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Have Your Family's Trips to Europe Improved since 1914?

From preparation for war to peaceful tour, a former lecturer in Political Science at Kingston College makes a case for the EU.

World War I montage by Hohum

 

In 1917 my Grandfather lied about his age, enlisted in The Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was prepared to go to France and fight the Kaiser. In June 1944 my Father had his kit packed, ready to be flown to Normandy, where his regiment was suffering heavy casualties. And my introduction to Europe? In 1968, as a wide eyed twelve-year-old, I went across the Channel for the first time on a school trip to Paris, and loved it. No khaki; no conflict. No firearms, and no fear. I loved Europe even more when I went there as a seventeen-year-old with thirty pounds in cash in my pocket, and hitched through eight countries in ten days, meeting loads of great people and having a ball, the like of which you cannot explain to your mother. I went across the channel an Englishman, but came back with something more; I was now also a European. As a callow youth, I had met people who, whilst they did not always share the same language, shared a common history, a shared culture, and a small continent. And I was a part of it all.

 

I was reminded of my geographical proximity to Europe the first time I travelled to the USA. The flight went from Amsterdam, so I took the shuttle from Heathrow; no distance, just forty minutes. Whilst the proximity of Holland was measured in minutes, the USA was hours away. And now we take the Eurostar, and one change later you can be in Amsterdam for lunch. Hardly a foreign country, but just a stop on a train.

 

So when and why did so many people get so hostile about our closest neighbours? From where does this negative mindset come? Given the experience of my family, I guess Dad and Granddad would be mightily relieved that they have now stopped bombing our street, and our European neighbours now merely wish to sell us a Volkswagen. Rather than the sound of shellfire and artillery, we now have the noise of discourse and debate. The forum has replaced the battle field. Surely an improvement?

 

If you tell people enough times that there's a problem, then after a while their perception will be that in fact there is one. One minor party, and a large section of a major party, have made our continued membership of the EU an agenda item. Outside of this group, I suspect that most people do not actually feel an impact from our European partners on a day to day level unless you are in agriculture in receipt of a subsidy, or an industry in the West Country that the EU is helping to prop up in the recession, or a junior hospital doctor, who no longer has to work absurd hours thanks to the Working Time Directive. But I still hear people repeating the lie that EU regulations stipulate that bananas have to be straight, and who knows what else apocryphal garbage from those determined to denigrate the European project.

 

The Conservative Party seems determined to wrench itself in two over the whole issue, forcing a referendum on us all, because it cannot resolve an internal policy difference between its own members. David Cameron is prepared to jeopardise our very membership of the European Union to accommodate his own party's Eurosceptics.

 

Yes, and I can hear the little Englanders wailing about bureaucratic Brussels structures, and Strasbourg shortcomings. The selection method for senior EU positions is clearly open to criticism. Reform is needed in the political structure, but is not every political system a work in progress? Coming from a country with an hereditary head of state, an unelected second chamber, and an archaic national voting system, who are we to call the European Union undemocratic? Is the issue possibly a psychological one? Do you want the system to work, or have you made up your negative mind?

 

Standing on a Spring morning in Vienna earlier this year, I saw a capital city that flew the European Union flag alongside their national flag. On the sweeping Ringstrasse outside the Austrian Parliament, two flags flew proudly. This is a country with an imperial past, a country now much smaller in scale than it was once, and with its own difficult history. Austria has much to reconcile within its living memory. And yet the people were no less Austrian; their culture and identity quite unique, and no less so for being part of a greater European structure.

 

Of course people must be free to choose their own future; what makes a system truly democratic is when you can vote to remove those in power, or in the case of the EU, if you can chose to secede. But before people try to encourage me to dislike foreigners, and to hate pan-European governmental structures, can we not look to what we have in common, rather than that which separates us? Look at the long term benefits of unity over division.  It really is time for those of us with a positive attitude to our neighbours to shift the psychology of this argument: Do we really want to find ourselves on the outside of Europe, standing in sad isolation on the edge of the Atlantic, and no longer a participant, no longer a player in the great European game?

 

I have neither the will, nor the energy, to start disliking foreigners and seeking scapegoats for any of our domestic ills. What binds us together is so much more valuable than whatever differences we have. Looking at the ageing Normandy veterans at the beginning of June this year, standing in the cemeteries of their fallen teenage comrades, from all the nations of Europe, made me appreciate the sacrifices made for this continent. Is it not time to realise that the future of Europe lies not in greater division and isolation, but in unity, shared responsibility, and common purpose? For Dad’s sake, believe me, what we have in common is so much more important than what might tear us apart.

Howard Roberts

About the Writer

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Howard is a former Lecturer in Political Science at Kingston College. He lives in southwest London.

 

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