Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2020
Beyond Brexit: British Visions for a European Future

Tell Me About Europe - London
© Goethe-Institut | Design: Groupe Dejour

By Eliza Apperly

Our land is not like your land
Not any more
Years ago
Gentle and slow and creeping years ago
We decided to do without beauty.
Small people in the usual way
We agreed to be smaller
Not all at once
Just this gentle and slow creeping.
– AL Kennedy: To Europe on a Future Morning

When the Goethe-Institut London organised the conclusive event in its “Tell Me about Europe” series, the focus was on the future. Previous programs, including a collection of interviews with Europeans born before 1945, had explored the formative experiences and ideals of the European project. Now, 29 days before Britain’s final departure from the European Union, writer AL Kennedy, artist and author Edmund de Waal, Labour member of the House of Lords Baroness Mary Goudie, publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, and curator Niloo Sharifi were asked to imagine the next iteration of Europe – and post-Brexit Britain’s role within it.
“It is my heartfelt desire,” said moderator Rosie Goldsmith, “to inspire you to look ahead”. But it was a struggle. For all the future-oriented questions, the panelists, who had all clearly opposed Brexit, tended instead to ruminate on the present moment, or its historical making.
In an exclusive reading, Edmund de Waal shared an excerpt from his new book, Letters to Camondo, a sequence of imaginary letters to his French Jewish relative, Moise de Camando, who moved from Constantinople to Paris and bequeathed a collection of art to the French state. Musing on Moise’s relocation, de Waal reflected on his own hybrid identity – “half English, a quarter Dutch, a quarter Austrian – and completely European” and the struggle to feel belonging against the vicissitudes of history and the imposition of borders. In this, de Waal remarked, Europe is a “remarkable, generative, positive, sustaining idea of many people being at home.”
For Sharmaine Lovegrove, Brexit marked the “most visible and raw” scar of Britain’s history of racial and colonial violence. It is “the creation of borders in a country that willingly ignored borders, cultures, rights”. Citing glaring gaps in the UK curriculum in terms of colonialism, slavery, and black history, Lovegrove described empire as a continued point of British national pride, rather than reckoning.
Baroness Mary Goudieshared similar concerns about the skew or sheer absence in historical knowledge. When it comes to the transnational issues dear to her – the rights of women and the eradication of poverty – solutions must be rooted in that historical knowledge, as much as they must be developed and implemented on a cross-border basis. “We must continue to be global, otherwise we are lost”, she concluded.
Reciting from her new poem, To Europe on a Future Morning, AL Kennedy projected into a distant dawn, but one that illuminated many absences, more than form.
Jokes with no hate in their teeth
Are left unspoken.
The practical love, that makes beauty for strangers
Because perhaps they might be worth it,
Beauty for others that calls in other beauties,
That is an indulgence, decadence. Contagion.

In this depiction of a constricted and callous Britain, art is eviscerated, knowledge flattened.
And the writers
Shut their mouths
Close the libraries.
Hide the learning.
Idolise our lack of clarity.
In the absence of fiction
We have lies and pending injuries
Poorly expressed

But, in the end, it was for many of the panellists, only in art and learning that the idea, and ideals, of Europe might be sustained. Sharmaine Lovegrove summoned up the centrality of storytelling as a means of breaching real or perceived borders and opening up “massive conversations about culture, race, society.”
Baroness Goudie called for a reinvigoration of exchange, including a renewed commitment to language teaching and learning. Digital technology is, in her view, integral to these processes and possibilities. “Every child should have internet access. This should be part of every child’s education, part of every budget.” De Waal, too, urged for a continuity of cross-border encounter, be it with bookshops, theatres, publishing houses, or galleries. “That is our responsibility as poets, creators, politicians,” he said, “to find interlocutors in Europe, to find the people who want to talk.”
For Sharifi, who cited Simone Weil’s “love needs reality”, a European vision must be founded in critical thought, as well as a comprehensive understanding of, and opportunity for, participation. “It is a manifestation of the human spirit to want to do things”, she remarked. “That is not exclusive to people who are familiar with certain art forms.” Like Goudie, Sharifi sees the internet as a crucial, and broadly more accessible, platform for transnational knowledge and encounter.
Drawing on her experiences as a community health worker, Kennedy also insisted on the universality of creativity and its importance in early childhood – whether that’s ballet, or Commedia dell’Arte, or making puppets out of socks. De Waal, who supports various projects to “bring back mess to primary schools” seconded this passion for making as an integral means of enfranchisement and exchange. “The stripping out of the art curriculum has been appalling”, he commented, “but that’s something you can find ways of rolling back.”
For De Waal, who first became interested in ceramics at the age of five, the Japanese art of Kintsugi was also a guiding image. Translated as “golden joinery”, Kintsugi is a process of repair by which the fissures of broken pottery are sealed with a gold-dusted lacquer.
“The golden line marks the loss, it marks breakage. It’s not about erasure or about pretending this terrible thing didn’t happen. In some ways, this next couple of years is a process of kintsugi, it’s about mending painfully, visibly, not erasing the loss or the damage, but still working to hand something on.”