This blog has settled a bit of dust, because, quite frankly, I find it hard to keep up with the pace at which the UK has kept shooting its own feet over the last months. It’s difficult to articulate thoughts without resorting to strong and explicit language. This will be a very long and very personal read. Feedback welcome; trolls not so much.
It’s hard to balance being a “guest” with the criticism I want to express towards politics and media. The (very easy) common response to my criticism is: “Well, if you don’t like it here, be on your way already.” Most people simply do not get how a person or family could move into another country and then criticise things, not because they don’t like it there, but because they actually care; perhaps more than many nationals do, who got away with “grin & bear” for most of their lives.
I tend to just brush that aside as lack of experience; people who have barely ever left their communities (never mind countries) to actually live elsewhere, cannot possibly know what it’s like (nothing wrong with that per se!). If any of my readers feel offended because my opinion differs from yours, let’s discuss your point of view. If you feel offended, just because I have an opinion on what you think is your country, and yours alone, let me pre-empt that with the phrase that you understand best: you can fuck right off.
So, with the small talk and niceties exchanged, let’s go a couple of years back; around ten years more precisely. That’s about the time when I decided to move to the UK (from Germany). I told my business partner that I intended to leave Germany for at least a year, potentially longer, and was looking for a job in London. I handed over my shares in return for a few months salary. I had no interest in ripping apart the company (employing three other people) or cause any trouble to them, because the decision to move was my very own, and they couldn’t possibly understand why. To be honest, I simply needed a new challenge; language, new environment, different culture and approach to doing business and viewing the world, from village to metropolis… I thought even if I didn’t stay in London, it would benefit my future to have that kind of experience under my belt; professionally as much as personally.
I was lucky to land a job before I even came here. Only had to fly in for a second interview, went straight on to sign, and three weeks later, I started work in Battersea. From running and part-owning a business in Germany, to being full time employed and living in a flat share in South London (as I didn’t know how things would work out financially), within three weeks. Yeah, I know, hardly anybody would understand that, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. Having said that, being in full time employment wasn’t a long term goal. It’s hard to report to others when you are used to running your own business and have previously enjoyed a career as an officer in the armed forces; in other words, people had been reporting to me for well over 10 years. But in hindsight it was a wise move and helped to get my bearings straight and work out my future plans.
Well, by plans I mean: General idea how life might be going. Truth is, sometimes life plans your future for you; it just happens. So does love. Moving on two years from when I came to the UK, I found myself sharing a rented flat (already the third) with my wife, who I’d met just months after my first steps on these islands.
So far, so good. EU citizen, married to non-EU citizen, living in London. Pretty normal situation at the time, really. One of the things I loved about the city was its incredible diversity. People from literally all countries in the world and all walks of life in one vibrant city; great when you’re in your thirties. Job (in the meantime I had become a contractor) was great, too, and well paid. Everything was honky dory as they say, and not for one second did either of us feel not welcome. Anyway, why would anybody object to us being there? I paid more corporation tax each year than Facebook did in 2013 and 2014 combined. Sure, neither of us was a doctor or scientist, just an IT contractor and an aspiring accountant, but we didn’t ever ask for anything. We were net contributors (and still are); but these terms would only start to matter years later – I’ll get there. So nothing to worry about surely. Life was fine.
About four years ago, we moved to rented accommodation number 5, a small house in the north-east of London. That was intended to be the last place we’d rent before buying a house and having kids. Consequently our focus was on saving up more for a nice deposit on a mortgage. Since I had been contractor without any gaps and my wife employed without gaps until then, everything was going exactly to “plan”. Pretty normal life for a normal couple. (We didn’t know yet, that we weren’t a normal couple; that people would soon see us as a burden, objectify us as bargaining chips. We didn’t feel unwelcome, yet.)
Wait a minute, this must be around year seven now? Didn’t I talk about going to London for about a year or so? Well yes, life, plans, love… as I said: things sometimes just happen. Not for a second did I think about going back. Even when I went to Germany for the normal family visits, I always felt like it wasn’t “my country” any more. I felt like a stranger, and to be honest, my spoken German sounded strange by then too. 🙂
In other words, Britain became my home. When exactly that happened, I don’t have a clue. It’s a gradual process, and while I chose to come here, I did not ever really choose to settle or feel home. The first few times you go back to your country of birth, it feels home there. Eventually that feeling reverses; you feel home when you return to where you live; the UK in my case.
So there we were, still in rented accommodation, planning future and family. And by then we of course also had to jump through the hoops of permanent residence. Strictly speaking, I didn’t have to at the time, but in support of my wife’s application, the solicitor recommended doing that, since I had to provide tons of documents for her anyway to prove that she qualified and I could support her.
