13 Oct 2016

A different kind of post


It has been rather quiet here on this blog for a while now; I have countless posts half written in my drafts folder, but somehow I lack the time and energy to finish them or take photographs for them, so my posting is a lot less regular than I would like it to be ideally.  There is, however, a reason for my lack of time, and I thought I'd pop a little life update on here to explain.  It's a different kind of post, and I have debated for a long time whether to write about it on here or not, but I've decided that yes, this blog is about my life, and right now my life is preoccupied with something very specific, so this post does have its place.

Basically, one of the main reasons for the lack of posting recently is that for the last couple of months or so a lot of my spare time has been occupied with reading about and researching the aftermath of the Brexit vote, what it will mean for EU nationals like me who are living in the UK, and how I can safeguard my future.

Since that day, the 24th of June 2016, when I woke up to the news that the Leave vote had indeed won, I have been somewhat numb with shock and disbelief. It still hasn't really sunk in that the UK will be leaving the European Union, and - political arguments aside - the effect this will have on millions of EU nationals who live in the UK (and vice versa, those millions of Brits living abroad, of course).

There is so much uncertainty over what will happen to the three million UK residents from the EU; every day there are countless new reports, speculations and campaigns, and it's become quite stressful to follow and stay on top of. The fact that the Government are unwilling to give a clear commitment and guarantee to us that our rights and status are protected is a really big worry. Not knowing what your legal status will be in two and a half years' time is a pretty shitty position to be in when you've made your life somewhere, when you have a husband and kids and family in a country that now seemingly doesn't want you. I think unless and until you're in that situation, it's probably hard to sympathise and understand what kind of burden this really is.

I suppose this post is more for my own benefit than my readers; it's a bit of a brain-dump as it were, because I find solace in writing my thoughts down, and maybe it will help me rationalise and compartmentalise my Brexit-anxieties. So you're more than excused if you don't want to carry on reading after this point. Normal Fairies & Pirates blogging will resume soon, I promise! But for now, I want to jot down what it's been like to be among those who will be most affected by the Leave vote.

I should probably start at the beginning.

I am an EU expat - or immigrant, as some might prefer to call me - from Germany, and have been living and working in the UK for 14 years now.

My love affair with the UK goes back decades, ever since I was a little girl in fact, and most of my friends who I grew up with will attest that I've always dreamt of living in Great Britain. My parents were also huge fans of this beautiful island, and I spent many a summer holiday as a child criss-crossing the country, exploring coast to coast, and over the years I have visited most regions, from Land's End to the Outer Hebrides and John O'Groats. I spent various spells in education in the UK, too, be that a rather fun and notorious three week student exchange with my best friend Meike aged 15, living as part of a British host family and going to the local comprehensive school in Christchurch, where we stayed at the time (and fancying the pants off our then English teacher, Fraser, who was a newly graduated teacher in his early twenties and rather cute!), or actually studying here at university for a year, which is where I met John, my now husband, 17 years ago.

To me, Britain was always a bit like the "promised land" - a more relaxed, friendly, open and multi-cultural society and way of life than I perceived Germany to be. I'm pretty sure I would have ended up here anyway, but having met John was the definite trigger to go for it, so straight after I finished my Masters Degree in Germany I returned to the UK and have been living and working here ever since.

For all those years I have loved living in the UK - still do - and even though you get a more balanced view of a country when you live there (I have come to realise that not everything here is perfect and as in the "promised land", and equally, I miss certain things about Germany that I never thought I would), I consider it my home. I have put down roots here, I married a Brit, I bought properties, I have children here, a good, respectable job, professional status, amazing friends and what I would call a good, happy life, all things considered. I view Britain as much as my country as John does, and honestly, for all those years it never once occurred to me that I might not be welcome or that I don't belong here. If anything, I would boldly consider myself the prime example of successful integration.

But the Leave vote changed all that.

Knowing that people you know - friends even - voted Leave, is a strange experience. Even though their vote was unlikely to be personal, you can't help but wonder whether deep down, this is what they "really" think. Whether deep down they don't want you here, too. But of course you can't dwell on it too much, and have to try to let those thoughts go, because at the end of the day, everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion. And whether people voted Leave because they were mislead, ignorant, uneducated or actually genuinely thought they were making a well-informed choice for valid reasons that will solve their frustration with politics (which it won't, I'm convinced of it), you have to let things go and accept the outcome. Only that the outcome is extremely scary when you're on the receiving end of the vote.

In my whole 14 years in the UK, I never bothered applying for British citizenship, because, quite frankly, I did not see the point. As part of the EU, there was no direct benefit to it, my status was no different than a British person's, my rights seemed protected under EU treaty laws, and the only obvious advantage would have been that I would be allowed to vote in general elections, which I currently am not (and which is indeed a major disadvantage and a big bugbear of mine). But the process is long and expensive, and I never thought I would have to go through it.

Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, this of course seems rather naive and optimistic.

Because as of now, my status is anything but safe. I have done a lot of research into this, and it seems that being married to a Brit gives me no better or stronger constitutional and legal rights than being single and foreign (I'm still confused by this, because, why do people bother with sham marriages then?), but that's the status quo. So with that in mind, I have no idea what my future will look like in two and a half years' time, after Article 50 has been invoked and the two year negotiation period has passed.

A lot of my friends say to me: "Don't worry, you'll be absolutely fine. They [the government] won't get rid of you!", but, even though these words are well-meaning, they are also somewhat meaningless coming from Brits who have nothing to lose and can afford to be a little blasé about it (though the sentiment and gesture is appreciated). Because nobody knows at this stage. I've even heard some say: "You'll be absolutely fine. You're one of the 'good' immigrants", presumably due to the fact that I work for my living, but this, quite frankly, infuriates me even more, as most EU immigrants do indeed work, be that in skilled or low-skilled jobs, as most statistics have proven, and using such a categorisation for being a "good" or a "bad" immigrant is very flawed and subjective indeed.

