Yesterday I sat with a friend watching Theresa May’s speech. She indicated she wants us to leave the European single market and be a ‘Global Britain’. She said that if EU leaders don’t give us a brilliant deal in return for very little money and no free movement, she will turn our island into a Britapore tax haven. Whilst listening to a speech so full of huge misunderstandings about Europe, I felt a surge of love and gratitude towards Europe.
It is Europe that has directed money to projects in Cornwall, Wales and Northern Ireland (helping to stabilise peace there) when Westminster wasn’t interested. It is Europe that has enabled us to maintain an influence in the world that is greater than our size. It is Europe that has moved us from the 1970s 3 day week, no rubbish-collecting country where we bought olive oil from the pharmacy and only ate milk chocolate to the vibrant culture that we have today. It is Europe that has protected our farming industry and enabled our services industries to thrive as the go-to advisers for deals and disputes across the EU.
It is not Europe that did not share the wealth of London around our regions or to all our citizens. It is not Europe that makes up crazy laws but that keeps our laws and regulations meeting environmental protection, workers’ rights and consumer standards that we all need. It is not Europe that has failed to end zero-hours contracts in the UK. It is not Europe that decides how much we spend on our schools or the NHS. It is not even Europe that has set all the UK rules on EU immigration. Ok the EU is not perfect, but it is not the EU that rules us, but we who contribute to ruling our continent with others. Whatever flaws it has, it is up to us to work to correct them.
Isolationism is what Theresa May is pursuing, not some brave new world of opportunity. We could increase our trade with India, China, the USA or anywhere else within existing arrangements, we just haven’t bothered to. I am angry, I am depressed and I am -when all is said and done- heart-broken because my government is forcing me to divorce my own continent. Publicly, we are not to be married in the same deep way. In short, we are not even to be Norway; we are to be Canada. And yet, we are European and some of us will never stop loving Europe or the European Project.
During one of the many arguments I have had with my mother since the UK’s EU referendum last June, we came face to face in my kitchen weighing out red lentils for a Rose Elliot lentil gratin recipe. My mother was telling me the imperial measurements while I was trying to weigh them on a metric set of scales. When I half joked that if the government decides we all have to use imperial measurements after Brexit, I am really going to lose it she said to me “I do not understand it, your mother is British, your father was British why don’t you feel British?” I replied that I feel European, and then tried to “soften” that to “I am British and European”. Both our identities are, of course, constructs, hers one derived from being born in 1940 and mine from being born in 1975.
As many commentators and politicians have accepted, the need to deliver a Brexit for 100% of the UK is critical. As AC Grayling has pointed out extensively, 63% of the electorate and 74% of the population of the United Kingdom did not vote Leave and yet leaving the European Union may well (absent specific provision in the Brexit deal) lead to the deprivation of our EU citizenship. Elizabeth Mountford QC made the same point in the Supreme Court on behalf of the crowd funded litigants. Just because the over 45s do not feel the same, they should still be encouraged to understand where the majority of the under 45s are coming from. In that way, the differences between us can be seen to be less ones of rejection or acceptance of a particular view and actually more a product of our age and identity.
At the heart of Brexit is a problem, namely that the success of the Red, White and Blue Plan requires the under 45s to get behind it and make it work. Theresa May has now made it crystal clear that she favours a hard Brexit outside of the single market. Assuming the government manages to agree a plan between themselves and then persuades the EU that it is a good one for each of its 27 Member States, then it still has to bring the working engine of the UK with it.
Many over 45s in this country do not identify strongly as being European. 56% of 45-54 year olds, 57% of 56 to 64 year olds and 60% of 65 and overs voting in the Referendum, voted Leave. Whereas, the majority of us born in particular after 1972, feel profoundly that we are both British and European and voted accordingly. This may be dismissed by those who do not share that identity and via the self-serving current rhetoric of right-wing politicians, most notably Theresa May who crowed at the 2016 Conservative party conference that “if you consider yourself a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. This is not, however, the vision of the majority of younger citizens in this country who can incorporate concepts of mixed nationality (both national and supranational) into their own identities. Many have families of mixed nationalities. As Kwame Anthony Appiah argued in answer to questions put to him by the audience in his BBC Reith Lecture on Country in October 2016, this is the demographic of the future and to deny it is to alienate whole parts of your population (particularly the younger population).
Neither is this an issue simply for the wealthy. Voter analysis of the Referendum demonstrates it was people with degrees and professional jobs who were more likely to vote Remain, as were people who have a passport- Earnings data also shows that areas with higher median incomes tended to lean Remain, whilst lower incomes leaned Leave but it does not mean that all lower income citizens voted Leave. Also, anecdotally, many of us know wealthy over 45s who voted Leave.
The deprivation the young feel over the Referendum result could, however, be alleviated by a plan dreamed up by the EU parliamentarians and technocrats. It is also a plan that has caught the imagination of many UK citizens. Charles Goerens, a Luxembourg MEP, proposed that UK citizens should be able to retain their EU citizenship. The limitation with this is that it requires a Treaty change. The idea has now been moved up the political agenda, however, and is reportedly to be offered by Donald Tusk as part of the Brexit negotiations. What incentive, however, does Theresa May have to accept this proposal? It is the incentive that it will heal some of the Referendum wounds and alleviate some of the alienation being experienced by the under 45s in this country who feel deprived of a birth-right by a small minority. Those who voted Leave would also have the option to retain their citizenship so it cannot be said to be divisive.
What is European citizenship? A concept introduced by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union , it entails the right:
• To non-discrimination on the basis of nationality when the Treaty applies
• To move and reside freely within the EU
• To vote for and stand as a candidate in European Parliament and municipal elections
• To be protected by the diplomatic and consular authorities of any other EU country
• To petition the European Parliament and complain to the European Ombudsman
• To contact and receive a response from any EU institution in one of the EU’s official languages
• To access European Parliament, European Commision and Council documents under certain conditions
While a plan to retain EU citizenship does not do anything to limit the economic damage this country is likely to suffer if it is forced to leave membership of the single market and the Customs Union, it will salvage something for UK citizens from the wreckage of Brexit and keep the flame alive of what have been 40 years of beneficial and transformative EU membership. Many of us believe in the European project and at a time of geo-political instability and the retrenching of the USA into its national concerns, we would like the ability to bolster it in some small way with our ongoing support. You may have a Red, White and Blue Plan, Mrs May, but many of us would like to add in the colours of the European Union. We were born and live in the continent of Europe and if you want to bring us all with you, help those of us who want it to retain the citizenship that is central to our identity.