My heart bursts with pride about our National Health System, and so does yours. The Save our NHS campaigns up and down the country aren’t driven by statistics and analytics. We know the NHS has its faults, that it could be more financially efficient and that it has an issue with bureaucracy. But we are head over heels in love with it’s beautiful central value – free healthcare for all, from the cradle to the grave – and how we tend this love in our efforts to protect it. Campaigns fueled with story after story of the real lives that the NHS has touched, be it saving a child’s life against the odds because of the talent and humanity of our wonderful healthcare workers, or the bittersweet acknowledgement of the dignity and generosity in which our elderly relatives are cared for as they pass. That’s the story I want to tell, and they’re the stories I want to hear. I want to hear our love affairs with the European Union.
My nan Betty was born at home in the industrial heart of the Black Country, 23 years before the creation of the very first Council of Europe and in the aftermath of the First World War. Her teenage years were then stolen by the Second World War. But no respite came for my mother’s era, the “Baby Boomers”. War devastated Europe. Not only in the casualties of the battlefield but in an entire generation whose youth was shaped by horror and loss. Parented by fathers with untreated and repressed shellshock, or post traumatic stress as we would call it now, my parents were raised in the shadow of destruction.
Yet, when far right nationalism wreaked havoc on our continent, and in the wake of this catastrophic war, some brave and principled politicians sought to face this down not with division but with hope. Hope for a unified Europe where people could thrive regardless of which bit of a divided land they had had the luck or the misfortune to be born on. A Europe funding health care, not war. Building social housing, not army barracks. Developing schools and colleges for a unified future, not funneling our working classes into the infantry or munitions factories. This is the Europe I am so very in love with.
I grew up in a European Union that had given my parents’ working rights they had never seen before. Guaranteed paid annual leave, maternity rights, the working time directive and equal pay – a union my parents went from being sceptical about in the 1970s to one they are proud to be a part of now. They saw a Europe that proposed ideals of workers’ rights and battled with our own national government to see them implemented. A Europe with the social dimension at its heart.
Yet, thanks to that small strip of water between ourselves and the mainland, besides an ill-fated trip to some EU member states my dad took as a local councillor over 30 years ago (It involves a scary flight, we don’t talk about it but I’m sure he went to Luxembourg?), neither of my parents have ever been further than Ireland. This isn’t an uncommon working class story. What all the middle class commentators seem to miss is that, for a lot of working class people, it’s hard to feel that you belong to Europe when you don’t physically feel part of it.
It’s not a sense of connection I felt either, for a long time. The barriers were not financial; they were cultural. Yet, thanks to the European Union, I left these islands for only the third time in my life at the age of 28 to visit Brussels with LGBT Labour. As I approached St. Pancras, I nearly didn’t join the group. I was overwhelmed at the very idea. The more debauched elements of our trip not withstanding; we visited the European Parliament, spoke with MEPs dedicated to bringing about LGBT equality including the wonderful and heroic Michael Cashman, and we met with LGBT activist groups.
The rest, as they say, is history. The visit opened my eyes to European politics. I met some cool people and I ended up going the very next spring to Berlin for Queer Easter, an LGBT socialist youth seminar where over 100 LGBT people from across Europe and the Middle East come to discuss politics and form a community. I joined their team of trainers. I made some of my closest, dearest friends who are scattered all around Europe. And I fell in love. Now, at least twice a month, I think nothing of hopping on a train, a plane and another train to get to Vienna to see my girlfriend. I see friends on a regular basis across the continent. I look at a map and I see familiarity. Europe is no longer that foreign land far away and alien. It’s my home.
You can counter with arguments about it’s many flaws and I might well agree. That’s why more than anything I want to stay in the EU to make it better. I want my Europe to be more socialist. I want my Europe to be more democratic. I want my Europe to take the values it holds for its own people – of peace in our time – and apply them in how it interacts with the rest of the world.
But let’s never forget that although the EU might be grand and pan-European and passing large scale laws, its power is felt in the every day. The love letters I would write for the Schengen Agreement, that begins to dismantle the borders between us, but also means I don’t have to show my passport travelling between Amsterdam and Vienna, reinforcing that sense of belonging. The poems for the 1957 Treaty of Rome that says women must receive equal pay for equal work. For the Erasmus program that not only moves us closer to my dreams for a worldwide integrated education system, but also that means my girlfriend can come and spend a year living and studying in the UK with me. I’m certainly not alone in that love – since it’s inception, Erasmus has led to 1 million babies.
That’s what the European Union gave me, that it couldn’t give my parents and their parents before them. For my nan, peace. For my mother, rights. For me, community and a sense of place. I do not want to deprive my niece’s generation of their next progressive steps within a union of nations.
I know it’s not perfect, but like all my great loves, I don’t expect it to be. I know we both need to put the work in. But when I fly over the tiny English Channel, where the beautiful inlets of Antwerp are visible moments after white cliffs leave my sight, when the snowcapped mountains of Austria graze underneath me, when the lights of Bratislava mark out the path of the Danube by night; I see my home just like when the breathtaking English countryside first comes into view. And when I party in Berlin and when I get into late night debates in Brussels and when I drive through the winding valleys of Bavaria, I am so deeply in love with Europe and so proud to call myself European.