By Adam Scott, Robert Mullane and Kate Ironside

Journalism students and lecturers from the University of Northampton in the UK travelled to Berlin to report the Cities for Europe conference. Northamptonshire voted by 59% to 41% to leave the European Union. The area has repeatedly elected some of the most hardline Brexiteers to the House of Commons. Here are the reflections of the university’s students and staff on the messages from the conference.

Europe – a historical victory

By Adam Scott

For the past three years, Britain has been a well of negativity and pessimism. How can it not be, with the constant talk of Brexit and the snide and hateful remarks between politicians? Even when we get some good news, there always seems to be some caveat to go along with it. Which is why it was a refreshing change of pace to get a sense of optimism for a change, and it came from the very place that we, as a country, are trying to leave.

You see in November, I and several of my fellow journalism students were invited to Berlin to attend a conference focussing on building Europe from the bottom up. The experience could not have been more different from the depressing atmosphere that has taken hold of Britain. While there was some talk of Brexit and the rise of far-right nationalism, the focus of the conference was on how to improve Europe and make the Union even better.

It was during a workshop session focusing on local history that I encountered the group, History of Optimism. With a name like that I was intrigued, just what were they about? As it turned out, they focused on the pivotal events that shaped the European Union, in ’89 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and ’04 with the enlargement of the European Union. They focussed on the feeling of optimism that occurred after those events happened and, more specifically, how to reignite those feelings.

Being at a conference like this, where everybody’s main goal is cooperation and unity is certainly jarring coming from Britain. As Europe is looking to work together, we are looking to tear each other down, it us against them, leave against remain, pro Europe against anti Europe. The referendum three years ago did more than divide us from Europe, it divided us, the British people and after this conference, it’s caused us to become filled with negativity. I have to say, we are mad for wanting to leave this, for lack of a better term, family.

Why should I care?

By Robert Mullane

Students from the University of Northampton in the UK reported from the Cities for Europe Conference in Berlin.

Why should I care about what the European Union does? Regardless of whether or not individuals voted remain or leave, I know this question is on the mind of many of us here in the UK, as we meander towards a Brexit. 

So the Cities for Europe: Europe from the bottom-up conference should have been a waste of time, but it wasn’t. After the introductory session, I attended the ‘Festivals, Cities, Europe: How to strengthen the alliance?’ group where the attendees spoke on how the EU works with venues and actively funds and advises events across its member states. It was interesting to learn the amount of work that not only goes into events like this but into the planning of new ways member states can work to solve common problems such as racism through festivals.

At the end of the conference when the ideas for future projects were pitched, it was easy to see the scale of the event. Over one hundred Mayors, festival leaders, MEPs and other politicians and influential people gathered to work on how to make Europe stronger and to address future issues and ideas.

Personally, I found this event offered an amazing opportunity to experience a full press conference and to report not only on the event itself but to find fascinating interviews from the attendees on a wide range of important matters that went well beyond the immediate subject matter of the conference.  

Bridging the divide, defending core values

By Kate Ironside, senior lecturer

Politicians need to tell the truth. That was one of the pertinent points Emil Boc made in his address at the Cities for Europe conference. As a Brit, one could only offer a wry smile.

The phenomenon that Boc identified, of national and local politicians lambasting the European Union for failures whilst gaily taking the credit for its successes is not just a British problem – although our version may be particularly acute. And it went to the heart of the trickiest problem with which the conference wrestled – how to tackle the disconnect between the ordinary citizen and the European institutions. Europe is coming together in shock after Brexit, but as the shock fades, that disconnect will remain to be tackled.

It matters because of the threat to values many of us took for granted after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Boc, Luca Jahier and Karl-Heinz Lambertz eloquently argued, the very fundamentals of parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and tolerance are now being challenged. That is, as Lambertz acknowledged, shocking.

In the UK, anti-semitism is on the rise, populist politicians pitch the people vs parliament, long-standing parliamentary conventions are torn up and political debate has descended, too often, into vicious verbal assault. Social media has become a toxic arena of hatred.

Again, these problems are not unique to the UK. As one speaker argued, Europe can no longer complacently debate how much it prioritises work on the environment over the social contract when its most fundamental values are being challenged. The battle to convince those who feel disconnected must be prioritised. And that will involve showing the disconnected that the European structures and its values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance can work for them. And if they are not working, then European leaders need to reflect why not and fix the problem before it is too late. We in the UK have, to our cost, much to reflect upon. It is pertinent, perhaps, to close with the words of the English poet John Donne, writing in 1624:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

Whatever EU-UK relationship our respective political leaders agree upon, rest assured that there are many in the UK who will want to work closely and supportively with our European friends on the common issues we all face – on the environment, security and trade – and to stand shoulder to shoulder with you to protect those fundamental values set out in the European Convention of Human Rights. Let the dialogue between us, so evident at the Cities for Europe conference, continue.