Saturday, 25 March 2017

Sixty years young

As all of my EU-initiated friends know, today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which gave birth to the European Economic Community. Over time, this became the European Communities and, just after I was born, the European Union.

This isn't a historical account of the EU, however, so I'll stop the history lesson right there. I don't even want this to be a political post, though, to be sure, everything that comes out of my mouth is. But I thought to myself that it would be fun to reflect on what Europe means and has done for me, as the Union turns 60. And that is precisely what I'll be doing here. Don't expect me to talk about all the good the Union has brought about, or the bad, or Brexit. This is a purely personal post.

I did not grow up in a particularly Europhile environment. Spain is among the least Europhobic member states, but I should say that, outside of the political elite, this is more out of apathy, acceptance and a huge inferiority complex than out of conscious, informed and committed Europeanism. When I was a kid, Europe was simply something that was there and no one thought about - which I find particularly beautiful now.

I remember being checked for ID and changing pesetas into francs when I went to Disneyland Paris, aged 8, weeks before the euro entered into circulation. I never thought much of it, as I never thought much of not being checked for ID or not changing euros into anything when I travelled to Portugal and Italy in the following years. I was a child and it was all natural and normal.

By my mid-teens I started to think international, became obsessed with speaking proper English and not the ridiculous pidgin I heard at school every day, and even travelled to Dublin to improve my English skills. It was never about the language per se, it was about being able to communicate with others. I made friends with people from Italy to Russia, passing through France and Germany.

A year after that I took part in an exchange with a school in London, made friends with a few Britons, and that is when it all started. I took my A-levels and eventually moved to York for my undergraduate degree. And you know what has happened since then. What you probably don't know is that, out of all places, the UK is where I became a European and started to think like one.

In the beginning, it was just about solving my inner identity complex. I was Spanish by design and British by choice, which made me both not really Spanish and not really British. But I was European through and through, and my burgundy passport proved that. As the months went by, however, I started noticing many other things. My department at York was very international, with a clear majority of non-UK Europeans, followed by Britons and third country nationals.

And I saw how life was way easier for us, EU citizens, than for other foreigners, be them American or Nigerian. Not only they paid five times as much as us in tuition fees but, bar the Swiss and the Norwegians, they were subject to residence permits which limited their ability to work and skip seminars. I was also amazed by the fact that Scottish and Spanish students did not pay any tuition fees in Scottish universities but English, Welsh and Northern Irish students did. While trying to make sense of that ridiculous situation, I came across the principle of non-discrimination and the nightmare of EU law applicability.

My close friends came from all over the continent and spoke all sorts of languages. I decided to learn French and took a month-long course in Paris where, again, I happened to meet people from all over Europe (and the world). I never had to worry about visas or passports or anything: with just my ID card, which is always in my wallet, I came and went as I pleased. By then I had met enough third-country nationals to be aware of what I will from now on call my European privilege. From entering French museums for free to non-existent passport control lines, or speedy checks where applicable, passing through a single European Health Insurance Card, the little perks were everywhere. I am aware that this happened to me as a privileged, middle-class kid who had the luck of living abroad and flying almost every month, I am not shallow - but the perks were still there.

When I was a kid, I was always reading books about Nazi Germany, fiction and non-fiction alike. And I started wondering: how did we get from that to this in just a few decades? I needed more answers than a simple Wikipedia marathon, so I moved to Paris to study the issue further. A master's degree later, I'm still not quite sure I can answer the question. Sure, I know the history of what happened, but I will never understand how those few visionary leaders had the courage to go through with something so clearly mad in their context, because for me it all is as natural as the air I breathe. Or, at least, as the air I wish I breathed.

I will never understand how people hated neighbour enemies they had never met. I know people who happen to be citizens of all 28 member states, and have spoken to people from all 28 member states. I also speak the EU's five most spoken languages, which puts me in an incredible position when travelling because I'm always likely to find someone that speaks at least one of those five. I have lived in four member states and visited ten others. My only thought when counting them for this post was 'I have 14 to go'. Because the EU isn't 'abroad', it is an extended home. And you should know your home.

Some people tell me that the EU never had anything to do with this. That it is silly for a Spaniard to think that a German is less of a foreigner than a Canadian or a Rwandan. But they're wrong on so many levels:

First of all, member states have never been conflict-free for such a long time. Ever. People defending that the Second World War was so brutal that no one wanted another war had better look at what people were saying in 1920 after the Great War. We may love each other now but that only came about through pegging our livelihoods to those of the other member states when we were still wary of each other's guts (to put it mildly). War will not happen tomorrow if the EU disintegrates today, but what comes around, goes around.

