The Liverpool we find ourselves in today is, in many ways, a poster child of the modern European ideal: a peripheral, decaying city that was supported heavily, a beneficiary of the notion of solidarity, of a European Union that used the fruits of its collective labours to invest in its poorest outposts and a city reimagined in the process. Liverpool received hundreds and hundreds of millions in European Regional Development Funding throughout the 90s and into the 00s, which was invested extensively in reconfiguring the infrastructure of a bruised city. (One of the many political hoodwinks during the referendum campaign claimed that this money was merely being given back to us, funds extracted from the UK by the EU, then passed back. Even if this were the case – and it was not – history reminds us that there is not a cat in hell’s chance that the UK government would have poured such resources into a city such as ours.) The familiar blue and gold crested plaques proclaiming ‘funded by the European Union’, so synonymous with this region’s development, now rest like wreaths at the side of the road, bouquets to past opportunity.
The culmination of this investment came in 2008, with our year as European Capital of Culture. True, it would be wide of the mark to suggest that our year in the sun was principally funded by the EU; there were many forces at play, yet simply focusing on where the money came from would completely miss the point. 08 marked a change in how Liverpool was perceived around the world and, crucially, how the city saw itself. Our city was again brave, bold, international, outward looking and celebrated for our intense creativity. These qualities had always been there, we just needed an opportunity to flourish and, through the Capital of Culture programme, the European Union provided it. 08 gave us a platform, not only to celebrate what our city could be on an international stage, but to regain a confidence, a new place in the world. Whatever your opinion of the politics of 08, what is undeniable is that the year was a watershed moment for our city.
And our 08 experience gets to the core of what the EU is actually all about: collectivism. The idea that, collaboratively, we’re stronger economically, socially, culturally and politically. It’s about providing a platform to discover who you are. It’s about solving the hard problems of physical infrastructure in the places that need help the most and then valuing and having faith in celebrating individualism, on an international scale. Liverpool was given a platform to tell the world our story, to celebrate what makes us unique, in the faith that, as a European people, strong local voices and empowered communities can create an amazing collective – an understanding, tolerant and cohesive whole. This is what I mourn; I mourn the opportunity taken away from other UK cities to embark upon the journey Liverpool has been on. We are all the poorer for it.
And this cuts to the reason why we find ourselves in this situation in the first place: a failure to sell the dream. Much was made of the village of Ebbw Vale in Wales, a community decimated by the collapse of mining and one of the largest beneficiaries of EU funding per capita in the UK. After extensive investment in infrastructure, including schools, sports centres, rail upgrades and roads to the tune of millions and millions of Euros, 62% of the population voted to leave the EU. Firstly, it begs the question of whether the referendum was even a vote on the EU at all, or purely an opportunity to kick the ‘powers that be’, but, secondly, it is a damning indictment of the absence of a positive European narrative: nobody sold the dream. Or at least nobody bought it. Again, in Ebbw Vale, the bouquets of EU plaques are all that is left of the European ideal.
If the people of Ebbw Vale and the hundreds of disenfranchised towns across the country who voted to leave – Bury, Blackpool, Burnley, Rochdale, Oldham, Salford… – had been given a stage and the opportunity to dream, to re-imagine their place in the world, to celebrate their uniqueness as part of a European collective, a place on the bill at the great European gig in the sky, who knows how things may have turned out.
In Liverpool, we had that with 08. We had the opportunity to rediscover who we are, what we mean in the world. On a European stage, we had our opportunity to dream.