The Human Cost of Brexit - A Bargaining Chip Writes
Vera Tens is a member of Women for Independence and a German national. This is the story of a woman that the Westminster Government consider to be a bargaining chip.
I have no doubt that by now everyone in the UK is aware that we are going ahead with “Brexit”. And many people will have followed this week’s events, too: The UK parliament does not have to be consulted on the final exit deal with the EU, nor are EU citizens - like myself - going to have any assurances before a deal is struck in two or more years. This means, I have to find a way to deal with my uncertain future in the UK. However, it also means I am more than ever in favour of an independent Scotland. Let me try and explain both by telling you my story, and how I got to this point.
I was born and raised in Berlin – on the west side of a divided city; the side that was surrounded by a wall. In 1989 I was still living in Berlin when the Wall came down. It was lived history on a daily basis, and I loved every bit of it, because it was exciting and positive.
When things started developing in the weeks before - in East Germany but also Hungary and other former Soviet bloc countries – my parents and others of their and older generations were sceptical and worried about how the Soviets would react to these developments. Eventually, when the first piece of wall was physically lifted, we realised that this was really happening: Germany, and especially Berlin, was given a chance to become one again. The atmosphere in Berlin at the time was amazing. People were celebrating in the streets, with people they had never met before in their life; and many lasting friendships were formed then and there.
Needless to say, this initial euphoria didn’t last long because economic reality started kicking in. Merging two - culturally – so different countries became a huge challenge, and it took the best part of 20 years for Germany to reach a status that can be called “back on track”. In my view, this was only possible because of the willingness of (most) people living in Germany to make financial sacrifices, but also because of the financial and other types of support from other EU member states and the global community in general. For me, these financial sacrifices were worth it: people in East-Germany got their freedom back; they have been allowed to travel where and when they want since; they have the right to make decisions about their lives and have choices. And as a positive add-on to the fall of the Berlin wall, other former communist countries have had the chance to change their future, too.
Why do I mention all this? Because it influenced my views on the question of Scottish independence in 2014 and Scotland (and the UK) in general ever since.
When I moved to Scotland more than a decade ago, I did so as an EU citizen; in the knowledge of having freedom of movement, of having choices. I was born in Germany and therefore hold German nationality. However, that wasn’t my choice; I had no influence on that “decision”. On the other hand, making Scotland my home was my choice, one that I made within a few weeks of arriving here. It was an easy decision because I immediately fell in love with the country and its people: I have never been treated as a foreigner (ok, I admit, I am white, which definitely has had an influence), and I have met so many friendly and amazing people. However, most important for me, Scotland is a country where people still care about each other; where people in need are being treated well and not kicked when they are on the ground already. So, when the question of Scottish independence came up the first time, I was in a sticky situation – as were many of my friends (Scottish, English, Irish, other EU citizens).
I believe in what the Financial Times referred to as “first principle” in an article just this week: I believe that there are economic benefits in being part of a larger community, such as the EU or the UK, and I accept that neither are perfect. As such, I had complete sympathy with everybody who voted “no” in 2014 purely on the basis of economic considerations and assuming that it meant maintaining the status quo of Scotland in the UK (especially when Scotland was supposed to get more powers). After a long debate with myself and many of my friends though, I realised that other things started becoming more important to me when considering the question of Scottish independence.
In my view, the UK had started a path down a road, especially under the Tory/LibDem Government in Westminster, that I always compare to “1920s Germany”. Theresa May in the Home Office had started making it more difficult - even for people from Commonwealth countries such as India - to stay in the country. The NHS (England) was more and more privatised without providing more and/or better care. Disabled and unemployed people were targeted to try and plug some holes in the UK budget (to no avail). Renewable energy technologies were supposed to receive long-term Westminster Government incentives but in the end this mostly became a short-lived reality (or none at all). On the other hand, unconventional exploration of oil and gas (e.g. fracking) was being pushed more and more by the UK Government. And worse, money was always found somewhere to fight wars. At the same time in Scotland, more and more people struggled to pay their council tax or utility bills, and the number of food-banks increased dramatically.
