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In Conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans

Monday 6 June 2016 NUS News

Turner Prize winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans tell us why he's campaigning for young people to vote to remain in the EU. 

Wolfgang Tillmans is the Turner Prize winning artist with a passion for the progress of democracy and human rights across Europe, and his love for the UK has inspired a new series of posters ahead of the EU referendum on 23 June. 

Here's why he felt compelled to get involved.....

What motivated you to launch your poster campaign, and how can people get involved?

The reasons why I felt compelled to get involved in the UK-EU referendum are personal – my lifelong involvement with the UK, my love for the UK and its culture, music and people, my career’s groundedness in Britain and the always warm welcome I felt here as a German. I see myself as a product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace and exchange.

However, the more pressing reason why I morphed in recent months from an inherently political, to an overtly political person, lies in my observation of the larger geopolitical situation and an understanding of Western cultures, as sleepwalkers into the abyss.

The term “Sleepwalkers” comes from the title of the book by Christopher Clark which describes Europe in 1914, when different societies ended up in a world war, which none of them wanted. Today, I see the Western world sleepwalking towards the demolition of the very institutions of democracy, negotiation and moderation which allow us to live the lives that we are living. 

In the US we are currently observing a rage which is threatening to wash away great American values, which anchor the world as we know it. These people claim to make America great again, but they embody the opposite. In the East of Europe, we see a surge in nationalist fervour, which wants to sweep away freedoms won only some 25 years ago. In Western Europe and Britain, we see a wave of discontent with the outcome of globalisation, which turns its anger from the real perpetrators, say for example the tax-evading billionaires, to the weakest in our societies: refugees from terror and war.

The EU is a scapegoat in the midst of all this. For decades press and politicians have loaded blame on it, when in fact it does its best to deal with the fallout of the tectonic shifts in world politics. The EU takes upon itself the task to negotiate the affairs of 28 member states. This can never be an easy task. I admire that this even works so well. We can exchange goods without having to probe product safety each and every time between the 28 countries. Brussels bureaucracy deals with that, and actually quite efficiently. People can move and work in whichever EU country they like. In fact, 1.5 million Brits enjoy this right just now, and due to deregulation of air travel millions enjoy cheap air travel to Europe.

We have in the last decades become a European family, with much less dividing us than connecting us. EU laws, making up only 10 per cent of laws made in the UK, enshrined rights like four weeks’ paid holiday, health and safety and much more. The EU enforces standards that protect the environment. Water pollution doesn’t respect borders, and here especially Brits benefit from rules that span across the continent. There are frustrations with the very nature of compromise and shared decision making.

The EU is well aware of its shortcomings and David Cameron has secured a clause for the UK to not part-take in a move towards a European States. This is no longer on the cards. There is no longer a danger of giving up British sovereignty. I feel that the forces driving towards the UK leaving the EU are disregarding a most crucial point – the values the EU stands for are fragile in this world of extremism. The anti-democratic forces in eastern Europe, the Islamist forces around the Mediterranean, the big business interests in North America, are all poised to wash away the EU’s laws of moderation. 

The EU protects your rights against these enemies of freedom. To leave the EU now, in these dangerous political times, is not patriotic, it’s simply foolish and it would send the wrong message to the enemies of European values. The EU is not perfect and it never was designed to be that way. The very way of it being a negotiating chamber of 28 nations is the key to its success. It is not in the security interests of the UK to weaken the EU at this point in time. Whatever your feelings towards the EU, be aware that voting for Brexit has catastrophic repercussions for the whole of Europe and the world.

What role can the EU play in combatting the rise of far right parties across Europe?

The EU itself has no right to campaign or interfere in national discussions. Therefore it can’t actively get involved in let’s say Hungary, where over 60 per cent have voted for parties considered far-right. But because Hungary is a member of the EU, it can’t do legislation that contravenes EU law, like for example freedom of press and speech, or introduce the death penalty. So the EU is the very bulwark against extremism before it reaches proper legislation. 

What message do you hope students take away from your campaign?

Students have much to lose. The Erasmus program will certainly be halted for British students. But in general Brexit would send a terribly negative message to the UK’s neighbours. We lived peacefully and in prosperity together in the same building. Now we hate it so much, we can’t stay a day longer, we have to get out. Brexiters portray it as a neutral act, but indeed it is a huge snub to 425 million people.


You have until midnight on Tuesday 7 June to register to vote in the European referendum. It only takes five minutes online here!