This Side of the Pond – March 31

By Sarah Pridgeon

All eyes have been on Europe over the last few weeks as the continent of my birth suffers crisis after crisis. You no doubt heard about the bombings at the home of the European Union and NATO last week, not to mention the migrants still pouring across borders, the nightmare scenario of the Euro currency failing and the British growing sour on being part of the continent at all.

What ties these things together is a concept close to all of our hearts: freedom. Refugees, citizens and nations alike all striving for that same God-given right.

Take the “Brexit” question, for example. A nonsensical term, I know, but the current buzzword for Britain’s upcoming referendum on whether or not to quit the European Union.

Do we want to be free to make our own decisions without the shackles of an unelected Board of Commissioners across the English Channel? Or do we want to continue exerting our influence on the direction the continent is taking and get the European Court of Human Rights, which we were instrumental in creating, back on track?

It’s hard to create an analogy of what the EU actually is. Formally established in 1991 but an idea that had been growing almost since the end of World War II under its original name of the Common Market, its intention was to forge the ties that bind and bring together all the little countries peppered across the landmass. Friends, you see, do not wage war upon friends.

To a degree, this has worked. Each member has a fair voice based on income and size and, as a European, I can travel freely across the borders of 27 countries – to do so is my fundamental right. I can work or live in any of these places and make use of their services as I need them.

On the other hand, the currency that the majority of the continent now shares is looking shaky, propped up by the member countries that were hit less hard by the economic crisis. Meanwhile, at the heart of the union is a federal bureaucracy without any real democratic control. From this grand institution come rules we must all follow about justice, economy and day-to-day life – including border control.

Which moves me smoothly on to the refugee crisis. Britain has not seen the sheer numbers that continental Europe is coping with, partly because those poor people have swum quite far enough already and partly because we entered the EU a few decades ago under slightly different rules, negotiated by then-Prime Minister Edward Heath.

One of these differences is that, while anyone within the EU can move freely across most borders, Britain is one of a small number that opted to continue its passport checks. We also chose not to participate in the Euro currency, despite the allure of its colorful banknotes, or participate in the drive for a politically united State of Europe.

A million lost souls swarmed into Europe last year, seeking sanctuary from the horrors of war, terrorism and abuse. As you might imagine, this has caused tension over where they should settle, with countries such as Germany and Sweden bearing most of the brunt. Now, as we begin the process of sifting through all those applications for asylum, we must work out how many of them fled from deadly circumstances and how many are economic migrants seeking better lives.

All of this contributed to the bombings in Brussels last week – a place with open borders and low security. What happened in Brussels is certainly not the first time Europe has been targeted by terrorists – it’s not even the first time this year. Like America, we have long been at the epicenter of the extremists’ ire and our civilians have suffered as a consequence.

I was working in the center of London when the 7/7 bombings took place in 2005, Britain’s equivalent of the horrors of 9/11 and the first Islamist suicide attack on our soil. Three bombs exploded on London Underground trains and a fourth on double-decker bus, all in the heart of the city.

Unaware of what was happening, I reached my workplace safe and sound with nary a care in the world.

Half an hour after I’d settled in, my mother called me in a panic. It was the first any of us heard about the attack – the phone lines had been tied up in the commotion.

I soon discovered that a friend of mine was on the bus right behind the one that blew up. Others I cared about were in the center of the action, doing their best to function as emergency services responded, the news tried desperately to get a handle on what was happening and helicopters whirled overhead.

Another friend disappeared during her lunch hour and returned much later, having been stuck behind police lines near the final bomb site at Shepherd’s Bush Station – just down the street from our office.

That bomb never went off, thankfully. Even so, climbing onto a tube train to travel home that evening, only a couple of hours later, was one of the more difficult things I have had to do in my life. My dear dad tried to cheer me up over the phone by promising to buy me a flak jacket for my birthday.

So here we are today, fighting for freedom against those who believe we shouldn’t have it. The machinations of a continent-wide bureaucracy vie for attention against the more immediate threat of terrorism, making difficult situations almost impossible to solve.

Will Britain leave the EU? My own opinion is that it’s grown too late to change our minds, we are already too embroiled to extricate ourselves without damage. The U.S. would like us to stay chiefly because we are America’s most like-minded ally within the organization, especially on the free trade side of things.

Should we all be shoring up our borders and denying help to the needy? A question I have no answer to, as I believe that the right to live freely should be afforded us all, yet every option seems to threaten that right for one party or another.

I will leave these questions for the experts as I continue to watch from afar. Europe, my Europe, is suffering, but thanks to the foresight of our war-time leaders, Roosevelt and Churchill in particular, at least none of us will suffer alone.