Nothing gets a crowd of 100,000 going like a birthday party. And this was the EU’s 60th anniversary.
Could they hear us in Rome, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Madrid, Berlin, Dusseldorf, Luxembourg, Brussels, and many other cities where people were coming together to unite for Europe? I certainly hope so.
As the crowds streamed down Whitehall and past Downing Street, I wondered if Theresa May could hear us as well.
Only 48 hours before, the Prime Minister had come to the House of Commons and said this:
“The terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty democracy and freedom of speech.”
And Theresa May went on to say:
“These streets of Westminster – home to the world’s oldest Parliament are ingrained with a spirit of freedom and the values our Parliament represents: democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere.”
Democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law – these are universal values. They are the values of Londoners, they are the values of Brits and they are the values of Europe.
So when Ismaeel Yaqoob, a 16 year old student activist from Watford came onto the stage and said:
“I am a Londoner, a British Muslim and I am a European” we all cheered like mad because we all knew what he meant. We are European too.
We have learnt what it means to be a European from the 3.3 m EU citizens living in the UK and the 1.6 m UK citizens living in the EU. By asserting their EU citizenship rights so assertively since the referendum, EU citizens have changed both the language and the narrative of the migration debate in Britain. If only we had heard their voices before the referendum too.
The referendum has not taken away our EU citizenship rights and it will ever take away our right to call ourselves Europeans.
Are we not British Europeans? Are we not people who believe in the same values that Theresa May extolled in the House of Commons on Thursday – the values of equality, liberty, democracy, diversity and solidarity.
And isn’t it time to move on from the tired language of “Brexit”, of “Leave and Remain” of “Stronger In” versus “Take Back Control”? That was last year’s story.
On the streets of London on Saturday, I felt that a new spirit was forming. A spirit of unity, not division, an outlook that is steering towards the future and not the past.
When my turn came to speak, I recalled the fall of the Berlin wall. Something that I had witnessed first-hand when I lived in Berlin in the 1980s.
And I remembered, how I had stood not in front of the Berlin Wall, but on the rubble of the Berlin Wall, proud to say the words “Ich bin ein Europäer!”
I was proud then and I am proud now to call myself a European – a British European. I know what it means. And I know how important it is to be able to say “I am a European”, not just for myself but for my daughters and for the generations that will come after them.
I did not believe in 1989 that I would ever see a return to the division of Europe that the ideologues of the extreme left and right seem to advocate in Britain today.
Eerily, the language, the attitude and most importantly the fear of those now in power in Britain reminds me greatly of the politicians in the GDR and Communist Poland at the end of their respective regimes. My generation fought so hard to reunite Europe in 1989. We must fight those battles again today. How we did it then, can inform how we need to win the battles again today.
In 1989, we did not look to the politicians to save us. We rose up in our own names, as citizens, as civil society activists, as communities, because we wanted to live not in a state of oppression but in a free, open and democratic society.
That is why, as I finished my speech, I asked those in the crowd to join me in embracing their neighbour in a show of unity for Europe.
And for a moment, the wind at our backs as we had marched down Whitehall seemed to herald a new era of change.
I actually did feel the world move! Perhaps it was the reverberations from those heady days of 1989 and 1968. I recalled the excitement of that moment when people woke up to the fact that we do have the power to change the world if only we can believe in ourselves and in each other.
So let us go back to our communities and prepare to keep Britain in Europe. Not by fighting the battles of the past. Not by telling people what to think or that they don’t understand.
The only way to keep Britain in Europe is by talking to each other as equals, by respecting all the different points of view (except the small minority of opinions that are motivated by racism) and by uniting – for the sake of our communities, for the sake of Britain and for the sake of Europe.
Otherwise, as W.H. Auden reminds us, we may have to suffer our misfortunes again.
“Exiled Thucydides knew,
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk,
To an apathetic grave:
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief,
We must suffer them all again”
From Ist September 1939.