Meeting up with friends last weekend in Brussels - the city that brought us together some 20 years ago as young, self-assured European Politics students from different UK universities who were working as 'stagiares' for different British MEPs - I thought of the title of the Paolo Coelho novel about lost love: By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. Only in my case it was On the Steps of the European Parliament (where) I Sat Down and Wept last weekend. One of the most well-known quotes in the book goes, "Waiting is painful. Forgetting is painful. But not knowing which to do is the worst kind of suffering."
Waiting for an outcome which will affect our futures, Brexit, is painful. Really painful.
My friend Steve still works in the European Parliament, for the about-to-be defunct European Parliament Labour Party (EPLP). He lives in Brussels with his German wife and their two young daughters. Brussels suits them; they are in easy reach of Steve's family in the south of England and Inga's family in Germany, and the girls are settled in schools in Brussels. On 30 March 2019 Steve will no longer have a job.
Or what about Emma, whose job for an environmental research organisation based in London relies on funding from the EU? After 29 March 2019, the organisation has two choices: move to Brussels or, like the EPLP, cease to exist. Emma could, in theory, move to Brussels. She is single and has no family to support. But would Belgium accept another non-EU immigrant? Doesn't it all rather depend on the final deal for EU citizens living in the UK and what agreements individual countries reach with our government? We don't really know yet.
Now we are all 40-somethings with pensions that may or may not even exist when we finally retire (whenever that may be), some with young families, mortgages, cross-border jobs and 20 or more years of a way of life which has been offered to us by the UK's membership of the European Union. It's been there since before we were born; since 1973 to be precise.
Like millennials and the internet, those of us born after that date are EU natives. We know no other way of life.
As for forgetting, well, there is no reason for us to forget that wonderful year we had together in Brussels. In fact last weekend was pretty much spent going from one old haunt to another: chips from Brussels institution Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan with a beer from L'Espérance, or as we called it Chez Bernard, and a stroll around the European Quarter to see if other places we used to go to were still there. It's hard to forget such a year and we wouldn't want to. Perhaps not the love lost by the protagonist at the heart of Coelho's highly acclaimed novel, but certainly the love for something that has been stripped from us and is totally beyond our control.
From Coelho's quote, I would be tempted to change the 'which' to 'what'; forgetting, in our case, is not painful. Knowing what to do for the best, however, is. Sitting on the steps of the European Parliament and weeping isn't going to change anything and ultimately won't make me, or anyone else affected by Brexit, feel any better.
So, if you will allow me, Mr Coelho, not knowing WHAT to do is the worst kind of suffering. What should Steve do? How about Emma? And me? We all feel impotent. We're just small parts of an enormous and in my opinion, glorious thing, which has been 46 years in the making (slightly older than all of us) and now being unravelled and shredded.
Should another Brussels friend, Sarah, whose path has not kept her work directly related to the EU, per se, but as a concerned British citizen, start to stockpile food and medicine for her young family? Her children, like so many others, will never have the opportunities that we had to live and work so freely in other European countries and even less hope of working in an EU institution.
Will UK students still be able to participate in Erasmus programmes? I guess not. Will our degrees in European Politics still be relevant? What effect will it have on Steve and his family in Brussels? Should I apply for Spanish citizenship? Unimaginable questions for those 20-something stagiares who thought they knew it all and had the world (or at least Europe) at their feet in 1998. I think, Paulo Coelho, as I sat down on the steps of the European Parliament and wept, forgetting is not painful, at least up until that fateful night in June 2016, but waiting for what is going to happen to us most certainly is.