I wasn’t Going to Enter the Debate…

Can we even call it a debate? The level of discussion in the media of the EU Referendum has been more of the ‘boo!…hah!’ playground fighting variety, or else number-crunching speculative economic prediction. In other words, appealing either to the gut or the mind. But perhaps there is a third area in the human body we need to target: the heart. Cruelty in humans is caused by lack of heart and imagination, the inability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

This is why I have finally decided to join in this debate, despite my initial reluctance to voice my opinions. I’d been pained to see a few of my most cosmopolitan friends join the Brexit side. I was not wowed by the half-hearted arguments of the Remain campaign. I hadn’t even registered for the postal vote, which goes against my principle of ‘vote rather than grumble’. As a British citizen for only eleven years (five of which I have spent abroad), I felt it would be presumptuous for me to tell British people how they should feel about the EU. At the same time, I am going back to Britain soon and I shall have to live with the consequences of the vote, whether I like it or not. I hardly have the name recognition and persuasive power of the Nobel Prize winners such Herta Muller, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Sudhof, Gerard’t Hooft, Mario Vargas Llosa and so many others, who recently signed a love letter to the British people or the writers who wrote individual letters, but I can share with you my personal experience of living in a Europe with ideological frictions and borders.

N.B. and Warning: Long read to follow.

I was born an undesirable. I am Romanian and for a long time that caused some confusion abroad, as people mistook me for a gypsy (Roma) or Gastarbeiter (literal translation: guest workers, but usually viewed as second-class citizens in Germany and Austria). As a child, I was not aware of the disadvantages and dangers of being born on the outskirts of Europe. I was fortunate enough to spend part of my childhood in a city that believes itself to be very much at the centre of Europe. At my English school in Vienna, I was treated as an individual, regardless of my looks, my native language or my country of origin. I had friends from all over the world and developed a rather magnificent ‘failing’: I could never again stereotype people again based on their nationality, faith or skin colour. Nigerian Niyi was our most trustworthy and mature classmate, who became the class representative. Farzana was the gentlest Muslim girl from Pakistan, Eyal was the most thoughtful and peace-loving Israeli. Samya was half-Egyptian, half-Austrian, 100% my best friend and deskmate.

Then I went back to Romania during the final (and worst) years of Communist dictatorship and discovered just how brutal and painful a world with ‘no free movement’ is. Our passports were the property of the state, so they were taken away from us and kept under lock and key. You had to apply months in advance to get them temporarily returned to you if you wanted to go abroad for holidays or work. Permission was very often not granted, not even for a conference or to visit friends. Especially not to visit friends. Having friends abroad could lead to dangerous, seditious ideas… So I had to stop corresponding with all of my classmates from Vienna. I lost touch with them for over a decade, found some of them again thanks to Facebook, but others were lost forever.

We were not even allowed the freedom of ideas: movies were censored, books were banned, foreign magazines (or music tapes) were forbidden for import. Ordinary citizens, who had not resided abroad and were therefore not treated with quite as much suspicion as we were,  could join the British Council library at the British Embassy and borrow books from there (or the American Embassy or French Embassy or German). However, when I tried to sign up, my mother was stopped by an acquaintance in the street, who told her I should exercise caution.

I wilted like a flower in the desert. I learnt not to ask ‘uncomfortable’ questions (which usually meant, simple ‘why’ questions) at school, so that my relatives would not be taken in by the police for questioning. I learnt to dream small, to not dare to hope for any future for myself that might require studying or living or working abroad. Could we, should we have foreseen the end of Communism? Perhaps!  But it had lasted for the whole of my parents’ lives; what guarantee did I have that it wouldn’t  collapse until I was nearing the end of mine? Too late for me.

Luckily, that was not the case. Revolution swept across the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and I was part of the fortunate 1989 generation, the ones who had scholarships showered upon us, so that we could go abroad and learn about democracy and free markets. Perhaps the Western world felt sorry for us – or perhaps they just needed to make sure there would be stability and a hunger for consumption in our region. Anyway, in the early 1990s, we were still the exception rather than the rule, so we were welcomed abroad.

In a manner of speaking. I looked and sounded English thanks to my primary school education, but I soon discovered I was still somewhat undesirable in the UK. I had problems opening a bank account (Americans experience that too). I had some landlords turning me down when they heard my name.  I had to renew my student visa every year at the notoriously long queues at Lunar House in Croydon. I was not allowed to work to supplement my meagre scholarship. Not even the university was entirely sure of the legislation regarding student work: they had me invigilating a couple of exams and marking some student essays, before they realised it was illegal to employ a non-EU citizen even for 6 hours or less per week, so I never got paid.

