My history with the UK is as old as its membership in the European institutions. In 1976 my father took part in a European Community science exchange with the national Physical Laboratory in Teddington. My parents and their three young boys moved to the UK. We found friends for life quickly. Only on very few occasions were we not made to feel welcome as Germans in the UK. We became bilingual and all three sons later lived and worked outside of our home country Germany, as proud Europeans.
A dream come true
This early stay shaped our view of life and our aspiration to live lives between countries and cultures. When I decided to move to London in 2002 my parents were elated. In many ways I was living their dream. I moved to the UK because I was an EU citizen. I used my freedom of movement to live and work in what I thought was the coolest country on earth.
For most of my stay in the UK I had the best time of my life. I built a career the rigid German universities would have not allowed without a doctorate and years of precarious employment. Here, I found love, and more colleagues and friends than I could have imagined. I did not mind that I was not a British citizen. Just happy to contribute to British society without seeking e.g. the right to vote. I didn’t need to, since the European Court of Justice protected my rights. And I never felt othered by the citizens of cool Britannia.
Then 2016 happened
All that changed with the referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. Without going into the questionable practices of the leave campaign, the outcome was devastating for EU citizens in the UK. From the thinnest of majorities in a non-binding referendum emerged the most radical and xenophobic Brexit policy. Many who could afford it, and were able to jump through the growing number of hoops, chose dual citizenship. So did I in 2017. Not out of love for this country that had decided not to love my kind back anymore. But purely to be able to hold on to the rights under we came to the UK. These rights were being taken away against all promises made before 2016. I am glad that my father did not live to see this, as it would have broken his heart.
In December 2019, Boris Johnson won an 80 seat majority. He claimed that EU citizens had treated this country like their own for too long. Brexit finally had a democratic mandate. It also was steering towards becoming a society which did not align with the values that I had learnt. Values of inclusion and friendship between equals I had learnt as an EU citizen.
With every month in lock-down this year the inevitable decision became easier to make. I had campaigned to stop Brexit before and after the referendum. And I had witnessed the ugly xenophobia which found its way into the mainstream. It was time to accept that the UK I had loved since I was a boy had changed to one that I could not love the same way anymore. So my significant other, our very European cat, and I embarked on a new adventure – by moving to Ireland.
Leave means leave
When I wrote recently that I was not leaving my beloved place of employment in anger, it was the truth. I cannot say the same for leaving the UK. I spent the formative years of my career in the UK. And I still love the majority of people and culture still aligned with the values I learnt. But I have spent enough effort to help avert the terrible consequences Brexit has brought already and will bring in the future.
I will concentrate my work helping to establish our new normal after the pandemic. As more sustainable and understanding societies on both sides of the border. Continuing to volunteer as an enterprise adviser at a British school, I intend to work across borders. But my sanctuary will be firmly on safe EU soil. I am not the first to do this, and I will not be the last. We still love you, but we have given everything we had to give. From now on it is up to you.
I’ve had a stressful year, and working two jobs for my employer and fighting Brexit at the same time has taken away a lot of me-time I would have otherwise spent undoubtedly productively. So, during this year-end break, I took the time to reflect on some of the main lessons I’ve learnt in the last year or so. It’s not a complete list, and I’d really like to read what others have learnt.
Power distance is so last century
I grew up in an academic tradition that put the teacher on a pedestal and the learner as a recipient of their knowledge (though not necessarily wisdom). I had to learn what a ‘student experience’ is when I joined my first UK university, as we didn’t have a word for it back in Germany. But I don’t think this is a learner/teacher relationship issue – it’s one of power distance: universities are deeply hierarchical and siloed organisations, often led by a very old school ‘strong man’ (unbelievably, I heard that term used in a positive context just last week) who focuses on ‘being decisive’ rather than collaborative. How could we expect the way we educate not to be influenced by the way we are led?
I have learnt that to keep universities relevant, we have to be all about collaboration and co-creation, democratising the creative process along the way.
The kids are alright
This is not a new lesson – I’ve learnt it over and over in the last few years. Counter to the media hysteria over allegedly self-absorbed snowflakes, I have been continuously impressed by what young people are capable of. Amid the onslaught of information overload, rampant consumerism, political self-immolation, and the commodification of social relationships,
I have seen so many examples of young people (students and non-students) observe the circus we in charge have created and making reasonable judgements in how to manoeuvre in this world we’re handing over to them.
I have learnt that young people make judgements not on only the basis of economics and status, but increasingly on social values – something my generation seems to have missed out on. I can’t wait for them to take over.
