Thursday, 16 March 2017

Europeans who Live in Britain. Europeans who Love Britain

Last night I went to a meeting with nationals of other European Union countries who are living in our part of Northumberland. We gathered in a café at Hexham's independent cinema. Others in the room were looking forward to the evening presentation - Hidden Figures, maybe, or Fences. There was the happy atmosphere of expected enjoyment.

But our gathering was not for entertainment. On the night before The Queen was due to sign off the legislation paving the way for Article 50 to be invoked and the Brexit process triggered, this group of fifteen or so was contemplating what their destiny could be after the United Kingdom had left the EU. For as we all know, the UK government has failed to offer any undertakings to non-UK citizens of EU nations about remaining in this country once Brexit is a reality.

In this fascinating, articulate group of people many nationalities are represented: German, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Greek, French, Swedish and Italian. They had lived in the UK for many years, decades even. Some were retired, some in employment. They were entirely indigenised. Their English was fluent. Their children had known no other life but in Britain. They paid taxes and social security in the UK. They owned property and had put down roots here. Most had long since ceased to feel they belonged anywhere else. Some had all but forgotten what it was like to live elsewhere.

You'll realise why I felt that my presence at this gathering was under somewhat false pretences. I am not facing their anxieties. I don't have to fear for the future of my family's or my own life in Britain. But I do know something about what it means and even how it feels when your future is not secure and you don't feel safe. Regular readers of this blog know that my late mother was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who came to Britain in the late 1930s. Her parents escaped with their lives because they had been taken in and cared for underground in German-occupied Holland. Books of German poetry, 19th century Jewish prayer books, some pieces of china, a seventeenth century map of Edam on in our entrance hall and an old Dutch cupboard in the living room symbolise that story and help keep it alive as it recedes in time from the present.

I'd been invited to attend as a known champion of the EU in Tynedale. A few knew about Christians for Europe which I co-convened during the Referendum campaign (and where a still active Twitter feed @Xians4EU can be viewed if you are not on Twitter yourself). A couple of other people from continental Europe had acquired UK citizenship. But most had not. They had assumed that in a United Kingdom that was an EU member state, there was no need to worry about national citizenship because now, after a terribly destructive war, we were at last Europeans together. Why shouldn't they make that assumption?

I heard a lot that helped me to empathise with the predicament of these good people. "We love Britain. It's our home. We belong here. We've worked here for years. We contribute to its wellbeing. We make a vital contribution to our locality here in Northumberland. We do not want to live anywhere else. We are all Europeans now - or thought we were." In all this, there was a striking lack of bitterness or self-pity. Yes, there was a lot of anxiety, together with puzzlement and hurt that their host country had not offered any undertakings about staying in Britain after Brexit when it could so easily have done so.

Indeed, I think it was the not-knowing that was the worst thing. Some said that British friends and neighbours had tried to reassure them by telling them that they wouldn't have to leave, even if they would have to wait to be told. Nobody said they had experienced hostility from locals; indeed they spoke of the warmth and friendliness of Northumberland people. (As a southerner blown in from London, I could identify with this.) But wonderful though this all is, anyone can see why it isn't enough.

Listening to the members of this group, I couldn't but feel a sense not only of profound sympathy but of shame. Many of them spoke about what it was like to contemplate being treated as "bargaining chips" in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. They believed it would not have cost the UK much to take the generous, moral high ground and offer unconditional undertakings to long-standing European citizens from other countries who have made their home in these islands. They spoke about Britain's famous traditions of welcome to people from overseas (not simply continental Europe of course).

I didn't think I should say too much as a native Brit, but I did want to tell them that many of us, even some Brexiters I'd spoken to, were completely on their side. We understood their fears. We wanted to do all we could to help. And many of us were, I also said, ashamed that our country had treated them so badly, not just because of all they were contributing to the UK but, more basic even than that, because they are our fellow human beings and as the Hebrew Bible says, we have a responsibility to care for the stranger in our midst. Only they aren't strangers any more. They are our friends. And that makes it all the more shaming.

I understand the arguments about UK expats who live in mainland EU countries. A number of them have become friends through our regular visits to France. They too are anxious about their future after Brexit. I sympathise very much with them too, not least with those who have lived long enough outside Britain not to have qualified to vote in the Referendum (a particularly mean attitude on the part of the government, I thought). But two wrongs don't make a right. I believe that if the UK had behaved in a principled way and given the undertakings our fellow-European friends needed, it would have created a more propitious environment within which to negotiate a good Brexit deal. Generosity begets generosity: the other 27 EU nations might just have felt more inclined to behave generously towards Britain as a result.  This country badly needs friends abroad right now. So it would have been an act of enlightened self-interest to say to my conversation-partners last night, "Yes, of course you must stay in Britain. This is your home, and we wouldn't have it any other way".

But we didn't say that, despite the best efforts of some in Parliament. And to that extent, Britain has shown itself to be a less kind, less generous and less fair nation than I thought it was. With less heart, you become less great. This is why I am ashamed. Aren't you?

