A warning from me: I’m talking pretty bluntly in this post because either I was going to share my actual opinion, or I was going to be dishonest so this content is likely to be polarising and make some people uncomfortable or angry. My aim is to challenge, and I’m not an expert, it is an opinion piece, not an economic treatise.
Additional Note: I may in places use Europe and the EU interchangeably. I am aware that they are not the same thing. I am talking about the EU within the concept of a European family.
I’ve hesitated to share my opinion on Brexit because discussing politics can often turn ugly but I’m a French immigrant who has lived in the UK for nearly 17 years and has fully integrated in British culture so I do have an opinion. I shared an article last week on Twitter in which a number of other Europeans shared their views on Brexit, and it triggered something in me, challenging me to respond.
Having been born in France, I feel European but I do understand that it’s more complicated for British people. Geography matters and Britain is a collection of islands that is a part of but not entirely within Europe. Still, a choice was made, years ago now, to join the European Union, backed by some very good reasons that are as valid today as they were then.
What Brexit could mean for long-term immigrants like me in practical terms
There’s potentially a lot at stake if Britain leaves the EU. I do think that economically, not least because of EU trade agreements (that take years to set up), there is a lot of uncertainty as to whether it is a viable option and it would likely create a lot of instability. For me personally, the impact could be very significant. Being a member of an EU nation means you can travel between countries without the need for a visa. Britain might decide to change its mind on that, in which case I will have to apply for a visa. If my husband died, I might not be able to stay in the country, regardless of the fact that my entire working life has been spent in England, that I’ve paid all my taxes in England, that my kids were born here, that my whole life is here. There is no doubt in my mind that I have benefited hugely from living here: the job opportunities and prospects are a lot more flexible and open than in France; I like the informality of work relations, and bureaucracy is at a minimum, making it easy to navigate life. I have no objection to becoming a British citizen by the way, in fact, I would be very happy to do so, but I can’t afford it. It costs about £1,400 and I just don’t have this kind of money available. This said, if Britain left the EU and I had no choice but to become a British citizen in order to remain, I would find the money somehow; moving back to France is not an option. But it is not clear at the moment what leaving the EU would mean for me and thousands of people like me in real, practical terms.
I am aware that people who know me probably don’t think of me as an immigrant, because I am white and the religion I practice is largely invisible. But I am an immigrant nonetheless. So when people talk about protecting the borders and keeping Britain British, they’re talking about me, and they are making me into the foreigner they want to protect themselves from. Where the EU has made me into one part of a whole, pro-Brexit is making me into ‘not one of us’. If you right now are thinking ‘but we don’t mean you! You speak great English, you’ve integrated, you pay your taxes. We definitely don’t mean you.’, that’s only the case because I was a middle-class white girl who found it easy to learn English. I didn’t move to England for economic reasons, and that makes me lucky, not more worthy of being here than poorer economic migrants from Eastern Europe or war refugees. I am lucky because I can hide into the population, because I don’t stand out as ‘other’ despite the fact that I am, just as much as the 7,000 Polish people who live in Mid-Sussex, just as much as the Muslim families who live in Bradford. In fact I’m probably more ‘other’ than they are, because I’ve only been here for 15 years and not two or three generations but my home culture is similar enough to the British one that I can blend in even though there may be a hundred things I do and think that aren’t remotely British, but you can’t tell. So when you are talking about immigrants, you are talking about me. I am more ‘them’ than I am you.
The underlying meaning of Brexit
In terms of real impact from staying vs leaving the European Union, there’s simply no telling. Nothing may come of it, but what it is right now is a powerful statement. It says: ‘there is us, and there is them; let them sort out their mess, it is no longer our problem.’ I can’t tell you how disturbing I find this.
Pro-leaving people keep talking about ‘protecting our borders’, ‘having more say into our own affairs’, the cost of being a part of the EU and the erosion of British values. I don’t know much about this, but the last one at least I can say is a fabricated fear with no basis in reality. Every European nation is steeped in history and is proud of its heritage just as much as Britain is. There is no European country more or less likely to have its national heritage eroded by the EU. Every nation’s history and culture has been acquired over centuries; it’s not going anywhere. Yes it is changing, evolving, borrowing from other nations, but guess what, it has nothing to do with the EU or immigration whatsoever. It’s happening worldwide, through access to the internet and the way that ideas and values are exchanged so much more easily nowadays. Every nation is at risk of change, but not a single one is at risk of being erased. The thing is, change is inevitable, both nationally and personally; change is happening all the time and it is necessary; people and countries who fear change become inflexible and redundant in a world that is ever changing.
