What the European Union has meant to us

Ed O’Brien
Musician, Radiohead

Being part of the EU means being part of a world reaching out, embracing other cultures and ideas. The little island mentality makes no sense when you look at our history. The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons are from Europe, the Normans from Norway via France. We’re part of Europe however much some of us pretend that we’re not.

Growing up in Britain, I’d rarely met people from other places in Europe. When I started touring in 1993, freedom of movement enabled so many different connections for us. We took for granted all the cross-cultural pollination we experienced, all those cities we got to explore. We weren’t great when we started, and those experiences shaped us. Economic borders and boundaries get in the way of creativity, as well as live performance.

The EU has been brilliant for the arts. The EU copyright directive brought in last year stuck up for artists against big tech companies [it now limits how copyrighted content is shared online]. That could have only happened with a big, powerful union – one country couldn’t have done that alone. I worry about how quotas will affect the number of bands that can tour – young and upcoming musicians will be so badly affected. Lots of vinyl is produced in Europe too, and we still don’t know what the tariffs will be.

There’s also a sense of respect for musicians across the EU that we just don’t have here. Even with Radiohead: we’re held up as artists across Europe, but you sense that the government still thinks of us as a bunch of people having a laugh bashing away at three chords. Musicians are trying to communicate something much bigger than that. The EU to me is about that expression, about a love of culture and togetherness, enjoying all our differences under one umbrella together.

John Palmer, photographed at home in London.

John Palmer, photographed at home in London. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

John Palmer
Former Guardian Europe
editor (1974-1996) and founder/political director of the European Policy Centre

The EU was so much of my working life. I first went to Brussels in 1974, when there were only nine member states – Britain, Ireland and Denmark had just joined. Early on, I remember endless overnight summits about herring quotas, and the news desk rather dutifully taking my copy, but the pace of events sped up with the decades because of enlargement and the succession of treaties. In 10 years, the press centre went from a few hundred people to many thousands. I remember three Mexican TV channels with their own correspondent. That’s just one measure of the rapid expansion of this particular political universe.

To me, the EU meant travel: I’ve been to all 27 member states, as meetings used to rotate around the different countries. The union showed how ideas from smaller countries could affect things, such as Sweden’s openness with its law, and Ireland’s political situation.

More of an anti-European populist current came after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Daily Telegraph had taken a pretty sober approach to the EU until it sent its new blond-haired correspondent – he’d recently lost his job on the Times for making up stories. He asked me about the European commission president, Jacques Delors, and about British and French plans to coordinate European defence policy, a story I’d done. The next day, the Telegraph ran a big splash under the headline: “Delors to run Europe’s army”.

Boris Johnson knew what he was doing, of course. He was operating on the fringes of populist reporting and fantasy. And here we are.

If you’d told me back in 1974 that in my dotage I’d be seeing us leave the EU, I’d have said that was impossible. Mad. I wouldn’t have thought the EU would have been so developed, nor that Britain would wash its hands of the EU. The EU is such a major sphere for Britain’s influence. Retreating from it will lead to a spiral of decline. This will get worse if the shock of Brexit starts to see Scotland and Wales break away, and cause Ireland to reunify, all of which could happen.

Britain was always such an important telephone exchange between the US and Europe, too. Now they’re going to ring straight through.

Giorgio Locatelli.

Giorgio Locatelli. Photograph: Mike Lawn/REX/Shutterstock

Giorgio Locatelli

The EU completely changed how British people eat, which means a lot to me. I came to London on an EU green card in 1995, and after certification arrived [from the European Food Safety Agency, founded in 2002 to guarantee food safety and quality], the quality of speciality food coming in from across Europe went up and up, as did quantity and choice.

Restaurants could suddenly bring in a fantastic new small producer of, say, salumi, who could sort out their own certification and then get their product to the UK smoothly. That knowledge then trickles down to the supermarkets and the consumers themselves. Driving up quality educates us all.