Worst of all, since my student visa only covered Britain, and the UK was not part of the Schengen agreement, I had trouble going to the rest of the EU. I missed friends’ weddings in Italy and Germany. I even had trouble spending holidays with my parents (who were working at the time in Sweden).

Nevertheless, I fell in love with Britain. I was predisposed to, of course, having gone to an English primary school. I knew all of the kings and queens from Henry IV onwards (I confess it all gets a little muddy for me prior to that). I knew all the nursery rhymes, the children’s literature, even long quotes from Shakespeare. My favourite writers were predominantly English-speaking and I was often asked to edit and proofread essays written by native speakers.

There were other things in England to love, quite apart from my biased upbringing. I liked the calm speech patterns, self-deprecating humour and humility of the English, which I found reflected in its green and pleasant landscape. No extremes of weather or temperament, no sudden storms and disasters, no jagged mountain dangers lurking here. It was civilised, fair, always willing to listen to both sides of a problem – the society which had made an art form of debating, after all!

I met my Greek husband-to-be in England but, as graduation day approached, we knew things would get complicated. We wanted to stay together, but he was not willing to return with me to Romania, nor was there any future for us (both academics in highly specialized fields) in Greece.  I was offered academic positions in Brazil, Hong Kong, perhaps even the US, but I wanted to stay in Europe, close to my family and my boyfriend. When I say to my Brexit friends that they would never have known me if it weren’t for the EU, I am not joking. I may have felt more at home in the UK than in Romania (where I was always viewed as ‘the outsider with a bit of an English accent’), but I was not allowed to stay there unless I married. So we decided to get married sooner than we might have planned: it was the only way we could stay together without having to fight with visas and bureaucracy every time we wanted to visit each other.

Border stone between France and Switzerland.
Border stone between France and Switzerland.

This is the point at which I start to laugh when people say what a ‘soft spot’ the UK is for immigrants. For us, it proved anything but soft. Not only did we not gain any advantages from the state, but my husband lost all of his rights as an EU citizen (legally resident in the UK).  We had to fill out endless forms, leave our passports for months at Lunar House, be subjected to all sorts of random spot-checks to see if our marriage was fake, plus my husband had to prove that he could support me as well as himself and neither of us would be allowed to access any state benefits for the next 5 years or so. We didn’t want benefits, we just wanted to be able to apply for jobs once we graduated.

He put up with the madness of bureaucracy at the time, but it put our relationship on an uneven keel from the outset. This set some things in motion which cost me dearly (I ended up being the apologetic underdog, forever trying to make up for things), but I can imagine far worse situations in other families: reproaches of ‘I rescued you’, assaults, sense of entitlement and cover-ups.

Years passed. I worked hard, paid taxes, consumed, volunteered, gave birth to British citizens and generally was the most law-abiding and happy freshly-baked citizen you could imagine. Romania joined the ranks of the EU, although I could still feel the reluctance of others to let us ‘into the club’. I had to follow my husband when he was transferred abroad to the Geneva area for work. Of course, here I am an ‘expat’ rather than an ‘immigrant’, so it was much easier to find joy and build a temporary nest, all the while knowing that I would return to the country that most closely resembles ‘home’ to me.

Former border checkpoint, now abandoned.

What is it like to live without borders? I still can’t describe to you the thrill I get from being able to travel where I want whenever I want, attending significant events in my friends’ lives, being able to visit sick parents or go on business trips and conferences without being questioned about the people I met and where exactly I stayed. I run every day along the Franco-Swiss border, with one foot in France and the other in Switzerland, and it still brings tears to my eyes that it’s possible to do that without being shot or imprisoned.

One of my running paths.
One of my running paths.

I’m old enough to remember daily life in the dark, dread shadow of the Cold War, icing your blood and making you suspicious of your neighbours, friends, family and even your own motives. I’ve been fed nationalistic ideology to the point where I’m deeply suspicious of all forms of jingoism, from tub-thumping atavistic cries at sporting events, to brainwashing schoolchildren with ‘national values’, as if they are clearly set in stone and the same for everyone. I’m old enough to know that an ‘us vs. them’ mentality is easy in the short term but never works in the long term. I know the EU has not lived up to all of its idealistic goals, that many countries and leaders have been selfishly and aggressively pursuing their own agendas instead of thinking and finding solutions collectively.

But I cannot bear the alternative.

When I wake up on the morning after the Referendum (which falls, incidentally, on my birthday), I fear stepping into a world where fragmentation and ever narrower interest groups are the norm.  Idealism suffers when the practicalities of implementation take over, but surely we can do better than declare EU idealism a cadaver and run away.