Brexit and the Challenge of my Christian Faith
I might have mentioned before that I am a practicing Christian, and from a Christian point of view, there are other reasons why leaving the EU makes me very uncomfortable. If you’re not into Jesus stuff, I’d be interested to know what you think of the following; there is a whole other worldview going on there. We often describe the Church as a family of dysfunctional people who’s only reason for even being in the same room is their belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. There are few, if any, other settings where you can find unity across such a wide range of nationalities, races, cultural backgrounds, age, education, etc, and it is a messy place that takes work and compromise to function. The European Union is a bit like that. We all like to have a laugh at the Eurovision Song Contest, but it is such a unique event, gathering nations with so little in common under one canopy, all because of Europe (well, apart from Israel because no one else will have them, and Australia, because… no one really knows why). The thing is, as small as it is, there is this connection between our nations that make us a European family, an awkward, weird and wonderful, richly diverse group of nations that can get together and have the most bonkers party ever. It’s a glorious thing. It is also, even as tenuous a connection as it may seem, an ‘us’. There is an us, a European people, and this patchwork of varied humanity should be celebrated because of its differences not despite them. Belonging to the EU in no way negates the individual reality of each nation; it is not an homogenous mass, but it is an ‘us’. And when people talk about leaving Europe, they talk about Europe becoming ‘them’, and Britain becoming the only ‘us’ that matters. I find that idea of an ‘us and them’ deeply worrying; as a Christian, it should be anathema.
People who want to leave the EU are talking about claiming back the sovereignty of Britain, of being able to ‘make our own rules’ (as if it wasn’t already the case, or has UK law disappeared altogether when I wasn’t looking?), a chance for Britain to become great again. I have a massive problem with Christians talking about Britain in those terms. It is a way to separate ourselves, to give us distance from ‘those Europeans’ and the perceived EU mess. We all know how people reacted to Barack Obama commenting on Britain leaving the EU: talk of his arrogance: ‘What right has he to stick his nose in our business?’. Well, I’m afraid that if you leave the EU, you will have no right to comment on any future decisions it makes, and you will have no right to complain if the decisions it makes affect you negatively. The opportunities to make a difference and to inform EU decisions, to have an impact at the power source of the EU, can only be found from within as a member, and the opportunities, as Christians, to make a difference in policies and in the lives of people, can be great, but only if you have access. As an outsider, Britain may congratulate itself on not being ‘like them’ when trouble comes, and excuse me if this isn’t the most anti-Christian sentiment I have ever heard. We’re supposed to be there in the mess so we can be part of the solution. Brexit gives the idea that Britain can somehow do better alone than as a part of this ragtag of humanity; if that isn’t a misguided superiority complex, I don’t know what is. It’s ironic, but Christians are not supposed to be a Messiah coming from above to rescue people, they should be in the mud with everybody else giving their neighbour a hand from a place of common ground.
My church has been doing a series of sermons on the Global Church recently and how the call of the Church as a whole is to go to the nations and to love them ‘just as Christ has loved us’. And all I can think is, how can a Christian sit in a church service hearing about helping the poor in Bulgaria or starting a church in Brussels and still think in terms of ‘us and them’ without feeling the hypocrisy, sense of superiority and double standards seeping out of their pores. In this day and age, and in particular within the Church, I question the wisdom of a nation’s or an individual’s desire, even hunger, to reclaim its sovereignty, to wish the clock could be reversed on the fateful day Britain became part of the EU, to hold onto a false memory of the glorious past that never was. Leaving the EU is such a step backwards. That thinking harks back to when Britain was an Empire, and I can’t remember the Empire’s purpose being about compassion and self-sacrifice. As Christians, hoping for Britain to be Great again ‘as in the ancient days’, is wishful thinking that runs absolutely counter to Jesus’ call for us to mingle and care for the poor, the orphans and the abandoned. Right now, the widow and the orphans are the refugees clamouring at our doors. But what we’re saying is that we’d rather stand alone and look after our own interests than do the hard work of community.
Being a part of the European Union is a challenge; that is undeniable. We are sat at a table of unequals, and we have to put our own interests down for the sake of the whole; we have to put our wealth down and we have to give more than others, because we have more than others; seriously, we are wealthier than most other European nations, and it should be our greatest honour to put that money to work so that they too can grow, so that they too can have stable nations so that there is no need for their inhabitants to leave to find work because there’s plenty where they live. There are lots of globe-trotters in the world, but mostly people don’t just want to leave their families behind to find work abroad. They do so because they have to. Is this ‘stable nations all round’ going to actually happen? Probably not. It is going to be hard work and mean fighting with stupid bureaucracy and completely different cultures and lots of misunderstandings? Highly likely. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we should leave.
We shouldn’t have the option to close our eyes to the needs of others, but that’s what we’re saying when we’re saying no to the EU. Being a part of Europe is a challenge, because we all fear change, and other people, and that which we do not understand. We like the comfort of what we know. We all have individual prejudices, we are all a little racist and xenophobic, and if we don’t think so, I fear we are in denial. Being a part of Europe forces us to examine our attitudes to other cultures and people. As Christians, it is our duty to face our weaknesses and stamp on them firmly because our greatest call is to serve others, especially those we don’t like. Protecting our interests and leaving when the going gets tough, well, that’s just not the way.
Photo by Clarita via morguefile