I am more European than British, with most of my life spent living and working abroad, indeed for the European institutions, and so If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have have said that Europe is so very much more than the sum of its parts and is an idea and an institution in which I believe and which I support. Now however that picture seems less clear: I am teaching in a pretty typical English small town primary school where the children are forging their identity as citizens within their community and their school, and where the children in my class are citizens of the world, but where the ideals and spirit of Europe seems largely irrelevant and mostly absent. So recently I have been wondering more and more about where the EU fits into things.
My class is, I think, fairly typical of Middle England in 2016. We are a diverse school in a very socially diverse neighbourhood. That means that in a class of thirty, like mine, we have about ten who strongly identify as Christians, mostly either pentecostal or evangelical; and ten that strongly identify as Muslims. We have a few kids who identify less strongly with those definitions, a handful of agnostic or atheist kids and a couple of Hindu and Sikh kids. We have no Buddhist or Jewish children in the class this year. We have a wide range of spoken languages with about two thirds of the children bilingual, with mostly non-European languages spoken at home. The two children who have non-English but European home languages speak Portuguese and Latvian. As a whole they are light years removed from the world and language of Beatrix potter, Blyton and Byron!
In my class the kids speak Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, Bangladeshi. Most holiday in Pakistan, Punjab and Afghanistan more than they ever will in Europe. They are not refugees, but second and third generation Brits; and despite the statutory language teaching they will get in school most will never be able to speak a European language apart from English. Some of the children in my school will no doubt go to university, but a very few will ever study European philosophy or ideas. None will ever go to work for the European institutions because language requirements, currently 3 European languages, will preclude them from applying.
I also have strong links with Wales where children study the Welsh language until they are 16, but where that language and therefore also to some extent that culture is not recognised as European, and is discounted. And it works both ways- I recently attended a big civic memorial service in Cardiff attended by the city’s civic leaders, where the French national anthem had to be written in phonetic English because had it been in French no one could have sung it. If England feels far from Europe at times, in Wales Europe feels even further away...
Last week I just spent a wonderful few days in Venice right at the heart of ancient Europe, which in the days of the Venetian Republic encompassed most of the Eastern Mediterranean and whose art shows a rich diverse society, with many turbans, moors and black madonnas. Somehow since then we have come to a situation where the very identity and spirit of Europe seems to be much smaller and more narrow. And am left I wondering whether that much narrower Europe is still the the best, or even a useful, vessel for representing the children in my class, and the wonderfully rich society and culturally diverse community they represent.
I wonder too what a Europe that includes rather than merely tolerates diversity might look like, and also whether the current cosy club that is the EU would be prepared to undergo the radical shapeshifting necessary to create a functioning institution with a real image of inclusion and rich social diversity at its centre.
The 23rd June will turn on ideology- because Europe is a live social experiment and we just do not know how that will change or what will happen precisely enough to discuss numbers that are mostly neither credible nor factual. So the 23rd will instead pivot on our collective dreamed future: it remains to be seen whether in this country that dream has sufficient anchor in the past, in the era of a glorious European ideal; or whether we need to cut loose from the old and for better or worse reimagine a new global future? Perhaps one that truly embraces a more globally rich social diversity and finds new ways of accommodating the massive global movement of people that comes with having a truly global market place.