One of the delights of this blog, and the related social media, is the growing network of Europeans I am interacting with. Just last week, on Twitter, I was invited to attend European Citizenship: A Conversation, held at the Nottingham Contemporary. Conveniently, this is less than two minutes from where I work three days a week, and I happen to know they have excellent coffee too, so along I went. How could I refuse, especially since the title of the evening was so similar to my own Conversations with Europe?
The gathering consisted of informal discussion, and a more structured series of short presentations on pro-European initiatives and a Q&A session. By barely shuffling my chair, I met a young Belgian man with West African parents, who had spent most of his life in the UK, and his British girlfriend; a British woman and her Italian husband who has lived in the UK nearly as long as I have been alive, a young man from Slovenia who is hoping that these conversations can change our view of Europe, and several British people who not only want to protect those from other European countries but are also anxious about our own citizenship rights. After all – we are all EU citizens.
The informal discussion was interesting, though the conversations were similar to those we’ve all been having for the past year. How on earth were the electorate persuaded to vote for Brexit? Should we be taking more direct action, rather than sitting around talking? Would there be a Remain vote if there was a second referendum? Was the vote really all about immigration, or sticking it to David Cameron? What more could the Remain campaign have done? Will citizens from other nations choose to stay in the UK after Brexit? Our articulate Belgian friend wasn’t planning to do so.
After the informal conversation, the presentations. Along with others, we heard from Tom Unterrainer, who speculated on whether the referendum was a litmus test of the electorate or a spasmodic response to a chance of voicing an opinion and concluded it was the former, but found hope in changing demographics. The question remaining, of course, how does this hope find a tangible political form? The room did not have a clear answer.
We were still pondering this, when Tony Simpson introduced us to Retaining European Citizenship, A European Citizens’ Initiative. This is less about protecting citizens of other nations currently in the UK, and more about protecting the European citizenship rights of British citizens, which will be taken away when we leave the EU.
This seems like a relevant project to feature on a the day that the miserable and frightening detail of Theresa May’s so-called Repeal Bill was released, showing us all the legal mechanisms by which the government plan to strip those rights from us and replace them with British law, with only British oversight. There are 60 million people who are EU citizens because we are British citizens and a good proportion of us did not vote to lose our EU citizenship. The Retaining European Citizenship initiative aims to defend that citizenship, and also to provoke conversations about Europe, and citizenship – conversations we probably should have been having before the referendum, I thought, as I listened to the passion, knowledge and eloquence in the room.
If the referendum has achieved anything worthwhile, it has made many people who has not really engaged with the value of EU citizenship realise how precious it is. We are finally having those conversations. And this project is an excellent way to find out more and show your support in a material way. Visit the website, and make sure to click on the link to register your support. You will also find the site to be a great resource for information about the EU and European Citizenship – there’s even a great blog and a book to buy. What’s more, there’s a plan to keep conversations around European Citizenship going over the coming months, to keep bringing people together. I very much hope I can attend further events like this.
I think the comment which will stay with me most from that evening was from the British lady across the table, married to a gentleman from Italy. She told the room that she thought it was problematic that there was so many different groups campaigning for slightly different issues in relation to Brexit. She advocated for a more joined up approach and reminded us that it’s not simply a case of British citizens in the EU, EU citizens in the UK, UK citizens who will lose their EU citizenship as distinct groups: these are not clear cut. Those from other EU nations are husbands, wives, parents of British citizens and vice versa – they are parts of our communities and they are integral parts of families up and down the country and across the continent. EU and UK citizenships are complex and intertwined – inextricably in many cases. What of the children of an Italian man and a British woman? Which group do they belong to? How should they campaign? We must keep the conversation going because, after all, the common thread is that we are all Europeans.
I want to thank the organisers of European Citizenship: A Conversation for planning the event. I hope there will be many more and that the conversation will continue to grow.