What a nightmare that was! No human being should be forced to be put through so much scrutiny. The documents submitted, including the forms, which were about 70 pages each, if I remember correctly, weighed several kilograms! Now the first solicitor we had was useless; some moron in the Home Office rejected our application, because they found about a month or two gap in my documentation, where it wasn’t clear to them whether or not I had been exercising treaty rights. If they had looked a little bit closer (or had given me a ring to clarify), they would have noticed me sending invoices during that time and paying taxes for that timeframe too (VAT more specifically). But they didn’t. Instead they rejected our applications. The letter to me stated that due to EU laws, I could of course stay, if I exercised treaty rights now. The letter to my wife was less lenient: She got an ultimatum of about two weeks to buy herself a flight ticket, send that to the Home Office and then meet them at the airport, where they would then return her passport and wave her goodbye for good. Our daughter was about to be born.
A different solicitor (I went for one of the major firms in the UK, at a significant cost, of course) then performed a sterling job with buying us a little bit of time and re-submitting a new application. In return, my wife had to report monthly to the Home Office Immigration Enforcement. Like a criminal. At the first visit there, our daughter was only weeks old, and it took hours, where even I – her husband – was not allowed to stay with them; I had to wait outside in the cold, not knowing whether she’d actually come out again or would be locked away in the detention centre (plenty of cells, by the looks of it, in the same building), because some other idiot might just make another mistake. Luckily she emerged after almost three hours!
Fast forward five months or so, and we finally got our permanent residence cards. In the meantime, while our application was processed, laws had changed here: Now EU citizens must have permanent residence before they can apply for a British passport, if they wish to do so. (Before it was good enough to fulfil the requirements for permanent residence, but you didn’t actually have to get the card.)
If you don’t have five years or more without inexplicable gaps under your belt, forget it. (In case you wonder about the price: The cards don’t cost a lot, because they are based on EU law, but without solicitor we wouldn’t have been successful. That set us back several thousand pounds.)
Funnily enough, because we qualified much earlier, and had apparently acquired permanent resident status before our baby was born, even though it wasn’t formally documented and the first application failed, our daughter was British by birth. We got her passport within a week or so after we applied for it.
Did this ordeal make us feel home less or welcome less here? Not really. It appeared to be a genuine fuck-up by the Home Office (and Capita as their bringer of bad news and executing arm). We were angry, anxious, in some situations close to a serious panic, lost a good amount of money (no point appealing), but we didn’t take it personally. (Stuff like the Go Home Vans etc, we shrugged off. Maybe we had adopted “grin & bear” already, who knows?)
I only realised later that ours wasn’t just an isolated case. Apparently there was a sinister intention behind it: All these hoops and potential costs are meant to be a deterrent. And to be honest, anyone who has had more than one employer in the last five years, or who had even a week gap, will probably struggle with those forms and the compulsory sickness insurance (yep, that’s another fun aspect, which they are now pushing for). If you’re a contractor, forget about doing this without a solicitor. You may be lucky; or you may not be. Evaluate the risks vs. costs for yourself. (I’m not in a position to give legal advice, nor am I up to date with the latest changes.)
We’re approaching 2016 now. The year where everything changed for EU citizens and their families (regardless of the spouses’ nationalities).
Over night, all the closet bigots and racists have surfaced. An overall very welcoming country – with very few exceptions – has turned into a xenophobic beast. You might think this description is over the top. I think the Polish guy killed in Harlow and the 20% raise in hate crime in the UK (or England and Wales more precisely) speak volumes. And probably you should feel at least a tiny bit ashamed for your fellow countrymen, too, if you don’t at least speak up against xenophobia.
It wasn’t too long ago that the main media here was picking on Germany and its rise in hate crime (about a few 1,000 per year at the time, if I’m not mistaken). Well, in England and Wales there were >50,000 recorded hate crimes in a year. Think about this for a moment. Well over 100 every single day.
My wife and I have been lucky. As a German I don’t usually get any abuse until my accent becomes apparent; and I wouldn’t call ever so boring jokes about Hitler and the war abuse. It’s a poor attempt to be funny. And honestly, if you ever made such jokes in public, or even saluted “Heil Hitler” style: you’re a pathetic fool – for everybody to see.
“Grin & bear”… there it is again. That said, some Germans do take this stuff seriously, because we have learned from our history and we are still made to feel guilty about what happened generations ago — from a relatively early school age. That very dark chapter in European history must not be forgotten. I’m not sure how much of it is taught in British schools; but apparently it’s not enough. Even if you weren’t the perpetrators, many of your lives were lost in the war, too; you owe it to your fallen soldiers not to forget what xenophobia can lead to, and not to ever let that happen again in any country, including your own.
As for my Asian wife: She’s thick-skinned and apart from occasional remarks has mostly been spared.
