The eighteen-month-long millennium: when Britain and Europe weren’t meant to look like this
I wrote the second part of this text almost a year ago, in July 2016, at a loose end in central London after the March for Europe, and didn’t post it until a documentary about Geri Halliwell in the 1990s – which ended with her becoming a UN Population Fund goodwill ambassador – reminded me again about the memory that prompted it in the first place – a Model United Nations based around the UN Millennium Development Goals that I went to in April 2000. Then something else happened, so I didn’t post it then either, and now it’s Article 50.
Sometimes these last few years have managed to be mind-bendingly resonant with their counterparts from twenty years ago – who would have thought my old school would start offering its gender-variant students recognition in a way I could never have imagined then (when I didn’t even know there were other things to be recognised as) – but when it comes to ‘Europe’ it’s the kind of looking-glass where everything’s shaped wrong.
This is going to get worse as 2017 turns to 2018 turns to 2019, and to Brexit, when 1997 turned to 1998 to 1999 and turned to future, politically, but also for my late teenage self as well.
The late 1990s were when I developed my lived experience of ‘Europe’ in a way that was an important part of my identity for a long time – as a language learner, as someone who belonged to literary and musical cultures beyond the nation and linguistic area I’d grown up in, as someone who expected to be working in another European country one day.
The optimism of those few years is already outside the living memory of most of the students I teach – who very soon are going to have been born after the Millennium, and a year or two after that will mostly have been born after 9/11.
By 2000, I’d visited other European countries five times, all since 1996. The first was a family holiday to Greece, to the most meaningful places my parents had visited in the 70s, when Britain must have only just joined the EEC and the Greek military junta must only just have come down; being 14, I moped for two weeks over that summer’s confusing friendships and gave the impression of paying as little attention to my surroundings as I could get away with. Needless to say this didn’t go down well.
We still used travellers’ cheques, which you queued up at the bank to cash every few days. I didn’t have a passport until that holiday; the covers were red, and as far as I knew always would be. The only problem about being in the European Union was that when you visited another member state they didn’t stamp the page.
Everywhere else I travelled was through the school. I hadn’t asked to go on a foreign trip before, conscious of the cost, until our Spanish class was due to go on an exchange to Barcelona in 1997. I used to say that I came out in Barcelona, or rather, had to accept while I was there that I was going to need to. I brought a necklace back from Barcelona that I wore for years, until it fell off at work; it’s still there (I’ve just seen) in photos from the first academic conference I ever took part in, in Dubrovnik in 2004 where I had to give a presentation in Croatian about my Masters research in front of a woman who had been head of the communist party in Serbia until 1972.
Two years later we had another exchange visit to Spain, in Murcia, where I wanted to spend my time so differently from most of my classmates that it felt like I wanted to distance myself from Englishness and Britishness altogether, which lasted several years. (I write that now and think: is that a politically dangerous thing to admit, when our prime minister has described ‘people who believe they’re citizens of the world’ as ‘citizens of nowhere’ and when even wanting to be mobile is a symbolic social boundary that didn’t used to mean so much?)
My exchange partner’s older sister gave me a novel in Spanish that perfectly matched my tastes then, probably even better than she knew, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s El club Dumas; I acquired all the rest of his books, and anything else like it, from the European Bookshop on – I think on Warwick Street, before you could order them reliably online and shops like that were still spaces of discovery.
The last summer at school I had the chance to go to Moscow/St Petersburg and, my first time through the Channel Tunnel, Paris: I’d left the country three times in a year.
The next encounter with Europe was Europe coming to me, at what felt like the beginning of a new moment in history but now feels like a millennial dead end.
I’m writing this – of course I’m not writing this now; this is still July 2016, when we could still joke that Vladimir and Estragon ‘do not send the Article 50 Notification‘ – a few metres away from the International Maritime Organization’s headquarters in Vauxhall, after walking in the March for Europe – bigger than anyone who came seems to have expected, still probably too small on its own to ever count.
It was a young march. Whiter and more middle-class – just going by the people and accents around me – than a march representing London ought to have been; but most marchers younger than me. Some of that is me getting older. (I’m in London for a birthday celebration put back by a week for several reasons, one of them being to keep it at least somewhat separate from the referendum.) Some of it isn’t.
Many of them would have been young people anticipating using their freedom of movement rights, in either direction, along routes they might not even have thought of as constrained by nationality until the question was suddenly thrown open, until now a week later the front-runner for the Conservative leadership is even sounding as if she’s prepared to play poker with the long-term residency rights of EU citizens who are already living here.
Not quite as many other European countries’ flags as you’d see in a Eurovision audience, but getting close. (I tried to play flag bingo: Denmark, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Poland with the biggest flag of all, Romania, Italy and Sweden holding hands, the Czech Republic, one Catalan separatist flag with a Union Jack taped on, and a baby in a red and white checked hat I’m calling for Croatia because you never know.)
I’m struck by how many of them might have been queer, in ways that young people in London might be legible as queer (and obviously more of them will have been queer than that), with far more confidence and expressiveness and diverseness of expression than I remember being surrounded by at the same age at all; now about to have rights they’d taken for granted taken away in at least two ways at once.
Why have I walked down here. Partly to circumvent weekend engineering works that no mayor of London, not even last-hope-of-the-Jedi Sadiq Khan, has managed to do anything about; partly (I realised from the bridge where I saw the tall red building with its light blue flag and its whiteboard-marker roof, just as I used to look out for when Waterloo trains passed Vauxhall) because this is where Europe as a thing, not just Europe as a collection of other countries, first started being something I lived in.
