AUGUST LEADER – We have to save the EU by asking some hard questions


It’s been a difficult summer. The UK voted to leave the EU, and I’m heartbroken. As much as I’ve tried to rationalise what has happened, grief can still overwhelm me.

I am a child of Europe and was born in Switzerland to British parents. We lived in Italy until I was six, at which point we moved to Brussels. Four years later we moved on to Copenhagen, where we decided to settle. I turn 32 later this month and, apart from seven years in the UK at university, have lived here ever since.

In Copenhagen, I went to school with the children of ambassadors and chief executives at one of the world’s oldest international schools. There were more than 50 nationalities represented at the school, but we belonged to the same class – privileged.

The same doesn’t go for the young Europeans I meet in Copenhagen these days. Most come from ordinary middle class backgrounds. Many are here temporarily. Many others have learned Danish, found jobs and are settling down with Danish partners.

It makes me angry when the EU is presented as an elitist project that solely benefits a neoliberal minority. This is what MP Pernille Skipper, political spokesperson of the far-left Enhedslisten, had to say about the EU following the Brexit vote:

“The EU system creates the perfect conditions for the growth of xenophobia and right-wing populism […] The combination of an unregulated market, the expansion to the East, and lack of efforts to combat pressure on wages is a poisonous cocktail that strikes the lowest layers of society and plays people against each other.”


This kind of rhetoric makes me furious. The EU has opened up a whole new level of solidarity. No longer restricted to their own labour market, workers can go where their skills are needed. In the time since Poland joined the EU in 2004, and their workers were given full access to the European market, their GDP has more than doubled.

Still, there are millions of people across Europe who can’t find work. Jobs have been automated and factories closed and moved abroad. The EU is an easy scapegoat, but these changes were coming anyway, and Denmark would be a worse place to live if it had closed its economy to the rest of the world to keep factories at home.

Globalisation is here to stay, and the jobs aren’t coming back. So how do we make the most of belonging to a globalised economy, while investing in people, especially the most vulnerable? I’m not sure, but challenging needless austerity – on the national and the EU level – is a starting point, and thankfully there are pan-European projects such as DIEM25 that are taking this up.

Still, the issues Europeans worry about most are immigration and terrorism, according to the latest Eurobarometer poll. The UK referendum on EU membership was lost on immigration, not the economy, and The Economist found that the areas of the UK that have seen the greatest increases in immigration over the past 15 years voted the most overwhelmingly to leave the EU.


This needs to be taken seriously. EU supporters like myself can no longer just tell people that they need to put up with seeing their communities change rapidly, while these changes bring them little economic benefit. I still think they should blame their national parliaments for the lack of investment in jobs and welfare. But the fact is that they blame the EU and, unless the EU is seen to take action, they will increasingly vote for populist parties that would happily unravel the EU in an attempt to return to a pre-globalised Europe of sovereign nation states. And when that happens, we will lose our ability to tackle the really big issues facing Europe and the world.

So I need to put my feelings aside and ask some hard questions. Am I willing to make some symbolic compromises to shore up support for the EU project, such as modest changes to free movement, restrictions on welfare for travelling workers before they establish residency, or beefed up policing around the EU’s outer border?

Let’s get on the front foot and take seriously the concerns of Europeans about their future. Only then can we preserve an EU that will allow future generations of Europeans the freedom and opportunity it was built for in the first place. M0307

News, Commentary

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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