What does Europe mean to you?

Friends of the NS – including Stephen Hawking, Helena Kennedy, Geoff Dyer and Joan Armatrading – tell us what Europe means to them.

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Stephen Hawking

Gone are the days when we could stand on our own, against the world. We need to be part of a larger group of nations, both for our security and for our trade. The possibility of our leaving the EU has already led to a sharp fall in the pound, because the markets judge that it will damage our economy.

There are two obvious reasons why we should stay in.

The first is that Europe promotes mobility of people. The free movement of scientists is as important for science as free trade is for market economics. More importantly, at the level of research, the exchange of people enables skills to transfer more quickly, and brings new people with different ideas, derived from their different backgrounds. We now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants and have chosen to move with them here. Being able to attract and fund the most talented Europeans assures the future of British science and also encourages the best scientists elsewhere to come here.

The other reason is financial. Investment in science is as important for the long-term prosperity and security of the UK as investment in infrastructure projects, farming or manufacturing. The European Research Council has given large grants to UK institutions, either to foster or to promote exchanges. Increased funding has raised greatly the level of European science as a whole and of the UK in particular, because we have a competitive edge.

Switzerland pays into the EU and was a popular destination for young scientists. It now has limited access to EU funds because it voted to restrict the free movement of workers, and is desperately trying to find ­alternative ways to attract young talent.
If the UK leaves the EU and there is a loss of freedom of movement of scientists between the UK and Europe, it will be a disaster for UK science and universities.

Stephen Hawking is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist


Jude Kelly

My father, at 94, shakes his head in weary reflection at the Brexit campaign. At 17, he signed up for Bomber Command as a ­working-class Liverpudlian Irish boy to fight racism and anti-Semitism.
“Europe needs all of us to keep and maintain peace – it’s so much more fragile than we realise or want to admit,” he said. “Look around at the world.”

Ask not what Europe can do for us, but what we can do for Europe. Does all the debate have to be about us? Are British values only about economic benefit and doing whatever we want, whenever we want to?

As artists and creatives – not usually keen to act en masse – we have been almost united in our desire to remain. We’re flourishing in this open Union of ideas and talent exchange, and baffled by the desire to choose a parochial “Little England” rather than the bigger, richer, more generous terrain of the European continent. We profit from this Union in so many ways; we also play our proper part in its secure and peaceful future. That’s what we do for Europe and what Europe does for us.

Jude Kelly is the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, London

Helena Kennedy, QC

Europe for me means so much more than economic union. It is about a gate opening on the world, the start of a great love affair with all things international. It was about sharing ideas and arguing; about Gramsci and Eurocommunism, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, 1968 and syndicalism, Beet­hoven and Mozart, and Paul Klee and Buñuel. It’s about the Holocaust and it’s about human rights. About looking outwards rather than in and pursuing together peace and justice. It’s about making a better world. Hopefully.

Helena Kennedy, QC is a British barrister and Labour peer

Suzanne Moore

I have no idea what Europe “means”, except in a fantasy way. It’s aspirational, isn’t it? A sign of sophistication and culture and melancholia. Think of Bryan Ferry singing: “Here as I sit at this empty café/Thinking of you/I remember all those moments/Lost in wonder”. A Song for Europe is based on loss – though I know Europe is not the EU. This smoothing out of loss, of difference, seems entirely unreal to me as an identity. I don’t even call myself British, as I am English, so it’s some stretch to say I am European. It’s a bit galling to be called a ­Nigel because I can’t identify with this project, but there you are.

Suzanne Moore is a journalist

Catherine Mayer

The Women’s Equality Party takes a neutral line on Europe. In case of Brexit, we call for urgent measures to retain the vital rights and protections created by the EU. If the UK remains in the EU, we are calling for those rights and protections to be expanded. Neither the UK nor the EU is ambitious enough in pushing for gender equality. Many of the rights and protections that flow from the EU were created not out of a spirit of social justice, nor even in recognition of the societal and economic benefits of gender equality, but simply in order to iron out differences between labour markets.

