I had no idea what European Studies were. I just didn’t want to spend four years studying Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo and Camus. Son of a railwayman, my France was shaped by high-speed trains, snow-capped mountains, topless beaches, French exchanges and cheeky smokes. It was not about literature and philosophy. So I scoured the land for European Studies courses and found myself at the New University of Ulster in Coleraine. And along with a chunk of European history, I discovered the European Economic Community. I met Unionist MEP John Taylor in Brussels who raved about a European Union-funded high-speed rail tunnel under the Irish Sea. I saw the European Parliament in action. I saw the wonders of the nations seeking to work for a common good. And I was converted!
What changed? Well we never did. Unlike schools across the Continent, since joining the EU we never put the EU on the curriculum. Few schools ever visited to see the reality or to be inspired. Language teachers were more concerned by spelling idiosyncrasies and grammar neatly ordered than by soaring ideals and grasping new opportunities. Yes to “British” values, but despite the evident plurality of our societies, nothing on our common European values.
This autumn I start training as a teacher. I have worked for 25 years in the charity sector. I have travelled the world. My French has enabled me to build bridges and break down barriers. The biggest challenge is ahead: to defeat Brexit. And we must start with education. Perhaps looking on from outside we will better value what we have lost. Poorer in material wealth, perhaps, like our French neighbours, we will reflect on more important things. Spiritual, moral, philosophical and good neighbourly wealth. The battle against poverty was one I thought needed to be fought in Africa. However, when it comes to what matters for a healthy society, we in Britain are the ones who are poor. Our African and European neighbours have riches we need to learn of. And fast.