If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist
There is no such a thing as a digital native – the online world is often a hostile and undiscovered country which needs to be explored individually with guidance and caution. From virtual learning environments to handling relationships via social media, political positioning in an era of disinformation, to becoming a savvy and ethical consumer – no one innately has digital literacy. It needs to be acquired – and it is vital that schools and universities help learners with this important part of socialisation. The world they will inherit will be even more mind-bogglingly complex and technical, and it’s our job to help them prepare themselves.
This year I have learnt that you can’t teach digital literacy if you don’t develop it yourself.
We are all content creators now
About two years ago, a careers advisor colleague said the great line ‘we all have to be content creators now’. We were discussing how we had to change to stay relevant and interesting to our clients, and the topic of online engagement came up. And he was right – let’s face it, a location-based service with times and services set by staff rather than client need is as 20th century as power distance led leadership. If numbers at your events dwindle it is possibly because what you’re offering is not relevant or accessible enough for your audience to schlepp themselves to. One way to address this is by making sure we offer multiple modes of delivery. At my work, we’re playing with revamping workshops as social media content recording sessions with an optional audience, rather than tearing our hair out over the perceived lack of interest. Status or assumed value of speaker (especially when faced with a manel that doesn’t reflect the audience of often hyper-diverse students) is not enough. Sure – get a star in and they will deliver, but what’s the sustainable value coming from them?
This year, I have learnt that content is the primary driver for engagement for a client focused service.
Losing #FreedomOfMovement will cost us
Freedom of movement is a basic right and an unalloyed public good under threat from Brexit. Academia thrives in open environments that encourage exchanges of thought, ideas, and values. I have watched the tightening of student visa rules and its negative effect on the sector, by making it harder for non-EU international students – and I have seen the allegedly so desired ‘best and the brightest’ having to pack their bags and not contribute to the global Britain that is supposed to emerge. Brexit widens this way of thinking to EU students and academic cooperation. Nothing ever widens by constricting its source – and society does not grow by sending those who seek to engage with and learn from it.
This year I have learnt that Brexit and anti-intellectualism are a toxic combination which will cost us all in the long-term. Forget free trade of goods and services, as in the long-term, they are dwarfed by the exchange of ideas and values.
These are some of the key lessons I’ve learnt this year. What are yours?
Since last week, I am a British passport holder. After a long time and spending a lot of money, I now hold this valuable travel document. It’s an EU edition, thank you very much – if you don’t have one, I suggest you get one while they’re still available. I am now a dual citizen, that class of people who are by identitarians often suspiciously regarded as somehow disloyal. Indeed, how can you hold more than one national identity and be loyal to both? Or was that more than one thought maybe?
‘Membership has its privileges’
The answer is simple really: my European identity contains both my German and British identities nicely. In fact, now that I think about it, as idiotic as Brexit is a venture (don’t believe me – believe one of David Davis’ Spads, who has now broken ranks), it has helped me define myself more clearly: I am (and will always remain) an EU citizen. I am a German Anglophile by birth and upbringing, respectively. I am a proudly pro-European British citizen now. With all of those come privileges, responsibilities, and rights.
It was the assault on my rights as an EU citizen that brought me to the decision to end the continuous uncertainty I had been subjected to – against all leave campaign promises regarding our status, which turned out to be porkies of an especially cynical kind, affecting Brits abroad and EU citizens (both mostly deprived of a vote) here alike. Now that I am a Brit, and hold the membership credentials that entails, I reflect back on the journey through the valley of insecurity this took.
Are you applying while European?
One of the biggest insecurities that affect EU citizens in the UK now is the spectre of discrimination. EU online support forums are full of fearful stories of unfairly priced motor insurance quotes and mortgage offers being withdrawn. Some are misunderstandings due to heightened sensitivity, but some turn out to be true. The ones that really stuck with me are the ones I pick within my professional area.
I have had reports of internships, contracts and work offers being retracted due to the EU citizenship of the candidates – normally around funding or just lack of clarity what will happen next. Nothing in writing of course – but enough to make my Spidey senses tingle.
But this is against current law, non?
Let’s imagine you’re applying while European. A central question asked as part of every recruitment process is a version of ‘do you have the right to work in the UK?’. At the moment, sure, an EU citizen does have this right. But that is – thanks to HMGov – now that’s conditional until a final agreement has been reached.
An EU citizen has the right now, but the legal status after March 2019 remains stubbornly unclear. Does that mean you can only sign a contract until the date of Brexit in March 2019? With all the best will in the world, even with a permanent residency card in hand, no EU citizen can currently honestly make that claim beyond March 2019. I recognise it is highly likely that it will be clear at some point, but is it a right and can it be guaranteed by the individual at the time of application? No one knows – and what will a nervous hiring manager do with your application now, just in case they need to go through additional hoops after Brexit or pay a migrants skills charge?
