We were mesmerised. Above all by the spectacle of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. Nonchalantly lighting up a cigarette. What an absolute rock star. Or so we thought. Perhaps for no other reason than neither of us could picture the decidedly un-suave John Major pulling off such rebel casus belli with just the right dash of aplomb. Relieved that we had arrived in good time, my flatmate and I did our best to take everything in. The crowds, the charged atmosphere. All of it. And the fact that we were there. In the thick of things. In a Spanish bullring. No less! Imagining the yarn that I might spin for my parents. How I would try and scandalise them before promptly coming clean: we hadn’t been there for that. But rather to bear true witness to a different kind of slaughter. It was the summer of 1994 and were in Valencia; a city that comes alive especially for the young. Enrolled at the local university as part of an exchange programme with our own institute back in London. Yet that evening we felt terribly grown up and serious. As we readied ourselves, on the eve of the European parliamentary elections, to listen to cajoling by the Spanish leadership across the political divide as to why this or that party would be the best bet to represent the citizenry over in Brussels. This was the Maastricht dream playing out in real time. I had fallen in love with Valencia from the moment we got off the train. Even there on the platform the scent of orange trees was everywhere. It couldn’t have been more different from Paris, where we had been the previous semester. And soon my heartfelt disappointment at having to leave that renaissance city on the very same day that Nirvana had been due to play was all but forgotten. My flatmate and I had a veritable ball during our ‘year abroad’. Which was part and welcome parcel of a modern languages undergraduate degree. One focusing on European integration, cultural exchange as well as the single market. Though even back then, freedom of movement was seemingly not for all. Our university had advised us to consider carrying our travel documents; especially in France. I now wonder if this message had been subtly directed at those of us who came from ethnic minority backgrounds. As well as tacit recognition of the rise of the far-right National Front in the south. Still etched in my memory is the visible distress of two classmates — one black and one Asian — as they pondered the prospect of being sent off to study in Nice. Which had emerged as the stronghold of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party. The subtext being that if we encountered trouble of any sort, a quick whipping out of our passports ought to do the trick and diffuse tensions. For it would show that we belonged. EU citizens? That’ll do nicely. I had fallen in love with Valencia from the moment we got off the train. The scent of orange trees everywhere. It couldn’t have been more different from Paris, where we had been the previous semester. And soon my disappointment at having to leave that renaissance city on the very same day that Nirvana had been due to play was all but forgotten My white flatmate and I were fortunate enough to avoid any bother. In fact, the Spaniards more often than not mistook me for one of their own. This made me smile simply because my maternal great-grandmother had been Spanish. Though this confusion was quite possibly due to my name. But fortunately for me, while Valencia was famous for its oranges these were not the fizzy kind. Where everyone is encouraged to taste the thrill. Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but notice how an Arab friend of ours never dared leave the house without his passport firmly secured about his person. He was forever being stopped by the police. Despite becoming a naturalised citizen some five years or so earlier. And yet. I can’t quite come to terms with the shock of the summer before last. When Britain voted to do the unthinkable. Of course, the EU as a paradigm for integration is far from perfect. The western European powers all too often display immense hubris in their dealings with the poorer Mediterranean nations, such as in the case of Greece and the crippling bailout package. Or else, they demonstrate shameful xenophobia towards the eastern Europeans; whom they constantly remind will never be accepted as equal members. And just to drive the point home, so as to be sure there is never any misunderstanding on this front, the latter are reduced to little more than the caricature of the Polish plumber coming over ‘here’ to steal ‘our’ jobs before going on the rob. But despite all this — as the news comes in that British courts last week ruled that the Electoral Commission effectively swung the referendum in the Brexiteers’ favour by authorising unlawful spending by the Vote Leave camp — I can’t help but think to my undergrad days. And what a rich and wonderful experience we had been afforded. Not least because the world of accelerated globalisation brings with it the temptation to homogenise; East versus West; the Euro-Atlantic experience versus that of the Global South. Thus those carefree student days represented the opportunity to push back against such reductionism. A chance to recognise and immerse oneself in the distinct languages and cultures of the European continent. And now those days risk being over. For the majority, at least. As Britain surrenders the game of soft power. Que pena! The writer is the Deputy Managing Editor, Daily Times. She can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @humeiwei Published in Daily Times, September 16th 2018.