Today is Europe Day. It might have slipped your notice. I had never heard of Europe Day until one fabulously warm and sunny May day in Cordoba, Spain.
I was enjoying the ‘Open Patio’ festival mooching among vibrant red geraniums, and drinking in the heady scent of jasmine when a trio of schoolgirls stopped us. Initially speaking Spanish, they switched effortlessly into English asking us if we wouldn’t mind completing a questionnaire on the geography of Europe. It was, they explained, their Europe Day school project.
The UK was, at that time, a member of the European Union and yet I’m sure there weren’t many British schoolkids spending their day reflecting on European history and the connection between European understanding, unity, and peace. That lack of interest in Europe was, I believe, one of the reasons why so many fell for the lies that were told about our engagement with Europe which led to the decision to leave the EU.
Born out of coal and steel
Europe Day is an international day celebrated on 9 May. This date was chosen as it marked the signing of the Schuman Declaration back in 1950. Robert Schuman was then the French foreign minister and he proposed that French and West German coal and steel production came under a single authority. This became the European Coal and Steel Community which would later be expanded to include other countries and form the basis of the European Union. As 1950 was only five years after the end of the war, this was a remarkable foresightful gesture to pacify relations and create political integration through common interests.
The emphasis on peace and unity in Europe has continued since that date, not least with the Schengen Agreement signed in 1985, which concerned the removal of internal border controls of signatory countries (both EU and non-EU). This allowed freedom of movement across European countries for leisure, work, culture and trade purposes.
Our freedom to travel
Celebration of the freedom to travel with no documentation, time-limits or border queues culminated in the inauguration of the annual celebration. Europe Day is also an opportunity to remember Schuman’s fundamental belief that it is ‘concrete achievements’ such as favourable trade deals and economic union which prevents the recurrence of war. The Day is celebrated with political meetings focused on European issues, cultural exhibitions, and concerts. School children are encouraged to think about their European history and culture. Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament, is alive with events throughout May.
Here in the UK, now that we are outside the European Union, we need to work even harder to celebrate that we are European. The Festival of Europe does just that with cultural events emphasising bridges not borders. They delighted a crowd in Brighton on Sunday with the Ukrainian Voices Brighton Choir, and the sounds of Corsica, Georgia and other parts of the European continent.
With a recent poll showing that 86% of young people would like to re-join the EU, we owe it to them to be far better prepared when next asked if we want to be a part of the European venture. Ironically, since we left the EU, there has been a growing awareness of Europe. That placard many of us held on the anti-Brexit demos ‘You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’ has proved painfully true. The European project, at its very heart, has the belief that unity and integration is the bedrock of peace. We don’t yet know when we will re-join the EU, but when we do, let’s make sure we are better informed about it. In our increasingly fractured and divided world, we need to be a part of it again sooner rather than later. Happy Europe Day – and let’s have our #freedomofmovement back!