Being in Finland reminds me there’s another way of discussing Europe and doing politics

Since I moved to Edinburgh for my studies three years ago, I’ve returned to my native Finland for a few weeks of summer holidays each year. It’s a refreshing experience to see old friends and to go to the sauna. The Fazer chocolate is excellent – I’m munching on it as I speak.

Yet there is another, more abstract thing I appreciate about Finland: the political culture.

A peaceful, normal European country

The Helsinki Cathedral. Photo: Juuso Järviniemi

They say that a frog placed in a pot full of cool water won’t jump out as the water is gradually heated, but instead it will stay in the water until it gets boiled to death. British politics has become heated over the past three years – watching news reports of cool and calm Finnish politics is a stark reminder of that.

In Finland, an MP doesn’t get murdered. One of the country’s best-known activists doesn’t get beaten on the street. There is no need to fear a shortage of food and medicines. It would be unimaginable for a leading tabloid to run a headline describing judges as “Kansan viholliset”.

Daily Mail in April 2017 when Theresa May called a snap election. Photo: Dunk / Flickr

Most importantly: though Finnish politicians engage in vigorous debate, you never need to doubt that they have the national interest at heart. They are transparent about their respective visions for how the country should be run. In Finland, you rarely get the feeling that politicians are trying to hide their true intentions. For Finnish politicians, cooperating with colleagues from other parties is perfectly natural.

In other words, Finland is a peaceful, normal European country. The UK could be like this, too. All that Britain needs to do is be its own best self.

Ask yourself how to improve Europe

It’s rather bewildering indeed that the UK government feels oppressed by the EU, while virtually all the other 27 member states feel comfortable in their skin as European countries. (You may keep hearing about the troublemakers, but there aren’t many of them. If you can name three or four, there’s still 23 or 24 other countries where things are fine.)

Finnish people have heard the narrative about the EU menacing the country’s national sovereignty, but they’ve rejected it. Talk about “Brussels bureaucrats” is about as cool and edgy as smoking cigarettes is. For Finland, like for so many other European countries, the EU is an opportunity. We feel like being part of a club makes us safer and stronger.

During her premiership, Theresa May was famous for looking lonely at European Council summits. (Photo: “Tiochfaidh ár lá 1916” / Flickr)

For the UK’s neighbours, the ‘European question’ isn’t “to be or not to be”, but “how to make Europe work better”. Leaders across Europe are discussing new ideas for developing the EU, and they’re doing it with an open mind. Some ideas are good, others are bad, but at least they are trying.

The UK can have its say, too: in the 1980s, when it wanted a Single Market, the others agreed it was a good idea. Since then, has the UK put forward any other good ideas?

The UK can do better

This is not meant to be a discouraging story, but an encouraging and inspiring one. The UK may be a depressing place at this moment, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way of doing politics, and another way of discussing Europe.

Photo: Gordon Joly / Flickr

The alternative is in plain sight. The UK has traditionally been the stable democracy other countries can look up to. Now that Britain is struggling itself, it can look around for positive examples from other countries around it.

If the UK is serious about becoming “the greatest place on Earth”, like the Prime Minister says, it should remember that some of the world’s most successful societies are proudly European.

For Peterloo, for democracy!

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. It is a vital part of our democratic history and, more importantly, it was a bitter tragedy that reminds us of the importance of exercising our right to free speech and defending our values.

On August 16th 1819, strain from the end of the Napoleonic Wars weighed heavy on the shoulders of Britain’s workers. Unemployment, famine, the Corn Laws, and next to no voice for the North West in Parliament paved the way for a near 80,000-strong demonstration at St Peter’s Field, calling for parliamentary reform.

The demonstration was cut short when the local magistrates called for the arrest of Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and several members of the Manchester Patriotic Union. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were called to perform the arrest and the Chairman of Lancashire and Cheshire Magistrates summoned the 15th Hussars to disperse the crowd.

The Hussars approached the crowd with their sabres drawn. Mass confusion followed, injuring nearly 700 people. Eighteen people lost their lives, including a two-year-old child.

The massacre sparked a national outrage and further protests across the North. In response, Parliament passed the Six Acts, which further curtailed people’s democratic rights by suppressing radical reform meetings.

The Peterloo Massacre stands as a monument to the uprising of people against the establishment. We owe it to those who died at St Peter’s Field not only to vote, but to continue to demand a better democracy for our country.

Two hundred years later, British democracy is still unfit for purpose. Our democracy is broken, but it was broken long before Brexit.

Our electoral system is inadequate

The 2010s have shown us just how broken our current electoral system is. Two hung parliaments have caused panic and confusion; the prospect of coalition government has daunted many voters. Two referendums have heightened and exposed divisions in the country which politicians and journalists have long sought to ignore. Three Prime Ministers have come and gone, two of whom took office without a General Election.

Perhaps the biggest culprit for the problems with our electoral democracy is our first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP). Under FPTP, the 2015 General Election returned a Conservative majority, followed by a Conservative government. This majority was secured with just under 37% of the vote, but the Conservatives received 100% of the power. Sixty-three percent of the country got a government they didn’t vote for.

