What is Outsider? Here's a reminder
'Facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation'
Can you remember now your reaction to the referendum result? Some of you I imagine celebrated, others were perhaps shocked, or pretended it wasn’t happening. I was still in bed when I heard the news on the radio: the UK had voted to leave the European Union. I remember the immediate sense of loss and then my anger. For I had the impression, overnight, a part of my identity had been altered in a way I had little influence over. The referendum result seemed to signify a collective rejection (by the slimmest of majorities) of the principles of collaboration and reciprocity with our closest neighbours and as I processed the news, I questioned whether I still wanted to be associated with our apparently insular, self-regarding nation.
I rolled over, grabbed my phone and looked up how to obtain Irish citizenship, which I am eligible for through my paternal grandfather. But, after hastily filling out the form, I hesitated. Was I really prepared to relinquish my Britishness to remain a part of Europe? Yes, you can apply for dual citizenship – but ringing up the Dublin registry office made me stop and think – knowing how difficult the UK naturalisation process is, was I prepared to sacrifice my national identity to remain a part of Europe? Why was being European important to me? Did I know enough about the EU to judge the consequences of our leaving? Or understand the reasons why people had voted to get out? I realised despite my initial reaction, these were questions I didn’t have the answer to.
Time went on and I was helplessly torn. I tried to accept the result, even if I didn’t agree with it, or the xenophobic views of some leave voters, but I was concerned – given its advocates – Brexit would lead to greater deregulation, benefitting the banks, corporations and the most wealthy while diminishing the rights of the majority of the population. During that first year, as the nation reeled in collective confusion, it was difficult to make sense of what was happening. Few politicians or commentators seemed to have a comprehensive grasp of what was about to unfold: after all leaving the EU was unprecedented. I decided to go to the continent to find out what people thought there, believing an external perspective might provide fresh insight. I set off across France to Switzerland in June 2017 a few months after Article 50 was triggered. Over the next few years I journeyed through Italy, Greece, Northern Ireland, Germany, Britain, and I am about to set off for Romania. I travelled by bike. After more than a decade of mostly isolated, academic desk research, I wanted to encounter more intimately the places I would write about and cycling allows you to access a huge amount of information in ways a car, bus or train journey does not. It also makes conversation easy.
Originally, my intention was to gain a better understanding of how the EU operated, and whether belonging to Europe was reliant on EU membership. As time has gone on however, and I have journeyed deeper into the research it is the questions what is Europe presently, and what it means to be European, which have preoccupied me mostly. In attempting to answer these, I have sought to understand the distinct political circumstances of the different countries I have visited, the threat from populism, and nationalism, the impact of the refugee crisis and socio-economic inequalities as well as how people’s experiences shape their views. Central to my enquiry, has been the idea of whether a shared sense of European identity exists, beyond the rights and responsibilities attached to being a EU citizen, and if common experience and shared frustrations might provide the opportunity to forge solidarity across nations.
The realisation of this has challenged me physically, emotionally and intellectually. At times I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge I set myself. For the question what is Europe too big, the political structures and functions of the EU too complicated, and the chaos created by Brexit too unwieldy, to address in quick sound bites. It is not an academic work, although I have an academic training and at times have struggled with the temptation, owing to my policy background, to provide normative solutions. Neither is it a work of fiction, although many of the scenes described are reimagined. Instead I have endeavoured to construct a version of Europe based on the experiences and ideas of those I have met. Out of the voices of ordinary people, here I attempt to document a pivotal moment in history as Europe struggles to hold itself together.