Brexit: Now is the time to fight for a strong and open Europe

Great Britain’s departure from the E.U. would prove all those people right who claim that solidarity does not extend beyond national borders.

Graffiti in Bristol: Deep Kisses between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Both are conservative nationalists.
Graffiti in Bristol: Deep Kisses between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Both are conservative nationalists. © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

On June 23, Great Britain will vote on whether it wants to continue being a member of the European Union or not.

In that connection, one hears isolated voices murmuring: Just let them leave, the Brits! With all its special exceptions, Great Britain was never really a full E.U. member anyway.

After all, they cling in a super unEuropean way to their pound and their strange electrical sockets.

People! Don’t you see what a great loss a so-called Brexit would be for Europe? What matters to me here are not the economic consequences that such a departure might possibly bring with it. What matters to me is the European idea.

The Embodiment of the European Idea

The “SZ Magazin” recently published 89 personal questions regarding Europe. One of them is: “Which living person embodies the European idea for you?” I had to think about this question for a while. Of course, the kinds of names that immediately come to mind are ones such as Konrad Adenauer or Hans-Dietrich Genscher. They certainly did a great deal for the process of European integration. But do they embody the European idea for me? No. Actually to a greater extent, they embody for me representatives of nation-states who also acted mainly in the interest of these nation-states. But I – I embody the European Idea.

And not just me, but thousands of other people who think nation-states are so 20th century.

I was born in 1992 in Munich, the same year the E.U. was established by the Maastricht Treaty. The Mediterranean was our destination for the summer holidays. I can’t remember barriers or strictly controlled border crossings at all. I can dimly remember that one used to pay with lira in Italy. In school I spent years swotting up on English and French. I participated in student exchange trips with both France and England. After my Abitur, I served for a year with the European Voluntary Service – at the Goethe Institute in Lille. Now I live in Berlin, a colourful melting pot full of people from all sorts of backgrounds.

What have I learned from all my encounters on the Mediterranean, at the Goethe-Institute, in Berlin? I think I have more in common with a student in Paris than with a Pegida-supporter from the Ore Mountain region. I am as touched by and concerned about an unemployed youth in Spain as one in Brandenburg.

For me the E.U. is an idea signifying that there is more that connects us humans across differences in languages and eating habits than divides us. It is an idea that signifies: Everyone is better off together.

If I had to define myself based on my origin, then I would regard myself first as a European, then maybe as somebody from Berlin, and then only at the very end as a German

And I think that Great Britain’s exit will give a boost to all those for whom sympathy and solidarity end at the borders of their own nation. All those nationalist ideologues who rant about a “Europe of fatherlands” (the Alternative for Germany), who want to strengthen nation-states again and weaken the E.U. or who would just as soon delight in abolishing it altogether.

Justified Criticism of the E.U.?

Where does this wave of E.U.-scepticism come from that drives people into the arms of parties enamoured with nationalism such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Front National, or the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP)?

The European Institutions, the magical three, consisting of the Council, the Commission, and the Parliament surely are complicit. Why have these neither managed to sell the European idea well nor done a good job of putting it into practice? Even I as an avowed member of the Pro-European-faction stand in critical opposition to the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. All of that in Brussels and Strasbourg feels very far away, very non-transparent and not very tangible. How often does Europe celebrate itself as the “cradle of democracy”? And why do they not manage then there of all places to create transparent and tangible institutions? Institutions about which Europeans would have the feeling that they represented their interests — and not just those of business associations (eager to operate transatlantically)?

I can grasp it when somebody criticizes the political structure of the E.U. When somebody doesn’t feel touched by the institutions. But how can anyone with all justified scepticism come to the conclusion that a return to thinking in terms of population groups and nations is the better solution? That it is more important to underscore how we differ than to strengthen our commonalities? Because that already worked out so well in 1933? Because the vibes on the continent were just better in 1945?

E.U.-criticism is all well and good. But instead of turning away from the European idea, the conclusion should be to fight for MORE Europe. For more democracy, more transparency, more participation, more social justice, more solidarity. European integration is a project. An ideal. It is a concept that has of course not been perfectly implemented yet, one that needs further work. The pressing questions are: What would more Europe concretely look like? How do we create a more socially minded and more open Europe? What has to change so that people believe in the European idea again and don’t feel thwarted, passed over and disempowered?

Brexit means Giving Up

A Brexit would be a confession that the E.U. can’t provide answers to those questions. The Brits would give up on the European idea and thereby prove all those people right who claim that solidarity is only possible within the framework of national and cultural borders.

It would mean turning away from a Europe in which all are working on the task of improving the lives of all. Nationalism and right-wing populism would continue to gain strength Europe-wide.

It is the task of all those who can’t imagine a Europe of borders to make themselves heard. To pledge allegiance to Europe. To fight: For a strong, fair and open Europe that continues to develop forwards, not backwards. A Europe in which solidarity does not end at borders and which welcomes people in distress. A Europe that embodies our ideals.

Translated by Miranda Neubauer. For the German version of the article click here.