Like other UK governments before it, the Conservative government decided to put an issue of national importance to a referendum: the UK’s membership of the European Union. Though Brexit is fundamental constitutional change, there was no provision put in place for a qualified majority.

Since then, our country has been torn apart by a question won in 2016 by the slimmest of margins, which would not have been put to a referendum if a party had not come to power on only 37% of the vote. Considering that the UK is one of the world’s oldest democracies, we aren’t very good at exercising it.

Great Britain flag
Great Britain flag on wall of historic building

A memorial for Peterloo

A new monument is due to be unveiled at the Manchester Central Convention Centre to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre. Personally, I believe a better monument to those lives lost in the name of democracy would be to fight for reforms to our current electoral systems.

This is a fight that can unite people across the political spectrum, break partisan tribalism, and make our politics more inclusive. It is up to us as younger votes to push for reforms such as lowering the voting age to 16, scrapping FPTP in favour of a more democratic alternative, and reforming the House of Lords so that it can become a genuinely democratic second chamber.

We also need to rethink how we conduct our referendums. Requiring a qualified majority for any constitutional change would be a good start.

Brexit and our current parliamentary turmoil are symptoms of what is wrong with democracy in the UK. It’s our duty both to those reformists who gathered in St Peter’s Field 200 years ago and to future generations to campaign for real electoral reform now.

The ideas I have mentioned above already have support from the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, UKIP, and the Brexit Party. Outside the toxic issue of Brexit, I believe we can unite behind a bigger vision of what can be achieved. We need to work together to build a better United Kingdom.

EU rules are good for us: Ten real-life examples of EU law

After three years of campaigning to stop Brexit, I have had a lot of time to think about EU laws. I studied Law as an undergraduate, then did a Master’s in Law and Business on top of my legal practice course. Naturally I came across quite a bit of EU law. In all that time, I never came across a single law which seemed oppressive in any way – despite what Brexiteers would have you believe. 

I even remember joking with my EU law lecturer about Article 50 and how no country enjoying so many benefits within the EU would ever want to leave…

“Aaah, the EU is oppressing me!”

We all could go online and read EU law before bedtime. Nobody’s hiding this information from us. Unfortunately, the truth about EU law is still often drowned out by disinformation and fake news. 

If those with concerns about the EU bothered to look into some of the famous ‘Euromyths’, they might be surprised to discover that EU rules aren’t “oppressing” them – quite the opposite.

This is EU law: Ten examples

To illustrate this, I’d like to present ten EU laws I’ve come across and how they affect you. This list is not a ‘top 10’, but rather a few examples of EU law which you may find enlightening. No doubt this article will be labeled as fake news by some, so I give you the names of the legislation for you to look up. 

Mobile Roaming Regulation: Without EU rules on roaming charges, Brits could get stung by phone companies while abroad. Something to mull over as you Instagram on the beach this summer.

Transfers of Undertakings Directive: People whose employer changes after a merger, takeover or acquisition are protected by EU law. Red-tape-slashing Brexiteers on the side of big business would probably attempt to water down or remove this kind of employee protection after Brexit.

Pet Passports Regulation: It lets you bring your pooch on holiday! Need I say more?

Consumer Rights Directive: This creates rights across the EU. It aligns national consumer rules, such as those on the information you need to be given before you buy something, and your right to cancel online purchases. (Unlike the Brexiteers peddling lies painted on the side of a bus, the EU cares about your right to make an informed choice.) This means that you can rely on the same rights wherever you shop in the EU.

Driving Licences Directive: I will quote directly from the Directive: ‘Driving licences issued by Member States shall be mutually recognised.’ This is excellent because it means we can just nip across the channel and drive anywhere within the EU without the need for additional paperwork. Have you planned your next road trip yet?

Mutual Recognition of Qualifications Directive: This gives automatic recognition to qualifications for nurses, midwives, doctors and so on. In other words, it gives our NHS access to a huge pool of talent which will be closed off to us after Brexit.

Flight Compensation Regulation: If you prefer flying to a road trip, this EU regulation provides compensation and assistance to passengers caught out by delayed or cancelled flights. It sucks to be left at the airport for hours on your first day off, but at least the EU ensures you’ll get compensated.

The EU Mutual Recognition of Qualifications Directive helps ensure our NHS has enough staff.

Citizens’ Rights Directive: This is the one we all love. It ensures the fundamental right for us to move freely in the EU, while limiting the burden that this may cause.

General Food Law Regulation: This creates a farm-to-fork approach that covers all sectors of the food chain. It aims for a high level of protection of human life and health, consumers’  interests, and animal health and welfare. Protects us from food scares!

Consular Protection Directive: As EU citizens, Brits can automatically rely on consular protection from any EU country when they’re in an emergency in a country where there is no British representation. Handy!

Where’s the oppression?

Now, whether you voted Leave or Remain, ask yourself: Do any of those laws oppress me? Are any of them bad for people in the UK? 

Remember that those are only ten EU laws that we benefit from. There are countless others!

