Monday 9th May 2016 was Europe Day across the EU and a significant one before the UK referendum coming on 23rd of June that year. But it was with a sense of terrible foreboding that I travelled with scientist colleagues to a meeting in Cologne that day. The meeting was part of the Advanced Technologies for Biogas Efficiency, Sustainability and Transport (ATBEST) project which we coordinated from the Queen’s University Belfast QUESTOR Centre (*see note 1 below) with me as the Scientific Coordinator. At the time, it was one of two projects we led across the EU, the other being REMEDIATE, where I was the overall coordinator before retiring in 2017. There were 18 partners across Europe combining different disciplines in the task of researching technology for remediating the post-industrial environment. We were well embedded in science projects across the EU and relished the chance to work with young scientists in different centres. However, the links across the EU were central to our mission and the QUESTOR centre has now closed as opportunities to leverage hard-won funding from our industrial partners dissipated suddenly upon Brexit. The final meeting of REMEDIATE in September 2018 was emotional as we all felt the great loss caused by Brexit. The synergy of these collaborations was very evident and is now lost. It will take significant efforts to re-establish such links again to offer wider opportunities to our talented young researchers.
The view from above.
Monday the 9th May 2016 was no ordinary day. The weather was exceptional, even for early May. There was high pressure over most of western Europe and at 35,000 feet the air was crystal clear with views all around to the horizon. I drove with colleagues from Belfast to Dublin to catch a 12.30pm flight directly to Cologne. From the flight, we could see details across to Wales, England and the continent. Passing Hull and Spurn Head, the industries of Northwest England and south Yorkshire were just behind. They seemed small when compared to the industrial might coming into view from the Netherlands coast across to Germany. It was not so long ago that pilots plied this route to Germany to inflict devastating destruction. Later, I took time to visit Cologne Cathedral as they prepared to commemorate the destruction by the first RAF thousand bomber raid on the night of 30th May 1942 that dropped over three million kilograms of ordinance. We sympathised together and they fully understood that the destruction of my home City of Coventry and its Cathedral was also something we should never forget. In the words of the Peter Gabriel song, we might prefer instead "games without frontiers - war without tears"
Arriving over the Rhine in our commercial jet at 30,000 feet, the bridge of Arnhem was visible to the north. Later, when turning to land at Cologne, we could see Bonn and the site of the former bridge at Remagen to the south. The might of the Ruhr Valley and the massive Zollverein Coal Mine facilities (now the Ruhr Museum) could be made out to the east of Essen. The cities of Dusseldorf and Cologne came into view as we turned south to travel to the right of the Rhine River. It was with terrible foreboding that I observed the extent of the industrial and economic might to the east of our small island. How could we turn our backs on a shared future with these peoples?
Economic frailty, xenophobia and a lack of opportunities for young people fuels conflict.
The destruction of Cologne and Coventry was not so long ago and for survivors it was painfully real. Conflict and dissatisfaction on the continent have fuelled many of the most brutal wars the world has seen. But there seems to be a sense amongst many British that we are superior in some way. That we are more technologically advanced and can go it alone. This could not be further from the truth when the abilities and endeavour of our neighbours come into view. Instead, we are a nation in decline with many low-paid jobs, low economic growth, pitiful GDP and low productivity. We need more allies and friends to trade with openly, not fewer. But sadly, Brexit is likely to further steer this declining trend if it fails. We have relied on migrants, many of whom were refugees, to bolster our efforts for years. Now the government that advocated Brexit is seeking to attract talented people in an admission that our own population is not enough for success. Meanwhile, those in the UK from elsewhere in Europe are fearful about their position as they become pawns in negotiations over the coming months. It would be a shameful betrayal if they are sacrificed for political gain with no practical benefit.
The UK may not survive as a united nation over this time and internal conflicts are not far away. We may fall out with our neighbour, Ireland, that has a fast-growing economy and far superior GDP. They are rightly horrified by the UK’s position. Others in Europe may turn their backs and impose punitive tariffs. The USA, as always, will put its own interests first and take as much as they can. Failing that, they don’t really care and may prefer to deal with the EU instead by playing one side off against the other.
Lost opportunities for young people.
The dangers posed to our young people by these events are real. If things go wrong, then their futures will become more difficult. The least secure and disadvantaged will bear the brunt. Some of our most talented may opt to leave and the USA will be glad to strengthen its position as a result. Aspirations of social mobility, equality and better lives may dissipate. Social mobility will retreat in terms of a new generation earning more than their parents. Those advocating Brexit have promised a better future and a growing economy outside of the EU. Yet they have no answers when asked for evidence for this. The EU journey had an accurate map and a degree of certainty that businesses cherished. Brexit peddles in uncertainty that is the parent of economic decline and conflict.
The majority of young people voted to Remain as they wished to be part of a brave and confident Europe. They want to travel freely and be part of wider future technology that solves pressing problems across the continent. They recognise that the UK cannot solve the environmental crisis alone. We need allies and a concerted economic revolution to save the planet as a place for humanity. They rejected the short term anti-migrant xenophobia that fuelled Brexit and its apologists.
Can we at least leave our friends with good grace for Auld Lang Syne?
Nigel Farage stated that Brexit is the most significant event in our history since the Reformation. Maybe he understands the irony – maybe not. He led a disgraceful childish display with his acolytes in the European parliament. Perhaps he no longer needs 'indulgences' from the EU. Meanwhile, others were trying to repair the damage by joining in with 'Auld Lang Syne'.
The reformation was born out of dissatisfaction and spread from Germany across Europe. Is he saying that Brexit will cause the same to happen elsewhere as extreme far-right factions take hold? Does he have a masterplan to try to make alliances with former Axis powers to further this aim?
The power of friendship in lamenting ‘times long past’ was understood by Robert Burns and celebrated on Burn’s Night across Scotland and across the world last weekend. The rest of Europe seems to get it and so should we. What would Burns make of the insulting display by Farage in rejecting the hand of peace?
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
For auld lang syne.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics
*Note 1 The Queen’s University Belfast Environmental Science and Technology Research (QUESTOR) centre started in 1987 as a collaboration between academics of different disciplines and several major multinational companies. The aim was to use industrial funding to leverage income from government sources to develop novel ideas and technologies in environmental science. Its multi-million £ (and €) portfolio of projects crossed into many collaborators around the world in addition to the EU. Numerous young scientists and engineers have passed through the programmes to benefit from international contacts, collaborations and ideas. The centre has since closed as EU collaborative projects dried up and it became unsustainable.