So today is the day when our country leaves the European Union. Our yellow star falls from the blue background of the European flag. Many will be celebrating. I feel sad. I know there are some good reasons why leaving might seem like a positive option. I accept the democratic verdict of the small but decisive majority of our population. Still I am sad.
For most of my working life I have taught European students, worked with European colleagues and been welcomed into the homes of ordinary Europeans. Their contributions to my life have been enormous. My fear is that my country will retreat behind the white cliffs of Dover.
Monday was Holocaust Memorial Day. This week also marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were filled with people who had been herded into ghettoes in countless European cities and obliged to wear a yellow star of David bearing the word ‘Jude’ – Jew. It was meant to signify that these people were different, sinister, inferior – a threat to Aryan purity. It was permissible to revile and brutalize them, and in the end exterminate them.
Now let me be clear. I am not making any comparison between the events of 1945 and 2020 commemorated or celebrated this week. But in my mind, there is a link - the yellow star. During World War II the yellow star was designed to separate, to intimidate, to vilify. The yellow star on the flag of the European Union is a symbol of connectedness, of mutual respect, of friendship. An aspiration which has often fallen short of the mark but a worthy aspiration nevertheless. It has involved huge effort over the last 45 years but produced a good harvest of co-operation between all sorts of agencies – police, technology, education, medicine and more.
Such co-operation will no doubt continue albeit with more administrative obstacles. But I cannot help but feel that today something important is being lost. And we may not know for some time exactly what that something is.
The impulse to connect has its risks of course. The impulse to separate has its own risks – greater ones, I would say. One of the greatest risks is the loss of respect for those we consider ‘not one of us’. If you want an example of this watch the final appearance of Union Jack-waving Brexit MEPS at their last appearance in the European Parliament. A moment of shame.
All of these developments in our country’s relationship with the now 27 member states take place remotely from us. They are beyond our reach. But as our yellow star of connectedness falls today, we can resolve one thing. That we will welcome, engage with, respect, enjoy our friends from Europe even though connecting can sometimes be difficult. There is no resisting a generous spirit. Let the yellow star be a sign that we wish to be connected.