Winning the #EUinMyRegion blogging competition allowed me to visit Brussels, for the first time, and see the work of the EU Commissions and Parliament. I have been on a steep learning curve since the EU Referendum in Britain, having realised I actually knew very little about the EU, what it is and what it does. Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge was not a unique case but a nation-wide problem, that resulted in people voting for their future based on very little understanding and information. The injustice of the Brexit vote is even more striking given that we were lied to by leading political figures who, to this day, continue to make their unfounded, deceitful claims. The EU funded projects are very poorly publicised in the UK, you rarely see an EU flag flying (unlike most other member states), and the level of political education in this country is abysmal.
UK citizens voted for Brexit for a plethora of often conflicting reasons. But many people living in deprived regional areas, such as Wales and the North-East, voted for Brexit thinking that the EU was somehow to blame for the inequality in the UK: the EU was effectively used as a scape-goat by politicians for the failings of domestic policy, when in fact the EU has been doing much to address the deprivation in those very regions who voted most highly to Leave. Those regions hoping for a better, brighter future outside of the EU, have shot themselves in the foot; some voters earnestly believing that we would have more money to fund Britain’s struggling NHS. Having spent a week at the heart of the European Union, seeing some of the fantastic work it achieves, I can’t help but think we have done them a great disservice and I can only hope that they will forgive us our misinformed blunder and welcome us back with open arms when we finally admit the error of our decision. However, I also think that the EU needs to do some work to prevent other nations from following a similarly erroneous trajectory. An attitude shift will be necessary in order to make the European institutions more accessible, inclusive and engaging to a wider group of citizens; which is needed alongside much better publicity of the fantastic work that the EU does to support the development of its member states.
The Grey to Green Scheme
I first stumbled across the Grey to Green Scheme in Sheffield‘s city centre when I was living in the nearby Peak District countryside. I was on my way to an art exhibition in a converted factory building in the old industrial area of the city. I remarked on the stark but attractive transition in the landscape design, and noted on the carefully considered aesthetic. I thought no more of it, until I began studying Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield and discovered my tutors were responsible for the planting design. At the start of our second year, a few months after the Brexit vote, they took us on a site visit to see the Grey to Green Scheme. I was outraged to discover that it was EU funded, currently one-third complete and the remaining sections were now, “subject to funding”, as a result of Brexit. The Grey to Green Scheme is a fantastic example of how EU funding supports deprived regional areas to enhance their economic, social and environmental development. The scheme, in its entirety should extend 1.2km from the City Centre to the River Don, providing multiple benefits for the local community. The Sustainable Urban Drainage System mitigates the impact of flooding in an area of the city which was devastated by the 2007 floods. The planting scheme provides seasonal interest, sensory stimulation, an enhanced visual aesthetic and habitat for wildlife. There are seating areas and public art installations, which are enjoyed by local business employees and people attending the nearby law courts. The scheme is also used for leisure purposes; local residents cycle, jog and walk down the green corridor. Furthermore, above all these social and environmental benefits, the Grey to Green Scheme was awarded funding primarily for the economic benefit it brings to this developing area of Sheffield City Centre. The psychology of landscape is subtle but can have a powerful influence; the improved visual design helps to attract investment and make the City Centre a more desirable place to set up a business.
One of the key motivating factors in my decision to suspend my studies at the University of Sheffield in order to campaign full-time against Brexit, was the knowledge that Landscape design projects such as the Grey to Green Scheme were unlikely to acquire future funding. The Conservative government has a track record of scrapping environmental legislation and prioritising London-centric business over the environment and deprived regional areas. The EU was working to remediate the inequality in the UK and enforce environmental protections. As someone who cares passionately about the environment and addressing inequality, I feel obliged to fight this decision which jeopardises the progress to a fairer society and sustainable future for the country that I call my home.
When I discovered the #EUinmyRegion blogging competition, which was being run by the EU Commission, the Grey to Green scheme seemed the obvious thing to write about. The blogging competition itself is an excellent initiative to provide the EU with some much needed publicity. The competition is open to all EU member states and encourages participants to research and write about funding in their area and share those articles on their social media networks. Every person who entered the competition will therefore have helped to increase the dissemination of knowledge about EU funded projects. This activity is of huge value in its own right, and I can only hope that the competition grows exponentially in future years, because every participant who enters the competition will contribute to promoting the EU and raise awareness of the EU funding in their region.
