On Saturday I stood at Place Luxemburg facing the European Parliament with a few friends for the ‘March for Europe’ rally. I had made my placard the night before, knowing with complete certainty what the message I wanted to write was and of course it was going to be about Northern Ireland, Brexit and the Border. Myself and many others within the province have been feeling a deep frustration with Theresa May’s pursuit of a hard Brexit and the fact we’ve been so powerless within the whole fiasco. A frustration which is also mirrored by our Scottish cousins. Therefore, I wanted to convey this anger and in the words of Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson, to tell Theresa May to ‘stick the border where the sun don’t shine’.
Throughout the rally, my sign had received a lot of attention. People were taking photos of me even when I was unaware, others came up to me and asked about the issues which face Northern Ireland in regards to Brexit, others were curious as to why I thought promoting a Unity Referendum was the solution, of which I told them it was a matter of being in charge of your own destiny – something which is seriously lacking within the devolved regions of the United Kingdom.
There were three things which had happened during the rally which stood out for me;
1) When the official speakers had finished, the organisers had invited people from the crowd to come up and speak. To my surprise and pure delight, a young man in his early 20s from Northern Ireland who was over studying on the Erasmus Exchange Programme had been one of them. He welcomed the crowd in a number of European languages, and Irish was one of them ‘Dia dhuit’ and in response I shouted as loud as I could ‘Dia Muire dhuit’! He spoke of the uncertainty that faces Northern Ireland due to Brexit and how the situation was none of our own doing. The fact that he was from our wee province and was having the opportunity to live and study abroad in the EU capital, an experience I had also shared, brought a tear to my eye. The Erasmus Programme is truly one of the jewels to come out of the EU project, it saddens me that the amazing opportunity it provides as well as the life-changing experience it gives to our young people might be taken away them.
2) There was one moment which saw me being completely being bombarded by Catalonians. I was resting my poster on a small fence whilst talking to a friend then all of a sudden, I felt people coming to stand beside me taking photos of me and my sign. First it was just 2 people, then 5 and in the end there was about 10 people crowding around me and my banner with me in the centre. All these really swarthy skinned and dark-haired people and there is me, right in the middle, very pale and very ginger. I wish I had of asked them to take a photo on my own phone, it would have definitely been something to laugh about later when looking back. However, after reflecting on this moment and to the groups enthusiasm towards my sign, it highlights that the issue for self-determination is still very much present in many parts of Europe. Over the past few months in response to Scotland’s wish for a second Independence referendum due to Brexit, Spain has issued a very hard stance in that they disagree with Scotland’s accession into the EU if it would become independent. Of course this is to quell their own separatist movements in the Basque and Catalonian regions. However, I believe that this shows that the fire for such ideals are never truly extinguished – “Self-determination is not a mere phase. It is an imperative state of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril” – Woodrow Wilson.
3) My sign had also attracted the attention of some officials from the Icelandic Pirate Party. For those of my readers who may not have heard of the Pirate Party before, the label itself has been adopted by different political parties in different countries that tend to focus on civil rights, direct democracy and participation in government, transparency, reform of copyright laws, the free sharing of knowledge and internet neutrality. The Icelandic Pirate Party does not have an official stance on Iceland’s accession into the European Union; however, they do believe that an impartial referendum should be held for the people to decide. The guy who spoke to me was funnily enough half-Irish and half-Icelandic, he was telling me about the party’s campaign for an EU referendum, his own personal plans to go to Scotland and campaign when they hold their second independence referendum, and he wanted to know how the momentum and mood was going for an Irish reunification referendum. He was disappointed to hear that in my own opinion, Sinn Féin were the only real Nationalist party campaigning for it. All the others don’t have the political capacity or will to make it happen. Despite this though, it highlights that just like in the past, Europe continues to be a changing force, that in its fluidity it is subject to modifications either at the will of the people or by extenuating circumstances. One thing that is for certain is that the map of the EU will most certainly look different in 10 years time.
Although Brexit and the rise of populism was very much at the heart of the March for Europe discussion, there was a deep sense of comradeship from all over Europe in being united as a people. Marches had taken place in Rome, Warsaw, Berlin, Madrid, Sofia, Paris, Budapest and so forth. It is estimated that tens of thousands had joined the anti-Brexit march in London as well.
The signing of the Treaty of Rome on 25th March 1957 had officially established what was to become known as the ‘European Economic Community’ with Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands and West Germany being the original members. The disastrous effects of the Second World War and the constant threat of an East-West confrontation meant that it was of paramount importance to have reconciliation between the nations of Europe. The Treaty of Rome had laid the foundations for European integration and paved the way for a common future. It has been subjected to many amendments over the decades, most notably the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht which had changed the name of the membership to the ‘European Community’ due to its expanding role beyond trade and economics. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon had done away with the pillar system of the original treaty and became known as the ‘Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union’.
At present, there are 28 member states of the European Union with a combined population of over 700 million people. It has become one of the most sophisticated economic and political projects ever attempted. It is by no means perfect, there are many arguments for it to be reformed with some wanting greater integration as a form of federalism whilst others want a looser model; however, as it currently stands, it has served a great purpose in bringing many benefits to its citizens. It has helped bring a lasting peace to the European continent, it promotes prosperity, innovation, opportunity and choice. It facilitates not only the movement of capital and services, but allows its people to travel freely within its borders and enhances our understanding of each nation’s culture. It has raised living standards, reduces regulations, promotes democracy and free markets, and gives us a collective and stronger voice within the international community. It really is a shining beacon as an example of true cooperation and unity that has inspired many other regions around the world to try to emulate.
It has given me so much personally that if I was to try to begin to write it all down, an extra 500+ words would be added to this article. On Saturday’s rally in Brussels, I felt completely at one with the people around me, people of different languages and nationalities, but knowing that my existence is part of a movement of people who share the same values of civil liberties, freedom, democracy, human rights, diversity and cooperation. The people who marched that day were declaring their love for the EU, shouting loud and proud that they were European and fighting back to those who would seek to undermine it.
I believe the EU will change, it will get stronger and become more cohesive. I believe it will certainly be around for another 60 years to celebrate its 120th birthday for the future generations to enjoy.