‘Please apply again’
‘Nothing will change for you’, was the Brexiter’s standard answer to my concerns – but everything has changed. My advice is of course for EU applicants (and all others) to fill in their anti-discrimination forms (adding the option ‘EU citizen’ has become a bit of batch of pride among activists), so that the actual effect of this becomes clear at least retrospectively.
Now I know that non-EU citizens have been subjected to this type of gauntlet for years of anti-immigration rhetoric. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and just as I bemoaned the withdrawal of post study work visas for international students, which helped the UK attract and retain non-EU talent (and brought in shedloads of money), I bemoan this further erosion of the UK as a country ‘open for business’ (not to even mention ‘open to ideas’).
Looking back at achieving citizenship and passport, my European identity, and my sense of history imbued by my German upbringing with parents who remembered WW2, I spend every day hoping for a better turn of events, for myself, my EU immigrant cat (pet passport and all), those I love – and those I don’t. Brexit is kobayashi maru, the unwinnable scenario – no amount of optimism is going to change its doomed course. My speck of hope is that I now have a vote – and I hope that many others with permanent residency will come to the conclusion that they should get one too.
Should I e.g. be subjected by redundancy in the future (higher education is one the industries most affected by Brexit), I now can claim that I have the permanent right work in the UK, 2019 and beyond. But as many qualified EU workers in the UK (and their international employers) now recognise, they do not have the obligation to stay. International mobility is an asset, especially when paired with the transferable workplace skills and the languages to facilitate a smooth transition. Maybe some of us may end being able to have our cake and eat it after all.
I would like to know if you have experienced the issues I’m writing about – or can give me assurances that I’m overly worried. Have you experienced or heard of any EU citizens struggling with this? Share in the comments and let’s talk about it.
I did something I normally don’t do – watch an inspirational video. I was looking for inspiration for this week’s topic – global citizenship – and I found one of the best definitions I heard for a term that often sounds hollow. But this one stuck – it’s from Hugh Evans’ TED talk ‘What does it mean to be a citizen of the world?’:
‘A global citzen is someone who identifies first and foremost not as a member of a state, a tribe or a nation, but as a member of the human race, and someon who is prepared to act on that belief to tackle our world’s greatest challenges.’
I know, I run a careers service, which isn’t exactly the most glamorous or heroic of occupations – but then my job is to help people realise their potential, at least in work terms; and sometimes a little bit more. Well, my job is to sit in meetings to run a service that does the cool stuff, helping people. Now I’m nowhere as cool as Hugh, or any of the examples he holds up – but not everyone can be a hero. Even the Avengers need back office staff, and everyone who works with me knows that I run an effective office.
I am also lucky to work for a university that has global citizenship written into its organisational values, with numerous alumni actually working to improve the world in some form or another. So I get to work in education (which is good for people) and help with building people work on global career outlooks (which is good for people as well). What’s not to like?
Even better, I got one of those global careers myself – I learnt four languages (and I’m not counting Latin, because, well Latin), and I’ve lived, studied, worked in three countries, and thanks to freedom of movement in the EU I can work and live in what I always thought was the best city in the world. So I guess, I’m one of those global citizens as well.
Or am I a citizen of nowhere?
But it seems we’re living in a world where we’re being told by some people that living like this is not so cool at all. Not the trying to help make the world a better place – no, everyone thinks that’s just peachy – or at least they say so. Well, actually some have a really warped view on that, if you look at the debates regarding helping refugees – let’s take Germany’s example – a fairly toxic term has been used by those opposing helping refugees or others (no excuses, that’s what they want); Gutmenschen. Literally, it means ‘good humans/people’ – and it’s being used as a derogatory term. As if wanting to do good was some form of naive phase which people should grow out of.
Sounds silly? This is not confined to my home country. All over, we have people popping up trying to tell us what we thought were good values, are actually bad things. Nope – I’m not talking about Trump (I think this is a whole different league and something altogether more sinister) – but here in the UK, we have a prime minister who believes ‘a global citizen is a citizen of nowhere’. Now to be fair, I think the effect she was looking for was to look tough facing that elusive global elite who rob ‘normal people’ of their economic chances (and fund political parties) – but in the anti-immigration ‘British people first’ fest that was the conservative party conference, it came over as if she was talking about people like me – and maybe you. Highly educated? Travelled to work somewhere else, especially the UK? Dare to use the social system in which you pay in? Yep, that’s me, and probably you.
So we come to the Brexit rant
They are promoting a Brexit whose values are diametrically opposed to those of global citizenship. The message is to think of ‘your own’ first before you think of others. To counter this clearly: the only way forward is together, any step away from togetherness in achieving our goals is a step backward. See – I told you I’d bring Brexit into this somehow.