Personally, I am an ardent if critical Euro­pean, an immigrant who found a home and is at home here. The European project is about peace as well as prosperity; the EU creates a shared identity that encompasses and celebrates diverse cultures and understands the free movement of people as a strength rather than a threat. Brexit would not staunch the refugee crisis but would exclude us from joint efforts to find solutions. Brexit would not stop migration, but it would block talent and penalise Britons living in other EU countries, as well as nationals from other European countries living in the UK.

Catherine Mayer is a co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party

Michael Morpurgo

I have lived all my 72 years in peace, and in freedom, surely the greatest gift handed down to us by our forebears. After centuries of conflict, after the two most devastating wars ever, the nation states of Europe finally, finally, undertook that they should never again allow themselves to be plunged into war. A European community, a European union, must be created to ensure that another war between European nations would never happen. It was, in effect, a declaration of peace and reconciliation.

Close ties of trade were devised, cherished freedoms enshrined – all this to lead, it was hoped, to greater interdependence, trust, understanding and friendship between the peoples of Europe. So it happened.

As a result of this, I have lived in peace; my children, too, and my grandchildren. It has been the longest period of peace Europe has ever known.
Is this European union perfect? No. Is the bureaucracy so often absurd and wasteful? Yes. Does it have the democratic integrity it should have? No. But, does it, has it, helped to keep the peace? Most certainly. We travel freely in and out of Europe. We study at one another’s universities. We trade massively. We work in each other’s countries. Increasingly, we speak one another’s languages, know and love the literature and cinema and art and food of others, and we marry one another often, and have European children!

In all the crass banter and bickering and bitterness of this debate, all predictions of our future, in or out of Europe, are little more than an exchange of damned lies and statistics. I, like so many, am simply bewildered and disappointed. This new Europe is the greatest project for peace, together with the United Nations, that mankind has ever created. I am part of that project and fiercely proud of it. We owe Europe so much, and they owe us, too. We are good together. We need each other, sustain one another, enrich one another.

So let us stay the course, live the dream, be who we are, and be European, too; embrace our place in this family of nations and help to make it ever more harmonious.

Michael Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate and the author of “War Horse”

Melvyn Bragg

I think we should have gone into Europe at the beginning. Making Europe into one place was the obvious intelligent reaction to two European/world wars. De Gaulle stopped it. I think he was envious of Britain, particularly England. After all, we had done him and the Free French many favours, and sometimes these are impossible to forgive.

Stuck out in the mists of the North Sea, in splendid desolation, we would take in water like a leaky old boat and slowly, smugly sink. We keep banging on about how much we can give to Europe, but there’s so much we can take from Europe if we use a bit of nous. Especially the way the Germans look after and develop their apprentices in the manufacturing industries, and the way that the Italians nurture their high crafts.

I’m fed up with the bluster of the Brexiters. Whenever they are challenged by sensible institutions or world leaders about the perils of leaving Europe, they reply in nursery style. Yah! Boo! Sucks! They have put forward no constructive economic reasons for leaving. Their best offer is to follow the blustering Boris and the floundering Farage into the nearest saloon bar and moan; and moan again.

I think that the Labour Party should be doing much more to get its vote out; and that everybody (by which I include Tories and Lib Dems) should do whatever they can to encourage young people to vote on what will be the biggest political decision of their lives. It’s fine to have a working democracy that isn’t entirely covered with the pustules of corruption or subject to the breakdowns of ineptitude. But there’s a sense in which that sort of stability can seem to be calculated to induce complacency, which sadly it has done, it seems, among younger people. I’ve listened to some vox pops from universities and they are chilling in their larky innocence/ignorance.

We ought to stay in, get on with changing what needs to be changed and stop complaining about it. I take a bet that more regulations come through the House of Commons and House of Lords than go through Brussels any week of the year. It faces massive problems, of which the greatest is immigration. But this isn’t a time to run away. It’s one of the great global difficulties of our time and we ought to help to solve it on as wide a scale as we possibly can.

