Guinea pig: citizen or enemy of the state?

My Dad phoned me last week and we talked about holidays. He usually goes to the Polish seaside at the beginning of September. That’s what we do too this year, which is why he said: ‘if you’re nearby, we should go out for dinner.’

I booked the hotel a few days later, and coincidentally booked the same one as him. Not just dinner then, which is fine with me, ’cause these days I don’t see my Dad as often as I’d like.

He’s 74, still runs his own business, and by his own admission spends ten hours a day in the office and takes work home. He plays tennis and squash every now and then, drives as far as Prague or Germany, and started learning English a couple of years ago which keeps his brain active and has a side effect of letting him chat to my boyfriend. He complains he doesn’t get too many opportunities to speak English, other than counting the score when he plays tennis with this Belgian guy who only speaks French and English. My Dad speaks conversational German and some Russian, although it’s probably a bit rusty.

For all I know he’ll stay active and self-sufficient for the foreseeable future, while also being able to afford any support he might need at some point. My sister is in Poland, and my adult nephew, and numerous other members of the family, so I can’t see my Dad ever needing to move to the UK.

And after Brexit?

However, as someone told me, you just never know. It might be him, or any other member of my family for whom I’ll need to care, and if no concessions are made to the government’s proposal for EU nationals’ rights, after Brexit I will no longer be able to bring them to Britain. My boyfriend says that if it ever came to that, we will move to Poland. Let’s just not think about what the implications and difficulties of that move would be for now. Let’s not think about what kind of country Poland is becoming as we speak. We’ll do the right thing.

Some people shake their heads in disbelief and say: ‘as if you were a second class citizen!’ Well, no, not really. At the moment if you’re a British citizen, bringing your adult dependent relatives to the country is so complex and difficult (and expensive) that it’s almost impossible. Of course it doesn’t apply to most citizens, whose parents are also British citizens growing old peacefully in the UK. But what it means for me is that I am losing one of many rights that I’ve had ever since I moved here – and it made me think twice about naturalisation.

It’s of course not the only right I’m losing. I will no longer be able to freely reside in the UK. I’ll need to go through (yet another one) registration process, carry an ID and go through questioning every time I enter the country, open a bank account, register with a new GP, buy a house. And if the European Court of Justice is no longer the one to go to resolve disputes over my rights, I might end up being disadvantaged, or my rights may radically change in the future.

The right to vote

I might have to apply for citizenship, which at least would give me one right that I don’t have now and will not have later: the right to vote in the general election. Currently I can only vote in local elections, but that means I’m a registered voter, which makes it easier to (for example) get a bank loan. It also means every couple of years I get a citation for jury duty. I’ve been to court five times, never chosen in the ballot, but ended up embracing the system in which everyone has the right to be judged by their peers.

But after Brexit – nobody knows that for a fact – I might lose the right to vote altogether. Retaining it and gaining the right to vote in general elections almost seems worth the money for the citizenship application. The fees for EU nationals are currently in the region of £1500, and the process includes jumping through all sorts of bigger or smaller hoops.

Like the language test – I need to sit one to prove my English is good enough. It’s a straightforward oral exam, takes 10 minutes and I need to pass it a level well below my abilities. It costs £150. I feel slightly uneasy about taking it at such a low level (call it unfulfilled ambition) and very uneasy about the cost.

I’m trying to approach it with humour and for my chosen topic speak about poetry in translation (usual topics are: holidays, leisure or city I live in). According to online forums for EU nationals the most common topic chosen is Brexit, and some people who are working in academia chose their research area (like: biochemistry of the brain; or ethics and AI). There’s also the legendary Life in the UK test that apparently some British would fail. It has become a kind of after dinner trivia among me and my friends in a rare moments when the whole process doesn’t feel utterly depressing.

It’s not about ‘just’ staying

Talking about it feels uncomfortable. I developed a paranoia: when local people tell me how tired they are with politics, I’m scared that if I mention it, they’ll go: ‘oh, what are you moaning about, she said you could stay, yeah?’ But it’s not about ‘just’ staying. It’s about living here. It’s about losing my rights through no fault of mine. It’s about a government that has made me the enemy of the state. What people are unaware of is that for years now the home office has been implementing a tactic of ‘hostile environment’ towards immigration. They couldn’t implement it towards EU nationals living in the UK, protected by the freedom of movement, but Brexit is going to change it all.

Hostile environment is an interesting expression. It’s used in life sciences to talk about fighting pathogens by creating environment in which they can’t thrive. So that’s how we’re made to feel now: as if we were pathogens. And anytime anyone implies I should be happy I’m ‘allowed to stay’ I know that the tactic has worked. I came across a comment online recently: ‘When the opportunity arose, under Freedom of Movement over a million Poles opted to desert their own country and emigrate – over half a million to the UK. The Poles we got are those who in their own country, in their own culture, speaking their own language with their own people were unable to be successful.’

