I don’t remember much from my time at school, but one moment has remained in a dusty corner at the back of my mind for over twenty years.
I was at a weekend conference for teenagers to learn more about the European Union, which had brought together people like me from across the continent. And we spent a fun couple of days listening to and questioning representatives of the various EU institutions and learning about the different countries that we all called home.
On the first day, though, we’d all had to introduce ourselves and say where we came from. So there was me and a few others from the UK, some Germans, some Italians, and so forth.
But then this tiny, dark-haired girl from Spain stood up.
“Hello,” she said. “My name’s Maria. And I’m a European.”
A simple statement, maybe, but a profound one, too. And the cheering and applause that followed were as heartfelt as they were enthusiastic.
From that moment on, the European Union has formed a significant part of the backdrop to my own life. I went on school exchange trips abroad. I spent my gap year teaching in France. I worked in Germany as part of my degree. I got a job that allowed me to engage with colleagues from across the continent. I learned several European languages. I sailed in the Netherlands. I hiked in Austria. I helped my mum and dad to move to the Dordogne when they retired. I helped my mum to move back when my dad passed away.
Hell, I even married a German girl, who has been my companion, my confidante and my muse every day for the last two decades. And so I now have a German family that I love as much as I do my English one.
When I’ve worked elsewhere in the EU, I’ve not had to think about visas or paperwork. I’ve just packed my things and got on with it. When my wife and I got married, we didn’t need to worry about immigration requirements or citizenship tests. When we settled in the UK, both she and I were treated just like anyone else. And when we go to see my in-laws, we simply get in the car and drive across four countries to get there. No fuss, no hassle. Even the dog has a European passport, for goodness sake.
And now we’re being asked to choose whether we should remain in the European Union or whether we should leave.
To be honest, I object to the fact that we’re even having this referendum. I object to the Prime Minister calling the vote in a sop to his party’s own right wing. I object to the vitriolic and vindictive nature of the campaign itself. I object to the way that reasoned debate has been replaced by mudslinging and lies.
I object to the way that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are using my family’s future to further their own political ambitions. I object to the way the Leave campaign has focused on immigration, because they can’t win any proper arguments. I object to way in which Farage and Co. are stirring up hatred and promoting xenophobia and racism. I object to the way that my wife now feels unwelcome in the country that she has chosen to call home.
Now, I’m not going to go through the reasons for remaining in the EU or to rebut the more odious of the claims made by the proponents of leaving. Because life’s too short and, to be frank, there are enough people doing that already. And anyway, if I get bombarded with one more inane Facebook post criticising the number of words in the EU regulations for the sale of cabbages or saying how someone’s grandfather didn’t fight in the Second World War only to have his country taken over by a bunch of Belgians, then I may well have to take the Eurostar to Brussels and beg for asylum.
Just for the record, by the way, I don’t give a rat’s arse about how the EU regulates the sale of cabbages, but I’m very glad that I can buy one in Sainsbury’s without having to worry about whether it’s going to poison me. And my grandfather fought in the Second World War, too. But he was fighting to overcome fascism and to bring peace to Europe. And when he’d done that, he stayed in Italy to build bridges (literally, because he was an engineer) and to pave the way for the future.
Voting to leave is not the patriotic choice. It’s the chicken’s way out.
Retreating to our little island and cutting ourselves off from our European neighbours isn’t the answer. Leaving the European Union won’t take us back to the days when Britannia ruled the waves and the sun never set on the British Empire. Because those days are gone. The challenges that we face – from immigration to terrorism to climate change – are global. And they require an international response. The world has moved on. And so must we.
Insularity and xenophobia are the last recourse of the timid mind that cannot cope with the complexity of the world. They are not solutions, even when they come wrapped with a purple UKIP bow.
Sure, the European Union isn’t perfect. It’s a bit clunky, it’s not as democratic as it could be and it takes forever to get things done. But it does the job. And is has brought peace to a continent that had previously been torn apart by conflict. The answer is to make it better, not to throw our toys out of the pram and ourselves into obscurity.
The European Union has brought my family together and has allowed us to live, to love and to work without let or hindrance wherever on our continent we may choose to call home.
While I’m proud to be British, I am first and foremost a European.
And, by God, I intend to remain one.