Anyhow, 2016: EU Referendum. The worst political gamble in Tory party history, carried out on the shoulders of a nation, and at their expense. I’m not going to go on about how much has changed since the referendum (not a lot) and how much is exactly the same (a hell of a lot). But I do say this, and I’m sad to do so: None of the news we read about Brexit/EU/UK these days come as any surprise. None. Brexit will be a gigantic clusterfuck. Britain will be poorer, lose its influence on the world stage, and citizens and workers will lose many of their rights so that corporations can have lower taxes and responsibility = more profit. Banks are fleeing the country (or planning to); the little amount of production left in Britain will suffer from EU supply chains; everybody will be surprised about their food bills, never mind costs for holidays if they still can afford them (tumbling Pound, much more expensive flights) . Those pesky experts have said it before the referendum; and those bastards were right. Sod them, eh? You haven’t seen anything yet. Things will unfold brutally around this time next year and shit will really hit the fan in the year after Brexit (spring 2019). Mark my words; or those of experts, who you should pay more attention to anyway.
So there we were, gobsmacked on the morning after the referendum (when I went to bed that night, Remain was ahead; we all know the score in the morning after). Absolutely nobody, including the Brexiters, who remained in hiding for a while, could believe what happened. And after a while of thinking “what the fuck have we done” they slowly emerged and announced that a 2% majority was good enough to plough on with the “will of the people”. Even more so, it became clearer by the day that only the hardest of hard Brexits seemed likely. Politicians, including our PM, who had previously been on the Remain side, suddenly became the most vicious and ruthless drivers of an extreme Brexit.
But it got worse, for over three million citizens here and another 1.4 million or so citizens abroad: The lives of all EU citizens and British citizens in the EU were put on hold. We had officially become bargaining chips. It was ok for us to be in the UK, for now. Nobody wanted to cut down EU citizens’ rights, the Tories said; but equally nobody wanted to commit to protecting them either.
Now if I go back to the fact that I’m a net contributor: My taxes every year would easily cover a nurse’s take home pay. I’m in a fortunate position at the moment. But I’m also aware that it may not always be like it. I worked my arse off to be where I am. Likewise, EU nurses and doctors work their arses off, doing double shifts, saving your lives – whether you be Brexiter or “Remoaner”. They are heroes. (As it happened, an EU doctor delivered our baby in a hairy emergency situation and saved my wife’s life in the process. No idea, if he’s still in the UK; I wouldn’t be surprised if not.)
In any case, the vast majority of EU citizens are net contributors, be it by their tax payments, be it by the kind of work they do. We’re not stealing anybody’s job. If there wasn’t a shortage in certain fields, EU citizens wouldn’t come here to begin with. Nobody moves to a foreign country without at least some level of confidence that they will be needed.
Did any party or the media acknowledge that? No. Not in England anyway. Maybe with warm words, but not one party put the money where their loud mouths were. All the Brexit legislation was waved through without much problem. Even Gina Miller’s heroic effort to achieve some scrutiny was ultimately rendered void, by MPs who represent nobody but their own agendas.
Now, there was one exception, as Scots know: the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon was like a beacon of hope. As we were in a place to be able to afford a house in the second half of 2016, we considered several places, including Scotland. You know already how that panned out: We live in Scotland since September 2016. Brexit obviously was a driving factor; or, more precisely, the prospect of Scotland coming to its senses and going down the route of independence. All the indications were there at the time; hence the decision to purchase here. (Also, if Scotland was to become independent, Edinburgh, Glasgow and the central belt would be booming!)
What has happened since we moved here? Not a lot. Apparently some idiotic Prime Minister shot her own foot once more by calling a general election which went pear shaped, and all English parties including their Scottish branches continue to make fools of themselves. Brexit negotiations haven’t lead anywhere yet, other than the realisation that the clusterfuck is much bigger a clusterfuck than all deniers combined care to admit. In other words: The “strong and stable” government has found the magic money tree and made itself hostage to 10 nutcases from Northern Ireland; Labour wants a different kind of hard Brexit, which is equally undefined as the Tories’; Honorary Colonel Tank Girl aka Ruth Davidson tries to deflect all the nonsense her head office throws her way and adds a considerable amount more to it; Labour in Scotland continues its identity crisis (a miracle that Kezia Dugdale hasn’t been challenged yet; my guess is they lack politicians with backbone altogether).
Meanwhile the SNP cracking on with the day job splendidly while lobbying for Scottish interests in the EU and elsewhere. Performing better than all other parts of the UK on health, economy, jobs… it’s still “SNP bad” in the media as usual.
So yeah, very much all the same still. At least as far EU citizens and British citizens in the EU are concerned (no, nothing personal, but I won’t call you expats, thereby somehow elevating your importance over ours).
