One Day Without Us
I was in London on Monday, for One Day Without Us, supporting the EU nationals living in the UK.
Now, let’s make one thing clear from the start: EU nationals living in the UK are not illegal immigrants, and they have done nothing wrong. Citizens of EU countries can legally live and work in any other EU country; they don’t need residence permits or work visas. But Brexit will change that, and the 3 million EU nationals in the UK have been left in limbo, uncertain whether they will be allowed to stay or not, because the UK government refuses to guarantee their rights and intends to use them as leverage in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
But what about the UK nationals living in the other 27 EU countries? Aren’t they in a similar situation? In a way yes: their future status depends on the outcome of the negotiations, after the UK triggers Article 50 (= the process of withdrawal from the European Union).
But, as stressful as it must be also for UK nationals living in other EU countries, I haven’t seen any reports of UK nationals being victims of hate crime or being sent threatening letters by immigration officials telling them to ‘prepare to leave‘. A significant number of EU nationals living in the UK, on the other hand, have been treated to state-sanctioned xenophobia on a regular basis since the June referendum…
Yes, these are strong words. And yes, maybe I do take this personally. Because it is personal.
As it happens, my (German) husband has been living and working in the UK for a quite a while now. And because of that, we also have a house, and the mortgage that comes with it, in the UK. And it’s safe to say that the 8 months since the referendum have been quite stressful. Therefore, it was almost therapeutic to see so many other EU nationals and hear their stories.
The British press often misrepresents the ‘EU migrants’ as only Eastern European fruit pickers, waiters and hotel receptionists, maybe a few doctors and nurses thrown in for sensationalist sob stories. However, while I would agree that most of the staff I’ve seen in London hotels seem to be immigrants, it’s also important to remember that the EU nationals in the UK are not a homogeneous group, but people from all walks of life, and from all sorts of backgrounds.
The people I spoke to were mostly middle class professionals who have been living in the UK for a long time, in some cases 20-30 years, working and paying taxes, raising their families. Some are married to UK citizens, with bilingual, dual-nationality children. And contrary to the tired old myth about immigrants, quite a few of these people are educated and come from the richest countries in the EU (= Germany, France, The Netherlands and the Nordic countries). In other words, they are not that different from Professor M and me…
But what struck me most was that all of the people I spoke to had similar stories to tell. How after years of living in the UK and considering this country their home they suddenly felt rejected. How their contributions to their communities were trivialised simply because they were born in another country. How they felt abandoned by friends and relatives who belittled their anxiety. Some had experienced hostility from neighbours and colleagues, or had seen long-term friends turn against them. They’d been discriminated against at work, or told to ‘pack up and leave’. And they all talked about the anxiety and depression caused by the uncertainty of what will happen to them and their families. As one lady I spoke to said, it’s as if you were playing a board game and they suddenly changed the rules. And not only did they change the rules but they also refuse to tell you what the new rules are…
Of course, Prime Minister Theresa May keeps saying that the UK will always want to welcome the best and the brightest immigrants. But I think she’s missing the point. ‘The best and the brightest‘ always have choices, and they won’t wait forever…
So, what about us?
In a way Professor M and I are not ‘typical’ EU migrants. For starters, I’m not nor do I intend to become a full-time resident in the UK. For the past 20 years or so we have been living in and commuting between two countries (I work in Finland), and we don’t have children to worry about. So, if push comes to shove, we can actually pack up and leave. Except that Professor M really likes his job and the people he works with.
Has life changed for us since the referendum?
Yes and no. On the surface, we continue living our lives as always, shuttling between Finland and the UK. But deep down, everything has changed.
And by everything I mean the way we live our lives, our perception of the UK, and our attitudes.
All good things come to an end…
For example, for years we used to spend some time in the beautiful British seaside in summer, and we have many fond memories of visiting small towns and staying in quaint little B&Bs. However, last summer we realised that this phase of our life had come to and end, and we would be happier spending our holidays on the continent from now on…
And when I arrived in the UK a week ago I suddenly realised that for the past few months I haven’t really been looking forward to coming over anymore. In fact, both Professor M and I have been spending most of our weekends in Finland. We’ve also visited Germany several times this past 8 months. And the last time we got off the Eurostar at Brussels I remember feeling so relieved, as if I could breathe again…
And when I do come over to the UK, I have zero interest in going to London for shopping, museums or anything else. Really, I couldn’t care less.
Seeing everything with new eyes
Originally we were both drawn to this country because of its vibrant, multicultural atmosphere. But now we are more sensitive to the subtle (and less subtle) current of xenophobia in British culture. Sure, people who look like Professor M and I don’t usually encounter (overt) racism, and in our respective cultures it is unacceptable, and something we take very seriously.
But recently Professor M told me that – for the first time since he came to the UK as a student some 20 years ago – he wonders if he is still welcome. And we both think that our long-term future is probably somewhere else.
I have an attitude problem
Whenever I’m in the UK now I have no desire to meet new people (unless they are ‘immigrants‘, like us), for many reasons. On one hand, I need my own little cushy echo chamber now, mainly because I really need people to treat me as their equal. That’s just the way I am. On the other hand, I’m very prone to telling people, in detail and with a generous side dish of curse words, how condescending and insensitive I find their fake sympathy expressed in platitudes such as ‘get over it’ or ‘you’ll be alright’ .
And I have no patience for people who wish to explain why they voted Leave. But I take every opportunity to tell them my views on the the issue. And no, it’s not a debate or a discussion. And it most certainly is not optional; you talk to me about Brexit and you get an unedited stream of my thoughts. I’ve always been a bit of a loose cannon, and these days I have a lot of repressed anger…
But it’s people who say they don’t have a problem with immigrants like us who really drive me mad. You see, I have a zero tolerance policy on back-stabbing: you can’t throw people like me and my husband under the bus and then ask me to be your friend.
So yes, a lot has changed, even though everything looks the same on the surface. I guess in my head I’ve already moved on, decided that this phase of my life is coming to an end.
Linking up with:
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Oh Tiina I understand your thoughts. I think brexit is a desaster, Entschuldige mir fehlen leider zu viele englische Worte um viel mehr zu sagen, aber es bestürzt mich sehr. Ich hätte niemals mit diesem Ausgang der Entscheidung gerechnet, letzten Juni. Ich dachte immer hoffentlich passiert das nicht. Liebe Grüße Tina
Vielen Dank, Tina!
I have always wanted to live in the UK. It feels like home, when I havn t been there for a few months, I get homesick. I think its awfull that they wont be a part of the EU anymore!
I used to think of the UK as home, too, which is probably why I find this whole thing so depressing. And no, I don't think of it as home anymore…
I understand that you're cutting boundaries, as soon as you feel that you're not welcome anymore. It's hard when they change the rules in the middle of the game, so unfair!I've been worried about some (spanish) friends who have been living in UK for decades and now they have to decide what to do, many of them even thinking on moving to Ámsterdam or Frankfurt. Obviously, I'm not very enthusiastic about visiting London these days. Sadly, it's still one of my favorite places.It's amazing that nobody seems worried about english ex-pats living in Spain or France!, they're millions!besos & support!
London has always been one of my favourite places, too. But you know what they say: when one door closes, another one opens somewhere else… Sorry to hear about your friends. I've heard of many EU nationals thinking about leaving, after decades in the UK. It's sad but understandable: who wants to live in a place where they're not welcome.In the UK you see a lot of articles about UK immigrants in EU countries (sorry, I refuse to call them expats, to make a point that we're all immigrants…) who are worried about their health care etc, but at least they're not victims of hate crime.