Felix Lee offers us a run down of the events which took place during the on-campus Pro-European Rally
The current political climate does not bode well for pro-Europeans: The Brexit vote last year has not only set the United Kingdom on course to leave the EU, but move it farther and farther away from the European continent and all it stands for more generally. Some call this the vision of a truly ‘Global Britain’, freed from the shackles of an old and tired region and open to the wider world. Others see current events as the folly of a nation unwilling to recognise its deep-rooted and existential ties to the continent that it geographically, at the very least, will always be a part of. It seems clear that a year after the referendum result a battle is still raging for the European soul of this country, and the jury is still out on the final outcome.
This ongoing debate about what the UK’s relationship with Europe should look like in the post-Brexit future served as the backdrop to a rally on campus on Friday. Given current developments, the European society at our university decided to organise a Pro-European Rally. The aim was, in the words of the organisers, “to celebrate what it means to be European and show the true value and strength of European solidarity.” At a time when internationalism is under attack from so many sides and with Brexit looming, now might be the time to fight back for what, after all, a clear majority of young voters expressed last year: a belief in cross-border friendships and alliances that do not take away but rather add to the strength of a country and its people.
Brexit unsurprisingly was the central theme of the Pro-European Rally at Essex. The event began with the presidents of the regional European societies walking together and carrying the flags of their home nations and the EU in a striking symbol of the international character of our university, and the many different places that our student community originates from. Led by the President of the Essex European society, the flagbearers entered Square Three to the sound of the European anthem.
“At a time when internationalism is under attack from so many sides and with Brexit looming”
The highlights of the event were two speeches by the presidents of the European society and the Liberal Democrats. Klajdi Selimi, who had organised the rally, set out the purpose and relevance of the rally: “Despite our ranks as students, despite our fears about our own futures, despite our naivety and despite our nightmares of ourselves and of others – we are here today because despite all of this we hold that a future of security, prosperity and peace lies at the heart of European unity.” According to Selimi, fear might have led to Brexit and the rise of nationalism but the fear-mongering of eurosceptics is inappropriate. He believes Britain is at a crossroads, having to choose between either division or unity. Confident that the British people eventually will make the right decision, he concluded by saying “Hopefully when that time comes, we will be the leaders, we will be the brave, we will be the wise and we will be the dreamers.”
Matt Craven, the President of the Liberal Democrat society at Essex, started his speech with the explanation that it was easy to lose hope given the current political climate. However “democracy did not end in June”, he said, stressing there was still a chance to change Britain’s future and work towards a vision of a tolerant, open and outwards looking Britain in Europe. The impact of Brexit is already being felt by many, and when the history is being written of the current events, Craven has no doubt it would be clear “that we were right”. And there were reasons to be optimistic, in his view: public opinion was changing, and pro-Europeans should have hope that Brexit could be overturned and a better future built. Craven’s speech concluded with a plea to his fellow pro-Europeans: “Never stop defending what you believe in!” The fight against Brexit clearly is still on.
Unsurprisingly however, this is not a view shared by all students at Essex. When approached to comment on the Pro-European Rally, President of the UKIP society Jake Painter responded with a Churchill quote to sum up his society’s feelings towards Europe and the event: “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” The view that Britain should not only politically stand apart from Europe, but that Britain is culturally distinct from the European continent and thus not a European nation, still finds the support of many. The majority of the younger generation might disagree, however the idea that Brexit was merely the logical endpoint to a misguided experiment of europeanising the UK against its people’s wishes has yet to be convincingly defeated.
The rally was not just an anti-Brexit event though – intended to show the dissatisfaction of young people with Brexit in general and the Government’s current Brexit plans – it was also an opportunity to celebrate European culture and diversity. Many regional European societies contributed to the event and those attending were able to enjoy a wide range of culinary and musical contributions. The Polish, Romanian, French, Italian and Nordic societies, among others, supported the event by taking part in the march and having stalls provide food from their European homelands. If nothing else, then Friday’s rally at the very least was proof of the rich contribution the many European students at Essex make to our community.
However, politics is not everything: maybe there is a middle-way even in times of Brexit. Yes, it is highly likely that Britain will leave the European Union, either in March 2019 or at some point in the future. It is important for those who disagree with the decision made by the British people to continue to fight for what they believe in, but in the short-term this will probably be unsuccessful. More importantly though, both the British and the Europeans should not make the mistake of interpreting this political event as a necessity to cut the ties and loosen the bonds of Anglo-European friendship and cultural connections that go way beyond the membership of a highly controversial supranational organisation.
At the end of the day, celebrating the rich and diverse culture of the European family of nations might be a successful way of changing negative attitudes towards Europe in general and the European Union more specifically. These still prevail in many parts of the country and undeniably played an important role in delivering last year’s Brexit result. Keeping the cultural, social and personal relationships alive at a time when the political ones are under strain could also turn out to be a positive goal that might unite both Leavers and Remainers.
” If nothing else, then Friday’s rally at the very least was proof of the rich contribution the many European students at Essex make to our community.”
Despite Brexit, it is vitally important that this conversation between Europe and the UK continues, specially when it comes to decisions that could affect the future. After all, according to Foreign Secretary and Brexiteer Boris Johnson: “We are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe.”
Rebel will be publishing interviews with Klajdi Selimi and Matt Craven, the Presidents of the European society and the Liberal Democrats society.