How does it feel to be part of Europe?
I had this piece drafted before the murder of Jo Cox last week. But I don’t think it changes anything I was going to say. It simply makes it more urgent to say it.
May I introduce you to my two lovely young nieces? Natasha is four months old and Rosalind four years. They live in rural Devon, and they’re just starting to discover the world and decide how to feel about it. I want to think a little about what it might feel like to be in their world.
The campaign for Britain to remain in the EU has been full of facts and utilitarian arguments. Economic projections, dispelling of myths about regulations, estimates of the economic and tax contributions made by European workers in Britain. All the kinds of things that may convince you if your inclination is to weigh up the numbers and evaluate the facts.
But there are plenty of people who don’t want to make a decision based on numbers, and I understand that. Numbers can be manipulated. We don’t all have the time or desire to read and check and compare statistics. Some decisions are always going to be made on intuition. And the deepest, most powerful intuition is our emotions.
This is the ground the Leave campaign chose, and they’ve commanded it skilfully. They identified and tapped into angers and fears held by millions of people. For some, they have amplified that anger; for others, they have offered permission to vocalise something that was smouldering under the surface. There is no point trying to combat an emotion with facts; and perhaps more importantly, we have no right to tell anyone their emotions are not valid. That feeling belongs to them and they are entitled to it.
The emotions involved are of course more subtle than plain anger. It’s a web of linked feelings and experiences, arising from a set of messages that we’ve all heard and that we all interpret in different ways. So I wonder how Rosalind and Natasha will grow up interpreting those messages, what feelings they will have about Europe and about the relationship they want to have with other countries.
Maybe Rosalind will be among the many people who now experience more competition for jobs than they would have expected twenty years ago. Maybe she will feel the stress of applying for a series of jobs with no certainty of winning any of them. Economists might try to reassure her that if someone from Italy gets a job here, the money they earn and spend will (on average) create another new job, and she can apply for that one instead. But that’s too abstract to feel like a fair exchange, and many people simply don’t believe it.
The social environment they’ll live in has changed too. They’ll hear more languages around them than their grandparents and parents did in the 1950s or the 1980s. More kinds of food are sold in their local shops and more religions are practised in their neighbourhood. The world in general will be more complex and it may be tough to work out how to navigate it confidently. There’s a real psychological reason behind this. If I have less in common with my neighbour – in culture, behaviours, values, profession, clothing – or for that matter sexuality, politics, gender or ethnicity – I will know less about how they’ll react to my choices and actions. And we are social animals. Understanding our neighbours is a necessary part of living in a modern society. Living alongside difference makes it more taxing to work out the strategies of life.
Natasha, like us all, will make instinctive judgements about who she wants to govern her. Legitimacy in government does not arise only from democratic constitutional arrangements. Natasha will want to see something of herself in her leaders. Maybe even something a little more than herself – someone she is willing to put her trust in, to make better and more informed decisions than she would. Leaders have to have enough in common with those they govern so that we feel they can understand us and represent our interests. I can understand that it is easier to see that commonality in a politician whose face we see on TV every week, who probably speaks the same language as we do, than in someone more distant – regardless of their policies and beliefs.
On top of this, imagine the two of them are faced with a profound, existential fear about what is happening to the world. Conflicts in distant countries seem to be on their doorstep suddenly. Bombs burn down cities and their millions of terrified inhabitants flee – northwards and westwards.
Would it be any wonder if Rosalind and Natasha reacted with fear, suspicion, anger, to want to close and bar the doors, to give their vote to the people they know best, who look and sound most like them?
Maybe not. And yet.
There is also another way to respond, which arises just as naturally from who we are as human beings. The same facts – and even some of the same feelings – might form a different constellation.
In many of life’s spaces, difference is not a threat but a source of happiness. Think of the diversity we enjoy in our friends, in our food, in our football players, in the beer or wine we drink, the styles of clothes we wear, the cars we drive. The phones we use, the music we listen to, the people we desire, the films we go to see. Britain can be proud of its contribution in most of these fields. At the same time, we are all better off for having access to what everyone else makes too. A kebab with your Carling, or a claret with your Cheddar – what could be better? And if Rosalind in a few years feels like changing her environment a bit more – if only for a fortnight – she can hop on a flight to Prague or Marbella or Crete to be part of someone else’s town, and see what their life is like.
It’s a short step from there to a chat with the Polish or Spanish family who live on the farm next door and work in the village shop. They chose to come here from their own home. They’re probably admirers of our culture, who want to adapt to it, not change it. We like to live in societies where not everyone is the same. Not everyone I know does the same job, supports the same team or does the same thing on a Friday night, and I wouldn’t want them to. We’d have nothing to talk about. The distance between someone I don’t understand at all, and someone who is simply different, is only a conversation.
