Bárbara Matias has a special place in her heart for a beautiful city on the coast of the Atlantic that is hosting one of the biggest events in Europe tonight – The Eurovision Song Contest. But it’s not just Lisbon that Bárbara has a special affinity for, it’s all of Europe and here she tells us why.
When asked to submit an article with a personal take on the EU to celebrate Europe Day May 9th, I jumped at the opportunity. Anyone in my life knows far too well just how much I love ranting about my appreciation for my homeland. To the unobservant eye it may come off as a naïve speech from someone unaware of diplomatic intricacies, human rights hurdles, political games and regional disputes the EU faces – yet my opinion does not waver despite being well aware of all those challenges.
I gladly accept this opportunity to share my story and perhaps offer a relatable tale on what the EU means to those who make it up, rather than those that write about it in foreign journals or decide the flashy headlines worldwide.
Nothing makes me happier than having the EU flag on my Portuguese national ID card, or to carry my passport that puts ‘European Union’ in the same standing as ‘Portuguese Republic’. It makes much more sense to have both represented. It is as much a matter of identity as it is of pride in being a part of this unparalleled integration project that has achieved what had before been dismissed as mere idealistic ideas of cooperation.
Having been born in Portugal and grown up in The Netherlands, every summer my family and I would drive to Lisbon and then back again to The Hague. Passing through Belgium, France and Spain, I remember being mesmerised at how effortlessly we would enter another country. A whole new sovereign state with different laws, language, culture, gastronomy and peoples – but somehow still part of mine because it welcomed us as their own and even shared a currency. I did not know of visas or customs lines and travel restrictions – I long thought this lack of border control was universal.
As the years moved along my studies and career led me to live in the United Kingdom, Austria, France, Sweden and Belgium. All were important international challenges but surely still felt within my comfort zone, since I was still within the EU and felt at home in seeing its flag around or not having to worry about work permits or the likes of it. In 2016 I moved to the United States in pursuit of a lifelong Ivy League dream. I had travelled outside the EU before but insofar to countries with liberal visa policies, with the single exception of Russia which provided my first real encounter with the ‘’outside the Schengen bubble’’ reality of visa troubles. In fact, I had been an immigrant all my life yet only living in the US did I suddenly feel like one. I needed a visa, faced huge airport security lines, had to file added paperwork for residence and taxes – admittedly ‘first-world problems’ that nevertheless felt odd. I didn’t feel as free as in the EU, rather as if my right to freedom of movement was being hindered. It also bred a conflicting feeling: am I even allowed to complain when all this annoyance comes from a place of privilege? I remember when ranting about my hatred of visas to my friends, the EU nationals nodded and the Turkish and Balkan nationals laughed it off. The world operates in unfair ways after all, and so do our individual takes on reality become distorted.
Nothing made me appreciate my identity as an EU citizen more than living in the United States. After living all over the Union, I now found myself in another developed Western country but where standards of living were different in matters that, to a human rights graduate, matter profusely: universal health care, free access to education, gun control and abolishment of the death penalty to name the main ones. It made my admiration for the EU grow in believing it adhered to the same values I hold dear.
Work has now brought me to live in Kosovo, a hopeful candidate of the EU and commonly dubbed the most isolated country in Europe given its limited recognition and troubled international standing. It is a beautiful European country that, in its struggles and eagerness to accede to the Union, more so raised my understanding of what the EU means not only for us who take it for granted, but also those that are on the sidelines of the thriving integration project.
The recent past knows a European Union politically divided and the older times hold a Europe at war. In between is a strive for togetherness, but one that us EU nationals take all too much for granted. It is especially disconcerting to see youngsters campaigning against the EU in recent election cycles – in point of fact, if borders were to go up again, if the end of the Schengen Area were to obstruct student exchanges, if old currencies and associated exchange rates were re-established, if the free flow of trade was not to be commonplace anymore, if all the perks and underlining privilege we enjoy and take for granted were stripped away from us, the campaign rhetoric would certainly face a 180O shift. In celebration of May 9 – Europe Day, I look forward. Looking forward, I hope the EU27 continues to break new grounds and is brave enough to be a strong, united voice of reason in a world increasingly at odds, seemingly turning inward in a defiant move against refugee flows and enduring wars. Certain Member States must be called to justice, and commitments must be sustained to welcome more into the group of 27.
A child of the 1990s and the early 2000s, I grew up enjoying equal rights in fellow Member States thanks to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, not knowing borders or visas in light of the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, and using a common currency since the Euro’s implementation in 2002. As I matured, so did the European Union in its aims and ability to safeguard citizens’ interests and make life easier for us. Most recently, in June 2017, the European Commission abolished mobile roaming charges among all Member States.
So forgive me for my bias. I am simply appreciating the organisation that makes me feel appreciated as a citizen by respecting my social, economic and political rights. It is the project I believe in most and look forward to continue to live together with its growth.