Being German in Brexit Britain

No, I was not surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum. It simply confirmed something I had been certain of for months: that xenophobic populism and lies would win the day.

While I campaigned strongly for Remain – I could have been wrong, after all – I was thus, in a sense, very well prepared for the morning after. There were no tears. There was no sense of shock. I knew the Leave victory was coming and that was that.

What I was not prepared for was what happened on Saturday after the referendum. There I was, doing some shopping in Newcastle city centre – only to walk straight into National Front members holding a banner that read ‘Stop immigration, start repatriation’. That banner was not new, but the group behind it was clearly seizing the moment. Energised by the Leave result, they shouted that everyone from the EU would be kicked out. Their hate-filled chants are still stuck in my head.

A good 30 minutes later I walked down the street where I live, and ran into my neighbour. Smiling, he said hello, as always, and then proceeded to invite me to a barbecue. How nice of him, I found myself thinking. We had always got on well, but this was a first. ‘What’s the occasion?’ I asked. ‘Oh, we’re just celebrating that we are finally out of the EU – a Brexit celebration BBQ’.

I was stunned. He knew that I am German. So I told him that I would not be able to come, as Brexit really was not something I would ever celebrate. As an EU national living in the UK, I said, the vote had pulled the rug from under my feet and would severely impact upon my life. My neighbour looked surprised, and went on to say that I was not the problem, of course. That he wasn’t against me being there, of course. No, I would be fine, of course.

This has been one of the most pervading themes of my life since that day: the idea that, somehow, there is a difference between EU nationals; that, somehow, those perceived as ‘the good ones’ would not be affected by the vote to leave the EU. As I have noted elsewhere, you don’t get to cherry-pick. In fact, I take it as a personal insult if someone tries. An EU national is an EU national. Full stop. We will all be affected in the same way. We are in the same boat. In fact, it is the same boat as those of the Britons who live in another EU country. And even of Britons in the UK who have a partner who is from the EU. All of us have been living in Limboland since 24 June.

And it is largely hostile. With lies and xenophobia the central hallmarks of the Leave campaign, it is hardly surprising that the number of hate crimes went up in the aftermath of the vote. There are warnings already that another spike is expected after the triggering of Article 50. A few months ago I walked down the street talking to my mother on the phone. I spoke German. I was told to ‘f- off back to your country’ by a bystander. Never before 2016, never once, has any such thing happened. But I probably imagined that – or so many Leave supporters gladly tell me all the time.

Playing with fire

Instead of standing up to this hate that is spreading across the country, more and more politicians have jumped onto the populist bandwagon, repeating Leave’s lies on the apparent connections between immigration and a broad range of problems in Britain, from housing shortages to GP waiting times. These are connections for which there is essentially no evidence, but many politicians keep making them. The Labour MP and candidate for mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, went so far as to argue that free movement was ‘undermining the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets’. Politicians who say things like that are playing with fire. It is their rhetoric too, not just that of the likes of Nigel Farage, that fuels hate.

What all this rhetoric is telling me is that I do not belong here. I am foreign, and now frequently described as a foreigner. This, too, is something that never happened before 2016; not to me, anyway. From newspaper front pages to Lord Tebbit’s comments in the recent discussion in the House of Lords, the casting of EU nationals as foreigners who do not belong is now a daily occurrence.

Why is that so? For one, because the UK government is keeping us EU nationals in Limboland. Having made us bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations, we are reminded every day that were are not seen as part of this country. Apart from the immediate and very negative impact this has on individuals and families across the UK, it also empowers racists who, in the absence of any guarantees, can continue to spin their hateful lines that we will be deported. Even initiatives that highlight our contributions, particularly One Day Without Us, received only limited coverage in the British media, and was essentially hijacked by an anti-Trump protest. EU nationals were not given a voice in the referendum, and even now, as our lives continue to be in limbo, our voices are silenced.

Of course the amendment recently passed in the House of Lords and the report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Exiting the EU are very welcome. But in many ways the damage has been done. And that is because although the UK government keeps saying that all it wants to do is guarantee the rights of EU nationals, it has failed to do so in the more than 250 days since the referendum. Not only that, it made us bargaining chips in the negotiations, and sent some of us letters telling us to prepare to leave the UK. And it requires anyone wanting to confirm permanent residency – for instance in order to get British citizenship – to fill in an 85-page form, with 28% of applications rejected.

These are very clear messages. And they are messages EU nationals in the UK hear daily. Life as we knew it is gone. The question that remains is this: how many of us will take back control … and leave Limboland?

Photo by Elly Clarke via Flickr Public Domain

First published on LSE Brexit Blog


  1. Joe Mellon says

    Well – I am the other side of the problem, being a Scot living in France. I haven’t lived in the UK in 40 years (Ireland, Germany, now France). I have applied for French citizenship.

    There is something deeply troubling about the Brexiters which goes beyond political opinions: as you say: “more and more politicians have jumped onto the populist bandwagon,”, and extremists feel themselves empowered. An MP was murdered for her political views. Almost unthinkable a few decades ago: worse it wasn’t universally condemned, the ‘sneaking regarders’ and even outright approvers raised their voices. Truly shocking and disgraceful.

    There were similar events of ‘Ausländerfeindlichkeit’ in Germany in the mid 90’s after unification. The politicians funked it. The situation was saved by the young people from the disco scene initially in Munich who organized ‘Lichterketten’ demonstrations which were attended by literally 85% of the population.

    The people had demonstrated that they wanted no part of racism, that ‘never again’ meant something. Only then did the politicians find their courage.

    But I think in the UK (just England?) it is much worse: it isn’t a few extremists, it is wide sections of the populace. There will be demonstrations, but there will be no ‘Lichterketten.

    What a sorry state.

  2. says

    From what I have read Britain did try to do an early deal with the EU to accept EU citizens but in exchange wanted rights of British citizens in the EU to be the same. The EU rejected this.

    There is clearly blame on both sides and that should be recognised.

    Also many that voted to leave weren’t the least interested in Immigration and instead wanted Britain to be able to negotiate our own free trade deals with the world. Fact is that the EU is in decline both by population and by trade and it is Asia that is in the ascendancy and that is where we need to be working. In my view the Commonwealth is a great start but also excellent scope to do better deals with North America and China.

    I think it is time for one newspaper to go all out on Positive Brexit and start to do a series of articles on how to benefit from Brexit. Like start by a series of articles on how to export to various countries in the world. It is our exporters that need to take the lead and to be frank many are lazy and have little vision on how to expand their business by exporting.

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