Ideas UK referendum

Dear fellow Brits, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone

Leaving the EU would be a terrible mistake both for British expatriates living on the Continent and for Britain’s reputation, says English-born European Journalist and author Alex Taylor.

Published on 20 June 2016 at 09:16

Last Friday I happened to be in Brussels with a few hours to spare. I found myself going to the European Parliament to do something that I would never have imagined doing before. I went into a tourist shop, bought a European flag and tweeted a picture of myself with it in front of a building I used to do countless TV programmes from.

“You don’t know what you got till it’s gone” goes the song by Joni Mitchell. In three days from now, it is very possible that my country could vote to auto-eject itself from the world’s largest single market, and from a political and cultural union. Like any institution it has its faults, but it has kept the peace in our continent for over seventy years (no mean feat as a glance at any history book will remind the forgetful.)

In this context, the fact of being “European” suddenly seemed very precious to me, and more than a little fragile. If the UK votes to leave (the latest polls are simply too close to call), not only my compatriots in the UK but also 2 million British people living and working in other EU countries will no longer be citizens of the EU.

This is making me extremely worried on a personal level. As “expats” (a term generally used for immigrants who happen to be European!) we may well have our residency, health care, work and pension rights taken away. To add salt to the wound, those of us who left the UK more than 15 years ago don’t even have the right to vote in a referendum in which we have the most to lose.

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Our plight has been totally ignored in the UK during the increasingly hysterical debate about the EU concerning immigration, which is the key argument of the “Leave” campaign (strong enough to put them several points ahead last week.) “Freedom of movement” is constantly treated in the British media as if it only happens one way – into the UK. Nobody ever mentions that almost as many of us have benefitted from it over the years crossing the Channel away from the White Cliffs of Dover.

There are for example an estimated 800 000 British retired people living in Spain. Do we really want to swap a lot of very good (and cheap!) Polish and Romanian tax-paying nurses who care for our sick and elderly in the UK for hordes of often elderly expats who will no longer be welcome where they currently reside ?

This point is never raised in the campaign, but will start to be a major issue if Brexit happens. There are already sombre voices to this effect. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime minister said only last week that British people living in Spain couldn’t expect to continue to enjoy the same rights should the UK leave. The same in France. Why should citizens of a country which has voluntarily left the EU continue to enjoy the benefits of that club ? If you leave a gym you can’t expect to still use the facilities.

On a deeper level, the debate is worrying because for months now the overwhelmingly Europhobic press (13 million newspapers sold a day in Britain so they have considerable clout !) – has been peddling the idea that Britain is being invaded and suffering from “freedom of movement.” The leader of UKIP Nigel Farage bought out a frankly nasty poster last Thursday showing hundreds of refugees from Syria (the UK has only taken in 2,000 compared to 1 million in Germany) pandering to the fears and xenophobic tone of the campaign.

Should we leave the EU, we may well also be denying this right to future generations of young British people. They will no longer be able to do what I was fortunate enough to do 30 years ago – live my life as a truly European citizen in another EU country and be treated exactly the same as a national.

I have always been proud of my country and its immense contribution to European and world history. If my compatriots vote to leave, I will be applying for a French passport on Friday - with no guarantee whatsoever that I and hundreds of thousands of us will get one. I will also feel ashamed that it is my country which may well have started the disintegration of the European Union, something we take for granted and which we should all be much more proud of.


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