The movement of ingredients is very important to restaurants such as ours, but we still don’t know what the tariffs will be. We must remember the UK imports 30% of its food from the EU, and 85% of that food will face tariffs. That’s why Brexit will be a killer for everybody working within the food industry, for the supermarkets, for the supply chain and the farming community.

I was in my 20s when the Berlin Wall came down and Europe started opening up. Now I worry about my English wife being stuck in the passport queue while I sail through with my European one, and that’s crazy to me.

The UK thinking about leaving Erasmus [the EU student exchange programme] is also something I can’t understand. Get young people from Europe to come here! They’ll go home and talk about the respect they’ve gained for Britain, respect that will become embedded in the very idea of our country, which will grow. That respect is why Britain has always been seen as a great leader of European culture, music and everything else. To dismantle all that seems ridiculous to me.

Sarah Chapman and her partner Ron Peeters.

Sarah Chapman and her partner Ron Peeters. Photograph: Courtesy of Sarah Chapman

Sarah Chapman and Ron Peeters
Professional viola player; sound engineer

I’m from Cheshire and my boyfriend is from a small town just south of Utrecht in the Netherlands. We got together two years ago, working for the Heritage Orchestra, which is run from the UK, but tours round Europe. The EU allowed us to work together, and to be together, back and forth.

Right from the start of our relationship, Brexit was on our minds. I was hanging on to the hope that it wouldn’t happen, that there’d be one disaster after another, and everyone would come to their senses. I had rose-tinted glasses on until six months ago. It has been awful. My boyfriend still doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to work in Britain. His friends say we’re the laughing stock of Europe. They share memes of Boris Johnson on his chair on the edge of a cliff in a jokey way, but it’s way more serious than that. This summer, I applied for Dutch residency, as it felt like it was the only option I had. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming.

It feels like there is no respect for creative people, or for anyone wanting to have a bigger view of the world, in the considerations about leaving Europe. Who wants to be stuck on a little island floating off by itself into the North Sea? I keep thinking about the EU Youth Orchestra, which I played with, and how much I loved the feeling of being included in a European community at a young age. It used to be run from the UK. It has now moved to Italy. That’s all gone, and now I’m going too.

Sunny Singh photographed at home in north London.

Sunny Singh photographed at home in north London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Sunny Singh
Professor of
creative writing and inclusion in the arts, London Metropolitan University

I’m a migrant to the EU from India. My PhD is from Spain, and I’ve lived, studied and taught all across the EU, having access to so many libraries, classes and intellectuals. The idea of choosing to actively shut yourself off from 27 countries and all the resources – not just money – is mind-boggling.

There is lots about the EU that I don’t agree with, don’t get me wrong. The euro shouldn’t have been introduced and expanded in the way it was. It may have served a political purpose, but it also doomed some economies, such as Greece, into a trap they couldn’t get out of. The EU turning into Fortress Europe by outsourcing human rights violations, especially in regards to the refugee issue, is shameful. So is the way it expanded eastwards to include countries that did not meet democratic and human rights thresholds, like Poland. Many EU countries bought into the aspirational logic that if you let people into your club they’ll be nudged towards democratic norms, which I didn’t agree with then, and don’t now. Ultimately, genocidal, fratricidal war on this continent led to the founding of the EU. Let’s not forget that.

But let’s not forget the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Court of Justice, major protections for everyone in the EU. Do they work perfectly? Of course not. But certain principles hold firm.

The EU also offered many opportunities for British students in redbrick and new universities, especially the working classes. Those doors have been slammed shut for them.

Then there’s the impact of the loss of EU funding, and entire towns around Britain that rely on these universities and student income. EU students aren’t coming here in numbers any more. But why would anybody choose to come to study in a country so culturally and intellectually impoverished, that chose to make itself so? I find it appalling that in a world that’s inextricably connected – as Covid and the vaccine have shown – we’re prancing off into a self-isolation hellhole. Any kind of cultural, creative intellectual wealth requires open doors, open minds. It requires interaction with the world.


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