And whilst I myself don't believe that someone will come knocking at my door late at night and physically drag me away and drive me to Calais to pop me on a ferry, continent-bound - I bloody well hope so anyway! - I may still find myself at a disadvantage when it comes to things like employment rights, access to healthcare and welfare, should I ever need it, general insurance, pension, residential status and so forth.

So this is definitely something I have to think about and consider carefully. Who knows, there may well be a question mark over my right to stay in the country, and the sheer thought of being torn apart from my family, my kids, who need me, keeps me awake at night.

I follow a Forum for EU Citizens in the UK and Brits Abroad, which discusses and updates daily on latest developments and news around Brexit. And yes, it's a bit like self-diagnosing with Doctor Google, with a fatal illness the certain outcome. There is a lot of panic and doom & gloom, but at the same time there is also lots of helpful information on things I never even knew about, that the Home Office itself seemingly was never clear on, and a nice sense of community in that there are others in the same boat, and that maybe, together, our 3 Million voices might be heard.

Opinions on the forum are split between riding out the situation and waiting what happens, and actively seeking to do something about it. Those who favour sitting it out range from optimistic views that it won't be that bad, to being too proud, defiant and appalled at having to seek the nationality of a country that is so hostile towards them. They resent - as do I - that our lives are being turned into bargaining chips for the divorce from the EU, and a proposed "amnesty" to let EU nationals stay in the country. Indeed, the term "amnesty" is utterly misplaced - we are here legally, we haven't done anything wrong, therefore, we don’t need an “amnesty”; we just need a clear acknowledgement of our contribution to the country and a commitment to our permanent residential rights!

Many even contemplate leaving everything that they have built here behind and relocating, either back to their country of origin or elsewhere. But this is not an option for us; our lives are here, our jobs, our home, our kids are settled here, and John doesn’t even speak German - where and how would we start from scratch? And more importantly – we don’t want to!

So, whilst I fully sympathise and agree with most sentiments of my fellow expats/ immigrants, I am taking the second stance, that I would rather do something about it now than live with the uncertainty forever, because, honestly, it's quite depressing. So I have decided, reluctantly, to start the process of applying for British citizenship, so I can have dual nationality, and equally, sort out German citizenship for my kids, which they are automatically entitled to anyway and which should hopefully be just a formality. I need to be pragmatic and safeguard my future as far as I can, and the only way I see that I can do it, is to take this step. Maybe the rather nasty rhetoric bandied about by the Brexit camp and the people in charge of negotiations won't lead to anything negative for people like me; maybe, in a few months down the line they will indeed guarantee our status and rights, but I can't just sit and wait whether and until this happens.

Seeking citizenship is a very drawn-out process, the first step being that I have to apply for a permanent residency card. This in itself is rather tedious, as I will have to produce five years worth of proof of my residency, sending in payslips, P60s, proofs of addresses, bank statements, council tax and other bills, marriage certificates, birth certificates of my children, mortgage statements, details of my whereabouts in and out of the country for the past five years etc. - a whole catalogue of original documents that I have to find in the first place. The worst thing is that I will also have to send in my passport for a duration of anything up to six months, which really fills me with dread. Not knowing when I will get it back and potentially not being able to go back to Germany to see my elderly parents when I have to or in an emergency during that time is utterly scary and makes me feel really stressed and panicky. And it is a bit like handing over your identity.

If and once I receive such card, I can then start official citizenship and naturalisation proceedings, paying around £1500 for the "privilege". I can honestly think of other things I would have rather spent that kind of money on, but needs must.

A big part of me feels like I shouldn't have to do it; after all, in my 14 years in the UK I have nothing but contributed to the country; I pay a not insignificant amount of taxes, I've never claimed any kind of benefit apart from the child benefit for my children that they are entitled to, I speak the language and am fully integrated into British life and society, and I've never been a "burden" on the NHS, apart from spending two days in hospital while giving birth to my two - British! - children. And yet, I have to be pragmatic and put those thoughts to one side.

I have never been a nationalistic or patriotic person, and I truly feel like a EU citizen, a resident of the world, rather than from a specific nation. That is not to say that I don't agree that the EU needs reform, that there has to be an open and constructive discussion about immigration across the whole of the EU, and that the institution itself is far from perfect. But I do believe that change is more effective from within rather than from the outside. And I do and will always believe in the fundamental principles of the EU, that we are better united than divided.

On a positive note, I know a lot of Brits who didn't vote Leave and who are just as shocked and dismayed at the result and feel that it doesn't represent them, and not just because their summer holidays to Spain or Greece will guaranteed be more expensive and difficult to arrange in the future! I take comfort from their solidarity and just hope that things will turn out ok. And if I do get my British passport, then at least I can vote in the next General Election and help abolish these nasty, xenophobic voices who are trying to turn a great country that I so dearly love into a narrow-minded Little Britain.
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2 comments

  1. This was a fantastic post. I know my feelings don't count for much, but I feel immensely for you. These must have been a hideous few months for you and those in the same position, and the fact that nothing is clear is so difficult. There are 48% of us who want to welcome anyone with open arms (/borders) and who don't subscribe to whatever the thoughts of those who sadly voted to cause this awful situation. I hope very much that everything works out for you and that some sort of clarity arrives soon.

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    1. Thank you, Halina! Your sympathy DOES mean a lot. Knowing that there are so many people out there who didn't vote leave and don't share those sentiments does make a difference, even if no one can predict our future status or help with the anxiety about the process. Thank you for reading and your kind words! x

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