Rainy days ahead for the UK…

The looming prospect of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit brings with it the threat of a host of far more damaging legal changes than the loss of the directives and regulations listed above. But these are laws that will demonstrably impact our daily lives. Each on its own is small, but they add up, and each is another reason to stay in the EU.

So if someone asks you how the EU benefits them, you now have ten answers ready to go. Things we’d all rather have than not.

If climate change concerns you, Brexit should horrify you.

More than 70% of Brits think climate change is a more pressing long-term issue than Brexit. But no country can beat the climate crisis alone. International institutions like the EU are the only solution.

From record-breaking heatwaves in France and Germany to the extreme weather events plaguing both Asia and North America, the past year has seen the realities of climate crisis made painfully clear. It is no surprise, then, that Brits are waking up to the danger of inaction on climate change. They are not alone. 

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high-schooler turned climate activist, has inspired thousands of young people around the globe to create a ‘youth strike’ movement, demanding urgent action on climate change.

Fridays for Future march in Bonn, Germany. Photo: Mika Baumeister.

Similarly, Extinction Rebellion gained notoriety for their campaign of peaceful civil disobedience in London, and have since expanded to numerous countries. But protest alone won’t solve the climate crisis.

The EU helps countries stick to their commitments

As an international problem, climate change naturally requires an international response. A necessary first step towards achieving this is, of course, a shared desire to reduce carbon emissions. But desire is meaningless unless countries are able agree how to distribute responsibility and then to enforce such an agreement.

The US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the failure of subsequent climate summits illustrates that, even with the best will in the world, cooperation on climate change is doomed to failure without the right institutions. Goodwill only takes you so far – you also need solid rules, and that’s what the EU has.

The EU has proven capable of finding agreement on the distribution of responsibility and then seeing that everyone lives up to their commitments. Beyond its own borders, the EU is also a global leader on fulfilling and enforcing climate goals.

The EU was one of only a handful of jurisdictions to implement binding emissions targets in the initial 2008–2012 period of the Kyoto Protocol, and one of even fewer to do the same in the following 2012–2020 period. Unlike the United States, the EU remains party to the 2016 Paris Agreement.

EU measures to tackle climate change

Within its borders, the EU provides opportunities for more environmentally conscious member states to export successful national policies across the continent. This was the case in 2009, for example, when the Commission recommended the roll-out of ‘feed-in tariffs’ for renewable energy throughout the EU.

Feed-in tariffs, which award higher value contracts to renewable energy producers to accommodate higher costs, had long been used in countries like Germany, Portugal and Spain.

The issue of assigning responsibilities for emissions reductions was settled by the EU’s effort-sharing arrangements, agreed as part of the so-called “20-20-20” package. According to the legislation, by 2020 the EU will collectively reduce its emissions by 20%, increase energy efficiency by 20% and increase the share of renewable energy in the electricity supply to 20%.

More recently, incoming Commission President von der Leyen dedicated a central part of her pitch to MEPs to a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality in the EU by 2050.

Beneath these headline targets, each member state has its own legally binding targets, either higher or lower than the collective target depending on each member state’s relative wealth and thus their capacity to afford such changes.

Picture by Nicholas Raymond.

Unlike countries such as the US, EU member states are unable to withdraw from their climate commitments thanks to the primacy of European law over national law.

With the EU on track to meet its 2020 goals and soon to take on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, it’s clear that supranational structures like the EU offer the most effective venue for creating and implementing climate policies.

Where Europe has led, others have followed

As of 2013, the EU was responsible for 11% of global CO2 emissions, behind only the US and China. Europe-wide climate legislation can therefore make a great difference for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, while also providing a model on which other countries can base their own legislation.

Combined with the economic leverage accompanying the EU’s status as the world’s largest commercial market, this potential to lead by example has seen European climate policies replicated around the world.

For example, in 2005, the EU launched the world’s first greenhouse gas emissions trading system, which it strengthened in 2013. The European experiment was followed by subnational schemes in Japan and the US, with a national scheme set to go into operation in China next year.

In fact, China has frequently taken cues from the EU in its climate policy. Though still far from the world’s cleanest economy, China has followed the EU’s lead by replicating its energy efficiency labelling system, matching its energy efficiency target for 2020 and by basing its own vehicle emissions standards on those already established in Europe.

In 2005, the EU and China established a Partnership on Climate Change, and later agreed a €500 million loan to fund a raft of schemes aimed at tackling climate change in China.

Brexit Britain will be a polluter’s paradise

Following the rise of smaller parties, including the Greens, in the European elections, environmentalists now play a fundamental role in shaping the EU’s political agenda through the European Parliament.

Photo: Dunk / Flickr

It’s hard to imagine the same being true in Westminster, where smaller parties are penalised by the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, leaving the Greens with a sole MP despite their reasonably strong poll numbers.

Already a laggard by comparison to some member states, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU brings the danger that British efforts to reduce emissions will be scaled back. With an Environment Secretary who has consistently supported fracking and voted against measures to tackle climate change, the possibility of the UK backsliding on previous commitments is all too real.