I’d travelled to Greece once, Spain twice, Paris for a weekend, and even Russia, but my first experience of Europe in a slice of its complexity was the year our school’s debating society entered a team to the Model United Nations that was going to be held to celebrate the signing of the Millennium Development Goals by modelling UN committee work to agree a Millennium Declaration of our own.
This must have been organised by the UN (I could find out which agency if I waited to write this until I’m back in Hull, where I still have the programme from it somewhere).
I did have the programme: I tweeted a few pages from it after the Geri documentary. I’m even in one of the photos, obliquely, not really looking like myself-in-2000 yet at all, but holding up a large ‘Croatia’ sign.
The keynote speakers were Geri Halliwell (these days, it would probably be Angelina Jolie-Pitt; you get a more famous calibre of celebrity humanitarian this half-generation), an Irish peacekeeper, and the writer Zlata Filipovic, five years after publishing her childhood diary of the siege of Sarajevo, who we met during a break and who might have looked at me more guardedly than I remember when she saw that I had the Croatian seat.
There might have been a hundred participants – or maybe they did fill every last member seat – all supposed to be 18 or thereabouts, because this was the generation that was going to go out and change the new millennium. (The young men not much older who flew their hijacked planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon less than a year and a half later would do much more towards that than us.) I was still 17, without a vote in the coming or just-passed London mayoral elections, to the consternation of some of my classmates when it came up in a History seminar.
(I can’t remember when the elections happened in relation to this. These pieces come out differently when I’m not online.)
About two thirds were from the UK, the others from pretty much everywhere else in western and northern Europe. There might have been a few Poles and Hungarians – or maybe there was a parallel Eastern European one of these? – but not the greater number who’d have been able to afford to come after the low-cost airlines (what were those bright orange things?) really got going.
Croatia had just elected a liberal president and the tide seemed to be turning against authoritarian nationalism, which made them timely to represent, if not as challenging for a historian as it would have been to have to intuit the positions of an ideology with which I profoundly disagreed.
But that didn’t seem to be what anyone was doing (except a few performative moments in committee if someone had, say, Belarus). The mood among this group of young Europeans – all from schools that had heard about this thing and could afford to send students to it, let’s be clear, we weren’t a demographic cross-section of the continent by any means – was: let’s come up with something that is fit for purpose and expresses that strange intangible sense that just because the first digit of the year has turned around it might mean we could do something differently.
I could probably find the final text, which they sent us in a commemorative binder two or three months later, and tick off the resolutions: that one hasn’t happened; that one hasn’t happened; that one… yeah.
These days now I know people who actually do discourse analysis of UN documents, it’s a piece of historical evidence, isn’t it: a snapshot of a young people’s history and geography of internationalism, part of the only eighteen-month-long Millennium there’s ever been.
(A car stuck at the lights is playing ATB’s ‘9 am Till I Come’, wasn’t that 1999?, and that would be an interesting time slip. You know what book you’re going to have written last year? That’ bit went all right. The rest of the world around it… not so much.
Except a few of the songs I had taped on to a cassette for the train into Vauxhall were already from Croatia, Vanna’s ‘Kao rijeka’ which had nearly been picked for Eurovision and which I was just beginning to have enough language competence to realise was probably about the Millennium (it was), with a leaving-the-past-behind-us motif which from 1999-2000 Croatia sounds now as if it could only be about one thing; except that in a lot of places people felt like that.)
Within all that, the effort of will that it took Catherine at 17 to even begin speaking to a delegate from Portugal who, a few years later, a friend of mine looking at the commemorative folder from this thing would go on to mistake for me but who I could never even have begun to compare myself with at the time.
Would I rather have been 17 then, or 17 now and entering the next stages of a global crisis (which, I didn’t appreciate then but came to understand, has many of its longest-term roots in the legacies of the dominance through which my own country got rich in the first place)? I’d be in a position, assuming the same complex of identifications and insecurities, to understand much more about my self and sexuality-and-gender than I could have then. Maybe I would have done better, half a generation later.
But in terms of being able to access the conditions for a life that promised to be fulfilling and have some advancement in it in the long term even when things temporarily fell down – I worry that half a generation makes a difference that is already hard to repair. And will get harder to repair now that the result of the referendum has added an extra layer of instability to those already facing Britain and the rest of Europe. [And then there was still more.]
So much for the Millennium, and its goals, and whatever it was we voted to develop anyway; except that, as any pedant with a calendar will tell you, millennia really start themselves in 2001.
Will young people growing into their late teens in Britain now have the same opportunities to get to know that the cultures you can belong to don’t just depend on where you were born, or what language you grew up with as your first one?
The Europe I believed in at that point was a liberal fantasy anyway, and I didn’t understand how much privilege I moved through it with. Opportunities for me weren’t opportunities for everyone. But at least we hadn’t gone through the rejection of Britain’s European future that the referendum result in 2016 implied, the escalation of xenophobia against white EU citizens as well as the people of colour it already stigmatised, or the symbolic politics that mean if I speak about attachment to Europe now some people might hear it as she doesn’t want to listen to us.
The answer will probably look very different from each of Britain’s four nations – to an extent I’d also have found unimaginable in 2000, except that by studying the end of Yugoslavia I was already imagining it after all.