57 thoughts on “I wasn’t Going to Enter the Debate…”

  1. What a powerful post, Marina Sofia. Thank you for sharing your personal journey, and your reasons for your views about Brexit/Bremain. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on that debate, as I’m not even European, let alone UK. But I will say that your post has shed a really important light on the topic, and offered an important perspective, for which I am grateful.

  2. It’s not a debate that’s been going on – debates imply facts and there have been precious few of those doing the grounds. Thank you for sharing this with us, though – I am firmly in the staying in camp – we are a tin pot little island who still think we have an empire and that has no place in the modern world. We need to be together to be strong – though I very much fear the result of the vote is going to be based on prejudice and personalities and not on reasoned thought.

  3. Thank you for sharing Marina. Being a Canadian this is not my debate (though I have lived through two referendums that have threatened to tear my country apart), your voice is vital, your story important.

  4. I am glad you shared this, Marina. I don’t keep up with politics more than necessary. I cannot avoid the current election politics going on the in the US though, much as I would like to. But I learned so much from your post about what it is like to live under an oppressive government, and I thank you for that. I have read about that topic, but mostly fiction, and to hear about your real life experience is more enlightening.

    1. Thank you, Tracy, and you must be getting fed up with others giving their opinion on US politics! Mine is a very mild story compared to many others I know about, but I can only offer my personal experience and say it’s heartfelt.

  5. Great, great post – I started the debate fed up with European bureaucracy but I’ve now moved to voting to stay in. Your post has cemented this view for me! I have a bad feeling we will leave though…..the debates – such as it is – has been an unsavoury spectacle, wholly lacking the passion yet balance of your post.

    1. Thank you, what a lovely thing to say! I too have been disappointed by both sides in the ‘debate’, which seems to be more about party in-fighting than anything which will affect future generations.

  6. I think it’s wonderful that you have taken pen to paper and shared your story, your experience with us… I’d far rather hear well reasoned & informative stories like this than the unhelpful rhetoric we are getting bombarded with from frankly unsavoury characters with their own agendas seemingly at the forefront. I’ve always intended to vote remain and your post today helps remind me reassure me I’m making the right decision. And for that I thank you Marina xxx

    1. Yes, well put, it’s the personal power struggle aspect of it which is particularly unappetizing! Thank you so much for your lovely words. I’m well aware though that the people who do not like to listen to other points of view are unlikely to either read this or be dissuaded/persuaded by it.

  7. You are right, this is not my debate. I do however appreciate your life under such times. I wish others would be as considerate of American politics which everyone, especially folk from Down Under seem to think they have a right to criticize and poke fun at. Our politics are not their debate. Our politics may be part of what may affect our world at large but if people do not live here, work here, or pay taxes here, they need to shut up and show the same consideration you show. I am glad you have shared your story with us and hope it will affect us all positively and to learn the fine art of courtesy and keeping their mouths closed.

    1. In the case of American politics, I will only say what my personal hopes are, but even if I were to follow it much more closely and with more knowledge than I do, I would not dare presume to give my ‘advice’. At the same time, I can understand why Obama and others have shared their personal opinion within the British debate – as well as the howls of protest when they do so.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. I am firmly Remain too. I hope that enough people can put the personalities, rhetoric and mud-slinging to one side and really think about it – we stand to lose too much if we leave.

  9. Great post (as usual). Just one thing Gastarbeiter is and was used as an insult. For those with German origins from eastern europe it was and still is Rucksackdeutsche. Though that’s more a description for those who arrived in what was left of Germany after ’45. My Grandmother was Sudetendeutsche born in todays Tchechia. And I’m German living in Belgium with my French girlfriend. Or as I prefer I’m Human and European.
    I would be happy if Britain stays in Europe. If they don’t want to. Sad but if it’s their choice we have to accept it. Hope I can still get my Yorkshire tea.

    1. Ah, yes, anything can be used as an insult, can’t it? I wonder if the term ‘Gastarbeiter’ was introduced by the government of the time with the intention to be ‘neutral’ and then it was instantly taken over by the population and used with disparaging undertones.
      I also consider myself human, world citizen and European in about that order.

      1. if I’m not completely wrong it was ‘invented’ by media. Could even have been ‘Bildzeitung’. First the focus was more on the prefix ‘Gast’ in it’s pure sense. Later it developed into 2nd class worker. Those who do the dirty jobs that are too low for the regular German (rubbish collection, dirty jobs at Daimler, etc). Started with Italians (like in Belgium) and later Spain, Portugal and then Turkey.

