The European continent exists as a patchwork of diverse and beautiful countries. The EU is the unifying thread which stitches us together across borders, forming a protective quilt which secures our rights and freedoms, allowing citizens to live their lives to the fullest and to realise their dreams. It provides us with comfort when we reflect on the horrors of the past, when nationalism tore us apart through conflict and war. This union is our guiding star; it provides a beacon of light that holds a promise: if we work together in collaboration, and respect each other as equals, then we can build a better future for ourselves and for our children’s generation.
But that promise of a better future for all EU citizens is under attack from far right forces across Europe and from foreign powers. Apathy and ignorance are two of the greatest threats to a democracy because they render the population vulnerable to propaganda and misinformation campaigns. Lack of participation in elections also undermines democratic legitimacy. Complacency on the part of those who uphold European values has allowed populist forces to infect our societies like a cancer, with their rhetoric and ideologies of hate.
Equality, unity in diversity, solidarity and peace; are the values which underpin our European identity. But the union founded on these values is threatened when one member believes it is above the other nation states. The English exceptionalism which has discarded the EU27 as the “other” has divided our continent and the UK itself. We are experiencing a horrifying rise in racial hate crime, migrants are casually asked when they are “going back to where they came from”. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is now commonplace in British society, coming from the mouth of our own prime minister. The UK is being dragged deeper into a toxic culture of intolerance. The developments in the UK, are a reversal of the progress which has been achieved in the last forty years, for which we should feel deeply ashamed.
Nations working co-operatively has allowed Europe to achieve great things for the lives of its citizens. Through innovation and investment, European countries have realised huge infrastructure projects allowing them to develop economically and creating prosperity. Transport infrastructure and travel opportunities have also facilitated the sharing of knowledge and ideas fostering progress in science, research and academia. The Arts have provided a platform for conversations of shared understanding which have enriched European culture. But above all, it is resolving conflicts and finding solutions to the problems that Europe faces through its political union, which has delivered our greatest achievement: Peace.
Europe’s people require exceptional leaders, who do not take their support for granted. The EU has already lost one member to nationalism, so steps must be taken now to address the factors which led to Brexit, because they are fuelling a rise in populism across the continent.
Good leadership seeks the common ground and it prizes a debate that is open, creative, diverse and tolerant; which respects the voice of the individual and listens to the communities it governs when they express their needs, fears and hopes. To deliver on that promise of a better future, Europe’s leaders must change the political dialogue to be more inclusive, more engaging, and inspire its citizens to take action for Europe. That will involve actively seeking out the places where these conversations are occurring: on the streets of every European city, traces; signs, symbols and messages are left, in Europe’s public spaces, rallies and marches are staged, inside our universities and buildings, debates and events are organised. Politicians are elected to serve the people, so when the people speak, they must listen to them.
This year I had the privilege to travel to the EU28 thanks to a ‘Democracy Needs Imagination’ grant from the European Cultural Foundation. I have been recording interviews with other EU activists and documenting the cultural diversity and beauty of our continent in sketches and paintings. The two outcomes from this project are a documentary and an illustrated book, both titled “The Future is Europe” – because the future IS Europe. 75% of people my age voted to remain in the 2016 EU referendum and 53% of people voted for parties who were backing a second referendum or revoke article 50 policies in the 2019 General Election. It was only under the First Past the Post system that Boris Johnson won his majority. And that is why I will continue to fight for Europe in the UK, to protect the rights and opportunities for future generations.
European democracy requires imagination, passion and vision, so that every person feels empowered to believe that their voice counts and their contribution to our shared society matters. Creativity is the key to the free expression of ideas in a democracy, and culture can become the space for non-confrontational dialogue, where we establish that elusive common ground. Europe has achieved so much that we must learn to cherish and hold dear. We must not allow the UK’s departure be the unravelling of the thread which binds Europeans together under that quilt of dreams; through unity, prosperity, love and peace. We must believe that the future is Europe, so that all British people know that they will be forever European.
This speech was written by Madeleina Kay for the leaving ceremony of the departing members of UK staff at the European Economic and Social Committee at the Berlaymont building on 22/01/20.
The book is available here