Whilst researching the EU funded projects in Sheffield I discovered that the striking redevelopment around the station and the much treasured Peace Gardens were also funded by the EU. Yet I have never seen an EU flag flying in Sheffield. I think it is an outrage that because of poor publicity, people who benefit from these fantastic regional development projects have no awareness of where the funding has come from. And I am certain this deficiency in knowledge was a contributing factor to the Brexit vote. Recently on BBC Radio 5 Live I was debating with a Brexit supporter who made the unfounded statement, “The EU has done nothing for the North-East”. If she had sought information from the NE4EU group or even her MEPs, she would discover that the EU has actually put a huge amount of regional development funding into the North-East of England. It is a huge concern to me that the leading Brexiteers, who have perverse and selfish motivations for Brexit, have lead the wilfully ignorant into voting for something that will ultimately harm their deprived regions, furthering the inequality in the UK.
Increasing knowledge and understanding about the EU is one of the key aims in my campaigning, although I try to do it in a fun, friendly and engaging manner that will be accessible to a wider audience. When I submitted my article into the blogging competition, I included photos of Alba enjoying the flourishing Grey to Green Scheme in the spring sunshine. The article which was published on the platform EuropaUnited, and I shared it vociferously on twitter, and from my Facebook page to the pro-EU groups (most of which were formed after the Brexit vote). A huge community has developed behind the Remain campaign since the referendum, when the vote shocked many complacent Remainers into activism. This passionate and friendly support network are usually extremely happy to promote pro-EU initiatives and share knowledge about the EU, so my article began clocking-up lots of visits. I received lots of feedback from people, saying how much they liked the article and I felt genuinely proud that I had raised awareness of this fantastic project that my tutors had helped to bring to fruition. Obviously, the judges of the blogging competition were impressed too, as my blog came in joint 3rd place from combined judges’s score and website traffic coming from social media shares.
Revelations in Brussels
The reward for winning the competition was to attend a mobile journalism course and the sessions at the European Week of Region and Cities in Brussels. At the EWRC, I spoke to lots of journalists and staff from the European Commission about the disruption Brexit is causing to the great work of the European Union. It makes me feel very depressed to think that very soon the UK may no longer be part of this great European project, and ever more determined to fight Brexit. Attending the RegioStars awards was a real eye opener for me as I discovered some of the amazing projects which have received funding from the EU. Two projects that really stuck in my mind were; the Spanish initiative to help rehabilitate victims of gender based violence; and the German company producing devices to help elderly people stay living safely in their own homes for longer. There is great potential for these schemes and products, to be rolled out across the EU and benefit even more people and communities. However, publicising the projects is equally as important as funding them and this is where I think the EU needs to put in more effort.
In nearly every session I attended at the EWRC there was at least one person expressing a need to reach out, widen participation and engagement, and motivate citizens to show more active support for the EU. The work of the EU is of serious importance, but if we truly want to engage a wider pool of citizens in the work of the EU, then we need to rethink how those serious messages are being communicated. I spent most of my week in Brussels running around in a superhero costume, because it makes people smile and laugh, it engages attention which leads to a conversation about the important issues. In my Remain campaign work, back at home in the UK, I write songs and stories, I perform in a variety of fancy dress costumes, I draw cartoons, illustrate books, and produce visual content which I share extensively on social media. It makes people stop, look and listen to what I have to say. Using alternative methods to reach out to young people and citizens who are typically disengaged with politics is imperative in reversing the rise of populism in Europe and garnering the future generation’s support for the EU.
The #EUinmyRegion blogging competition is one great initiative to widen knowledge of the EU’s work, but many more are needed. And to take a rare piece of advice from David Davis, I think more “imagination” is needed.
After I turned up at the Brexit negotiations press conference wearing my EU Supergirl costume, half of the news platforms in Europe seemed to be covering the story (including BBC News, BBC Radio 4, ITV News, Sky News, the Guardian, the Evening Standard, the Telegraph, the Express, EuroNews and Politico). I was interviewed on the BBC Daily Politics Show the following day and the following week, my regional BBC Sunday Politics Show broadcast a whole feature about my activism at the Grey to Green Scheme in Sheffield. I was proud that my activism had brought some much needed publicity to the project, which was my initial aim in choosing to write about it. In the final sentence of my competition winning blog, I wrote;
“This fantastic and hugely valuable project was funded by the European Union and everybody in Sheffield who benefits from the scheme on a daily basis ought to know.”
I appreciate that some people don’t like my style, one newspaper even described me as “the Joker of Remain”, but no-one can doubt that I achieved unprecedented publicity for the Remain campaign and by proxy helped to spread the pro-EU message. At recent public events, children have started coming up to me and asking for “a photo with EU Super Girl” who they had seen on the TV, and I can only hope it inspires them fight to Remain part of the future generation of EU citizens.