“We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and… wherever they go in this wide domain… will truly feel. ‘Here I am at home’.”
– Winston Churchill
Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the European Union and while politicians were celebrating themselves and the idea of unity in Rome, people were marching in the streets of London. And even though they were marching for Europe, there was an atmosphere of change in the air, a desire for a different EU than the one that currently exists. Moreover, iIt was a protest march not only against Brexit, but also against the British government.
11 a.m. on a beautiful and sunny Saturday morning. Tens of thousands of people have gathered at Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, EU flags fluttering in the wind above their heads. Brexit is a dog’s breakfast, I want mine continental says the sign of an elderly lady with EU stars on her shirt and a look of determination on her face. We are the 48%, says another sign, and All I want for Christmas is EU. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people here are particularily furious about the outcome of the Brexit referendum. And even though they are shouting at the top of their lungs, the message they are trying to send still goes unheard – not only by the Westminster government, but also by the media.
John Riley tells me, that he and his wife came all the way from the countryside to not only protest against Brexit, but also to show solidarity with EU citizens living in the UK. “We are very happy to have them here, very happy indeed, and we need them.” He talks very passionately about the EU and how much it has achieved, also for the UK, and that Britain is making a great mistake in leaving the union. His opinion is the one that is most often reflected on the news as the aim of the protests: revoke the referendum, revoke Brexit.
However, that is not the only reason why people have come together to show the world how much the European Union and being a European means to them. Sabine Voigt, originally from Germany, lives in Great Britain for more than 20 years and she has joined the masses to protest against the way the British government has treated EU citizens living in the UK. “We don’t want to be treated like bargaining chips,” she says and her fellow German friends nod in agreement.
After talking to quite a lot of EU immigrants from mainly Germany and Poland, it quickly transpires that their main goal is not holding a second referendum or stopping Brexit altogether, although they’d definitely prefer staying in the EU. No, the main point they are trying to make is that Theresa May has to come clean on the consequences of Britain leaving the EU for citizens of a nationality that isn’t British. For the entirety of the Brexit campaign, nobody ever referred to what will happen to immigrants and migrants should Britain decide to vote “leave”. And now that article 50 is triggered on Wednesday, there’s still no plan – at least, it’s not known to the public.
A Polish family struggles with the uncertainty particularily since their children are both born in the UK but don’t have British citizenship. Being born in Great Britain doesn’t make you British by birth – something that differs from e.g. Germany and is hardly ever explained in the media. A few weeks back, a two year old child was denied permanent residency because they didn’t fulfill the minimum UK residency of five years. So what will become of these children? Would May’s government go as far as to rip families apart just to appeal to a small number of people who have been falling for the lies of the “leave”-campaign? And when you listen to the stories of these people that are marching for a united Europe, the stories they are happy to share because they need to be told in order to understand the far-reaching effects of Brexit – you start to see the complexity of this ongoing conflict in the UK and the questions that are now surfacing. What makes someone British if not being born on British soil? What does nationality and citizenship mean?
The EU, as it currently exists, has a lot of work to do if it wants to exist for another 60 years. And since its leaders are so clueless about where to begin, maybe they should start by listening to what the people on the streets have to say. In the end, the decisions of few determine the destiny of many and unity is certainly a term on which all parties agree. If there were clearer indications about what being a European means, there were three million EU citizens less who have to worry about their future.
While marching past Trafalgar Square, choirs of the European anthem Ode to Joy echoed through the streets of Westminster. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many people on the very streets that were closed off only a few days ago due to an attack on the same unity and freedom these people are now raising their voices for. This is not about the stupid decision of few, but the demand for rights of many. And I, for my part, have never felt more European in my life, more welcome, and more at home than on that day at Parliament Square.