By Katharina Schmitz.
I am a European. Yes, the flag, the law and the parliament frame my reality. We are all tired of the B-word. But on Brexit day, I was in genuine grief. My friends say I have a cold German heart and rough German humour, so I am not a sentimental or romantic person. This is not one of those comment pieces, arguments or analyses flooding your newspapers and news feeds. I was simply asked to explain why on earth I was so emotionally invested. My Scottish and English friends and I realised that our lived realities of the EU are fundamentally different.
When I am home in the EU, on the ‘continent’, I only realise that I’ve crossed a border when the signs are suddenly in another colour and language and, as a German, because of the terribly annoying speed limits on highways. Mind you, every city or state sign is genuinely eight times bigger than those wee signs indicating, say, the ‘Česká Republika’. These borders do not matter when I cross them. Yet, within ten minutes I am surrounded by a beautiful, diverse, unique culture and language. (Because newsflash: open borders do not homogenise people and cultures. I am still fanatically missing local dishes cooked by my mum, the smell of the Black Forest, and don’t even get me started on bread).
For as long as I can remember, every couple of months my mum and I would quickly drive over to Strasbourg, France, for a day, and shop for groceries in a hypermarché on the way back. As a child, this meant a boring long wait for mum to choose wine, a car smelling of cheese for days, and the joy of massive croissant boxes. My entire life is shaped by the German- French friendship. Language courses, multiple exchanges, study trips, and twin city celebrations. No German team left to support? Then, we go for the French one‒ voilà! I completed my undergraduate studies in picturesque Passau, which is close to the Czech and directly at the Austrian border. This means that every day I would (accidentally) walk my dog into Austria, whereupon my phone would switch networks multiple times. Also, one of the student residences was in Austria because it was nearer to the university than other parts of the city. I fuelled my car there because it is cheaper and just a five-minute drive. On the weekends, we would drive to the Czech Republic to get the best beer and cheap cigarettes. Not just my dog with her French EU pet passport, but my entire education was facilitated, and co- funded, by the EU. Brexit makes me heartbroken. I am not naïve when I say that the EU is not a project or an economic framework. It is home. And because it is home, I am furious about its problems, and I am all engaged in re-creating it. I am aware that it is also due to a German self-legitimising narrative that I identify as European. Still, this does not make my daily experiences less real.
A European identity is by no means mandatory to have or restricted to EU-nationals; by no means is my understanding or story representative either‒ nor is it special. The privileged lifestyle was not based on money (my mum is a single full-time working mum), but it just happened to be in that way. My European identity has a lot to do with the stories of others, of elders, in the border-regions. Accounts of war and atrocities, stories of hate and fear, memories of walls and dictatorships. Stories of borders – now open – where once you could be shot for trying to cross. So these open borders are a gift, not a threat. Closing them seems to me as a threat because of my personal, subjective and emotional experience.
This is the reality I come from – a reality of friendship. There is so much nastiness and despair surrounding Brexit day. But we all have it in our power to meet each other on common ground. So, let us be cheesy and unite in diversity (with or without EU-passport).