Tomorrow morning at 7am I set off on a colossal journey into the unknown. Let’s see: never been on an overnight cycling trip. Check. Never travelled alone for six weeks. Check. Never dreamt of visiting all the countries in the EU before. Check. So what’s my plan and why am I doing it?
My plan is to visit all the remaining 27 countries in the EU by bike and train before March 2019, the date set for Brexit. The month I will lose my EU citizenship and all the rights that go with that, not least the right to move freely across any border between any of these countries.
I have no idea whether I’ll complete my quest as this is a massive challenge for me, but I reckon at this point starting is more important than getting to the finish line. Whatever happens, for the next six weeks I’ll be squeezing my life into four panniers on two wheels. And maybe that’s enough! I will have seen Europe on the brink of this change, and seen Britain from Europe. To know what other Europeans think about Brexit.
Finally this is also as much about discovering myself as uncovering Europe. Brexit is a big rupture and whatever happens it has shaken and stirred things in many people. For myself it has made me question my cosy assumptions but also changed the way I want to be.
As a writer and publisher I’ve spent the last 20 years sitting at a desk living in my head. Now I want to find out what it means to live in my body. I have no idea whether my body wants to be lived in that much. We shall see!
Taking bike control is my way of saying control happens at many levels. The bike has allowed me to get back control over my health and wellbeing – physical and mental – and also in some sense to this process that we are all living through. Three months ago I was a stone overweight. Preparing for this trip I’ve peddled over 1000km and got my BMI in order. Whatever happens next this goal has already made a huge difference to my life.
On Europe I can’t do very much to influence national policy but I can at least listen to people and start to understand more the very many connections between us and Europe, the myriad threads of existence and history that bind us together. And to deepen those links in an act of unity.
Although I understand the many reasons why people voted Leave, I do not accept that the vast majority of people will have more control over their lives when we leave the EU. Partly because Britain will be poorer post Brexit and poorer countries and people have less control. And partly because the British government decided most of the policies that happened here in our 40 years of membership, not Europe. If people feel that they have lost control it is not Europe that has taken it away.
I voted and campaigned to Remain but I want to be open minded that I am wrong about Europe. Indeed, one day during the Referendum campaign, a vocal Leave campaigner came up to our little Remain street table and said “you are all brainwashed,” something of course I had always prescribed to their side. It did make me think for a moment, but then she carried on speaking, pointing her finger at us aggressively, “This is our chance to kick out all the immigrants.”
I know immigration was not the only reason to vote Leave but for many people it became the great threat, fuelled by the endless negative Tabloid news cycle and failed Tory promises to meet lower immigration targets. People forgot that immigrants are people first, and that these people do an incredible amount of good for this country and for the people who are already living here.
I ride a dutch bike – a Gazelle – and it is a fantastically comfortable ride, the best bike I have ever had. I bought it four years ago from a Dutch guy called Berno, who lives in North Wales (of whom more in later posts). He has lived there for 30 years, is married with kids, has learnt fluent Welsh as well as English, gives a fantastic amount back to his community as a volunteer on a local Welsh language paper. And yet now he is uncertain of his status. For the first time he feels labelled as an immigrant. This is the cost of Brexit.
Many people want managed migration and the EU can’t deliver it, because at its heart is the principle of freedom of movement. But the cost of a managed migration policy is the loss of our own freedom of movement, significant damage to our economy and the loss of friendships, relationships, families and an indefinable spirit of welcoming that has now caused so many EU citizens to leave or think about leaving Britain.
And with that I set out, offering thoughts for all those altered lives, wondering what I will find in myself and in the first few countries I visit in this first leg of my quest. With hope I search for something positive to take away from this disputed, disruptive and unpredictable grand depart.