So, when I had to decide on “yes” or “no” in 2014, I decided to put my values and the hope of a better situation for future generations above my economic concerns and thus above my own financial future status. I was prepared to have less money myself – just like I had had in Germany after 1989 – for the benefit of future generations. For me, voting “yes” in 2014 was anything but about “hating the English” or being “in control” in principle. For me, voting “yes” was about stopping the path that Scotland as part of the UK had started going down. I wanted to give future generations a chance to have a good life, to create and live in a fair society, a society where caring for vulnerable people is not just a political phrase on a billboard but acted upon accordingly. I wanted to give future generations in Scotland a chance to become more like Sweden or some other Nordic Countries in terms of social security and welfare in general.
Sadly, as we are all too aware, the majority of the people who went to vote on 18th September 2014 in Scotland did not agree with me. People voted “no” for many reasons. However, in the EU-citizen electorate, many voted “no” because they feared that a “yes” vote would make their future in Scotland uncertain. Again, a point of view that I can understand and accept; though one - already back then – that I put into the category of “scaremongering”. Maybe because of my almost 30 years’ experience with Germany and some basic understanding of how the EU works, I never worried about that myself. However, as we now know, voting “no” in 2014 meant that as non-UK EU citizens, we are - since the 23rd of June 2016 - in a very uncertain situation; and worse, it was confirmed this week by Westminster – both Houses – that we are treated as “bargaining chips”.
As an EU citizen without British or Irish nationality, I was not allowed to vote in the EU referendum. I therefore had no influence on the outcome. I have to admit though, although I was slightly worried in the days leading up to the day, I held the conviction that the majority of people in the UK would see the overriding benefits of being part of the EU – economically, but also for other reasons (human and workers’ rights if nothing else). Unfortunately, I - as well as most of my friends - were wrong. 51.9% of those who voted on the day, voted in favour of “Leave”. Considering the overall number, that equates to 37.4% of the electorate who actually decided on the future of the whole country - the UK.
Needless to say, I had stayed up all night to follow the “developments”. I think it is not necessary though to go into detail on how emotional things quickly became for me: the realisation slowly set in that my future in the country that I call home wasn’t certain at all any more from that point onwards. I couldn’t believe why so many people, in the UK, but also in Scotland, would want to leave the EU. It didn’t make sense to me then, and it still doesn’t; and never will. However, in addition to the - in my view irrefutable - negative consequences for the UK economy and people, the “leave” vote has also been a very personal vote -something that many people don’t realise or understand.
On the evening of the EU referendum I spoke with one of my neighbours. It turned out that he had voted leave. When I asked him why he wanted me potentially having to leave the country he just looked at me with a blank face: He admitted that it had never occurred to him to even consider the consequences of his leave vote for me or any other EU citizen he knows or works with. And since the “leave” vote, I have had many similar experiences.
Possibly the most common thing I've been told, either to my face or on social media, is: “You’ll be ok!” A friend recently said that to me. When I asked him what his knowledge of my current status in the UK is, followed by specific questions, it turned out he didn’t even have a basic understanding of my situation, e.g. what a “right to permanent residency” is. I don’t think I need to spell out what I think of people who make this comment to me when clearly they lack basic information (and empathy in many cases).
Another “favourite” of mine is the: “oh, but it’s not you we want to get rid of”, “we didn’t mean you” or other variations of that theme. Well, I usually don’t even bother responding to this, because what can I say to someone who makes such a statement?!
Another common one is the “why didn’t you become a British citizen?” Well, first of all, I had no need until the 23rd of June 2016 because I was working on the assumption of having EU rights. Secondly, becoming a British citizen requires one to have held the “permanent residency” right for at least a year. And last, but not least, how many people have a few thousand pounds just lying around for an event like this; one, that none of us EU citizens ever imagined?
