This is a purely personal reflection on the result of the EU Referendum last week.
You probably can’t grow up on the South Coast of England without having a slightly different relationship to the European continent than perhaps someone who grew up in Wales or Yorkshire. You can’t see mainland Europe from the Sussex coast but you know it’s there, over the horizon, just a short ferry ride from Newhaven.
I was only five years old when Britain joined what was then the EEC. Unlike the frequent power cuts of the first miners strike, and Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher’s axeing of school milk (and my job as a milk monitor), it didn’t register with me. Why would it.
School trips and family holidays to France and other European destinations were part of my childhood, as were the occasional spells with language students renting the spare room in my parents house. At around the time my sister moved to France to work, my family bought a barn nearby for a while; my aunt and uncle stayed and whilst my sister eventually came home, my niece and nephew are half-French.
A late-found enthusiasm for the language led me to study French for a year at University, then moving on to a politics course that took in what was then called European Community studies. Even after a four year break I was still proficient enough to spend the best part of a year working near Paris with a holiday company, which led to what was meant to be a part-time call centre job when I came back. That turned into a five-year stint managing the phone inquiry service for the French Government Tourist Office.
I’m not a big traveller, but in the years since leaving that job I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few summer holidays in Greece and Portugal, and a couple of trips to Prague and Budapest, seeing the places where my partner’s parents grew up. Like millions of people, my partner’s family have made a life in Spain where their young daughter is just as much Spanish as English.
They are worried about the implications of last week’s decision to leave the European Union. So is my friend, a special needs teacher originally from Germany, and one of my councillor colleagues who is also German.
Of course, in the long run their fears may be unfounded, just as the immediate and longer term economic effects may not turn out to be as catastrophic as some reports suggest. The legal, constitutional and financial negotiations will be lengthy and complex. For anyone perceived as not “British” though, the open and public actions of an ugly minority in recent days across the country is frightening. It should be for all of us.
At the heart of it I can’t seem to shake off a feeling based on something I had never considered during the long run-up to the vote, during the many debates about the EU as an institution and the effects of free movement on our society.It isn’t something that is in any way meant to be critical of those who argued to leave, including colleagues I respect.
It’s a feeling, not a practical complaint, as I know those occasional trips to a Greek island will of course still be possible, and things in terms of friends and family things won’t change. Like it or not we have no choice but to be part of Europe geographically and culturally, albeit one separated by a thin channel of water.
I will no doubt be sad to see Scotland go independent as seems likely, but having only visited there once I don’t feel the same connection. If Ireland and Wales go the same way we will all have to revisit what it means to be British or English in light of the 400 year old United Kingdom ceasing to exist.
I hadn’t realised how much my European citizenship means to me, and what it means to lose it. I will have to come to terms with the fact that I have, and that things will never be quite the same as they have been for the majority of my life.
There are undoubtedly more important immediate and practical things to worry about. We need to accept the situation as it is. I’ve a job to do in ensuring the city I lead succeeds and prospers through whatever happens next, but this is something I wanted to write down in the hope that I can deal with it and move on.