Anti Brexit voices got louder, and there appears to be a swing in public opinion. Brexit might not be such a great idea after all. Who would have thought? But that doesn’t seem to concern the UK Gov much:
They delivered the bombshell today, and that’s probably an understatement. The UK Gov, realising that Great Repeal Bill might sound cheesy and maybe isn’t all that great, have published the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Explanatory notes here. I’ll borrow the highlighting from The 3Million’s twitter thread: (if you aren’t following them yet, you should; if you haven’t donated yet, please consider doing so, too!)
Theresa May has drawn a red line for the European Court of Justice before; in short, she wants them to no longer have any power over domestic law at all. This was already bad news. Very bad news, indeed. But this new bill takes it a huge step further: It openly states the intention and power to change/remove EU citizens’ rights. According to these explanatory notes, the condition would be a No Deal scenario. Now, we all know that despite not having the faintest idea what No Deal would actually mean for the UK, the government has argued “No deal is better than a bad deal” quite openly before. And with hardening red lines around ECJ, Freedom of Movement and EU citizens’ rights, No Deal might become a real possibility. And then we are – excuse my language – fucked!
There will be no guarantee whatsoever that our crazy overlords don’t just turn around and say: “Sorry, you’re going home. It’s the EU’s fault.” (And by home they do not mean where we feel home, but what our passports say. And by sorry, they mean, well, nothing really. And of course everything is always the EU’s fault.)
Suddenly, the permanent residence card (which is based on EU law in our case) might not be worth the plastic it’s made of, let alone the sweat and tears and money spent to get it in the first place.
We were planning to get a British citizenship or ideally some day a Scottish citizenship if all goes well. We love Scotland. Currently we cannot imagine a better place to live and raise our daughter (2nd birthday coming up). It feels more home than anywhere we have ever lived before; and as I can only speak for myself, it also feels more home than Germany ever has.
So what’s holding us back? With permanent residence in our pockets, it should be relatively straight forward to get British Citizenship. Relatively. The thing is, there’s no right to gain citizenship. A good chance, but no right and no appeal.
Also, Germany accepts dual citizenship only with EU countries and a select few others. There we go again; yet another area nobody has considered: If UK leaves EU, I will likely have to pick one of my two citizenships. It would be a no brainer under normal circumstances until about 2015, but EU citizens will have more rights and better protection in 27 other countries any day now. Eleven years ago, I didn’t know I’d end up in Scotland. So who knows, we may still be here in eleven years, and that certainly is the plan. But we don’t know. I’d like to keep my options.
What we also don’t know is whether or not Scotland will be independent in two years time. If not, we will be part of Brexit Britain. We will lose a lot of money in the process as house prices and the Pound will tumble. If we had a British passport then, we’d be stuck. (I know, from a British citizens’ point of view, this must sound a bit harsh; but truth is, nobody would voluntarily forfeit the rights and possibilities they have. It’s not about me being selfish; it’s mainly about the future of my child. Your fellow Britons who live in the EU can probably relate to this.)
Suddenly, thoughts like moving to Norway cross my mind. (Pretty much everybody there speaks English fluently, or even German, from what I hear.) Not even a year after we bought this fantastic house in Scotland. It tears my heart out that a right-wing agenda could be powerful enough to make a whole country head down the cliff, with open eyes, and ruin millions of lives. Or as LBC’s James O’Brien quoted one listener: “I don’t care if we starve; at least we’ll be free from the EU.” How is that even possible? It’s a very deep state of denial for sure; those people will be the first to complain once everything gets more expensive, healthcare falls apart (or is sold off to the US in lieu of a desperately needed trade deal; any deal!), and real wages fall even sharper than they already have in the last years.
The only hope we have now is a successful second Independence Referendum. But that still doesn’t answer whether or not to apply for a British passport, since Scotland might be at least briefly outside the EU, which could still render our EU-law based permanent residence invalid, at least for a while, and could be a pricy gamble.
It’s a nasty situation to be in. And it’s much, much worse for all those EU citizens here (and UK citizens in the EU), who don’t even have a choice, because they haven’t been here (or there) long enough to qualify, or because they simply cannot easily afford thousands of pounds to apply for citizenship (that money could be lost, if not accepted). And then there’s of course plenty of us who simply don’t want to stay if they’re not welcome. A sentiment I would have shared until I started feeling home here.
I don’t know how to end this way too long blog post. I don’t despair easily. It’s not easy being an optimist right now, though. I guess we’ll stick around and see how it pans out, hoping that the UK and/or Scotland wake up before it’s too late. I mean, there’s still a chance that the writ formerly known as Great Repeal Bill will be defeated in parliament. Yeah, as if. I know…