I’ve been in Brussels this week at the European Anti Poverty Network 16th European Meeting of People Experiencing Poverty. An EU sponsored event which brings together the people with experience of poverty and collects their voices to better inform and develop policy. Because of my work and my life experiences, I was fortunate to be part of a UK delegation through the Poverty Alliance along with Twimukye Mushaka, Kerrie Friel and Paul Edwards. I will, of course be doing a formal report on my professional experience for my work but I wanted to write a personal account of what I experienced.
Now, many of you will know that this is not a normal event for me. I don’t travel to Europe “on business”. I rarely fly – the last time must have been 2010 so this was a big deal for me. I learnt so much in this last few days, about Europe, about other countries, about poverty and about me.
I learnt that everyone seems to speak English. I learnt that a latte is different everywhere you go. I learnt that Schiphol airport is bigger than Inverness – not Inverness Airport – I already knew that – but Inverness itself. It’s MASSIVE. I learnt that I’m a proper teuchter – wide eyed and overwhelmed by the people, the noise, the bustle of big places in a way that my 18 year old self, worldly wise and working in Manchester would have laughed at.
I learnt that drivers in Brussels honk their horns all the time. It’s so noisy! I learnt that listening and tweeting at the same time makes my head hurt and I learnt that I should have brought more than one plug adapter. I also learnt that small boots are better than big boots when flying and that being a fat, menopausal Woman fae The Highlands means that everywhere I go I am hotter than almost everyone else even when everyone else seems to be wearing woolly hats and scarves but that there is a universal language of menopausal women which lets you know you are not alone.
More that this though was the experience of the event itself. I learnt that to be introduced at a European event as the UK delegation raises a wry eyebrow but to point out that you are from Scotland raises a smile and an occasional cheer. I learnt that the minimum wage in countries across Europe ranges from 60 euros a month to around 1500 euros a month. I learnt that the markets for subsistence farming produce is becoming smaller and causing great hardship and poverty. I learnt that there are lots of young British people working in Brussels and that many of the ones I spoke to had a connection with Scotland. I learnt that many of the delegates had been to university in Scotland. I learnt that I regret not being more ambitious as a young woman. I learnt that I truly feel European – especially when meeting my son who is currently living in Antwerp. I learnt that George from Romania has an English friend called Sue who lives in Crawley – he face timed her and introduced us!
I learnt that Scotland’s voice is of interest to many other Europeans. I learnt that people in Europe think the British have no sense of humour but that the Scottish “style” was appreciated. I was a bit confused by that as my experience of everyday Scottish style is that it’s black jeans and black t shirts for men and not much different for women ( not counting the kilt of course). Closer questioning revealed that what was being talked about was “the craic” and we spent a funny few minutes teaching our new friends about “the craic” and the “banter” and sent them off to share those new words with others – cultural exchange indeed! I learnt that not only does Scotland look to Europe and Scandinavia for innovation and inspiration, but that many countries feel that Scotland has a lot to offer too. The Danish delegation specifically said that Scandinavia looks to learn from Scotland – maybe they were just being nice but I’d like to think not. I learnt that there is a feeling of relief that Britain is on its way out of Europe because those people involved in developing social policy at a European level feel they will get more progressive work done without Britain’s obstructive behaviour. I felt a bit ashamed of that. I learnt that the British Government had promoted Universal Credit as an exemplar to other countries in Europe and I spoke about the stories that I had heard at Drew Hendry’s Universal Credit Summit in Inverness as often as I could to delegates, the EAPN, representatives of other Governments and the EU itself. I spoke about the work which is ongoing to design a Rights based Social Security System in Scotland with dignity and respect at its heart.
I learnt that there is so much more that connects us than divides us; that the power of the collective voice is important as a way to bring about social change and that the EU must support the development of that collective voice if they want to see real transformation. I also learnt that whilst there are many different experiences of poverty in different countries, the common denominator in every case, is the exploitation of the working class by the wealthy. For those of you who might find class politics stick in your throats a bit I would look you sternly in the eye and tell you straight – in a week when we saw the Panama Papers released and the scale of the avoidance of tax by those at the very top of the pile it is hard to see any other explanation for the continuation of poverty in the 21st century. Poverty is a political choice.
Finally I learnt that there are many people who would give their eye teeth for some of the things we take for granted. Many people who have nothing, but in knowing that I also know that the fact that others are suffering too doesn’t make the suffering of those people in our own countries any less appalling. If you are destitute in Britain, destitute in Spain, destitute in Estonia, France, Sweden, Ireland; if you are working and not earning enough to pay your bills and facing eviction in Scotland, in Belgium, in Denmark, Lithuania, Romania it is no comfort to you that someone, somewhere else is “worse off”. My delegation colleague Kerrie Friel who spoke passionately about the experiences of lone parents and Carers at the opening session said her mum used to say “Yir ain pain’s the sairest”. And she was right. All over Europe people are feeling their “ain pain” – the pain and hopelessness of poverty and we must continue to demand that the EU and individual Governments work together to tackle this across Europe.
Oh, and rich people ….. PAY YOUR TAXES!