In practice, Brexiteer promises of a bonfire of EU “red tape” could mean a loosening of emissions and energy efficiency standards, perhaps the end of emissions trading. Another frightening possibility is that the UK will follow the lead of Donald Trump by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

Even with the best intentions, an island of 60 million inhabitants bears only a fraction of the potential to influence global climate change policy as a continent of 500 million.

That there will no longer be a supranational body holding the British government to its word will make any future pledges all the less convincing – and the prospects for the planet all the more bleak.

Talk to your parents and grandparents – that will help us stop Brexit

The vote to leave the European Union in 2016 uncovered a host of demographic and geographic differences that had been bubbling away under the surface of British culture. Class differences, the urban-rural divide and regional differences were brutally exposed by the result of that vote.

But the biggest difference was the difference between the old and the young.

According to a YouGov poll published immediately afterwards, people aged 18-25 voted remain by a majority of 58 percentage points (79% to 21%), whilst those aged 64 and older voted leave by a 28-point margin (64% to 36%) – making the youngest age bracket 86 points more pro-Remain than the oldest.

Most families don’t discuss politics, so parents and grandparents went to the polls without knowing what their children and grandchildren wanted or why.

Brexit is an affront to young people

This is stunning, but there are good reasons for the high Remain vote amongst young people. There are ideological reasons that we hear about quite often. Young people as a group are, for the most part, liberal, left-wing and internationalist so it’s no surprise that Brexit – a right-wing, nationalist, socially conservative coup, proved so offensive to us in so many ways.

It’s often said that Britain’s bleak economic prospects prompted Brexit as a protest vote, but Brexit will make the issue much, much worse. This is also why any successful campaign to stop Brexit should include demands to bring health and education back under public control, to restore funding for the welfare state, and to put money into towns and villages that have been hit hard by high unemployment and low wages. But that’s another issue.

Dare to share your views

Boris Johnson blimp at a pro-EU march in London in July.

All of this is well documented. We know that young people are pro-EU and we know why. The issue is that when I go to pro-EU events, it’s a rarity that I’m not the youngest person in the room by at least 20 years. This situation is unsustainable: you can’t fight and win a campaign when the demographic groups that are most engaged are the ones who are most likely to oppose you.

This is not a new problem, of course, but there’s no reason why we can’t find a new solution. Social media has presented one, with more and more young people engaging with politics online. This, however, can only take us so far.

In my experience, the biggest part of the problem is our attitude towards discussing politics. For young people who are interested in politics, admitting to your friends that you take an interest and discussing your views is not a problem but showing it publicly, by going to meetings and events or posting on social media is.

I know what the views of my friends are on Brexit, on Jeremy Corbyn, on the Prime Minister, on the various political parties and a host of other major issues, but many other people in their lives – including their parents – don’t know because it can’t be discussed.

I find this attitude very odd. Politics is a familiar topic of conversation in my house. This proved particularly important at the referendum.

I don’t think my discussions with my family changed how they voted, as none of us ever considered voting Leave. Nonetheless, talking with my mother and particularly my grandmother about why I wanted Britain to remain was vital because it allowed me to be heard, even though I couldn’t vote. It allowed my grandmother to put those arguments to her friends and other family, and I like to think that it inspired my family to be even more active in the campaign against Brexit, both before and after the referendum.

Not malice but lack of awareness

There is a cruel irony that those who tell young people “you are the future” are the exact same people who voted to kill the future we wanted to create. This wasn’t done out of malice or anger, but out of a lack of awareness.

“You are the future.”

Because most families don’t discuss politics, parents and grandparents went to the polls in 2016 without knowing what their children and grandchildren wanted or why. I believe changing this is the key to finally defeating Brexit and healing our country once and for all.

If you are another young person reading this, talk to your parents and grandparents about Brexit. Ask them if they support it and what their reasoning is, and tell them why you don’t. Join your local pro-EU group. Post on social media about why you hold your views on Brexit. 

Get it out there in any way you can that this is not the future we want. Yes, this is our future, but we cannot do it alone. These conversations are key to getting our parents’ and grandparents’ support in creating the change we want to see.

If you are a parent or grandparent reading this, ask your children or grandchildren about Brexit, ask why they do or don’t oppose it, and find out why.

It is conversations like these that will allow us to defeat Brexit with the support of people of all ages, and finally allow Britain to begin the process of healing the wounds opened by that shocking and divisive referendum.

In 2016, Leicester City won the Premier League. Zara Holland was on Love Island. Feeling old yet?

Justin Timberlake, Zara Holland, Secret Life of Pets

On 23 June 2016, the top 3 singles on the UK Official Singles Chart were One Dance by Drake, This Girl by Kungs vs Cookin’ on 3 Burners, and Can’t Stop The Feeling by Justin Timberlake.

Mike Posner’s I Took A Pill In Ibiza was #10, Adele’s Send My Love To Your New Lover was #25 and Alan Walker’s Faded was #26. The Chainsmokers’ Don’t Let Me Down was #30. In 2016, the Grammy winners for the Best Dance Recording were Skrillex and Diplo, together with Justin Bieber.