In the TED talk this becomes clearest is the part Hugh talks about parochialism (from 13min onward) – and Brexiteerism is exactly that; the ‘looking after our own first’ mentality. This is so hilariously outdated in a modern interconnected world. That is why I think Brexit will ultimately fail in its aim to win back control – because the more you try to control seismic shifts (like the immigration you badly need to keep your economy and health system running), the longer you wait to deal with their consequences – or you become complicit in making them worse. A global citizen looks beyond that and sees the changes they can make. I will continue to do so, even if the country of my choice is currently hurtling into the opposite direction. Opposing Brexit – not for reasons of having a better ‘deal’ for the UK, but because it’s the ethically better choice – makes me a committed Remoaner, and a citizen of nowhere.
You take it, you own it!
Owning what you are being called is important. In the fictionalised words of Mark Ashton in the excellent movie Pride – whatever term throw they throw at you (and however abusive or derogatory) – ‘you take, you own it’. So, even if our prime minister tells me that it’s not good to want to be a global citizen – I want to be a global citizen. What do you want to be?
Shortly before the colossal act of self-harm inflicted by a narrow majority of voters in June 2016’s advisory Brexit referendum, I wrote an angry plea with readers of my blog not to ruin my life by voting to leave the European Union. Well, the voters on that day spoke and the country remained split into a small majority in favour of Brexit. The rest is – as they say, history in the making, but with the multiple possible outcomes – all of which look like worse deals than EU membership to me – delightfully uncertain.
What does this mean for me? I don’t know how many parts this series will have, but I’m sure there will be years of fun to come. Let’s start somewhere – with costs: the most direct impact so far has been on my finances. One positive, one negative – but both demonstrating how damaging Brexit will be for people like me (the small number of probably around 3m people), once it really gets going.
The pound is down
Positives first – the pound went down, my German bank account – in lovely, stable Euros – became instantly worth more to me. While I was originally planning to move what I had inherited after my father’s death (he thankfully did not have to see what happened before his death) into the UK, will now stay where it is – in a low-growth, but relatively stable and safe environment. Even better – whenever I transfer money over to the UK, I get more pounds for it. Thanks, Brexiters, I’m involuntarily benefiting from the exchange rate mess created by your choices. As an old leftie, this makes me feel a bit dirty, but I guess this is a case of force majeure.
Legal costs are up
The second impact is that I continue to fork out money to solve problems created by Brexit for me: I am not a UK citizen – before the decision to plan to renege on forty years of trust and friendship enshrined in contracts and agreements, I didn’t need to be – now I have to secure my existence here. Like many other EU citizens in the UK, I am not keen on waiting for our Brexit-spooked government (did I mention that the referendum wasn’t legally binding?) decides what to do with us. EU citizens are for the time being protected by EU law, but we’re depending on whatever deal the UK and EU will work out over the time of the Article 50 negotiations. Just imagine that you’ll get a letter telling you that your legal status in your country of residence (where you had a legal right to stay indefinitely) will now be reviewed. ‘Nothing will change for you’, Brexiters told me to my face. Looks like they were wrong.
Well, hundreds of thousands of us are now deciding to exercise our treaty rights and secure permanent residency (PR) in order to secure our existence here. PR is now a requirement for naturalisation – so I can’t become a dual citizen (which Germany frowns upon outside of EU member states – can you see a future issue coming up?) until I’ve jumped through a legal hoop not created for EU citizens. It’s a blunt legal instrument and as a matter of fact, many fail – those who for example don’t qualify because they didn’t have five years of income statements, due to raising their partner’s children, or giving unpaid social care for a dying relative (not knowing that they needed to self-insure their health). Incidentally, just this week two cases have become public where long-term EU citizens were hilariously told to leave.
Simples, I’m told – you will get that for sure. I’ve got a permanent job, so I provided five years of bank statements (yep, for every month), pay slips and a complete record of every day I spent outside the UK (yep, also five years). And I did what I had never done before – I hired a lawyer, who took all those documents and who handles my application now – so I don’t run into the same problems in the examples above. So far, my bills (including English language and citizenship test – for later) amount to c.£1.3k. Yes, I could have tried this on my own – for a lot less money, but not all of us are great legal minds – and over a third of applications are currently being rejected. I’m naturally uncertainty avoidant – and I’m still keen to help the UK economy; as my lawyer said, the legal permanent residency business is booming now. Finally, an economic sector doing well out of Brexit.
The bottom line
The legal and administrative costs dwarf of course the benefit I’ve gained from the plunging of the pound – but with all the talk of leaving the single market, a ‘hard’ or probably better called ‘bone-headed’ Brexit may offset that over time. I’m an optimist after all. So far, dear reader, the majority decision to leave the European Union has – although it actually hasn’t happened yet – has cost me money.