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When European Politics Becomes Personal

As the United Kingdom has hurtled ever closer to the Brexit cliff, once-abstract notions of a transcendent European identity have gained substance, and millions of people who still believe in the European project have come out in support of it. The question now is whether the European idea can win out over resurgent nationalism.

ATHENS – More often than not, Europe is invoked in abstract terms, such as when politicians argue that European sovereignty is the only path to security in a world dominated by great powers. But as the original Brexit deadline (March 29) drew nearer these past few weeks, the idea of a European identity became more concrete; the political suddenly became personal. Behind the cacophony of parliamentary arguments over “backstops” and “indicative” and “meaningful” votes, there are some 16 million British “Remain” voters who are in deep fear of losing their EU citizenship.

Some of those Remainers no doubt participated in the march in London for a “People’s Vote” last weekend, which drew more than one million people and represented the greatest public outpouring of pro-EU sentiment that Europe has witnessed in years. I, for one, have only ever seen EU flags waved with that much passionate intensity in Ukraine’s Maidan Square in 2014 and in Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. But whereas those pro-democracy protesters were dreaming of a return to their European past, today’s Remainers are dreading a post-European future.

I share their dread. Having grown up in Brussels with a British father and a German-Jewish mother who was born in France, it is my European identity that brought unity and meaning to my family’s history. My relatives were peppered across Manchester, Luxembourg, Paris, and Bonn, and one of the most influential people in my early life was my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who was orphaned at the age of ten. To escape the claustrophobia of her conservative upbringing in Würzburg, Germany, she taught herself seven European languages. And later in life, she resisted the crippling pains of old age by reciting from memory poems by Dante, Heine, Keats, Kipling, and Wordsworth.

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