In 2016, Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris were still dating. The Scotsman’s Celtic charm wore off around the time of the EU referendum, and soon afterwards Taylor Swift got together with Tom Hiddleston.

Zara Holland in August 2016. Photo: Century Black / Flickr.

On the small screen, the second series of Love Island aired in the summer of 2016. On 17 June, Zara Holland was stripped of her Miss GB title for having sex on TV. She walked out of the show on 19 June. Just in time to vote in the EU referendum, I suppose! Cara De La Hoyde and Nathan Massey went on to win the series.

On the big screen, meanwhile, the highest-grossing film in the UK and Ireland the weekend of 23 June 2016 was The Secret Life of Pets. (The first one, not the sequel.)

Nigel Farage proclaimed the day after the EU referendum “independence day”. Fitting, then, that the second-most popular film that week was Independence Day: Resurgence. While Brexiteers promised sunlit uplands, the film saw an insurgent alien force nearly destroy the world. Turns out Hollywood’s prediction of the future was more accurate than Farage’s.

In 2016, the British entry in the Eurovision Song Contest was Joe and Jake’s You’re Not Alone. The winner was Ukraine with Jamala’s 1944. Since then, Portugal, Israel and the Netherlands have all won the contest. Maybe 2020 will be the UK’s year! Hopefully the Eurovision fans flocking to London in 2021 will smuggle some fresh fruit for us to eat.

Leicester City, Andy Murray, Rio Olympics

In the Premier League, Leicester City were crowned the surprise winners of the 2015/16 season. The best goalkeeper of the season was Petr Čech. Frank Lampard, who played for New York City, retired at the end of the 2016 season.

Now Leicester has returned to mid-table obscurity, and Frank Lampard and Petr Čech have begun new careers in management and coaching. Or given that we’re talking about Chelsea, I guess I should say busing. *badum-tss* If only ‘parking the bus’ still conjured thoughts of Chelsea, instead of Boris Johnson and a £350 million porkie.

Leicester City score against Southampton in April 2016. Photo: LIHD Leicester City / Flickr

On 10 July 2016, Andy Murray won his second Wimbledon singles title. He would also be Team GB’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics the following month.

At those Olympics, Britain won an impressive 27 gold medals, placing second in the medal table behind the US. Second-biggest sporting nation in the world, right? Well, taken together the rest of the EU won 54 gold medals, placing ahead of the US’ 46. Maybe the EU don’t need us more than we need them, after all.

François Hollande, Barack Obama, Matteo Renzi

Don’t you wish Obama could’ve just stayed on for a few more years? (Photo: Voice of America)

In June 2016, Barack Obama was the President of the United States. Much like the UK, the US has seen some dramatic events since 2016, too. For example, there have been 1,148 mass shootings in the US since 23 June 2016. On a more cheerful note, Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was published on 13 November 2018 – one day before negotiations for Theresa May’s Brexit deal finished.

In June 2016, François Hollande was the President of France. David Cameron was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Remember those guys?

In June 2016, Matteo Renzi was the Prime Minister of Italy. Unfortunately for him, it seems he was taking tips from Dave: Renzi, too, lost a referendum in 2016. Unlike David Cameron, though, he didn’t step down but still fought a general election – and lost. This autumn, Italy and the UK are equally likely to have yet another election. Who said Brits and Italians have nothing in common?

“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband” -David Cameron on 4 May, 2015. (Photo: Global Panorama / Flickr)

In July 2016, Turkey was shaken by a failed military coup and by President Erdogan’s violent response. While Britain has spent the last three years arguing over Brexit, Erdogan has been busy purging Turkish military and civil service, and torturing political prisoners.

In case you hadn’t noticed, absolutely no-one is talking seriously about Erdogan’s Turkey joining the EU – though somehow Brexiteers keep bringing this idea up. With Brexiteers now taking aim at the very foundations of British democracy, let’s hope they aren’t taking their cues from Erdogan.

Harambe and bottle flip

Grim, eh? So let’s wrap this up with some memes from 2016.

In June 2016, it was cool to say “dicks out for Harambe”…

LittleT889 / Wikimedia Commons

…and everyone was flipping bottles.

At the end of 2016, people were posting about how long a year can feel.

That’s accurate – except that Brexit has been going on three times longer than that. Just make it stop already!

The fight against Brexit has taught life skills to countless Brits

Almost every cloud has a silver lining – even Brexit does. Shocked by that June 2016 referendum, the UK has developed the world’s strongest and most vibrant pro-European grassroots movement.

From ‘Cornwall for Europe’ all the way to ‘Highlands for Europe’, hundreds of volunteer-run campaign groups have gained strength in the past three years. Millions of Brits have taken action against Brexit – to take just one example, over six million signed the Revoke Article 50 petition.

The Remain cause has inspired countless of Brits to participate in civic life like never before. The pro-Brexit camp will never manage to mobilise as many ordinary people as the Remainers have done.

When the public learns by doing

A cause you believe in is the best possible motivation for learning new skills. The campaign culture that has developed around the fight against Brexit is rich: all conceivable tools have been mobilised for the cause. Petitions, protests, buses, letters to MPs, all manner of social media campaigns, marches, street actions, costumes. Campaigners learn from each other, and test their skills when engaging in local groups.

