I was disappointed to have missed the UNESCO representative's lecture on 'lifelong learning' recently. The theme of lifelong learning can often mean different things to different people, according to an individual's age, experiences and circumstances, but, as moral beings, it is ALWAYS relevant and a good benchmark for who we are as human beings.
That noble organisation, UNESCO, is, in my view, as important and also as relevant as the founding of the European Union (EU) itself, which was established on a day back in the year of 1957 with the Treaty of Rome (I was only a baby at the time, so I don't remember much about the day itself, but my mother told me I had a calm and peaceful sleep after falling out of my pram in the morning, so, in retrospect, that was a good end to the day for my mother and lucky for me . . .).
Fast forward to 1973, when Britain (and Ireland, too) jointed the EEC (European Economic Community) as it was then called; and, I began as an undergraduate student at Southampton University. What freedom I had (no, of course, I'm not going to say what I got up to or with whom. Mind your own business! As the Prime Minister, David Cameron, once said: "I had a 'normal' university experience." Well, so did I! So, bugger off). But, what hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future! How privileged I was, I thought, because of my German and Italian studies, to be able to counter those insulting stereotypes of continental Europeans, particularly of Germans and Germany.
Forty years on, so many of those prejudices and stereotypes still exist in British mindsets, ranging from fairly innocent impersonations and mickey-taking of accents and voices to casting disgusting aspersions about other Europeans' values, traditions and lifestyles. How thoughtless.
In this regard, with the European elections in three weeks' time, the sudden rise in popularity of obnoxious, far right UKIP, raising fears about the downside of immigration and loss of employment opportunities to alarmist levels, is both disturbing and ignorant. Look at history: we're nearly all immigrants!
As British Europeans, we have the advantage of being able to speak the language of commerce and communication. We have a head start on the rest of continental Europe. As EU citizens, we should count ourselves lucky to be able to travel anywhere in Europe and to choose where to reside, settle, live, study or work.
Just as one of UNESCO's admirable tenets proclaims 'learning to live together' and 'understanding each other and working together to build lasting peace', I constantly remind myself how relatively unscathed Britain's architecture was during the war years. The English Channel protected us, our infrastructure and our architecture from invasion by Hitler's forces.
Hamburg, in contrast, was practically razed to the ground. Life and a centuries-old culture was decimated, and its population was shamed.
But, just look at how many tens of thousands of Brits chose and still choose to travel, live, work and study in the city of Hamburg, a city which has succeeded in rejuvenating and reinventing itself through the sheer resilience (and, today, the diversity) of its own people. Look at the employment opportunities that have been created for British people alone in Hamburg.
And, of course, some of them will retain their British vote (Of course, I don't know how many, because I'm not that nosey! And I'm not a pollster.).
Two world wars were fought to preserve freedom, democracy and the rule of law. When the Iron Curtain (the tyranny of Communism) fell in 1989 and East and West Germany reunited, most East Germans and other East Europeans were able to travel for the first time since the Cold War had begun. Free at last to live as normal human beings. Just imagine that?
The European Union project had been created, and idealistically founded, to promote and maintain peace and stability after the devastation of WW2, and to create opportunities for mutual benefit through trade and opportunities - on a level playing field. I'm not going to lecture here on that period of growth in the West up to the fall of communism in East Europe because there are lots of books on the subject, and also many European citizens seemed quite content with the opportunities that were created in those halcyon early days. Of course, the recent world banking fiasco and the exposed greed and corruption of many bankers, as well as other 'professionals', changed everything. The lives of most people have changed for the worse and, right across the EU, as human nature is wired to look for scapegoats, deservedly or undeservedly so, xenophobia has crept in. But it's a nasty trait ... as history has demonstrated.
No-one in Germany is allowed to forget the annihilation of up to six million innocent Jews during WW2. When Chancellor Angela Merkel recently humbly apologised on her visit to Westminster for her country's role in that period of destruction, there was silence in the room. She had come to speak (both in perfect English and German) on the state of the Euro, and anticipated reforms to the EU, and, as the spokesperson for a country that will never be allowed to forget its recent aggressive history, she is only too aware of the high ideals of the European Union. She prizes stability and peace as a lesson to be remembered. And as an ideal to uphold.
Long should that peace (tolerance and understanding) continue as a mark of respect to all those innocent people who died, fighting for high ideals or persecuted through hatred and xenophobia, in two world wars. May they rest in peace.
Sometimes I think, though, that as British Europeans we haven't come far enough in our 40 years' membership of the EU club; in the magnitude of a planet that has existed for at least four billion years, it's still only dawn. Sometimes, too, I think UNESCO needs to beat its drum a little louder: our culture, our education, our scientific exploration is our shared history, and ourshared future.
And, as far as lifelong learning goes? The lesson I have learned is: wait and see - everybody IS different. Isn't that wonderful? Such amazing diversity allowing such opportunity for creativity? And, as former Irish president and UN High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, says in her eponymously-titled memoir, "Everybody matters". Too right. Worth shouting from the rooftops, I think.
So, on refection, how many proud and loyal Brits in Hamburg will vote for UKIP? None, I hope.
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