So: pathogens. Who accidentally were successful in finding a job in a foreign country, foreign culture and speaking a foreign language. Something that I was told in 2005 when I decided to try was a brave thing to do.

Never mind, here’s a cat video

Now it looks like the majority of the British society sees me as a nuisance, who’s making a fuss, even though ‘it wasn’t about me’. The compassion is running out. In all fairness, who can blame them.

I was in a pub a couple of weeks ago with people from work and unavoidably at some point the conversation turned to Brexit. ‘So, what is going to happen to you?’ asked someone and as I started explaining the complexities of the negotiations, someone else tapped the person asking on the shoulder to show them a cat video. I couldn’t possibly find a better metaphor for how the public discourse about Brexit looks to me: it’s not that we don’t talk about it, it’s that we constantly get distracted by cat videos.

But while we are being distracted things are happening to us. I worry that if I don’t pay attention I’ll be stripped off my rights. Maybe there’s still something I can do about it, I cannot just keep calm and carry on. And neither should you. If I’m stripped of my rights, you can be too. It’s already started. When we were watching cat videos, the repeal bill has proposed to refuse the transfer of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law after Brexit. The right to life, the ban on torture, protection against slavery, the right to a fair trial, respect for privacy, freedom of thought and religion, free speech and peaceful protest – are not going to be transferred into law. They’ll be forgotten and we won’t even know until we need to use them.

If you have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or watched the recent TV adaptation, you might remember the Commander’s words:  ‘Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some’. Do not assume that you are not ‘some’.

I am the warning, I am the guinea pig. What’s happening to me now, might happen to you, unless you fight and oppose. Go, and write to your MPs, bombard them with letters and emails, go to protests and demos, talk to each other and do not let it happen to all of us. I have no voice. You do.

This personal account first appeared on the author’s blog and is published here with her permission. 


  1. James says

    Thanks for sharing Kasia, and I hope you will still feel welcome here for years to come, whatever the legal details of the next two years may unveil.

    “Well, no, not really. At the moment if you’re a British citizen, bringing your adult dependent relatives to the country is so complex and difficult (and expensive) that it’s almost impossible.”

    Thank you for noting that – a point many seem to have missed: in that particular respect, EU immigrants to the UK get additional rights UK citizens do not, which hardly seems fair. Giving immigrants *equal* rights is a stretch, but perhaps justifiable – but preferential treatment over ourselves is, IMO, an outrageous demand which should never have been considered. Presumably this was only ever an accident, rather than an intentional concession by our government? Hopefully this anomaly will get fixed as a side-effect of the current talks, whatever else changes.

    “And if the European Court of Justice is no longer the one to go to resolve disputes over my rights, I might end up being disadvantaged, or my rights may radically change in the future.”

    No, the rights would be defined by treaty. There is no requirement whatsoever for ECJ involvement to prevent the rights being changed: that isn’t how treaties work! Why do you think the ECJ would be necessary or able to block that?

    “The right to life, the ban on torture, protection against slavery, the right to a fair trial, respect for privacy, freedom of thought and religion, free speech and peaceful protest – are not going to be transferred into law.”

    No – these have already been transferred into law (Human Rights Act), as well as being enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (which is not EU related).

    I have mixed feelings right now. I would hate to see a “hostile environment” – I have immigrant friends, both EU and non-EU, and want to see them welcomed and treated fairly and equally; I know that the CFR isn’t needed, because the ECHR/HRA give better protection of rights already; I hope the anomalous “family unification” right gets abolished, since no government should ever have relegated its own citizens to second-class status behind EU immigrants.

    I’ve been watching closely to see what might happen. Some baseless scaremongering (like the false suggestion that not copying the CFR would remove the protection we have of the right to fair trial etc), the rather bizarre belief that somehow only the ECJ could enforce a treaty … hopefully that will all disappear from public discourse soon: no more hyperbolic scaremongering on that side, no more talk of immigrants as “pathogens” on the other!

  2. Kasia says

    Dear James,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post.

    A few explanations: my (current) right to bring dependents to the UK is granted to EU nationals exercising the freedom of movement in all EU member states. That means that it only applies to people who actually move between the states, not citizens of any of the states who have never moved. It’s worth noting that any dependents I (personally) have (family members) are also EU nationals, so if they were to move, they would actually exercise their treaty rights, provided they would be self-sufficient or workers (if I was responsible for covering their cost of living, that would come under being self-sufficient), their pensions would be transferred. Until the UK leaves the EU if a British citizen wants to bring an EU dependent to the UK they can do it because it’s the dependent who will still be exercising their treaty rights. Now EEA nationals can also bring their dependents from outside of EU to the EEA state in which they exercise their treaty rights. For the British citizens who have never moved to another EU state this route is closed, however there’s another route: Surinder Singh route (look it up). All of those routes will be lost when the UK leaves the EU – freedom of movement rights will no longer apply to anyone. Now, another thing to note: even if there was no Brexit and I became a British citizen, my rights (as above) would be lost as in 2012 the UK has decided that dual UK-EU citizens lose their rights under the EU law (I’ll leave to you to decide whether it’s fair).