When thousands of citizens learn how to set up an outdoor stall or a small-scale demonstration, Britain’s democratic life grows stronger.

In the last three years, countless of Brits have made space for essential campaign equipment such as flags and leaflets in their homes. When thousands of citizens learn how to set up an outdoor stall, run a political campaign channel on social media or arrange small-scale demonstration, a country’s democratic life grows stronger.

The labyrinth that Brexit legislation is going through in Westminster is teaching interested citizens about the British political system in more detail than any school module could. A friend of mine pointed out how Google searches for the process of ‘proroguing’ the Parliament have exploded. Suddenly “everyone decided they need to know” what it means, he said.

Democracy isn’t done to us, it’s made by us

Photo: Alexandra Person

Brexiteer politicians keep repeating that going against this narrow three-year-old referendum result would undermine British citizens’ faith in democracy. To the contrary, the campaign to stay in the EU has done a great, deep service to British democracy.

The campaign has taught people how to participate. Like my friend says, “parts of Britain are starting to get to the point where the idea of democracy is that it’s done by the people, organised bottom-up rather than top-down”.

A lot of people have found out that “politics only seems completely impenetrable because it’s been dressed up that way”, he thinks. Indeed: Politics isn’t only about men in suits insulting each other in arcane language. It’s about speaking with your family and friends, and standing up for yourself when you need to.

Photo: Alexandra Person

This country’s inhabitants now spend more of their spare time on volunteering. By doing so, they’re gaining a whole array of skills: written and verbal communication, event organising, teamwork, graphic design, storing and transporting campaign materials, handicrafts, painting placards, and so on. Maybe these skills help Brits be more creative in their day jobs, too.

No matter what the outcome of the Brexit process is, the British economy and social fabric will emerge from it scathed. Millions of Brits have lost their tempers with each other. Relatives and long-time friends have fallen out over Brexit.

But in one way, the years-long Brexit rollercoaster has turned British people into stronger individuals. Thanks to the fight against Brexit, Brits are now more skilled than before – and more prepared to stand up for themselves when needed.

This article is an adapted version of a text published on The New Federalist.

Mental health research relies on collaboration. We can’t afford to miss out on EU support

Six weeks ago, I attended a departmental meeting on the impact of Brexit on research funding. Amidst all the uncertainty I remember one statement very clearly: “If we leave without a deal, we will no longer be able to apply for European Research Council grants“.

After that meeting, I felt upset, annoyed and confused (and a little hungry, it was a long meeting). But most of all, I wanted to better understand what this statement meant, so I did what I’m paid to do – a bit of research! Here’s how the EU benefits mental health research, the area I work in.

Plugging the UK’s funding gap

Mental health research, regrettably, remains chronically underfunded. With only 6% of the UK’s annual health care budget allocated to mental health, we rely on our European partners to fill the gap. The EU is the largest single funder of mental health research anywhere in Europe and the eighth-largest funder globally.

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received €8.8 billion of EU science funding. Impressive as these numbers are, I’ve never seen them mentioned in the British media. Why is that?

What’s more, the EU’s Horizon 2020 project made nearly €80 billion available in research funding between 2014 and 2020. The UK has coordinated more projects than any other country in the Horizon 2020 programme – opportunities that would not have been available without the European Union. To me this is such a vivid example of being ‘Stronger In’.

This includes the European mental health research agenda. I’m not sure about you, but considering the prevalence of mental health issues and the lack of access to services, that’s something I quite like the sound of.

“I remember the adverts on local buses”

From 2014 to 2018, I worked at the Mood Disorders Centre at the University of Exeter. The MoodFOOD trial that got €9.8 million from the European Commission studied the role of diet and lifestyle changes in preventing depression, and Exeter was one of the four European places running the trial. The other partners were German, Dutch and Spanish.

I remember the trial being awarded to Exeter: it was the biggest trial running in our centre, bringing a whole new team of staff, and an exciting opportunity for 250 participants to take part in. I remember seeing leaflets in GP surgeries, adverts on local buses and interviews on local radio stations. The project had a huge impact on our department, our university and the city of Exeter.

The University of Exeter has since been awarded another project, worth €3.9 million. This project looks to create a mobile application to help young people monitor and learn about their emotions. The ECOWEB project is a vital piece of research, considering the growing rates and earlier onset of mental health problems among young people. Again, this funding will allow a huge number of young people in Devon the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research. 

European research funding gives UK patients, the public and organisations an opportunity to deploy the widest range of innovative new treatments. It’s vital that we don’t cut ourselves off from these hugely beneficial pan-European research opportunities.

EU nationals are at the heart of British research

Scientific research also benefits hugely from the free movement of labour. EU freedom of movement allows researchers and clinicians to work in any member state. One in six of all academic staff at UK universities are non-UK EU nationals.

All research projects I’ve been a part of have benefited greatly from EU students, as well as interns and students on Erasmus placement schemes.

Leaving the European Union risks losing some of the brightest minds to other countries.