      2. The term “Gastarbeiter” was first used in WWII for migrant workers from other countries in Nazi Germany, although the term “Fremdarbeiter” was predominant. In the 1950s the word came into “neutral” use again (most people are not aware of the Nazi past of this expression).

    1. Thank you for drawing my attention to that (I’ve been in a remote location with little wifi, so I didn’t get a chance to read this). I may well add a link in the body of the post.

  10. Very moving & heartfelt post, Marina. I worry for my country’s future should we leave.

  11. Very good post, Marina. Having traveled a lot in the Balkans under communist rule, and having a best friend who got out of Romania at the age of eight, I understand exactly what you’re saying. The Greeks, too, are willing to put up with anything to stay in the EU, as they showed last summer. The EU is in a mess – but strong countries like England should work to improve it, not run for the hills. If we don’t stay together, we open the door to a lot of uncertainty.

    1. I wish I’d thought of that expression myself ‘work to improve things, not run for the hills’ – that’s exactly what I wanted to say, but beautifully put!

  12. I’m also for Remain but my disappointment with the EU is profound and I fully understand why many people want to leave. I don’t think it’s necessarily always, or even usually, a sign of either stupidity or bigotry, but rather often of poverty – either real poverty, poverty of education or poverty of aspiration – and I regret that some on the Remain side seem to think that insulting the opposition is likely to change minds. A thoughtful, personal post like this is much more likely to sway waverers. 🙂

    1. Let’s face it, people are not being armed with any valuable arguments on either side of the barricades – just the lowest common denominator! So you can hardly deride that those who disagree with you are ‘stupid’… it’s like complaining that a child is calcium-deficient, when you have never fed it any dairy products.

  13. Thanks for sharing such a personal story Marina Sofia.

    As an outsider I won’t presume to know what’s right in this situation but I do share your sadness at what passes for public ‘debate’ these days. Whether it be this scenario, the American political scene (which is on our screens and in our media constantly even though we are thousands of kilometres away) or our own impending federal election I see nothing that resembles the debating I learned and mastered through school and university. Our debating involved real arguments – pro and con – listening to each side – weighing things up – using evidence and research. Not name calling and junk science and meaningless three word slogans. And fear. So much fear mongering. It’s so destructive and unhelpful.

  14. Brilliant post — you make some really important points here. I’m for staying in, but whole thing seems to me like a complete farce, just an excuse for politicians to abuse each other and struggle for power.

  15. Marina, as ever, you are absolutely brilliant, and I cannot thank you enough for sharing your journey and views here in your usual eloquent and engaging manner. You truly have a knack for conveying complex matter in an evocative fashion. I am saddened at the very notion that a referendum might take the UK out of the European Union and shocked at the rifts that the debate is causing at personal and national levels. My sense is that leaving the union would be setting history back by a few hundred years. Splendid isolation didn’t work out so well in the end then, and it won’t work out now. In today’s interconnected world, there is no going back to national sovereignty as it once was–there is only the cutting off of ties that enable a country to influence the forces that impact the extent and boundaries of its sovereignty.
    I am astounded that the debate is being fought largely on the issue of immigration when a efficient and thriving free market by its very nature relies on the free movement of people as well as goods. Evidently I’m biased, being an EU citizen from a different country living in the UK (and having done so for 23 years, income taxes, VAT, Council tax and all) but even so, it seems that the powers that be (hopefully not!) are whipping up a panic about migration levels which, in truth, are tiny.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this post, you have truly made me feel that I am not alone in my bewilderment at where this whole referendum debacle may be taking us. Here’s hoping for a last minute bout of insight on a large part of the electorate. I, for one, cannot vote as there hasn’t until now been a need for me to assume British citizenship, so I am a powerless observer. Get it right, people!

    1. Such lovely comments, my Nicky! And alas, I suspect many EU citizens who have been living for decades in Britain and have never felt the need to assume British citizenship, feel the same sense of foreboding… I dithered a lot as to whether I should write this or not, but I do care about Europe, about Britain and about connecting internationally in a meaningful way (rather than in a stereotyping and name-calling way).

  16. To think that you nearly didn’t enter this debate! I think more personal voices of diverse experience can highlight to people why Brexit would be so harmful. Btw you share the same birthday as my son!

    1. Happy birthday (a bit in advance) for your son – my younger son is at the beginning of June, so this year we will both celebrate that weekend!

  17. What a powerful, well-written post! As a follower of your blog it is fascinating to hear your story. I’ve always been strongly remain, but I hope your words persuade a few more people to vote remain.

