ESU and the EU - Strength in unity

Wednesday 08-06-2016 - 14:26

It seemed quite fitting, for 120 delegates from 38 countries across Europe to spend our final night together, after a week of debate and discussion, watching the Eurovision song contest.

In many ways, our week together at the ESU board meeting had been almost a political version of Eurovision- sure, there were geopolitical relationships, partnerships based on historical alliances, but our common goals outweighed our differences, and above all, there was an overwhelming sense of unity in what we were taking part in, and what we were there to do.


The European Students’ union was established in 1982, and acts as the representative voice for students in higher education in Europe- advocating and fighting for students’ rights; unifying National Unions of Students from across Europe to campaign to create a better education system and society.


And a couple of weeks ago, I was really honoured to be elected to represent ESU next year through their executive committee. It’s the first time in nearly 20 years someone from the UK has been elected to ESU, and I’m really excited to continue representing students, but in what will be a certainly different environment, and undeniably challenging time across Europe.


ESU does exceptional work, from being part of the creation and development of the Bologna process- ensuring an equitable educational experience across Europe, to fighting for refugees’ rights to access education. Bringing together a vast number of different backgrounds and experiences of education, and coming out with a collective goal and movement is never easy, and one of the reasons I’m so proud to be part of ESU – the belief in what we can achieve as a collective movement is what unites us.


We say in ESU that we’re only ever as strong as our weakest part – and for me, that’s what the debate on our place and role in the EU is about. Cooperation and collaboration are at the heart of the EU, and the student movement – we can achieve so much more working in unity than isolating ourselves. Whether that’s ESU working with new student organisations to help strengthen them, or member states in the EU collectively working to support younger nations; unless we are working to strengthen everyone within our union, we’re weaker collectively.


Whilst I’ve been sold on the economic arguments from the offset, for me, this referendum is about values and principles as much as quantifiable benefits. I fundamentally believe in collectivism, and believe we’re stronger within the union, and the union is stronger with us in it too. No-where is this more evident, than in the work of the EU to strengthen the rights and protections of workers, parents and women.


Whether that’s through the enforcement of the working time directive, the work of the European court of justice in defending women’s rights and increasing gender equality, or the EU’s funding to support member states to tackle female genital mutilation, the EU’s progressive principled stance and proactive approach to social justice has ensured that all states are held to the same standard of rights for their members.


It’s this collective approach to societal justice that firms my belief in the role the EU can and should play in creating a better world, and throughout my participation in debates on the referendum, I’ve put across an impassioned case for remaining in the EU based on these values and principles. And yet the retort so often has been ‘Well the UK has always been ahead of the curve, at the forefront of social justice and protection of rights, so why do we need the EU?’


And this individualistic approach to social justice is exactly the problem with the leave campaign – the idea that we’re somehow bigger and better than everyone else, so ‘what do we gain’ from our membership.


Firstly, I don’t believe we would be ‘better off’ in terms of our ability to protect and extend our rights, not with the politics of our current government- who in the midst of attacks on trade unions’ legitimacy, dismantling the right to collectively act and questioning their commitment to the human rights act- I simply don’t trust to protect and extend my rights to the same degree as the EU currently does.


Furthermore, representatives of the Leave campaign have also recently admitted that one of the only ways to achieve their so called economic growth after a Brexit would be to scrap regulation.


This ‘red tape’ regulation they wish to remove secures our right to fair working hours, ensures rights for part time workers, and guarantees on health and safety and environmental protections. Those wishing to make a quick buck through Brexit would be doing so at the expense of workers’ rights, corporate responsibility for climate change and ultimately, the wellbeing of our workforce and our world. 


But I also don’t believe the benefits of our membership can be quantified by what we personally gain – it’s about what we get to be part of by being in Europe –being part of something bigger than ourselves, whilst knowing that simply our presence and pressure is helping others.


Whether it’s climate change, LGBT equality or refugees’ rights, these issues aren’t limited to national borders, and neither is a governments’ responsibility for them. 


Our responsibility for pursuing social justice is a collective one, and through our membership of the EU, we have a role, a responsibility, and an opportunity to make Europe a fairer place.


Only by being at the top table can we use the strides we’ve made in progressing equality in the UK as a force for good within Europe- we have a chance to make the EU take action, go further in promoting equal rights, to be a truly progressive force in Europe.


I want to see an EU that goes further in promoting and extending our rights within society- whether through ensuring all member states reach a higher standard in the Rainbow Europe index of equality, or by progressing the vote on the implementation of the EU Commission’s directive on womens’ representation in executive boards through the council of EU ministers. This collectivism, this recognition that we’re only as strong as our weakest part, this knowledge that only by strengthening all member unions’ approach to social justice will Europe ever truly be equal, is at the core of the role we can and should play in Europe.


And that’s why this individualistic approach to walking away because we think we’re the best is quite simply weak.


But our strength in unity isn’t just reflected in our collective work on citizens’ rights, it extends to the role the EU plays in promoting and securing peace across Europe. Established after world war two, the EU has been an integral part of maintaining the longest period of peace time in this continent in over 70 years, building relationships through trade and playing a significant role in the Northern Irish peace process. A recognition that the symbolic act of breaking the unity of the union through a Brexit could have unforetold consequences for the peace of our continent is an important one.


Within the European students’ Union, we not only recognise that our collective strength only exists when we’re working to strengthen each of us individually, but that our unity can be a vehicle through which young people can be central to building and fostering a peaceful Europe. 


When I see students whose parents were at war not so long ago articulating their recognition that they feel they have a duty to work together to rebuild historical fractures for a hopeful future, I am reminded of this quote from a previous NUS UK president:


“If the students of today are co-operating, there is hope for the future”,


Whether it’s the European students’ union, or the EU, this international cooperation is vital for building relationships and fostering peace; and at a time of global uncertainty, I believe now is not the time to walk away from a union, from a platform for peace.


And so I’ll be fighting to remain within the EU – for my rights as a woman, my rights as a worker, but more importantly – for the rights of citizens across Europe and beyond.


Voting to remain, for a peaceful and prosperous Europe.


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