What does Europe mean to you?

EU flag, with one star missing.
Photo credit: Christian Lue on Unsplash

Today, Sunday 9 May, is Europe Day: an annual celebration of peace and unity in Europe and the anniversary of the historic ‘Schuman declaration. At a speech in Paris in 1950, Robert Schuman, the then French foreign minister, set out his ideas for a new form of political co-operation in Europe that would make war between Europe’s nations unthinkable. Schuman’s proposal is considered to be the beginning of what is now the European Union.

Here we feature some personal testimonies from Sussex people who feel strongly connected to Europe and the EU. If you’d like to add your own, please email us.

Ginny Foster

Europe was the first place that was ‘abroad’ when I was young and family holidays were spent in camp sites under the pines in Provence. Europe was my first taste of grown-up freedom when I went interrailing as a teenager, practising my schoolgirl French and saving money by existing on baguettes, fruit and chocolate.  

Later, au pairing in Brittany on my gap year, I fell in love with everything French – those cafés with red checked tablecloths, the slightly edgy looking smoky bars, the weekly markets with their piles of produce waiting to be prodded and inspected – and, naturally, the boys with their fabulous broken English. No wonder that I voted to stay in Europe at the 1975 referendum. 

Now related to a large Austrian family through marriage, my grown-up children have cousins not just in Austria but all over Europe. From very young they were sent to stay with relations, or we played host, and it was fun: fun to see close friendships formed despite the language barrier, fun to debate and celebrate our differences, fun to share our different experiences, fun to travel freely to see them and to know that our children would be able to access all Europe had to offer if they wished.    

Those rights have been removed, but our family – separated by distance, nationality and now Brexit – is nevertheless still linked by our belief that we are all European.

Juliet Mayer

Europe for me is a symbol of peace, an example of how trying to solve disagreements and conflicts peacefully, respectfully and constructively together can often (though not always) benefit us all. Being in the EU means having the opportunity to at least try to do better together. And that means criticising it and reforming it. That can be done.

Originally, the EU did not have a parliament that was either elected by us or able to decide on legislation. Now it is more powerful than many national parliaments. That happened only because people criticised the EU and tried to resolve problems – however imperfectly – together. That’s what led governments to create EU citizenship in the 1990s. 

Europe is also a reminder of the joy we had getting that and the trauma over what we have all lost, and especially of what opportunities our own government denies our children and grandchildren. Now the daily reality for European families, like my own, is a throwback to the bad old days when sending gifts ‘abroad’ across the Channel was costly and bureaucratic, and being allowed to come and go as needed (especially when someone was ill or frail) was prohibitively expensive and often impossible.

More than five million of us are in this position across Europe (that’s equivalent to the whole of Scotland). This is more than a minor bureaucratic inconvenience. It breaks lives and hearts just like the division of Germany did and just like the dreadful days of the Troubles did in Ireland. Now Europe also symbolises hope for a better, compassionate future because it was within the EU that families eventually were reunited, governments able to talk freely and find common solutions to common problems. We deserve no less. Europe is made for and by the people.

Katrina Best

As the daughter of a Jewish refugee from Germany (my mother and aunt came to England as young children in the 1930s) I’ve never taken my family’s existence for granted, let alone our nationality.

Growing up I felt at once British and European, and enjoyed family camping holidays in both northern England and northern France. As a young adult, I anticipated travelling extensively through mainland Europe, including Germany, a country I still haven’t actually visited. But then I married a Canadian and we moved to Vancouver, then Montreal, where our two children were born and brought up as fully bilingual French-English.

When we returned to England in 2013, the idea that the UK might leave the European Union hadn’t even occurred to us. We were looking forward to family holidays in Europe – our trips back to the UK from Canada had always been a whirlwind of visiting friends and family, with no room for continental jaunts – and we also talked about how great it would be, in a few years, for our daughter and son to be able to freely travel, live, study and work anywhere in Europe (as well as in Canada). 

