National flags fluttered in the breeze on thousands of streets yesterday as many celebrated VE (Victory in Europe) Day. Though the sacrifice of soldiers in the Second World War and the freedom they helped enable is rightly not forgotten, not everyone is entirely comfortable seeing such symbols. Nor can everyone join in. Celebrations under a national banner limit who you can invite to the party and while remembrance has its place, more optimism and immediate relevance can be achieved by celebrating the future.
Europe Day is marked by members of the European Union every May 9th. Its first recognition came in 1964 and signified co-operation and togetherness. More so than at any time since, such togetherness is needed. Bereft of any national symbols, Europe Day is not attached to loss of life, violent struggle, sad remembrance nor isolationist pride. Instead, it speaks of shared interest and integration, of the things we hold in common rather than that which divides us.
Europe Day was originally celebrated on May 5th, the founding day of the Council of Europe. It was adopted by the European Communities (the predecessor to the EU) in 1985 and set as May 9th in commemoration of the 1950 Schuman Declaration. This declaration proposed the pooling of France and West Germany's coal and steel industries, thus creating in 1952 the European Coal and Steel Community, the first of the European Communities.
The reassigning of the day has been integral to its success, removing it from the ownership of Europe's governing bodies and placing it instead in the hands of its citizens. Its focus became a celebration of European identity, simultaneously championing that which binds us together while observing individual contributions and the distinct cultural differences we hold.
After the founding of the European Union in 1993, observance of Europe Day increased significantly. Since 1995, Germany has celebrated not just the day but now holds a whole Europe Week. In Luxembourg, it is a national holiday.
Usually, on Europe Day, the doors belonging to the institutions of the European Union are flung open to the public and this diversity and unity are showcased within. Although such festivities cannot this year take place, there remain many reasons to celebrate.
Due to our alliance, living standards across the European Union are among the highest in the world for any territory of comparative size. The departure of the UK from the EU in 2020 felt rather like the most unruly, disgruntled and complaining attendee of a party storming out just before it was necessary to ask they leave but, that aside, the European project remains so successful that many countries eagerly await their accession upon enlargement.
Some of the best aspects of living as a European – the protection of human rights, workers' rights, of minorities and of food standards, freedom of expression, speech and of the press (hi Hungary!) are enshrined in European law. The EU has presided over the raising of healthcare standards in each member state and, much to the annoyance of corporate interests, implemented ever-tightening environmental standards. The block gives almost one billion Euros a year in humanitarian aid to territories outside the union and funds distributed within its boundaries go towards preserving arts and culture, and to public projects in some of the most deprived areas of Europe.
Following the violent first half of the 20th century and the economic collapse which followed each of the World Wars, the European project has stabilised the continent to such a level that no such conflicts have since taken place within the borders of the EU. With the overthrow of the Salazar regime in Portugal and the death of Franco of Spain, the EU witnessed in the mid-1970s the end of right-wing dictatorships. It has also seen the reunification of Germany, the fall of communism in Europe, and the end of the Cold War. It has contributed to peace in Europe by mediating in border disputes and in 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Some of the most recent challenges Europe has faced - the 2008 financial crash, a migration crisis, the growth in populist politics (hi again Hungary!) and Coronavirus - have been among its toughest. Yet, it feels we are stronger and better able to meet such challenges together. The songs on the radio and the food on our tables might be distinctly different, but essentially we are all European. And, like the EU's motto, 'United in Diversity', today we celebrate both. Happy Europe Day!