“Guten morgen, Herr Lucas…”
Every morning in the summer of 1980 this was my greeting when I arrived at work. A student at the time, I could not get a job in the industrial north of England where unemployment would soon hit three million.
So, I got on my bike, so to speak, and through a friend I had met on holiday in Germany, the year before, I found a job working in Gelsenkirchen in the northern , industrial heartland of industrial Germany.
It taught me so much.
First, I had learned German at school but always struggled. Living there, even for just two months, transformed, almost magically, my ability to speak the language. The lady who greeted me every morning at work spoke no English and I was forced to speak German. My impression is that far fewer Germans spoke English then. Though now very rusty, the language has stayed with me and helped me develop relationships with German politicians in later years.
Second, living and working in another country was a massive, positive cultural experience for me – very different to visiting for work and leisure. It taught me about how people do have different cultures – never cross the road when the red man is showing in Germany – but that individuals are more similar than different across different countries.
Third, it made me clear the freedom of movement and work was a good thing. It is easy to forget that British people travel abroad to work too and, in the past, when work in mainland Europe was more freely available than in the UK, it helped UK workers. I remember that it was as easy for me to work in Germany as it was for a German. I went to Germany to work. I had absolutely no idea what the social security system was in Germany then. It played no part in my decision to work there.
I saw that my flatmate, a young Finn, then not in the EU, struggled with work permits and found the whole process much more complicated than I did. It convinced me that it was better to have the ability to work abroad.
When we see “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” now, it reminds us, despite the Spartan living conditions there displayed, how beneficial it was for many UK workers to be able to travel to mainland Europe in the 1980s to work and how important it was for them and their families.
In the run up to the referendum on 23 June, it is very easy to take a short term view of the European Union and forget how positive its impact was in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s when a combination of economic and social benefits persuaded a huge number of UK citizens, and most of the Labour Party, that they had been wrong on the issue in 1975. Though the grass on this side of the Channel may look greener just at the moment, who is to say this will always be the case?
I have no doubt that we need to work with other countries, especially our close neighbours, to address the problems and challenges in the modern world. The EU, for all its faults, is a long term force for good and it would be a huge mistake for us to turn our back on it.
That’s why I will vote for the UK remain in the EU on June 23.