    So, yes, the EU law is (currently) more generous than the UK law, and I agree it’s outrageous that British citizens are treated more harshly. But it’s very surprising to me that you’d rather see my rights taken away than your rights expanded. Unless I misunderstood what you meant. It wasn’t on oversight of the government, by the way, it was their policy aimed at cutting down immigration.

    HRA – I hear you, thanks for reminding me. That is the act that the Tories have been trying to scrap/replace for the past – I don’t know – 10 years? So, I wouldn’t be so certain about those rights being retained in the future. In my view, the refusal to transfer the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into the UK law is symptomatic of a continuation of this policy. Also EU CFR covers more issues than HRA.

    With regards to significance of ECJ jurisdiction over EU nationals’ rights, it’s covered better than I could ever do it by Colin Yeo in his blog (it’s worth reading cause it addresses a lot of issues I covered):

    “The rights would be defined by treaty” – well, my rights are currently defined by a treaty called Lisbon Treaty. See how well that works for me? And just a reminder that since my rights are part of the negotiations and the UK government still considers they might crash out without a deal, where does that leave my rights?

    People’s genuine concerns are not scaremongering – they should be addressed by the government. However it took the government over a year to even make a proposal regarding EU nationals’ rights, and some eight months for the Prime Minister to respond officially to a group that represents EU nationals (in a letter full of useless slogans available on The 3 Million Facebook page). No wonder people are coming up with the worst case scenarios! Especially people born in countries that at a time were called People’s Republics but were hardly democratic and very good at messing up with human rights for the greater good.

    I would also add one more thing: if you hate to see your friends who are not British citizens in a hostile environment, I’d re-word the expression: “giving immigrants *equal* rights is a stretch.” First of all EU nationals technically are not immigrants. We are citizens exercising freedom of movement, in the same way British citizens retiring to Spain or France are. Secondly, no, it is not a stretch. I do believe that you should earn those rights over time, but eventually, you should have equal rights, not to mention be treated equally. And so should you, as a British citizen. I believe we do agree on this.

  3. James says

    In fact the current EU proposal would preserve freedom of movement for you, though I can’t see it being accepted as-is (presumably the two sides will converge somewhere in between).

    “But it’s very surprising to me that you’d rather see my rights taken away than your rights expanded. Unless I misunderstood what you meant. It wasn’t on oversight of the government, by the way, it was their policy aimed at cutting down immigration.”

    Are we agreed on the principle that any restriction that applies to me (as a British citizen here) should also apply to you? My point was that it was an error on the government’s part signing up to any deal with the EU in which that wasn’t the case, not that the restrictions themselves were accidental.

    I don’t object to the restriction that I can only bring in a dependent I can actually support – it seems a reasonable one (though I do have some issues with the details of the current implementation). I don’t see that rule as the loss of any “right”, which is probably why we view that differently.

    “well, my rights are currently defined by a treaty called Lisbon Treaty. See how well that works for me?”

    It works just fine as long as that treaty is in effect – and if your fear is that the new treaty might be amended, what’s to stop the amendment in question revoking the ECJ’s jurisdiction anyway? Why do you think the ECJ would rule differently on the same treaty than any other competent court would?

    Yes, the long timescales are frustrating as we wait for and speculate about whatever might be agreed. It would be nice if they could have agreed on some sort of lowest common denominator and start issuing those affected with proper residence documents which will remain valid beyond 2019.

    “First of all EU nationals technically are not immigrants.”

    I’ve been puzzled both by this assertion itself and the indignant tone it’s often made in: the English dictionary defines ‘immigrant’ as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”, do you have a different definition, or not agree that, say, Germany is a foreign country to the UK? I don’t think any treaty can or should change the definition of words like that! (I happen to be part German, a way back, still have a relative or two there, but if I moved there I’d consider myself an immigrant, just as my German cousins were when they moved to Canada: that’s just the correct word in English for somebody who moves from one country to another. I suppose if you count the EU as a sort of “nationality” it might seem different, but the vast majority of Brits never have; I do seem to recall an article pointing out that other EU members tend to use their word for “immigration” to refer only to immigration from outside the EU, one of those linguistic quirks that can easily cause misunderstandings.)

    It also bugs me that some people seem to see “immigrant” as a derogatory term – there was a particularly grating letter from a German in England, professing outrage at the idea that the fact he comes from a foreign country might make him a foreigner; coming from a German in particular, anti-foreigner or anti-immigrant sentiment like that sets alarm bells ringing. Immigrant is NOT a dirty word!

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