Leaving the European Union risks losing some of the brightest minds to other countries which still enjoy European funding. Already before the 2016 referendum, the House of Lords warned that “researcher mobility must be protected if UK science and research is to remain world-leading”.

The UK undertakes more mental health studies than any other country in Europe, and my own place of work is the largest institution. However, we do not want UK science to become isolated.

Research into psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience is a collaborative enterprise, one the EU is at the heart of. We cannot allow UK researchers to be sidelined from leading mental health research as a result of Brexit.

Multinational studies are renowned for providing the most valuable and robust research. A multi-nation union that facilitates that is therefore essential for the future for our continent. Let’s fight for our place inside it.

Brexit would leave disabled people like me caged and vulnerable

I’m autistic and have ADHD, something which has its advantages but also its challenges. I have a strong sense of morality and a passion for what I believe in. I also have strong attention to detail and aim to do my best while overcoming my additional challenges.

For disabled people, international travel presents presents many obstacles.

These challenges include social situations, sensory difficulties, as well as organisational issues. Dealing with added barriers for anything can be a huge challenge. Yet like many non-disabled people, I’ve always wanted to travel and work abroad, despite the obstacles.

Without EU free movement, moving is a huge undertaking

As a part of my degree I completed a year abroad in Japan. It’s important to note this exchange to Japan was not a part of the Erasmus+ programme. This involved a lot of extra preparation such as visa applications, and getting an import certificate for my medication in advance. For somebody who has difficulties with executive function (being able to start and do things) and organisation, this was a huge undertaking.

I had to start confidently using the phone as much as I could. I had to prepare trips to London by myself, something which terrified me.

I succeeded and it helped me grow as a person, but I also realised something important: it shouldn’t have to be this way. This is a sentiment many European countries share. This is why free movement is one of the EU’s main principles.

Brits don’t have to worry about visa applications. We can just book a flight, pack our stuff and go. If an EU citizen relocates for a long-term stay for work, we just have to notify the host country’s local government. Wheelchair and other aid users also get added protections on flights, which is essential since many airport staff still mishandle wheelchairs, leading to frequent breakages.

“Anything else would bankrupt me”

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) helps reduce basic medical fees abroad, as it gives any cardholder basic access to that country’s healthcare system. It’s important to remember that being disabled is expensive. We have to pay more for support, whether this is household aids or social care staff. Many of us can’t even get insured for pre-existing conditions in countries like the US. Having a medical emergency in another country is therefore a nightmare scenario for many of us.

My own experience of this was having to pay a few thousand yen to get my toenail stuck back down when I accidentally almost cut it off while in Japan. This may sound minor, but it hit home for me how important universal healthcare coverage is. Anything else would bankrupt me.

It also made me realise how important the EHIC is – had I been in the EU, the EHIC could have covered that treatment. This scared me and triggered meltdowns which, when you’re an autistic 20-year-old woman in a foreign country where autism understanding is generally poor, are quite risky, to say the least.

French version of the European Health Insurance Card. Photo: Antoine Fleury-Gobert / Wikimedia Commons

After returning from my year abroad, I had the opportunity to go on my first Erasmus+ social exchange in Sofia, Bulgaria. This was one of the best experiences of my life, because I had the chance to visit a part of the world I wouldn’t have otherwise. I also got to meet other Europeans and learn more about how the EU works directly from EU staff.

These are the kind of opportunities my generation want to take advantage of, including disabled people. We don’t want them taken away, which would likely be the case under ‘no deal’. Disabled people have a right to equal opportunities and the necessary support to enjoy these experiences.

For disabled people, Brexit is a matter of life and death

This is before mentioning the more serious stuff, like how the EU adds an additional layer of accountability which the UK government sorely needs, having been investigated by the UN more than once for good reason.

Many disabled people also have limited movement, so leaving the country simply isn’t an option, leaving them at the mercy of the British government. There is also the issue of medication, with the EU supply chain at risk in the event of ‘no deal’. This will be fatal for some, especially those requiring life-saving treatment.

As you add these things up, staying in the EU is essential for disabled Brits. The extra protection and accessibility aid we have as EU members help make things accessible for us. I say ‘accessible’ and not ‘easier’ because accessibility is a necessity, not a perk. ‘Easier’ implies that people can do without this added support, when in reality this often isn’t true.

I deserve my say in this conversation

For me, relocating to the EU may be my only chance to move to a foreign country because my autism diagnosis could be used to deny me permanent residency under typical immigration rules. This is very common for people with various types of disabilities, such as chronic illnesses. Erasmus+ social exchanges are what I need to help me affordably explore my continent, while also meeting others in a structured setting.

As I learnt more about the EU and related disability issues, my passion never wavered. I’m a disabled young British person, and people like me deserve our say in this conversation, as we will have to live with the consequences of Brexit the longest.

This is especially important for us, as we are among the most vulnerable groups – some people don’t even believe young people can be disabled. As more comes to light regarding how Brexit will affect the most disadvantaged people in this country, is it any wonder that so many are now calling for Brexit to be stopped?