Second of all, and I cannot stress this enough: freedom of movement and bureaucratic harmonisation. I moved to the UK when I wanted and I studied there partly because I knew that my degree would necessarily have the same value in Spain as a Spanish one - I was covered if I ever wanted to return. In the current context, I am grateful for having a French diploma too, and hoping to God that Frexit doesn't happen. But even in practical terms, the EU has rendered travel much easier and much cheaper (competition rules, air traffic, lack of migration restrictions, roaming, single currency, etc.): surely not everyone can afford to travel, but a way bigger percentage of the European population can afford to travel now than it could thirty years ago when the Single European Act was signed.

Third of all, the meaning of Europe has shifted. I'll give you an example: for my grandparents, it was a continent who sent in fighters to their civil war. For my parents, it was something to strive for. For me, it's my friends and lovers, my acquaintances and colleagues. It's the cities in which I have been, the languages I have learned, the food I've eaten and the beverages I've drunk.

Paradoxically enough, the European Union hasn't only made me know Europe better, it has also made me know Spain better. Some of my best friends come from Madrid, Valencia, Andalusia, Galicia and other Spanish regions. I met all of them either in the United Kingdom, France or Belgium, or through somebody I met there. Spain's geographical mobility is close to zero, especially for Catalans like me who rarely venture beyond our linguistic realm: were it not for the EU, I would have never met them, and I wouldn't understand the country that lends me a passport as well as I do now.

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I know that the EU isn't perfect. As things stand right now, it is a largely neo-liberal bureaucratic monster led by a bloated elite, which I'm incidentally all set to be a part of. Nevertheless, I have two comments on this:

a) The perfect system has never existed (and I doubt it will ever exist).
b) As Jean Quatremer rightly points out in Yann Barthès's Quotidien, problems in the system should not lead to calls for dismantling it. In his words, "no one thinks that France works well but no one calls for its demise either".

I can understand that many people won't feel like celebrating sixty years of complex rules and entangled economies in a trade-friendly liberal context. Even if I don't think that it is as bad as the publicity it gets, and that many health and economic provisions do protect citizens and small consumers, I barely feel like celebrating that myself.

But today shouldn't be about that. Today should be, first and foremost, about the guys who had the balls of talking about a united Europe when the continent had barely recovered from a devastating war. It should be about the fact that the peripheral islands, the southern dictatorships and the eastern commies eventually joined in. The beauty of having MEPs sit, think and vote on party lines, rather than national ones. The beauty of a faceless, stateless Commission that does all of the dirty work, favouring and pleasing no one but money. In short, about the ontological idea of a united Europe.

Because we have united. We are not one, we were never meant to be, but the Union is something completely natural for all of us now, even for those who are currently in the process of leaving it or were never there. Its benefits have changed the continent and its mentality in its entirety, from Paris, Berlin and London to Oslo, Bern and Belgrade. Norway and Switzerland reap many of the EU's benefits while being out of it simply because the EU exists - no one should be naïve enough to think that if two countries out of thirty can do without it, all the others can too. For free-riding to occur, there has to be a wagon to ride. And, honestly, neither EFTA nor the EEA would be strong enough as wagons to carry all of us.

When I explain that I got my first payslip in France on a Spanish passport and a British national insurance number, people say "haha that's funny" but no one has ever told me "how is that even possible?". Sixty years ago it would have been unthinkable, even thirty years ago, but now, whether you agree with it, it is natural. It is a given or, as the French say, an acquis.

I do not think that the combination of all EU laws being called acquis communautaire is a product of chance. Its very name should remind us that even though we think of it as a given now, it is something we as a community of entities have acquired over time and may lose at any moment. It is something to cherish and relish and fight for when we feel it's under threat.

So today I thank the Union for having created a context in which I can identify as a European first, for having increased my compatriots by almost half a billion people, for having allowed me to use the languages I've learned in a real context, for making my travels far easier and cheaper than those of my parents at my age, for having made my international education and professional experience possible and, cheekily enough, for having given me a job last year. I can only hope it'll eventually pay my wages again!

Above all, however, I will never be grateful enough to the Union for all the friends I have made thanks to it, and that is definitely something to toast to.

Here's to you, Europe!