Europa is named after a young princess for whom Zeus, as was his habit, felt an overwhelming desire. He turned himself into a white bull and behaved so sweetly she climbed on his back. He plunged into the ocean and carried her across the sea to Crete. One of the founding myths of the continent is the ravishing of a treasure from Asia Minor to found a cult in Greece, removing power and agency from women along the way. ( others, Europa bore Zeus the Minotaur, the monster at the labyrinth’s heart, slain by Theseus.)
The story of Europe has such deep roots, such ancient animosities played out again and again. Sometimes, we fight on a smaller stage (not necessarily within Europe itself of course), just a little local difficulty. Other times Europe’s tribal wars must infect everyone. And of couse many current conflicts are legacies of European family squabbles as princelings drew lines on maps, or haphazardly accelerating arms races between old enemies.
Just before I left, a Radio 4 programme reminded me it was then 17 weeks to the UK referendum on EU membership. I couldn’t help my relief at being away for nine of them. Yet here on Europa, where over half those aboard are European, there is plenty of talk of both the Union and the refugee crisis. One of the permanent crew, a Peruvian, said he had heard more talk of both on this trip than ever before. Of course, we know next to nothing of day to day events beyond the immediate environment of the ship and the next low to sweep past the Horn, but that never stops a conversation.
The primary motivation for the Union is peace, followed by prosperity, and in the past six decades, there have been big successes in both. That success depends on shared values of equality before the law, justice, freedom and democracy. Even here in Antarctica, it matters: if the Union fails, what rice other treaties and agreements including those which keep the peace in the far south. And, despite our isolation, we got the sad news from Brussels: to me, as to some of the others, this is an even stronger incentive to keep the Union alive, to make it stronger, fairer and more democratic. The winners from disintegration of a Union based on those shared values will be Daesh and their allies.
Sadly, of the Brits aboard, I am probably in a minority in my passionate support of the Union, though I think we are hardly a representative sample. Europa, a Dutch ship, often proudly flies a European flag at the masthead. The circle of gold stars remains a powerful symbol of hope, and the search for solutions and lasting peace.