“Remain” is a tame word but it seems we’re stuck with it. I’d prefer something with a bit more welly. The EU is so very important to Europe and to the rest of the world – we should fight for it.

Melvyn Bragg is a writer, broadcaster and Labour peer

Geoff Dyer

In America, where I now live, people include London, England and Britain in their generic plans to travel “to Europe”. This always takes me by surprise because, even when I’m in England, Europe seems to start across the Channel. (While we’re at it, I’ve never been able to think of myself as British, only ever as English: “English even in the teeth of England”, in D H Lawrence’s ­angry phrase.) Europe is France, Sweden and Italy; it’s bars and cafés rather than pubs. Europe, for me, has always glimmered with the promise of everything that England is not. For years, London has been way more interesting than Paris, but nothing can quite dislodge the intellectual romance of Paris. Or the antique allure of Rome – Italian football is deadly dull but it is still Italian – or the northern charm, as the song has it, of Dear Old Stockholm. In our leaky island fortress, we will always be quite separate and distinct. We should remain in Europe precisely because we’re not really part of it.

Geoff Dyer is a writer

Abby Tomlinson

First, Europe, to me, does not mean a perfect institution; it is not faultless – but it represents moving forward rather than back. To me, Europe means co-operation, countries working together to help defeat terrorism, help refugees, creating laws and rights that protect people and make our lives easier and better in ways we often take for granted.

Europe means achieving so many things through unity that we could not achieve in isolation. Being in Europe means hope for the future – hope that we can help create a better Europe, the chance to reform where there are problems, rather than just walking away. Europe means diversity; it means that I haven’t grown up ignorant and intolerant, that I’ve made friends from so many different places and walks of life. It means chances that I and other young people would not have otherwise: the freedom to study and work in some of the best cities in the world, often with a cheaper cost of living than London. It means that we have those opportunities right on our doorstep and within our reach. It means a lot to me that we are part of it – and, I hope, we’ll continue to be.

Abby Tomlinson is a political activist and was the leader of Milifandom in 2015

Julie Burchill

Growing up, I was never especially interested in Europe. My heroes were Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker – I thought of European writers as humourless gits, though I could occasionally be spied pretending to read a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Sartre’s Nausea when I was feeling particularly ­posey. I didn’t go Abroad till I was 35, and then it was straight to the Maldives.

When I took up with my husband, though, twenty years ago, I realised that he was a cultured cove and, in the cause of true love (and sucking up), I started to whisk him around the capitals of Europe in earnest. I doubt whether there is one Barcelonian Gaudí house, Amsterdam museum or item of French surrealism that I have not seen at least twice.

Of course, I liked it – I’m not thick. But the beauty of Europe will always be spoiled for me by the type of people who love Europe, and, more importantly, want to be seen to love Europe. People Who Love Europe may fondly imagine themselves to be the repository of French savoir faire, Italian passion and Scandi egalitarianism, but are generally a horribly recognisable English type of whom George Orwell said it best: “It is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman, and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.”

Anyone but an ostrich with a lobotomy can see that the EU is a pity party, an autopsy and a wake for the European empire, all in one corrupt, corpulent package. It proves that the more you try to wipe out the harmless little ways in which people like to be different, the more they will grab frantically at potentially monstrous ways to assert their national identity: see the rise of the extreme nationalist parties all over our allegedly safe European home. We all have our own Europe of the imagination, gardens of the West that whirl for ever in their youthful pomp, from Ibiza rave to Viennese waltz. It’s when we seek to impose our idea of Europe on others that the trouble starts.

