So, indulge me for a minute, if you will. Unless you are clinically dead, you will have noticed that in the UK we are about to vote in a referendum about whether or not we should stay in the EU. Well, I say ‘we’. I am personally not eligible to vote: having spent only 27 and a quarter years out of my 28 in this country, rather than going the whole hog of being born here, I am not entitled to an opinion on the matter, but that’s a fascinating argument for another day. Like everyone else, however, I have read countless facts and figures for both sides, but since both sides seem more interested in beating each other than in the actual question, I thought I would throw all those out the window, for the moment. You’ve all read them, so there’s not much point in me re-iterating them here. However, being an outsider, and particularly a European outsider, in this situation, means that I can afford to be totally emotional about the whole thing. So, in this post, what I intend to do is simply lay out what Europe and being European means to me. Feel free not to read it if you don’t care – as I say, my opinions currently carry no value whatsoever, politically speaking. I just wanted to bring an upbeat note and one of positivity and inclusivity to the dark days we’re going through at the moment.
First and foremost, Europe means opportunity. It allowed my parents to take my family out of a political system of which they wanted no part (namely apartheid-era South Africa) and come to the UK, where their qualifications were recognised, and on the basis that they were, and still are, European citizens, were able to stay and begin contributing immediately. That’s an amazing thing that the UK and Europe have done for us. The opportunities my whole family has been afforded are countless, and in return, we have never stopped contributing. But understand this, it’s not just us. Europe means that anyone can go anywhere, anywhere they feel they have the most opportunities, and keep contributing to the community as a whole, including the many Brits who are choosing to live, work, and retire to Europe even as we speak.
We have had, and still have, so many options, as does everyone who lives and works in Europe. The EU means that I can travel, visaless, and at a moment’s notice, to anywhere in Europe for music competitions, concerts, auditions, other people’s performances, and thus get as many professional development opportunities as possible, meaning that my fellow musicians and I have the opportunity to be the best that we can be: after all, two heads (or two dozen) are better than one. Conversely, it means that we can be taught by and work alongside some of the best professionals, many of whom have decided to work in the UK or who can get here equally quickly because of the ease of movement, which is an enormous benefit to both English and European students and professionals alike. Of course, this does not only apply to music, it just happens to be the field I know most about, but the strides forward that can be made in any discipline when you can call on whichever experts you need at any given time are self-evidently much greater than when one works in isolation.
Europe has been vitally important to my education as a whole. I went to a European School, which exists as a concept all over Europe, but the one here, incidentally, was set up to allow the children of European scientists brought in to work on the JET fusion project to continue to be educated in their own languages, so that they could return home when their parents’ contracts ran out, but was, of course, open to other children as well. (PSA for lovers of irony, Boris Johnson, esteemed ex-mayor of London and prominent Brexiteer, also attended a European School. In Belgium. Hey ho. He also used to come and visit our school occasionally, to see how we were getting on. Again, never mind. Remember, I don’t qualify for an opinion.) Now, before you say that this encourages people not to integrate, don’t. English was mandatory as well as one’s own native language from the age of 5, and as one went up the school your classes were split more or less evenly as to which language they were taught in. A third language was also compulsory, for a certain number of years. Fourth and fifth languages were also available (all taught by native speakers, naturally). We definitely knew how to integrate, and it meant that, honestly, I believe there was less bullying. I’m not saying it didn’t exist, but statistically there was less of it: it was impossible to discriminate against people based on their nationality, and even difficult to look for difference to single out, as the whole place was founded on the idea of diversity.
My school taught me that this was the point of Europe: integration. The motto of the EU is In varietate concordia – ‘United in Diversity’. The premise of the school, and of Europe, has always been that we are better off getting on with our neighbours than assuming we are better than them, and that so much more can be achieved that way (starting, as has been pointed out many times already, with lasting peace between the states of the Union). Being European means that my school friends are now contributing in wonderful ways all over Europe, including here in the UK, and can know that wherever they are, they are at home. Home is simply wherever people treat you as one of their own, and what the UK has on its doorstep is 27 other countries that will do that for anyone who asks. And it’s what the UK has, as part of Europe, always done for others too.
Being European means being annoyed at yourself when you don’t feel you can make an attempt at someone else’s language, and immediately trying to rectify it because you know they will always make an attempt at yours. It means making every effort to make someone else feel part of your world because you know they consider you a part of theirs. It means being able to easily meet people from 28 different countries and broaden your view of life as a whole, as well as of your own nationality. It means not having a nationality, because you know that it simply doesn’t matter: the point is to attempt communication with everyone at all levels. If that’s not a positive message, I’m not sure what is.
These are the big things that being European means for me. But there are a million tiny ways that it affects my life, most of which are so ingrained I don’t even think about them most of the time. Being able to be in Northern Italy and go for dinner in Slovenia, or spend the day in Austria. Being able to see family abroad totally at my own convenience, and similarly being able to welcome them here with ease. Being able to arrange to meet up with friends from separate countries in the morning and then being able to meet in a square in a totally different country for a drink in the evening. Being able to get on the Eurostar in London, fall asleep, and wake up in Paris, with no-one batting an eye. Being amused when tourists assume you don’t understand what they’re saying, and the joy of being able to help them when you see them feeling lost and you can speak their language. Being able to choose a more appropriate word in a different language if it fits the situation better, and thus being able to create a more inclusive and precise form of communication altogether. Having too many wonderful international colleagues to mention, all of whom simply want to add to the richness and diversity of culture in the UK. It also means, by the way, that amazing feeling of recognition you get when you hear another group of people speaking English in a restaurant in Europe, and you can turn around and say hello, with a look that acknowledges how wonderful it is that it is so easy for you all to be there.
But do you know what I really love about Europe, what I’ve always loved about Europe? It has allowed me to experience being British. Britain has always been a wonderful place to be European: I feel it has allowed me to create a hybrid of myself in which I can be a European Brit. It’s perfectly legitimate for me to love the films of both Gigi Proietti and Monty Python, the plays of Goldoni and Alan Bennett, to live and work here as European. No-one has ever questioned me, nor have I ever questioned belonging here, on a fundamental level. This is where I was raised, this is the country that educated me, the society and culture I most relate to, because it includes all cultures within itself beautifully. There is so much space for different people here. And yet. This referendum is trying to force people like me to make a choice. To be British or Other. So I’m not going to. Or rather, I’m not able to. How can I separate the two parts of myself?
For those of you currently wondering why I don’t just get British Citizenship and make all of this go away, don’t worry, I probably will. I have no desire to leave the UK, and I don’t know what Brexit would mean for me and others like me. I will take the test, and pay the thousand-odd pounds it costs to achieve citizenship in a country I have always called home, watch many of my friends do the same, and yes, I can have dual nationality. But that’s not the point. The point is that I have never had to, and I am very sad that I might have to now. My European citizenship has always been enough; enough to get me here, enough to keep me here, enough for me to be able to determine my own outcome.
I can’t tell you which way to vote, or what to think, but whatever the outcome, I intend to remain European in spirit, and hope that Britain will accept me, as it always has.