EU citizenship: Breaking out of Brexit Britain

EU citizenship is something we have all taken for granted at some point in our lives, whether we like to admit it or not. Born in Staffordshire and raised in Yorkshire, I grew up in a Franco-British household, first experiencing freedom of movement as a newborn baby when visiting relatives in northern France.

I was aware of English populism and the general resentment some had towards other nationalities from a young age. At school, I was often called ‘the French kid’, despite being known as ‘the British guy’ everywhere else in the world. But I was also aware of how lucky I was to be a dual national.

My grandfather, who would go on to back Brexit in 2016, reminded me of the gifts that would come my way thanks to my bilingual upbringing. Back then, my mixed heritage was not something I wished to discuss, but I have since learned to embrace it as a result of the many opportunities that it has afforded me.

At school, I was often called ‘the French kid’, despite being known as ‘the British guy’ everywhere else in the world.

My parents, who both worked for decades as university lecturers with backgrounds in modern languages, taught my brothers and me about the importance of multilingualism and the pleasures of travelling to other countries.

The gift of language learning

I was studying German and Spanish at school when I had my first taste of the adventurous life of working abroad. As a result of my language lessons, I did a week of work experience in Segovia, Spain, as a retail assistant in one of the local music shops.

Fast forward one year and I was studying Modern European Languages at the University of Liverpool. Here I picked up Portuguese, keen to later find work internationally with a variety of languages under my belt. Together with French and Spanish, Portuguese opened the gateway to other Romance languages such as Catalan, Italian, and even Romanian.

My time at university brought me further opportunities to live and study in mainland Europe. I moved to Porto, Portugal, to teach English at a secondary school and then to Universidad de Alicante, Spain, to study translation and literature. While the British Council helped to fund my time in Portugal on the Comenius programme, my study in Spain was part of Erasmus, two schemes that provide participants with monthly EU funding to support their student lifestyle in a different country. 

My year abroad was the first time I had been away from England for more than a couple of weeks. Immersing myself in another culture was, of course, daunting. I missed my family and friends, and the unfamiliarity of Porto and Alicante made me begin to worry about my conversational Portuguese and Spanish. However, I soon made a diverse group of friends and regained confidence. After that, life abroad was a thrill!

Little did I know how fragile the elements that had brought me there — internationalism, freedom of movement, and British participation in EU programmes — would become in just a few years’ time.

The power of a passport

Photo: Karen Bryan / Europe a la Carte

After graduating, I worked in international sales for a small company based in Yorkshire, specialising in exports to France, Germany, Ireland and Spain. This company is a prime example of an SME that will suffer the consequences of Britain leaving the single market. Although I was not keen on cold-calling and could not work up much enthusiasm for the pest control products we were manufacturing, I did get to travel on a monthly basis, visiting clients and attending exhibitions across Europe.

Once again, travel and languages were my mainstay. I decided to study for a postgraduate degree in order to broaden my professional horizons. I enrolled on a three-part multilingual business Masters that allowed me to live in Spain and France, in addition to the UK.

My citizenship allowed me to study and work throughout Europe without any bureaucracy or constraints. By contrast, I also saw the difficulties imposed on classmates coming from East Asia, North Africa, and Latin America when it came to dealing with an exhausting visa process, having to apply well in advance and pay extortionate amounts of money just to be able to study for a short duration in another country.

While I later experienced this myself when working for a Hong Kong law firm, I did find my EU passport very useful for visa-free travel of up to three months around some Asia-Pacific countries. This enabled me to discover cultures, try new foods, and make everlasting friendships.

My dream job: Defending the rights that brought me here

As well as having the freedom to live, travel, study and work in any EU country, I currently cohabit with my Canadian partner in Brussels, Belgium: another right I enjoy as an EU citizen. My language skills and rights as an EU citizen have allowed me to work across the world, and, because of the opportunities they have afforded me, I am delighted to now be working for the European Commission.

I use my position to share news on the benefits that EU investment has brought each of its member states, while combatting any disinformation spread by the British tabloids, where populist mentalities seem to persist.

I find it difficult to take pride in something that happened purely by chance, but I do feel fortunate to have been raised in the UK. Even though my dual nationality gave me some grief during my upbringing, my dual citizenship has ultimately led me to where I am today: in my dream job, defending the rights and opportunities that have brought me here.

EU flag fluttering by wind above Barcelona

My British passport will gather dust if Brexit goes ahead

Amid the chaos of Brexit Britain, the recent acquisition of a French passport is my ticket out of this mess. I am sad that my British passport will gather dust if Brexit goes ahead. I am sad for those who share progressive and forward-thinking values of peace and unity, as well those who, seeing no alternative, voted for an uncertain and destructive future. Their rights — the rights that I have benefitted from and enjoyed — are being taken away.

Language skills and the opportunity to use them across the EU have built my career, my relationships, and also my identity. As Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’

I am thankful for my dual citizenship and lucky to have been offered a lifeline at a time when protectionism is worshipped and isolation is celebrated. My citizenship is who I am, and without it, I probably would never have moved out of my hometown. That realisation chills me to the bone.