As 2019 begins, for the UK it is a year dominated already by endings rather than fresh starts. Brexit D-day looms: the political and economic arguments have been well rehearsed, but for many, feelings about Europe are deeply personal. This is my story of how being part of the European project transformed my life.
In the 1970s and 1980s, being in the European Union wasn’t so much about migration for work – particularly not to the UK, which, with its high unemployment, was not an economic migrant’s destination of choice in the days of my childhood. At first the UK was Europe’s weakest link. For me Europe was an adventure, opening our minds to the languages and cultures of our neighbours, through the opportunities the EU offered. Europe back then – particularly France – was pretty glamorous. French products were increasingly arriving on our supermarket shelves. Remember “Du pain, du vin et du Boursin” and “Les Français adorent Piat D’Or,” which was actually a fairly rank product for the British wine market? The French would never have drunk it.
Through the EU-supported Bishop’s Stortford Town Twinning scheme my mother dispatched my sister and I on exchanges to stay with French and German pen-friends in our twin towns. Matched because of our shared Roman origins, the three towns were otherwise unexceptional, but we revelled in the opportunities offered and the friendships we could make. Off we went on the long ferry and coach or train rides it took to get there as teenagers on a low budget, even sleeping on the floor of a Belgian village hall when the French fishermen blockaded the ports and we were diverted from Calais. I was introduced to raw steak, Versailles and the music of Téléphone (“Je rêvais d’un autre monde” feels like an anthem for current times) as well as to the wonder of German municipal outdoor heated swimming pools (with slides) and Spaghettieis. We indulged in stereotypes: the German students filed earnestly from their coaches whilst the French rolled off more unkempt and less clean-shaven, wrapped up in their Yasser Arafat keffiyehs that were a fashion statement at some point in the 1980s. As we got to know the people, at least some of those preconceptions were left behind.
Thanks to the EU I took part in an exchange programme, working as a language Assistante in a French school near Avignon, drinking sugary grenadine cocktails and dancing to Indochine in my spare time. I travelled as a law student to a French University for one year and then returned to France for work experience. I visited my friends summer-jobbing on French campsites and inter-railed round Europe after my Law finals. Perhaps it is a reflection of my immersion in the European project that, whilst I got married in the UK, my husband is French and my first child was born in Germany – by kaiserschnitt, no less; my German obstetrics-related vocabulary is extensive. It feels fitting, but makes the process of applying for French/European passports (something we never thought we’d have to do) a bureaucratic nightmare.
I’ve noticed a tendency for eye-rolling when politicians talk about the opportunities that are lost by leaving the EU, as if these are somehow only available to a category of middle-class Remainer. That was not my experience. We were brought up on a shoe-string – my widowed mother was a primary school teacher and money was very tight. But she saw the educational and personal benefits for us in being European and made the choice to prioritise it. And we reaped the rewards. I’m pretty sure that the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg were far too posh to bother with a town twinning exchange or getting a job working in France during a year out. It seems a shame to me that Brexit has been so influenced by two men with so little understanding of what the EU offered – and still offers - to cash strapped, adventure hungry young people like me.
They are not alone. The decline of Europe’s appeal to the UK at a personal level has perhaps been going on for some time. With easier cheaper air travel, the young go further afield for their adventure now – gap years in India were really only for the super rich and mega adventurous in my day. Going back to Piat D’Or, it would seem that the Français no longer adore it. For an early 2000s re-launch of the wine, the French strap line was dropped because, according to a marketing manager “France and the French are no longer as aspirational as they once were.” Whatever that means. Students of Law/French at the University of Birmingham are no longer sent to study for a year in Limoges, and are instead offered a choice of universities including one in French-speaking Canada (which is a brave choice if you want to speak French in a way that is comprehensible to our European neighbours). Travel horizons are broadening as our openness to Europe shrinks: I wonder if in fixing our eyes on the far distance we are forgetting the treasures just on our doorstep and the ease with which we access them through our EU membership. The two need not be mutually exclusive.
For this trip down memory lane I checked on the status of the Bishops Stortford Town Twinning Association, a vibrant organisation when I was growing up with a large committee and multiple exchanges (from school and language trips – organised for years by my Mum – to cycling and archery). Its story seems almost to be an allegory for where we are now. With dwindling interest in children’s exchanges, the Association has shrunk and in 2011 the Conservative controlled Council voted to end its involvement in it on the grounds that twinning was not relevant any more, a decision that made the national press. Labour MP Denis MacShane commented at the time: “Town-twinning is a low-cost way of linking schools, civil society, local arts and sports clubs and learning about each other across frontiers. The Conservatives really do want to shut Britain down from contact with the rest of the world.” Mais oui. And so it came to pass, from TTwixit to Brexit. The Town Twinning Association limps on, but is a shadow of its former self, with one event shown on the website for 2019. Britain, behold your future.
As for me, I feel the grief and – in the words of Téléphone - dream of a different world.