In addition to keeping up their French, both kids started learning Spanish in school and before long our son, who showed a particular aptitude and love for languages both modern and ancient, took it upon himself to learn a few others “just for fun”, including Russian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese and Swedish. He’s now in his first year of A-levels and, until recently, was planning to study Modern Languages and Classics at university. Perhaps he would have changed his mind anyway, but the terrible consequences of Brexit including the Conservative government’s scrapping of Erasmus were clear factors in his decision to apply for a different subject instead.

It therefore feels deeply ironic that, 85 years after my mother and aunt were lucky enough to enter England as young refugees fleeing their homeland, my children and I – along with millions of others – have been stripped of our precious European citizenship without our consent. Yet due to what happened to my family – and millions of others – during the 1930s, it seems that I may now be eligible to apply for European citizenship, for myself and my children, thanks to the German Citizenship Project, a repatriation programme for descendants of Jewish Germans who were illegally stripped of their citizenship by Hitler’s Nazis. I will apply, of course, but wish I didn’t have to.

SOS to Europe

On 30 March 2019 hundreds of people assembled on the cliffs at Saltdean for a symbolic event organised by Bristol-based artist Duncan McKellar. Everyone lined up at midday to face south across the Channel, flashing mirrors to send an SOS to Europe. The powerful SOS message was captured by drone footage, and a number of people spoke about what Europe means to them.

Susie Courtault

Like many others in our nation, I am the daughter of an immigrant – a second-generation daughter of a Hungarian Jewish refugee who gave me an understanding and love of my own country and European culture.

I lived, loved and studied in Paris, where my freedom of movement gave me my future career, my first child and an important relationship in my life. I am overwhelmed by sadness that this opportunity will not be available to young people now as it had been for me.

Ginny Smith

For the first four decades of my life I never questioned whether I was British or European – that little insidious and divisive word ‘or’ never entered my head. Unquestioningly, if asked how I would describe myself, it would have been as British and European – the ‘and’ representing a deep, profound and indivisible connection between the two. (Of course I always swerved away from ‘English’, for the associations that it held for my generation with right-wing thugs waving the flag of St George.) The continuous drumbeat of tabloid propaganda over the years, and later the EU referendum campaign, confronted many of us with an apparent need to choose between the two identities. If forced to do so, I would choose, every time, European.

Why? A memory, frozen in time, from my long ago experience of living in a French village might help to explain. Sitting around a farmhouse kitchen table one evening are a group of people: Mademoiselle Yvette, the local farmer, and provider of excellent bottles of wine; her cowman and tractor driver Franek, a Pole who escaped his country when Hitler invaded and never went back; my half-French husband; a friend from the UK who originally came from Denmark; and my very English self. Down the years comes the echo of the songs that we sang together – the two most memorable being the Marseillaise and ‘Daisy’, the only English song that Yvette and Franek knew. Finally, that’s what Europe is about for me: the camaraderie, shared history and culture of the ordinary people of the Continent. May that never be lost.

Toy car on a map of Europe.
Photo credit: Pexels from Pixabay 

Petra Kopp

For me, Europe is home and where the heart is. I grew up in Germany and moved to the UK when I was 19. I only intended to stay for a year – yet almost exactly 40 years later I am still here. For most of those four decades I saw the UK and the rest of Europe as indivisible. I would have liked to be able to vote in general elections, but somehow taking UK citizenship would have felt like a betrayal of my roots. I am and always will be German – but I have also grown very strong roots in my adoptive country: marriage, children, divorce, work, friends, community involvement, campaigning… So many experiences that have made me the person I am now.

I always felt welcome here, until that fateful, shocking day of the 2016 referendum. The Brexit vote and its aftermath shook me to the core. I guess I was naive, or lucky, not to have realised that people’s anger and sense of powerlessness might turn against me and my fellow EU citizens.

I campaigned as hard as I could to stop Brexit (sadly we failed), and at the same time I went through the agonising and expensive process of gaining UK citizenship. I am grateful that I have been able to keep my German and EU citizenship, but I feel angry that I have had to jump through these hoops.

My children, thankfully, both have dual citizenship too. But most of their friends will miss out on the opportunity to be part of a European community of people and nations – unless, in the coming years, we can turn the political tide and rejoin the EU.

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