NO MATTER how I try I can’t help thinking this Brexit referendum is about a woman lying dead in the street. I have tried not to see it as a referendum on the causes of Jo Cox’s murder but it is.
That’s not to say that almost the entire Leave camp does not abominate what happened in Birstall, West Yorkshire, last week. I know they do. But the whole European project is fundamentally about stopping mothers of young children being killed in the streets as they go about their business. And that project isn’t over.
EU founders Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman were clever enough to see that the Germans and the French would stop killing each other if they shared economic assets, such as coal and steel, and so through the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Union was born.
Jean Monnet said in 1953: “When we see the extraordinary disaster that Europeans caused themselves (…) we are literally frightened. Yet, the reason is simple: It is that each one of us, during the course of a century, chased our destinies and applied our own rules.”
The community he imagined was one in which we would have some rules in common and chase a common destiny. We would stop fighting each other in the hope of national gain and gain more together through peace.
How does war between the armies of Europe relate to the savage killing of an MP by a seemingly unhinged white supremicist? Through the dead body of a young mother and through the grief of the children she described as her “precious babies”, Lejla (five) and Cuillinn (three).
It’s true that we will never be able to order the world so that lone crazies don’t do terrible things but a Europe unified in peace can work against the wars which are destroying families by design every day of the week.
Jo Cox clearly saw that the hundreds of thousands of children orphaned by the Syrian war could be her children. When little Aylan Kurdi personified for the world the thousands of tragic deaths which had happened in the Aegean Sea I know Jo Cox must have given little Lejla, who was around the same age, a very tight cuddle. Harriet Harman spoke in the Commons yesterday about Cox attending a political meeting and kissing her new-born baby the whole way through.
Kissing your own baby is a better preparation for politics than kissing random babies outside the supermarket. Cox made the leap from the overwhelming love she felt for her own children to the devastation felt by the parents in Syria who have lost their children to war. She could imagine how lonely her children would be without her and thus how lonely must be the several hundred thousand unaccompanied refugee Syrian children — about 95,000 of them in Europe by Cox’s calculation. She didn’t know that her children would shortly feel that loneliness for real.
When she made her unsuccessful appeal in the Commons last month that the UK would host 3,000 of those unaccompanied children she put herself firmly in the shoes of Syrian parents leaving a war-torn country to save their children.
“Who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing?” she asked. “Children are being killed on their way to school, children as young as seven are being forcefully recruited to the frontline and one in three children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war. Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness and I know I would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hellhole.”
So far the EU has failed to act responsibly or effectively to ease the humanitarian crisis despite the moral leadership of Angela Merkel, who comes from a place which remembers the European wars and has taken in 1m refugees.
But without European unity there is no hope of a pan-European plan for the refugees of crisis regions from Syria to Afghanistan and from Eritrea to Somalia. Anyone who doubts that need only look at UKIP’s revolting poster showing a line of Syrian refugees in Slovenia superimposed with the words, “Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all”, issued a few hours before Jo Cox’s death.
For a bit of historical perspective, Belfast-based Brendan Harkin cleverly compared it with Nazi propaganda films from the 1930s showing almost exactly the same line of refugees with the message, “These are the types of Eastern Jews who flooded Europe’s cities after the last war… Parasites undermining their host countries… Threatening thousand-year-old cultures…” It would be easy to empathise with Nigel Farage’s poster if you see everyone with slightly darker skin than yourself and all women in headscarves as sub-human. There’s only a problem once you realise that every single one of those human beings has the same range of emotions as yourself. That with one roll of the dice, you could be them. Hoping against hope that the strangers will be kind.
Without European unity there is little hope of military intervention in Syria focussed, on protecting the Syrian people, as Jo Cox explained in an article for The Observer co-written with Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell: breaking the deadlock between Russia and the US which allowed “the cancer” of Islamic State to spread, working to bring Assad to the negotiating table, creating safe havens for the Syrian people within Syria.
The tenor of debate in this referendum has been pathetic everywhere but here it has been abominable. Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s pro-Remain article in Monday’s Guardian kicks off with trade between the UK and Ireland and “anything that gets in the way” of that trade. Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe yesterday described our trade interests as “the reason” Ireland was advocating for Remain.
Until Jo Cox’s death, my own position was more abominable still. I didn’t really care if the Brits left because it would show how different — read morally superior — we were in Ireland. Scary stuff, really, when you consider the British taught us democracy and taught the world what a welfare state looks like. When you consider how interwoven their history has been with that of the rest of Europe, down to the fact that Jean Monnet’s conversion to the cause of Europe happened while he brokered co-ordinated war supply chains in 1914 and 1938 for historic enemies, the French and the English.
But a woman cut down in the prime of life and two “precious babies” motherless force us to face the meaning of international co-operation.
And to stretch the hand of friendship across the Irish Sea to encourage them to stay or if they leave, to encourage them back.