Later this week, 508 million Europeans from 28 member states of the EU will be able to vote for their Member of the European Parliament (MEP). I am just one of those people, and most of the technicalities of European politics will probably need to be explained to me again, but here’s why this election matters to me, and why it should matter to others, too.
Back in Germany, I only ever voted once, I think. This was partly down to not feeling connected with politics in any way and living in a stable society without any major problems. Politics were doing just fine without me, and my convictions weren’t strong or clearly defined enough for me to put my vote behind one political option. Much of my resentment, however, was fuelled by friends and acquaintances going on verbal pro-election crusades, calling out non-voters in the name of democracy. Now, I don’t like being told what to do, and I had always considered having a choice the essence of democracy, so I actively chose not to vote. I’m not telling you to vote, for that matter. But just as things changed in my life, my outlook and convictions changed too.
In England, I’m a foreigner. I am only here because I can be, and I’ll be forever grateful to the EU for giving me and millions of others the chance to live wherever my fancy should take me. This is a chance my own parents never had, just as my husband’s parents, and those of many of my friends. Reading foreign books (if they could buy them in the first place) or watching foreign movies 40 years ago, young people in Eastern Europe simply didn’t have the option of getting so involved in a foreign culture that they simply had to go and see and live it for themselves. And they should have had that option. As open-minded and well-read as I might have been as a youngster, there was so much that I couldn’t know. I’m still learning every day, I meet people I would have never even seen back home, and every other day I stumble upon some small prejudice in myself that might just have grown into a big prejudice, had I not decided to live this other life. The right to settle and work in any EU member state is fundamental to the EU constitution, because the founders recognised that every person deserves such a learning curve. How can this, in all its oversimplified grace, not be a good thing?
There are the politics, of course, the rules and committees and bans. The economy, which is in deep trouble (but then, which economy isn’t?). EU politicians have realised that for many, “EU” stands for bureaucracy and trouble. I’m not trying to solve this problem, because I can’t, but can we all cut the EU some slack, please? Imagine for a moment trying to get people from 28 countries, with roughly just as many different languages, to agree on anything, when all you have is a vision of 500 million people living together peacefully, happily and well-fed? There has been lots of talk about the EU’s inability to counter Russian aggression in the Crimea crisis. Again, a vision of peace is not a terribly strong argument, faced with heavy artillery. But there’s the money, some will argue. Where does it come from, and why would a Brit want to pay for a motorway in Slovakia? Or for a MEP from Austria, travelling to Brussels each week and getting fat on first-class airline nibbles? Because that’s how it works, guys. Ask for a list of EU-sponsored projects in your country, in your town, even, and you’ll find that the EU is benefitting your people, too.
Maybe that’s the problem the EU wants us all to overcome: That not everything is about your people, or those who look and think like you. It wants us all to be in it together, all 508 million of us. (And if you really need to ask “What for?”, consider if peace and harmony are not a good enough reason for you and your people.) And anyway, you know what? I live abroad, speaking a foreign language to my own husband and children, and yet there is not a single speck of doubt in my mind that closer ties between EU countries will erode anybody’s culture, traditions or language. I am still very much German, and will continue to be so even if future generations of EU officials should decide that we all get EU passports. (They won’t.) The world changes. Languages change. Cultures change. None of this is bad, or indeed hastened by a supranational economic community.
Most of my decision to vote and feel passionate about it has its root in something much more worrying. In the UK, the rise of Ukip has terrified me almost as much as the support it seems to have in the country. It seems that in the UK, the EU has such a catastrophic reputation that even the most obviously racist politicians (and I use the term loosely) can drum up an enormous fan base just by decrying it. All ills are being blamed on Europe, and by “all ills” I mean money troubles: foreigners taking our benefits, and politicians from Brussels (foreigners!) telling our banks not to lose all our money in risky speculations. How dare they? And the money our Ukip MEPs are going to get for their troubles? No doubt they’ll distribute their airline nibbles in the town square.
I’m afraid. Afraid to lose my rights in the country I raise my children in. Afraid to be only suffered to stay, instead of feeling welcome. But more than feeling afraid, I’m hopeful. Because while I no doubt oversimplify the issues we have with the EU, I believe in its values. I believe in them so much that I want to stand near the polling station on Thursday and yell at people that we all matter, and we’re all the same, and we all have a chance here. Maybe it’s utopian to expect the EU to work properly and satisfy everyone’s demands, but I’d like to believe in this kind of Utopia. So even if we can’t support any party fully, let’s vote consciously and give those a chance who believe in the work they do. We can build something good. Something that’s based on the human rights to learn, explore and live in peace. Because if you can’t believe in that, there is truly no hope.