‘I’ve seen war in Europe’: Berlin veteran in push to get people voting in EU elections

'I've seen war in Europe': Berlin veteran in push to get people voting in EU elections
Neil Cummins with his son Fritzi, who is an inspiration for him when it comes to thinking about the future of Europe. Photo courtesy of Neil Cummins.
After experiencing war in Bosnia as a British soldier, Berlin resident Neil Cummins never wants to see divisions in Europe again.

That’s why he, and a group of campaigners, are trying to inspire people across Germany and beyond to vote in the European Parliament elections in May, even in the face of Brexit which could see Brits – including Cummins – lose their vote.

'My son's passionate about Europe'

When Cummins and his 10-year-old son, Fritzi, watch the news together, they both feel strongly about a certain topic.

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“My son will argue with anyone about Brexit and win,” says Cummins “He’s very passionate about Europe. We’re quite proud of him.”

Cummins, who has a Trabant, a car from the era of old East Germany, says Fritzi compares what’s happening in the UK now to the old GDR.

“‘Why do they want to go back to that?’ he tells me,” says Cummins. “‘Britain is an island and all they’re doing is putting a wall round it. It’s like the old East Berlin.’ He sees it from that point of view.”

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Fritzi, and his passion for the continent, is one of the reasons that Cummins has been inspired to get involved with European politics. He is one of around 15 volunteers who is talking to groups, going to schools and trying to educate people about the EU.

Their aim is to get people to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections, which are held from May 23rd until May 26th, 2019. The elections will decide how Europe will act in the coming years when it comes to jobs, business, security, migration and climate change, among other topics.

Although Cummins may not be able to vote himself because of Brexit which will take Britain out of the bloc (and only EU citizens can vote), he is enjoying inspiring other people to take part.

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Cummins, 52, who is originally from Bolton, England, lived near Alicante in Spain for 10 years and has been in Berlin for around six years, along with his wife Jeanette and Fritzi.

He is pro-European and pro-integration, sharing that he learned a language called Valenciano while in Spain because he wanted to be able to talk to his neighbours in the mountain community he lived in.

“Nowadays people think it’s open season to insult anybody just because they’re different, like a different race or sex or whatever,” he says. “I don’t like that. That’s not what I thought Europe was about personally. I don’t like all the division, people are people.

“Brexit has brought out the absolute worst in everybody.”

The EU is going through a huge transformation at the moment as Britain is on the way out. This, for Cummins, is a step in the wrong direction which has already resulted in unrest – and will lead to more. And he’s already seen Europe on its knees.

“I was a soldier in the army, I served in Bosnia during the war,” he says. “So I’ve seen division and war in Europe and I’ve seen the damage it does to people.”

This group isn’t protesting against Britain leaving the bloc (although they’re not happy about it), but they want people to have a part in the EU’s future.

The volunteer group at one of their meetings. Photo: Bernhard Ludewig

“We might not be able to do anything about Brexit but we can stop it happening here,” he says. “We can be proactive with people to get them to see the good that the European Parliament does rather than people thinking it’s just unelected bureaucrats.”

“Every decision in Europe is made by politicians,” he adds. “The more people that take part, the more people can take ownership of what we’re doing in Europe.”

Grassroots movement

Another member of the group, Julia Kaiser, 22, is originally from a village near Frankfurt am Main, but studied in Mannheim in southern Germany, as well as Barcelona in Spain.

The group they are part of – Expats in Berlin – allows them to meet the growing international community in and around the capital to talk to the EU citizens within it about voting. 

It's part of the wider campaign called: 'Diesmal wähle ich' (this time I'm voting).

“This is all a grassroots movement,” she says. “The big challenge is going to be reaching out to people who do not know about the European elections at all. We need to make people aware they can make a change.

“You might not be interested in the EU because you think it doesn’t affect you in your daily life but it does,” says Kaiser.

Julia Kaiser. Picture: Bernhard Ludewig

With populism across Europe on the rise, including in Germany with the likes of Alternative for Germany (AfD), Cummins and Kaiser say people need to make their voices heard.

However, they were keen to stress that they’re not part of a particular political group. “We’re just saying: don’t leave it to somebody else (to vote) because they’ll be leaving it to you,” says Cummins. “If you don’t vote for the right one, the wrong people will get in.”

'Unelected bureaucrats'

The turnout is also a worry. In the last elections in 2014, there was a 48 percent turnout in Germany and 42 percent overall.

“I’m very pessimistic about the turnout,” says Kaiser, who believes people are turned off from voting because of the “missing transparency of the EU” and how complicated the legislation is.

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It’s also about the way the parliament is perceived by people, they both agree.

Cummins says he has friends who live in Spain and voted for Brexit because they think the EU is “unelected bureaucrats telling us what our bananas look like”.

“Don’t you realize you only have freedom of movement because you’re in the EU,” he adds, with a note of exasperation. “It’s just blatant dogma.”

Cummins and Kaiser may come from different generations but they, along with the others in their volunteer group, have a similar goal when it comes to uniting people and countries.

“I feel European. I’m passionate about it. I want to see Europe as a success,” says Cummins.

Neil Cummins. Photo: Bernhard Ludewig

“I’ve always loved travelling, I have friends all over Europe,” adds Kaiser.

However, she acknowledges that the EU isn’t perfect – but that’s why people should get involved to help influence decisions, she says.

“I don’t love the EU,” she says. “It could be better, there should be reforms, a lot of changes. We need an EU but I think we also need changes.”

Kaiser goes on to quote a famous German who’s using freedom of movement to live and work in the UK as Liverpool Football Club manager. After Liverpool drew 0-0 with Bayern Munich during a Champion’s League match in February, Jürgen Klopp said: “It’s not perfect but it’s good enough to work with.”

“The EU is like that,” Kaiser says.

What you can do

The deadline for registering to vote is May 5th.

Anyone who wants to get involved with the campaign to inspire people to vote can contact the European Parliament Office in Unter den Linden, Berlin. Find out more information about the volunteer group here.

Ais taking place on Saturday, April 6th from 4-7pm which will have information on how to vote. It takes place at the Co-up community space in Adalbertstraße 7-8.

If anyone needs information on how to vote, the group can provide this. “Whatever the country they come from we can give it to them in their language,” says Kaiser.

For more details, visit the 'This time I'm voting' site here. Info can also be found on social media with the hashtag #EPinDeutschland. 

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  1. If you don’t want to see war in Europe again, then tell Merkel to stop dicking around and keep her promises before the U.S. pulls out of NATO. There are plenty of politicians in both parties who are sick of your free-riding.

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