The European Movement must dare to speak about the European Union

Photo by David Palk

Online here European Movement CEO, Anna Bird, addresses UK with Ukraine rally in London. – YouTubeand reproduced below, more or less as delivered, is the text of Anna Bird’s speech at the London Mayor’s ‘vigil for Ukraine’ in Trafalgar Square on Saturday.

It is excellent that European Movement UK (EM-UK) was involved in organising this successful event, and that Anna, the chief executive, spoke from the platform alongside David Lammy, voicing thoughts and feelings which we all share.

However, while the time available will have been tight, for the CEO of EM-UK to speak in this place at this time on this topic, and not to mention the European Union and its leading role in the response to Putin’s criminal war on Ukraine, seems a regrettable omission; especially since the EU has itself been one of the main targets of Putin’s decade-long ‘hybrid war’ on the West.

The speech puts much excellent stress on the need to respond “together” and much stress on the links between peace and cooperation – but says not a word about the European Union: the actually-existing institution of European solidarity which has stepped up as never before, alongside NATO, to address this crisis, and to whose promotion EM-UK itself has been commendably dedicated for the whole of its 70-odd year history.

While this terrible crisis has called forth new courage and resolution across the international community, this silence from EM-UK is unfortunately in danger of giving the impression of an organisation hamstrung by timidity, and afraid to affirm its own values clearly and unambiguously at the moment of greatest challenge. It is also not the ideal springboard for an ambitious membership recruitment campaign. As President Zelenskyy said to the Western countries on 28 March 2022, “Fear always makes you an accomplice.” If we want, as Anna said, to “tell Putin he will fail”, self-censorship about the EU is not a good way of delivering the message: it is more like a homage to Putin’s success, the success which has emboldened him to commit new crimes.

This omission can and should be properly rectified as soon as possible, and other pro-EU organisations should also say what needs to be said. Anna’s speech made play, as is common at these moments, with the thought that future generations will judge us for our response at this time. Indeed they will, but the demand for clear and fearless speech and action is not located somewhere in the future: it is needed now.

Wars change the context of politics. Some people have already said that the terms of what passes for our national debate on Brexit have been superseded. For Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times, “Ukraine marks an end to Brexit illusions”. The UK must now, without vain divisive posturing, stand and act in concert with Ukraine, NATO, the EU, the USA and the international democratic majority at the UN. This is what being ‘global’ should mean for our country.

Our performance to date in this crisis is decidedly patchy: strong on rhetoric, some rapid supply of weapons, problematic on sanctions, appalling on asylum welcome. We must demand better. Starting at the top, the Brexiter regime’s anti-EU propaganda-and-provocation machine must be switched off, at least for the duration of the acute military and humanitarian crisis. The international role of the EU deserves to be fairly recognised and appropriately supported, without grandstanding but also without timid self-censorship. Maybe the crisis will teach people in the UK some lessons and suggest better long-term patterns of national behaviour. But that is for the future.

Anna Bird’s speech:

“Freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, human rights – these are the true values that unite our continent. But just as these fundamental values have their champions, they have their opponents too.

That is why we’ve come to Trafalgar Square today, the centre of national democracy and protest, with 100 years of important and necessary acts of protest and solidarity before ours. I wish it were not the case, but contributing to that legacy of protest is deeply, deeply necessary.

So today – we join citizens across Europe to oppose Putin’s aggressive war in Ukraine, because it cannot be that President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine must put their very lives on the line for the basic right to live in peace: a right we take for granted.

The question now asked of us is, will we as a country stay true to our values and defend the rights of our neighbours?

For me, for the European Movement, the answer to this is rooted in our belief that a closer, more united and peaceful Europe is in all our interests. For one day, our children and our grandchildren will learn about this horrifying time in their history lessons; they will come home and ask us what we did in these moments that mattered. What did we do when we saw a senseless, immoral and illegal attack on our neighbour?

I want to be able to look my children in the eye and say I – and all of us here – did everything possible. That we spoke up, protested and marched. That we donated, petitioned and demanded action. That we opened our homes, opened our arms and brought the world closer together.

That is the duty of all of us here.

And whilst it is easy for opponents of peace to say that Putin doesn’t care about what’s happening here today or that he isn’t listening, the world is watching. The people of Ukraine are listening and looking for hope. They need to know we’re on their side.

I am certain of this: the only route to a peaceful future is one where we unite with our neighbours in Europe and around the world. And that means me. That means you. That means all of us. Here today. Together. Protecting and fighting for Ukraine’s right to live in a peaceful and united Europe.

So today – together – as Britons, as Europeans and internationalists, we tell the world that Ukraine is with us, and we are with them.

Today – together – we tell Putin he will fail.
Today – together – we draw the line.
Today – together – and each day until Ukraine prevails.

Thank you.”

Colin Gordon is a member of the national council of Grassroots for Europe. These comments are made in a personal capacity.