Julie Burchill is a writer

Kathy Lette

What I loved most about moving to London from Sydney, 28 years ago, is your proximity to Europe. Antipodeans have to travel for days, enduring nerve-jangling jet lag, just for a little taste of what’s right on your doorstep. Now, at a moment’s notice, I can pop off for a little light flirtation and frottage in Paris, some pasta in Pisa or culture in Copenhagen. I’ve now been to so many concerts in Vienna I have post-traumatic Strauss disorder. Britain has also so improved since you’ve let in more Europeans. When I first moved to London, the food was so bad my intestines were no longer on speaking terms with my tonsils. Spotted dick (which sounds like something you’d contract in Soho), toad-in-the-hole (ditto), soggy sandwiches, stale scones . . . But now you can dine on paella, polenta, duck ragu, strudel, chicken paprika, kebabs, sacher, goulash, schnitzel, sauerbraten, moussaka, all on the high street. So, for the sake of our taste buds alone, I hope Britain doesn’t undergo a Europe-ectomy.

Kathy Lette’s novels have been translated into 17 languages, many of them European

Joan Armatrading

As a singer-songwriter, I’ve had the opportunity, from the start of my career in 1972 right up to today, to travel all around the world. This has allowed me to see the continental differences in cultures, but the most fascinating thing has been to see the changes in Europe. I’ve witnessed a closeness develop between countries, from the ease of border crossings, to the simpler control over spending from one country to the next with the euro.

I’ve seen countries becoming more culturally integrated and more accepting of each other’s differences. The US has a unity, but individuality; I’ve seen Europe become the same: united but retaining the unique heart of the countries. I like the thought of being a European. I like to think that, although there will be the inevitable political disagreements, we all want to bring countries – and therefore people – closer.

Joan Armatrading is a singer and songwriter

Jason Williamson

“Brexit” sounds awful, doesn’t it? It’s on a par with “Posh’n’Becks” or “Britpop” or “El Tel”. Every time you hear the term it reminds you of Boris’s attempt to show some muscle. The European Union question has confirmed that Boris is a rich wimp with nothing in his mind: it gives me a mental image of him singing Megadeth’s “No More Mr Nice Guy” while trying to flash a bit of greased flex. I also hate myself for flippantly discussing the controllers of elitism. I’m seething, to be honest – like everyone.

The European Union is a dicey affair, but it allows me to think we are connected in some way with our fellow human beings, and connection is good, especially now that the world has turned into a giant Wes Craven film. I want connection and, regardless of whether I’m getting it within some political notion – within the European Union – it doesn’t matter. Leaving means that Johnson, and many like him, get to rule us with their Famous Five trickery. I don’t want Boris to think he can be Churchill with loads of theatrical one-liners. We don’t need another Churchill; and the older I get, the more I don’t like that fool either. The origins of this subject were a media propaganda hallmark for the coalition, running through to the “fixed” present government – “Europe this” and “Europe that” – when underneath lay the suffering of so many, under the hands of the ultra-Conservatives.

Jason Williamson is the lead singer of Sleaford Mods

Tom Holland

The conceit that secular, liberal democracy embodies an ideal that can transcend its origins in the specific cultural and religious traditions of Europe, and lay claim to a universal legitimacy, is one that has served the continent well. It has helped the grievous wounds inflicted by the calamities of the first half of the 20th century to heal; to ­integrate large numbers of people from beyond the borders of Europe; and to provide a degree of equality for women and sexual minorities that has rendered untold numbers happier.

What do the sanguinary fantasies of ­either Anders Breivik or the jihadis who twice in 2015 brought carnage to the streets of Paris have that can compare? Only one thing, perhaps – a capacity to excite those who find the pieties of Europe’s liberal society boring. The more of these there are, the more – inevitably – the framework for behaviour and governance that has prevailed in western Europe since the end of the Second World War will come under strain. At stake is whether the large numbers of migrants into the continent who have no familiarity with the norms of a secular and liberal society, such as have evolved in postwar Europe, will find them appealing enough to adopt; and whether native Europeans, confronted by a vast influx of people from a very different cultural background, will themselves be tempted to abandon liberal values.

Tom Holland is a writer and historian

This article appears in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe

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