  18. kaggsysbookishramblings says:
    June 12, 2016 at 20:32
    I’m not so sure it’s only the young – I think a lot of the problem is the Arrogant and stupid who swallow this nonsense that britain cant be great out of the EU. Very depressing.

  19. Very moving post, Marina. As you know, I’m also from the 1989 generation. I discovered the dictatorships in the East when they collapsed, I was too young to be aware of what was happening before 1989.

    I think that the EU is so much in our lives that we don’t even realise what it brings anymore.
    I love to travel without visas and papers.
    I love that I don’t pay bank charges when I withdraw money in Italy because the EU imposed a no-charge-in-the-euro-zone rule to the banks.
    I love that next year, cell phone communications in the EU will cost less because Brussels made a rule out of it.
    I love that I don’t have to manage petty cash in various currencies in the office thanks to the euro.
    Lots of good things in our everyday life come from EU regulations.
    But nobody talks about the good…

    1. Ah, yes, it’s far easier to see the bad things rather than the good things… sometimes even about our own children or parents, right? Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  20. I’m glad you’ve entered the debate and thank you for sharing your story. Hearing accounts like yours only makes me more determined that we are all European and stronger together. I vote to remain…

  21. What a wonderful, moving and precious story, MarinaSofia! I especially loved how you feel at home in the UK, because I am Spanish and I feel the same. I feel good about: “the calm speech patterns, self-deprecating humour and humility of the English, which I found reflected in its green and pleasant landscape”.

    I hope you all get to remain in the UK. And by “you”, I am British people, because you ARE British without a doubt xx

  22. This is very interesting. What I learned here that was new to me was your mistreatment in Britain as an immigrant and your spouse’s, too, and the marriage requirement.
    The argument about Brexit has gotten ferocious of late, and much of the animosity seems to be generated by the far right against immigrants, Muslims, diverse communities, etc.
    In fact, I read a piece that mentioned that these folks were opposed to “Romanians using the National Health Service.” Horrendous.
    The worst disaster in all of this is that a right-winger killed Labor MP, Jo Cox, and it seems that it was about his hostility to immigrants and multinational communities, as we would say it in the U.S.
    Not being there I shouldn’t venture an opinion about whether or not Britain should stay in the EU or leave, but if this issue stirs up so much rage against multiculturalism and xenophobia, then that is a big problem for everyone living in Britain.
    The world is a diverse place. It’s nothing but a good thing for multiculturalism and diversity to be growing in the U.S. But there are right-wingers who abhor that and
    once in awhile, someone acts out hostilely.

    1. Simplistic arguments may be much easier to bandy around and may be all that ‘people’ believe they want to hear, but I think it’s dangerous to underestimate the electorate like that. Wasn’t Einstein supposed to have said: ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.’?

  23. This is absolutely brilliant, MarinaSofia! I wish many people in the UK (and elsewhere) will read this powerful text. On a personal note: I was lucky to be born in a country with a “good” passport, and travelling/working abroad never was a problem for me. But as someone who was born literally a few meters from the German/French border I know how important Europe, the European Idea, and yes, the EU is. It is the basis for the peace we enjoy since decades for the first time in recorded history in this region, something that is not a small achievement of the EU (with all its imperfections). And, by the way, I always correct people who address me as an “expat” – I call myself proudly migrant or gastarbeiter (in Bulgarian they use the same word as in German, with the same connotation).

  24. Wonderful blog Marina. I’m glad you shared your personal experience. If only these kinds of stories were shared more than the rhetoric, people could put a human face on the issue and perhaps could think about things more tolerantly and kindly on both sides of the debate. Instead everyone is the evil ‘other’. Such a shame. I love that you love Britain, even though it hasn’t been universally kind to you. Isn’t that the definition of a great relationship? Loving in spite of the faults. Thanks for sharing. I feel enriched.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I think you are absolutely right: it’s about personalising the ‘other’. So often I hear comments of the type: ‘Of course it’s nothing against you personally or our neighbours or my child’s friend at school etc., but all of those other foreigners…’.

  25. Well, over here in the states, there are simplistic arguments and fear-mongering, with the whipping up of hostility to immigrants from Latin America and Muslims, in particular. Talks of building walls and profiling and keeping out Muslims is said daily by one prominent candidate. He’s got people at his rallies who agree with him and attack protesters. And he has support of the far-right.
    So, I’m thinking about what is going on in Britain and the tragedy about Jo Cox’s murder. Her advocacy for immigrant and diverse communities and wanting to stay in the EU touched a nerve with some dangerous and angry people. People in Britain are calling for unity in response and for everyone to accept and live with each other peacefully.

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