Once I’ve spoken to my Muslim or Orthodox Jewish neighbour, or the Hungarian barista in the café, I have an idea of how they live their life and how it differs from me. It becomes much easier to live alongside them without awkwardness or mistrust. Suddenly that different culture is a source of new ideas and things to talk about, instead of a threat.
For some people, the perception that it’s harder to find a job will be correct. If Natasha can’t find work in what she is trained for, it will be tough. But at least she will have the chance to explore the rest of Europe and look there – which will be easier if she has grown up alongside French and Polish and German neighbours than not.
Those new workers are also, however, filling one of the biggest holes in the lives of our communities – they are taking care of our parents and grandparents. Availability of care workers and medical staff genuinely makes the lives of patients much better, whichever country they come from. If the modern economy doesn’t make it easy for my sister, brother and I to live with and care for our own parents, I hope there will be a dedicated and friendly person – from whatever country – who can step in and help. And while my parents fortunately don’t need care yet, they both live in rural areas where the availability of builders, electricians and pub workers from both Britain and Europe is essential to their quality of life. I know they appreciate the services those people provide, whatever their accent.
As well as listening to our neighbours I hope we can also listen to the people who help make our laws; and to recognise the dilemmas they face in balancing different interests in society. The balancing act carried out in Westminster is just as hard as the one faced in Strasbourg. Our politicians, mostly, have good intentions and try to strike the balance they think is right. We’ve heard tributes to the spirit and values of one in particular in the last week, but most other MPs, and most MEPs, and most commissioners or cabinet ministers, are like her too. We should keep holding them to account democratically, to make sure the choices they make are in line with the values we see in ourselves and want our governments to reflect. While doing this, we can sympathise with them too.
If some decisions made at European level are a compromise between our needs and those of other countries, we can speak up and make sure our opinions are heard. And we won’t mind making those compromises occasionally, because we care about what others need as well as about ourselves.
One of the toughest decisions those representatives face is what to do when two million people are suddenly homeless and in mortal danger in Syria, across a narrow sea from the (relatively) well-off, safe communities we live in. Those people have a way of life even more different from ours than the Slovenian or Greek who works along the road from you. It may be harder to empathise with them; and yet the power of our humanity is that we do it anyway. We, or at least our parents, still remember wars on our own land; refugees we sheltered; the bonds of common purpose that gave us the strength to overcome hate seventy years ago and rebuild the democracy that we are so proud of in this continent.
Our life in Europe can be based not on fear, but joy. My nieces, and my cousins a few years older, are young enough to simply have fun with Europe; to remix its different cultures, learn a few words, drink its wines and eat its foods; to bring over there the things that other Europeans love about Britain (Adele, Shakespeare, whisky, the BBC, the Rolling Stones) and swap them for the things we like about them (Daft Punk, Sophia Loren, mozzarella and BMWs). To get a Dutch boyfriend or a Croatian girlfriend, spend a year in a Spanish university, or backpack around the Balkans. I am excited by the idea that the territory I live in has every kind of landscape from desert to snow, lush valleys and hot beaches, cold seas and warm ones; that I can eat deep fried cod, fresh oranges and Dairy Milk chocolate all from the same brilliant, mixed-up continent.
I know we can still get some of this by trading with Europe from the outside, but if we leave, the basic assumptions that we live with, how we perceive our identity, will change. This choice is not really about the practicalities but about the principles our world lives by. And there are still some things we can’t have, and can’t help with, from the outside.
Our relationship with those slightly different people who live a few hundred miles away need not be one of anger. Instead, let it be one of love. We should be proud of an amazing, under-recognised gift we have been able to give to a dozen ex-communist countries: to accept them into a community that has enabled both them and us to become richer. Poland is the fastest-growing major economy in Europe and millions of people are now several times better off than they were 20 years ago. Richer in money but also in culture and friendship. It may be their turn in the next few years to pass that gift on to a few countries a little further east, or south. We may choose to help then too.
And by the time Rosalind and Natasha are my age in a few decades, that gift of love and investment will have been repaid many times. The cultural riches, the human contact, the things they will buy from us with their newly grown economies – and most importantly of all, the wars we will never know about because they didn’t happen. The peace that Britain helped bring about, that Western Europe has built with us, and that has gradually crept eastwards, will roll two thousand miles further.
If we let fear and anger give way to joy and love tomorrow, this is the future that is available. I hope this is how Natasha and Rosalind will grow up thinking about Britain and Europe, about us and the Europeans who visit us. They and their own children could grow up in a country cut off and a world that distrusts itself, or they could play a full part in a world where we and our neighbours have fun together and care about each other. If you think I’ve described a global society that you and your children might like to live in, I hope you’ll feel comfortable voting on Thursday to keep our European friends part of the family.