“This is not your country,” my neighbour said to me 20 years ago the day after a louder-than-usual party. I was a student just arrived from Germany, acutely aware of how little it took for some people to turn neighbours into “others” to assert their own rights and perceived privileges as citizens. An Irish friend came to my rescue, telling her that England wasn’t his country either and that she should be ashamed of herself.
Now, after 25 years of living, working and raising a family in the UK, the same is happening again: people are being told this is not their country, but friends and strangers are coming up to remind me and many others how much we are part of this country.
What makes Britain home for us are the experiences we have had. Like many others I am not an economic migrant. I swapped life in a beautiful city in North Germany for a multicultural, tolerant and often very funny one in the South of England. Slowly my proud Hanseatic identity – my hometown Lübeck used to trade with London in the middle ages – merged with my acquired Englishness and found a great home in Bristol, where I now live. I am both a local here and in Lübeck where I grew up. I’ve worked my entire career in the UK and contributed to its economy and social life. But my love for where I live now comes entirely from my relationships – with neighbours, friends, colleagues. My sense of self is a mixture of the things I love about Germany – food, friends, high standards of plumbing – and about England – my son and husband, humour, pub lunches and much more.
But Brexit has now triggered an identity crisis. What is at stake for Europeans in the UK is our sense of identity, and this is equally true for many British citizens in the UK or those in other European countries. For many UK citizens Brexit has turned into a series of economic concerns. For me and my fellow three million EU citizens it has cast a shadow over our lives.
Reading through the 5,000 plus life stories on the Facebook Forum for EU citizens in the UK (“the3million”), I sense many more of these composite identities. And I sense a deep attachment to the UK. Our group ranges from the German master craftsman who has trained hundreds of English plumbers over the years, the Finnish care home worker and the French professor. They include the Spaniard who was called to UK jury duty but not allowed to vote in the referendum and still has to apply for residency.
Some of us don’t know where we should be citizens. Dana was born in Budapest as a 3rd generation German immigrant, and was told repeatedly at home that she wasn’t a “real” Hungarian. Now she feels excluded by her adopted British home and says, with an odd sense of satisfaction, that the only “acceptable” nationality for her is European.
My husband is a British citizen born in Athens, his father a British citizen born in Kenya, me a German and our eight-year old son born in Germany. Our child speaks English as first language but is not entitled to a UK passport as his father and grandfather were born overseas, in Her Majesty’s service. Confusing? Unfair? All of those.
Migration has been a feature of all human societies. This is true for the Cornish who left their towns to find a better life in Australia and New Zealand as it is for the Polish who left their homes to find a better life in the UK. Nationhood should never beat humanity.
Another member of the3million forum who is British and has lived in France for the last 40 years puts it well: “As for nationalism, I have no time for it. In France, do as the French do. Flags are silly.” Divisions along the lines of class, education and ethnicity are destructive as are meaningless phrases like “ordinary citizens”.
Politicians and the media in the UK keep talking about record-high immigration, failing to note that the British economy has been booming and there is hardly any unemployment in the country. This attitude looks backwards and does not face the real problem of social inequalities the current economic system has created. In this, we are all together. Just like moving to Britain meant for us embracing its values of openness and multiculturalism, so we want to contribute to more fairness in society. We need an enlightened, global civic society. The nationalism currently adopted by politicians all over the world is utterly useless when it comes to taming global capitalism gone wrong. Most of us wish for a fairer society with an even distribution of wealth, work and resources. Those feeling left behind need to know that those peddling this nostalgic, isolationist nationalism cannot and will not help them.
Maike Bohn, adapted from a blog post originally published on The Huffington Post.
Top photo: Young man counter-demonstrates in favour of Brexit during a demonstration supporting the EU membership in London, September 2016. By Claudia Delpero, all rights reserved. Small photo: Maike Bohn.