and my Britishness are a combination of the accident of birth and the culture in which I grew up. For these two aspects of my identity I had no real choice, like my support for Liverpool Football Club. But my feeling of being European was based on experience – yes, of school trips and exchanges and later journeys back and forth across the continent – but also of events.
I may have been born in 1979, three days after the Conservative election victory and thus one of “Thatcher’s children,” but the politics of Britain in 1980s was not the key influence in my own political development and understanding of the world. Although I was still fairly young, the events of 1989 and 1990, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were central. As was the collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed. And as I studied them, wrote essays and theses, developing creative projects that continue to this day, I felt connected to these events as a “European”. They mattered to me. Part of this intellectual journey was also the growing conviction that, for all its faults, the European Union – this European project – was our best hope for a continent built on notions of cooperation and solidarity rather than rivalry and division.
This conviction has, of course, taken a hit in recent years, even before the spectre of Brexit loomed into view. I had always conceived of the core European nations, and therefore the core of the European Union, as being fundamentally social democracies, where solidarity meant social security and universal health care, of equal educational opportunity and support for all members of the community. Naïve? Perhaps. In any case, this understanding of the European project has long been hard to maintain in the face of neoliberal economics, shadowy trans-Atlantic trade agreements and enforced austerity programmes. We have lived with a widening wealth gap and dramatic levels of youth unemployment, particularly in southern Europe. And that in turn has led, along with the political response to the refugee crisis, a rise in support for the far-right across Europe. All of these events have led me to question the very notion of Europe as a social project, and the European Union as an institution. So did maybe LEAVE have a point after all?
My feeling is that it would be giving up too easy.
After all, what is the European Union? What does it represent? What does it stand for? Ultimately the European Union can be and should be representative of its members. It need not be intrinsically neoliberal any more than it need be intrinsically a social project. It reflects the politics of its member governments and, crucially, the people that vote them into power. It has flaws and it probably needs now a period of reflection and even reform to prevent Brexit spreading like a contagion across the 27 remaining members. But the European project is still worth fighting for and should have been, from a British perspective, worth remaining part of.
Beyond how it can develop, and how we as voters within the European Union can shape it through our choices at the ballot box, we should also not forget what has been achieved. A couple of years ago we were driving from France to Germany, to visit my partner Katrin’s sister in Saarbrücken, just across the border. On the day we drove through eastern France the presidents of both countries were meeting at the Hartmannswillerskopf in the Vosges Mountains. Part of the Alsace, this is contested land. Or at least it was. During the First World War the Germans and the French fought over these hills, digging in hundreds of kilometres of trenches on the mountainside. Control of the Hartmannswillerskopf swung back and forth during the first year of the war, before stalemate. By the end of hostilities some 30,000 soldiers were dead, and the Hartmannswillerskopf had a new nickname: “man-eater mountain.”
Presidents Hollande and Gauck were meeting there that day on the hundredth anniversary of the start of the battle, and they embraced in front of the mountainside, the tricolours of their respective nations and the brilliant blue of the European flag. We are still in the middle of that centenary of the First World War, a conflict which came on the back of countless European wars and as prelude to the devastation of the war that was to follow, one which would take the lives of millions from these lands between the Atlantic and the Urals.
“France and Germany, beyond suffering and grief, had the audacity to reconcile,” President Hollande said that day on the mountainside. “It was the best way to honour the dead and give the living a guarantee of peace.”
It was a clear message as to the importance of the European project and a reminder of what it had been born out of.
President Gauck, a man who has played no small part in Germany dealing with the legacy of its own past, also used the moment to speak to wider themes: “It is true that Europe is a difficult project. However, the generations before us would have loved to have had our problems, those forefathers on the battlefields of Hartmannswillerskopf, the Marne or Verdun.”
If peace was the starting point of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the European project that began then has brought much more to the continent, building upon that foundation stone. And it is what the people of Britain have lost, especially the younger generations, and what the rest of Europe might too lose should the crisis continue to spread, that makes the referendum decision so devastating. Free movement. Erasmus and the chance for young people to study abroad. The soft power of an EU as a social project built upon cooperation and solidarity. Security. What is the alternative? Competition, rivalry and a race to the bottom?
Some might say we can have all these things without the Euro, without ever-closer political unity, without the bureaucracy and democratic deficit… my reply to this is simple: Fine! Then let’s work towards a Europe that builds on its strengths and learns from its mistakes. But let’s buy in to this project and stand at its heart rather than moaning from the side-lines. My fear is that, as happened last Thursday, we forget the good and focus only on the bad, losing sight not only on what has been achieved on this continent over the past 65 years since the Treaty of Paris was signed but also what the world looked like at the time and in the decades immediately before.
Northern English. British. European. Three aspects of my identity that, until the moment I learned of the result, seemed to fit neatly into one another like a Russian doll. In the aftermath of Brexit, things feel different. Liverpool and Leeds, two cities close to my heart, both voted Remain but much of the north voted for Leave in a troubling atmosphere of anti-immigrant rhetoric and even violence. Scotland look to be pushing for a second independence referendum, and who can blame them? And across Europe the likes of Le Pen, Wilders and the AfD, these anti-Europeans who want to turn the clock back, are the ones looking to make hay as the summer sun shines. A Europe shaped by the likes of these is truly something to fear.
“What happens now?”
What happens in Britain is anyone’s guess. But regardless of the crises engulfing the Tories and Labour, the spat over when Article 50 will actually be invoked and the debate whether Brexit will indeed actually happen or not, across the continent as a whole it is clear that those who see the value and the importance of the European project need to start winning the argument. And they need to start winning it soon.
Words: Paul Scraton
Image credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F088724-0006 / Faßbender, Julia / CC-BY-SA 3.0