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.
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.
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.
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.