Obviously, I have a decision to make now: Do I apply for my “PR” (permanent residency) now or do I wait and see what happens, and hope for the best? Having looked at the 85 page (!) form and spoken with someone who has started preparing their application, I realised that doing a largely self-funded PhD in recent years was potentially a mistake. In addition, it appears that I am possibly struggling to provide evidence for certain other things. So, the only option I see for me at this point is going the route of “fingers crossed” and “hope for the best”; a route that I can assure everyone is not one that I ever wanted to be on or would wish on anyone else. And what makes things worse for me is that I am aware that many other EU citizens are in an even more uncertain situation than I am; for example, those where one partner is EU citizen and there is a danger of the family being ripped apart.
Now, obviously, I am hoping for the best, that is, for things to be sorted in our favour – and soon. However, considering that we all hoped for the best in the EU referendum, and it turned out to be very different, this creates uncertainties for many of us mixed with feelings of helplessness and many other negative feelings.
In recent weeks, I have also heard the following argument from several people (and it appears to be quite common on the “leave” side): “Why should you get any certainty in the UK when the EU isn’t making any guarantees to UK citizens?!” Depending on who it is, I sometimes still try explaining to the person why. Though, I have to admit, I am getting more and more fed up doing so. Nevertheless, let me try here. For a starter, it was the UK that put us all into this situation. So, logically, the UK should take the first step. As was confirmed this week, neither the House of Commons nor the House of Lords agree with that approach; in fact, even some Bishops believe it is OK for us to be used as “bargaining chips” in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU27. Secondly, no country of the EU27 can make this decision alone as it is a joined, i.e. a EU27, decision. And that decision can only be taken once Article 50 is triggered by the UK Government. The last point I am often trying to make in the context of this question is by asking these people whether they know of any EU27 country that has threatened the status of UK citizens in their country. This is usually the point where I don’t get a response anymore, because they can’t think of one…
On the same day I got confirmation that I am continuing to be a bargaining chip for the UK Government, the Scottish Government - represented by the First Minister - announced the plan for another Scottish independence referendum. I can’t say this came as a surprise; if nothing else, because the SNP MSPs were voted into the Scottish Parliament in 2016 with this goal in the manifesto. However, the question for me and everyone else now is how do we vote in an upcoming referendum?
I personally had made up my mind on this subject about a week after the EU referendum on 23rd June 2016. My initial reaction was to focus on the changed economic circumstances for Scotland, and the two options I considered: Scotland staying part of UK and out of EU versus being independent and in the EU. Both scenarios for me are negative from an economic point of view. However, I soon came to the conclusion – and this has largely been confirmed since by how Brexit is being dealt with by the UK Prime Minister – that economically to be out of the EU was the worse out of these two options for Scotland. Scotland’s economy relies heavily on being able to trade freely with the EU - directly or indirectly via England; and Scotland needs immigration to fill gaps in the workforce. In addition, historically, Scotland has always heavily relied on EU funding for infrastructure and other projects (and I am not saying that this is a good thing).
However, in addition to these economic considerations, I almost immediately after the “leave” vote realised that the reasons for voting “yes” the first time in 2014 hadn’t gone away; on the contrary, they had been proven to be correct and in fact had become reality since. And worse, as exemplified by the “leave” vote, my worries in 2014 about the direction of the UK instigated by the Tory government had been an underestimation of what I find myself in now. I do not want to live in a country – the UK – where populism is allowed to cause hate against certain groups of people, and in one case even caused the death of an MP. I don’t want to live in a country where the vulnerable are being targeted by the government, yet profitable (global) corporations manage to find legal ways to avoid tax. I don’t want to live in a country where only the rich can afford good health care or good education. And I most certainly don’t want to live in a country where the PM is hell-bend on creating financial misery for a large part of the electorate. Ergo, my decision for the next Scottish independence referendum is clear: yes. The only outstanding question for me is: Will I be able to vote in that referendum, or will I have left the country before then because I am fed up with how I am being treated? I know several people (mostly in academia), who have left the country already, because they weren’t prepared to live with the uncertainties; of Brexit and their own personal ones as an EU citizen. I hope that I am not one of them, though, I have to admit, sadly, moving to another EU country - one, where I am welcome - seems increasingly appealing.