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Columnists

Belonging to Europe

Lucy Winkett


What is Europe for? It's a silly question couched in those terms, but ever since the Heath government held a referendum on whether the newly joined UK should leave the then EEC in the 1970s, 'Europe' in Britain has become the shorthand repository for the collection of enthusiasms and fears that characterise a nation's relationship with its closest neighbours. 'Fog in channel. Continent cut off' is the famous historical headline betraying the islanders' perspective.

But for a nation recently in the grip of Carla Sarkozy fever after the visit of the French Presidential entourage, we are arguably exhibiting a more nuanced attitude to the continent of which we are part, and despite our stated concern for global warming, we can't resist taking cheap flights for the weekend. Consequently our know
-ledge and experience of our neighbours is probably greater than it has ever been.

I have always enjoyed travelling in Europe and on a cycling trip through southern England, France and Spain over ten weeks, I realised what an abundant continent it is, noticing fields of sunflowers, vines and wheat lining my paths. A different Europe was put before me, however, when I went to see the latest revival of the musical Cabaret in London. The music is inventive and catchy and despite the strong memory of Liza Minelli in the film version, this production finds new ways to make its punches. The decadence of 1930s Berlin is evoked brilliantly by pouting dancers and Julian Clary as the MC.

But it is the introduction of a blond-haired blue-eyed young man, initially attractive, singing 'Tomorrow belongs to me', and gradually revealing a swastika under his coat that sends a chill through the audience just before half time. The sight, at the very end of the production, of the cast naked in the gas chambers while the band plays on, is macabre and shocking.

Whatever we think about the project of 'Europe', the noble ideals of peaceful cooperation, free trade, freedom of movement and collective response to global problems are born of bitter experience of dictatorship and intra-continental war. After centuries of conflict, nation building, extremist governments and civil unrest, is it too much to hope that the ideals of the European Union can carry us through our nationalistic anxieties to find ways of living together in peace?

The Christian Churches have a valuable contribution to make here, both in promoting greater understanding with Islam and Judaism, in a continent with so many citizens of all three Abrahamic religions, but also in keeping our European perspective wide. A report out this month by a group of Church of England bishops calls for nothing less than the restructuring of the EU budget - a radical suggestion to reflect European determination to meet eye-wateringly challenging carbon emissions targets. This will, they claim, 'have the wider support of EU citizens and would help to renew the EU's raison d'etre.' Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the new Europe?