On the morning of 24th June 2016, my instant response to the news was a guttural feeling of loss and despair. For me Brexit was, and still is, a complete disaster.
I rolled out of bed and immediately looked up how to obtain Irish citizenship. But after filling out the form I paused. Was I ready to relinquish my Britishness? Yes, I know you can apply for dual citizenship – but ringing up the Dublin registry office made me stop and think. Was I prepared to sacrifice my national identity to remain a part of Europe? Why is being a part of Europe important? What does it mean to me? And what does it mean to people across the vast spread of countries, cities, villages, coastlines, mountains, forests and farmlands that make up the landmass we call Europe?
Nearly a year on, Brexit now seems inevitable. The Government has pushed doggedly forward in fear of destabilising democracy. Current mainstream debate is caught up over whether Brexit should be hard or soft, and is mainly focused on immigration and the economy. Little consideration seems to have been given to the ideological implications of the UK’s exit, or the wider ramifications.
It seems to me that in the UK, European citizenship is a right most of us have, at best, taken for granted – and, at worst, considered an imposition. But surely there must have been some advantage? Haven’t we benefited from free movement, free trade, European investment and the creation of a shared framework of human rights? Didn’t a united Europe in less turbulent times establish peace and solidarity after centuries of conflict and serve as a global exemplar (albeit imperfectly) of unity?
That isn’t to say that Brussels doesn’t have serious faults. Agitators on both sides of the political spectrum are calling for its demise. It stands accused of authoritarianism and bureaucratic failure, of weakening nation states and undermining sovereignty.
But the current predicament is not entirely of Brussels’ making. In recent times, Europe’s leaders have supported the unrestrained proliferation of global capitalism, which, along with austerity, has created a crisis of escalating inequality – and helped to fuel nationalism and the anti-European backlash currently sweeping the continent.
It’s not just in the UK then, that anti-European sentiment runs high. More than half of all Europeans are believed to be unhappy with the current state of affairs. This brings me back to the question of what does Europe represent and what does it mean to be European?
Is the European Union in reality nothing more than a disingenuously disguised trade agreement? Or does Europe represent something more humane? Does our common experience and frustration provide an opportunity to forge solidarity across nations, ultimately demanding the reconstruction of our democratic system? Could the European project be reclaimed to symbolise the endeavour of striving for justice and the connection between its people?
In talking to other Europeans, I hope to make sense of what it is that unites us – our shared culture, history and concerns – and uncover the benefits of being a part of Europe as well as its shortcomings. I want to understand how experience shapes people’s sense of identity, and the significance of this. How they make political choices as well as day-to-day decisions. Ultimately my ambition is to offer an alternative account of Europe, one based on the experiences and views of the people I meet along the way.