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.