I’m not sure what first stimulated my fascination, at an early age, with the countries of Europe.
Maybe it was the big yellow ‘First French Dictionary’ I was given in primary school, and the thought of being able to speak a second language. Or it could have been the excitement and thrill of the ‘pen pal’ process – choosing a country from a list of exotic-sounding far flung places, sending a letter and waiting for what seemed like months for a response. Of course, it might also have been the glamour of Eurovision, with its languages and flags and strange music. Or perhaps actually it was just Judith Chalmers beaming into our rainy grey Banbridge Sunday afternoons, images of glamorous foreign cities and long white beaches, with people eating outside in the sun (wow, sun!).
Whatever it was, I was captivated. And I felt that I was in some way a part of this hugely varied and fascinating continent. Albeit, very much out on the fringe. (It took TWO sea crossings to get there, and days of (pre budget flight) travel.) But I felt connected to it all. And some of that, I’m sure, was the background noise throughout my childhood years, of the debate around Britain’s EEC membership. We were all in the same ‘club’.
Over the years since, I’ve built an ever closer attachment to, and passion for, Europe. Firstly those early teenage family holidays (mesmerized by the sun of Ibiza and Benidorm, and by the history of the Normandy beaches). Then the wonderful freedom of interrailing, turning up at a train station and picking out on a whim which country we were going to explore next. Then summer jobs and a university year out, working in SW France. All of which was the foundation for many subsequent years of holidays, and friendships and life-changing relationships.
I’m not a fan of national identity – I think we are more than just the product of where we happen to be arbitrarily born. But I genuinely feel a strong affinity to the ideals, and the shared values, that have been set out in the ‘European Project’. And that’s only been reinforced even further by the role that a European identity has been able to play in achieving peace in N Ireland.
I know I have had an immense amount of privilege – family, education, jobs, the chance to travel. And I know that many others have not had those same opportunities. But I think it’s sad that people feel pulling ourselves away, and going it alone, is going to help address in any way the huge challenges we face.
In my mind, we’ve built a wonderful thing – far from perfect, but still wonderful. I delight in the way our lives are enriched: the university and science partnerships, the study opportunities, the health professionals that keep our NHS running, the world-leading human rights and environmental protections, even the restaurants and markets the like of which we could never have imagined back when I was leafing through that First French Dictionary.
If we want a truly great country in the future, it will be best built by a generation that looks outside its own narrow experience, that sees the richness in the variety of cultures around us, and that values, rather than feels threatened by, partnerships with our neighbours. A generation that doesn’t simply dwell on the finest attributes and past achievements of the nation we happen to be born into, but that also recognises the importance of intertwined histories and of shared values.
It’s because of all this that I’m distraught at the UK’s departure today. Yes, I’m angry at what I believe is madness in terms of economic growth and geopolitical influence, and at the lies and deception that got us here. But more than anything, I’m just sad.
I comfort myself with the thought that I’m not alone – the people of London and other cities overwhelmingly reject our departure, as do all three devolved governments. And opinion polls have shown for some time that there is no longer a majority for leaving.
But the electoral system is what it is, and we lost. And I accept that. So today, I’ll put up with the countdown, and the new coins, and the gloating speeches. I’ll ignore the petty and derisory flag waving antics of Farage and Widdicombe in Brussels. And I’ll put a pause on my anger.
Today, I’ll just feel a profound sadness. Sadness for what we are throwing away. And regret for what those coming along behind us are now going to miss.