It is strange to be a Briton writing about European Solidarity. Brexit remains a work in progress, but Britain is currently due to leave the European Union on the 31st October 2019. Since the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, the EU has promoted solidarity (both political and public) across Europe in an effort to maintain both peace and prosperity. When it narrowly voted in favour of Brexit, my home country effectively rejected this solidarity for a nationalistic identity beyond Europe.
Identities are complicated and multifaceted, but I certainly identify as European. I was on my Erasmus+ placement in Denmark, studying European politics and history, in the run up to the 2016 referendum. On the day of the vote, I was teaching at a European theatre festival in Italy. Over the last year of "will they or won't they" Brexit chaos, I have been living and working in Germany. But in addition to living in other EU countries and having an Irish mother, the general experience of living in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world has left me feeling as though an identity based on national boundaries is inadequate. I do feel British – I certainly hate confrontation and have a certain passion for queues - but I also feel European. The EU’s slogan, “united in diversity”, encapsulates how Europeans can come together in solidarity while maintaining distinct cultures, traditions and languages. However, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, it was justifiably made clear that post-Brexit “a palpable difference” must be maintained between EU and non-EU countries. The end of Britain’s solidarity with Europe will be a huge blow to Britons like me with European identities, who have benefitted from EU projects.
As this is the first time that a country has left the EU, the process has also generated anxiety about if Brexit might damage the European solidarity project more generally. Around the time of the initial Brexit vote, certain commentators expressed concern that it could empower the EU’s nationalist critics, prompting other countries to have similar votes and leading to the unravelling of the EU. Speculation about the potential breakdown of the union was so high that the bookmakers William Hill published odds on the EU country which would be the next to leave the bloc – with favourites Greece at 2/1, Italy at 5/1 and Sweden at 6/1.
However, by 2017 there had actually been a sharp increase in the favourability of the EU in many countries, with only 18% of EU citizens wanting their country to leave the union. Even in the nations where this idea was most popular (Greece and Italy), there was no majority for the idea. Although the financial consequences of Brexit will undoubtedly be felt across the EU, the union itself continues to maintain its resilience, with research demonstrating that since the Brexit vote Europeans have become increasingly supportive of the EU. In 2015, only 32% of Europeans “trusted” the EU, but by 2018 this number had risen to 42%. By 2018, 68% of EU citizens also felt that their country benefited from the EU – the highest figure in the organisation’s history. It appears that Brexit has actually brought the benefits of EU membership into clearer focus. This was evident during the 2019 European Elections, where more than 50% of eligible EU citizens voted, creating the highest turnout for these elections in 20 years, and the first time since the first direct elections in 1979 that turnout increased.
This is particularly true for those countries which have most closely experienced this solidarity, with 92% of those in Ireland believing that their country benefits from EU membership. The EU has supported Ireland throughout negotiations on the Irish-UK border, refusing to back down on the issue of the proposed backstop, despite pressure from the British government. Certain British politicians even believed that the UK would be able to gain an advantage in negotiations by playing the EU nations off against another, but the EU27 have remained united throughout negotiations. Leo Varadkar (the Irish Taoiseach) has praised this “remarkable solidarity”, calling it “strong and resolute” and saying it “would not diminish”. The EU’s solidarity and it’s worth has been showcased by the union’s united efforts to protect its member countries.
This has also been noticed within Britain – particularly by the nation’s youth. Like me, young people are less likely to base their identities on their nationalities and are more likely to view the EU favourably. Just over 70% of 18 to 24-year-old voters backed Remain, with just under 30% backing Leave (compared to those aged 65 and over, of whom 40% voted Remain and 60% of voted Leave). Young people are also more likely to work and study abroad, opportunities which will become much less common following Brexit. Following Brexit, young people will no longer have the right to work in another European country without restrictions, and UK students hoping to study on the Erasmus+ programme may see their plans cancelled in the event of a no-deal Brexit, with Spanish universities already beginning to cancel grants and offer alternative destinations to students who are due to study in Britain.
By turning its back on European solidarity, Britain has removed opportunities from the nation’s young people, who will no longer be able to benefit from EU membership in the ways I have been able to. However, the relative openness of Britain’s youth continues to give me hope for the prospect of solidarity between the UK and other nations in the long term. But perhaps more immediately, the increased solidarity of the EU27 has left me optimistic for the future of the European project. For the average European, Brexit has served to both increase interest in the EU and promote its virtues. In doing so, it has led to renewed support of the European project, and dedication towards unity and collaboration. Ironically, the nationalistically motivated Brexit does means solidarity – just not for Britain. So, while I am both encouraged by the EU’s successful emphasis on solidarity, and optimistic for the union’s new chapter, I am left having to reconcile this with the disappointment I feel knowing that I will soon no longer be part of it.