To quote Bridget Jones, it is a truth universally acknowledged that just when one area of your life starts going well, another falls apart spectacularly. Or something along those lines. Well, looking back over the first six months of 2016, this certainly strikes a chord. It’s been a very tumultuous time both personally and professionally, and just when I felt that things might be turning a corner, it feels like the fabric of reality has started unravelling at warp speed. I’m as surprised as anyone, particularly those who voted ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum, to find that this is actually happening. I don’t think anyone actually banked on this outcome, like the old joke about a dog chasing a car, they have no idea what to do now they’ve got it.
What I’ve been most surprised about, though, is how little I actually care about this anymore. It’s genuinely sad, given how strongly I used to feel about the European project, to such an extent that once upon a time it was my dream to be a part of it – the last line of my UCAS form states that ‘after university I hope to go into the world of Politics and International Relations. Ultimately I would like to become and MEP or a member of the European Commission’. Well you know what? I did that. And it turned out to be thoroughly…meh. By the time I got to Brussels in 2012, nobody could remember what the EU was even for. Certainly nobody in the UK anyway, and by the time I was looking for jobs in London two years later, I was on the verge of being unemployable, as people looked at the top line of my CV and asked ‘…the European Commission, what’s that?’.
And to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing there either really. The ideals I’d had and what the EU represented to me when I was 17 felt very distant indeed. Back in 1998, the conversation was about who would become president of a federal Europe, and when the Euro would be implemented. It looked and felt very much like we were on course with the ‘ever closer union’ outlined in the Treaty of Rome; indeed, one of the Politics modules I studied at University was European Integration, as if it were a foregone conclusion rather than an open ended question.
Perhaps if the UK had committed itself more fully back then, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Had we joined the Euro, and embraced the challenge of leading and modernising the project, which seemed entirely possible when we had the likes of Neil Kinnock and Peter Mandelson as European Commissioners, The EU would be a different and more satisfactory entity by now.
But we didn’t. We stalled. Something happened, we ran out of energy and motivation at a crucial point. We abdicated our responsibilities, slumped down in a chair, sighed heavily and decided to leave it to the Germans to deal with. They’ve done their best, but its failure management – there’s no vision. There’s no real leadership. Nobody knows what they want the EU to be anymore. Is it simply a regulatory state? Is it a trading bloc? Is it there to deliver social justice and security to the European demos? Is there even a European demos? Are we still aiming for a federal Europe and a European identity? Who knows.
I could answer these questions relatively confidently when I was 17; I certainly couldn’t today. The worst part is, I don’t think I even care anymore. I feel like it’s failed; it’s failed the member states, the citizens and me personally, and to my mind the responsibility for that sits squarely with UK politicians who, like a spouse in a failing marriage, refused to either commit to making things work or decide to leave early enough to recover and allow the healing process to begin.
Like most people, I’m fairly apprehensive about the future, not just of the UK but of the European project as a whole. And yes, I’m scrabbling around to find the necessary paperwork to prove that my grandfather was Lithuanian so that I can somehow still claim EU citizenship. But at the end of the day, I suspect that the worst that will happen is that it will be a little bit like living in Switzerland – where it costs nearly a tenner to buy the ingredients for a spag bol – but without any of the nice scenery. Which kind of describes living in London anyway.
It’s becoming clear that nobody is particularly interested in upsetting the status quo; everything possible will be done to maintain it. Deals will be made so that both sides can save face and look like they’ve won, just like any good solicitor would do in a divorce case. If we, the UK citizens, are the children in this analogy, I think the psychological damage from years of antagonism and bitterness has already been done, and I think on some level we’re glad it’s over. Or maybe that’s just the way I feel, given my proximity to it in recent years. I’m kind of over it now. Time to move on.