I woke up in Dublin ths morning to the depressing news that Brexit is actually a reality, having flown here in the evening after casting our votes, for remain, as UK residents. I’m been in shock pretty much all day, never quite believing it would come to this. This evening I had dinner in Dublin in one of my favourite Italian restaurants – entirely staffed by Italian staff living in Dublin – with family who had flown from Germany and Turkey as well as ourselves, from the UK. It’s saddening to think that the world we now live in will be a smaller, narrower one than the one we’ve made in the last few decades.
As an Irish citizen and a historian of modern Europe, I’ve always taken for granted the existence, and the positive impact of the European Union. Growing up in Ireland in the 1990s, the impact of the EU was obvious whether that benefit came in terms of funding for infrastructure and development or legislation for gender equality. My own education and career has benefitted enormously from the EU – it’s unlikely I would have the career that I do without it. As an undergraduate student I spend a semester as an Erasmus student in Pisa, where I grappled with lire for the first s d last time on that trip, returning to Ireland just as the Euro was coming into force. A few years later I spent the first year of my PhD living in Turin where I did archival research and worked as an English language lecturer at the university. I was able to move there so easily, without any restrictions on my right to work, only because of the freedom of movement afforded by the EU. My postdoctoral research was funded by a Marie Curie fellowship, co-funded by the Irish Research Council and the European Commission. This fellowship afforded me the opportunity to spend two years as a visiting researcher at the university of Milan and to develop my research into changing experiences of love and marriage in post-war Italy, the subject of the book I am currently finishing. Six months ago I moved to take up a position as a lecturer in twentieth-century history at the University of Southampton, and again it was only as an EU citizen that I was freely able to take up this position, barely giving a thought to my right to work in another nation. All of these experiences have of course also encouraged me to develop my awareness of myself as a citizen of Europe and not just of Ireland; my imagination and my outlook are now firmly European.
The EU is seen as something of a bureaucratic monolith (although no more than any government or large multinational organisation) and it can be difficult to summon real emotional enthusiasm for an organisation that is concerned largely with the mundane day-to-day work of cross-national collaboration. As a triumph over nationalism – which persists in holding real emotional currency for many people – it will perhaps always be a difficult sell at a popular level. However the impact on ordinary lives across Europe – from development funds to the Erasmus scheme for university students – has been enormous. More recently the EU has disappointed me greatly with its deeply damaging and flawed economic response to the crisis, and it was difficult to escape the feeling that the European project was already dying with the EU response to Greece. However I’m also aware that the EU is a diverse, sprawling organisation with many different people, ideas and projects within it, and that the best way to continue the discussion about what the EU is and should be, is from within. Neither did this have anything to do with the motivations of the Leave campaign. It’s pretty clear now that the reasons people voted Leave had a lot to do with poverty, decline, alienation caused by the long term fall out from industrial decline and the continued impact of cuts from the current government, teamed with a xenophobia cynically exploited by careerist politicians. Obviously, leaving the EU will in no way address these issues.
Britain will now be leaving the EU so it’s obviously too late to make the case for the European project. It’s clear though that the EU – large, bureaucratic, earnest but not especially exciting – has failed to capture the imaginations of twenty-first century Europeans (although not entirely since the younger demographic voted overwhelmingly for the UK to remain). it seems quite possible that if membership was put to a popular vote elsewhere in the European Union, the answer might be similar. As a lecturer in modern European history, perhaps I’m part of this problem. I’ve never found the history of European integration the most exciting of topics, nor paid much attention to it. Undergraduate modules are filled with Europe as a century of war, with little consideration given to how peace was made or maintained. Britain and Europe are also usually packaged apart from each other, even though British history is a part of and continually linked to the European story. Assuming that I will continue to have the right to work in the UK, this is something that I will have to work to address as a historian of post-war Europe. As it is, it’s a pretty depressing day for Britain and for the idea of Europe.