So I'm going to show solidarity. I'm sure many others will do the same. We must change this situation, and give back to our friends with whom we share this continent, our brothers and sisters, the future they want in our midst and have a right to expect.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Bearing Witness to Europe: a day in Newcastle

Yesterday I got on the train and went to join the North East March for Europe in Newcastle. For a couple of hours I stood with a crowd of several hundred at the Monument in the city-centre. There was a home-spun party atmosphere with banners, flag-waving and singing. I felt a bit underdressed, not sporting the celebratory attire of yellow stars on blue. Even a well-dressed canine looked better suited for the part than I did. But it didn't matter. I was glad to be there.

"Celebratory?" you ask. Hang on, who actually won the EU referendum? No-one was denying the way the vote went. But far from rendering everyone despondent, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. This was a crowd that was energised and enthusiastic, eager to do our best for Britain and Europe, and confident in affirming all that we valued in the EU. Yes, and determined to try to win hearts and minds in the aftermath of the Brexit vote by urging our country to look again at its consequences and prevent lasting damage not only to ourselves but to our European friends and neighbours.

I'd decided to go for two reasons. The first was simply to show solidarity with the millions across the land who voted to remain in the EU. At a time when the momentum of Brexit seems unstoppable, there's a lot to be said for turning out on the streets en masse in order to show our political leaders that they can't assume that Britain has given them an "overwhelming" or even a "clear" mandate to drive us to the cliff-edge. And even if we had, we would still have the right to change our minds as a nation. That's what democracy means.

In the vocabulary of Christian faith, I call this kind of public activity "bearing witness": telling our story, sharing our experience, and inviting others to make it their own and become part of it. Getting out there is to become active rather than passive, not to be a bystander but to do something. And that changes for good the consciousness not only of those who take part but of the many more who watch or listen or read news reports and social media. Becoming participants makes a difference. Maybe a bigger difference than we can know at the time. Standing at the heart of Newcastle, this great cosmopolitan city that voted to remain in the EU, I think we all felt empowered.

The other reason for going was that I wanted to hear the speeches. An impressive line-up of speakers represented the worlds of politics, education, the unions, health, and business and commerce. I don't suppose many of us learned much that was new. But it was the conviction with which they spoke that impressed and even moved me. They were clear that our country had made a disastrous mistake. They were clear that the electorate had been misled and lied to. They were clear that the values of Europeanism were still alive and well across our nation. They were clear that it wasn't too late to row back from our decision. They were clear that the UK still had a future in the EU provided enough people believed in it with conviction.

In their different ways, the speakers underlined a simple message. "We want our country back. We want our continent back too. Being in the EU isn't only about the economy. It's about the values we share. We stand up not only for ourselves but for the next generation. We love Europe. We are Europeans. We shall fight for a second referendum on the negotiated Brexit deal with the option Remain in the EU on the ballot paper."

At the end, Professor A. C. Grayling spoke, one of the most intelligent and ardent champions of Britain's membership of the EU. In a long series of writings and tweets he has mercilessly exposed Brexit for what it is, the non-sense of "this crazy, absurd, damaging project". We must lobby our MPs, he told us. Too many Remainer parliamentarians are going along with Brexit because, as the cry has it, "the people have spoken". This needs challenging by rigorous argument. And maybe our elected representatives who, presumably, haven't stopped believing that EU membership is a good thing need a little encouragement to stand up for that belief. (It's a pity that there were no North East MPs among the speakers - had they been invited and refused, I wonder?) And as for the electorate as a whole, we should raise the morale of despondent Remainers while continuing to challenge those who voted to leave. In other words, the debate is far from concluded. It's more urgent than ever. We need to keep it alive.

It wasn't lost on me that we were gathered at the foot of  a monument that celebrates the great Charles Earl Grey. His fame rests, not on the scented tea named after him but his achievement as a courageous, pioneering, forward-looking politician. He was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, and it was under his government that slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire. More than that, he was the principal advocate of the Great Reform Act of 1832 that did so much to ensure the proper representation of the people in Parliament. His memory as a champion of democracy is treasured in his native North East. It's dangerous to claim the great men and women of the past as supporters of present-day causes, but I couldn't help thinking that he would have approved of our act of witness by his monument.

But the name of Grey sounds a warning note too. Someone responded to one of my tweets by pointing out that it was Earl Grey's descendant Sir Edward Grey who famously said in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, that the lights were "going out all over Europe". A few yards away from the monument, a small but noisy group of counter-protesters, some wearing Trump masks, were displaying a large banner that read: "Refugees Not Welcome. We Are Full". A sign that the lights could well go out across Europe if we are not vigilant for democracy, decency and peace-making, for justice, inclusion and equality, all the values that the European vision at its noblest represents. At a time when we do not know what will become of the West in the era of an unpredictable US president, and when Alt-Right movements are springing up across our own continent, we would be wise to be vigilant. And keep our European alliances in good repair.