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How a Continental European in the UK Feels About the EU Referendum

21/06/2016 18:02 | Updated 21 June 2016

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Along with the 3.3million Europeans from the continent living in the UK, I am unable to vote in the upcoming referendum. It feels frustrating to be kept from participating in an election that might fundamentally change my future. Aside from feeling powerless, I mainly worry about the practical consequences of a potential Brexit.

Seven years ago, I moved to the UK from my native Belgium to read English Literature at university. Although my Belgian friends enjoyed tuition-free higher education and no admission exams, I studied for three A-levels on top of my normal Flemish diploma, and funded my way through my UK degree by working weekends and holidays.

These felt like minor sacrifices in order to live in the country that has always felt more like home to me. After my Master's degree, it made sense for me to continue my career in London. I interned at BAFTA, worked full-time at the BBC, and recently became self-employed.

Mine is only one example of a diverse group of Europeans who swapped their home countries in order to work, study or join families in the UK under the EEA's Right of Free Movement. To be covered by the Right of Free Movement, the EEA citizen has to hold comprehensive health care, and either study, work as employee, work as self-employed person or be self-sufficient/retired. It brings an extraordinary amount of benefits to the UK (100,000 health professionals at the NHS are from other EU countries), but also for UK citizens working and retiring abroad.

In a 2014 study, UCL economists revealed that the 2.1 million European migrants in the UK in active employment made a net contribution of £20billion to UK finances, with tax far outweighing any benefit claims. Yet despite the fact that Europeans contribute to British society in many ways (economically, but also culturally and socially), we can only vote if we become British citizens.

The process of naturalisation currently costs £1,236 per person, with fees set to rise. Apart from the ability to vote, it provides very few benefits on top of the ones already available to European nationals. In my seven years of living here, the thought of applying for citizenship (or permanent residency) had never crossed my mind. Until recently.

With polls hinting at a lead for the Leave campaign, the practical impact of a potential Brexit on daily life has started to crop up in conversations with my European peers. The majority of them would also want to stay in the UK. Our lives have become interwoven with the country we now call home, even though many have not been here long enough to fall within the 5-year permanent residency threshold.

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I realise that I approach this issue from a relatively privileged position. Europeans from the mainland who have only recently moved here or who have families to support might feel even less secure. Romanians and Bulgarians especially agree, since they are subject to stricter immigration rules regarding work permits.

However, since going freelance as a filmmaker and writer, I do wonder whether the lack of job security will be to my disadvantage. The thought of being unable to use my skills in my chosen field of work, or of having to deal with the US-style hunt for employer sponsorship, fills me with dread.

One of the big arguments in the Leave campaign is the concept of taking control of the borders. It is worth noting that just 24% of net migration since 1990 is down to the UK's membership of the European Union. 10 percent have come from Western European countries like Belgium, Germany and Italy. The other 14 percent from countries that have joined more recently, such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania.

I imagine a Brexit scenario with border controls that check new European arrivals' proof of income and intention to return. I picture Europeans who want to stay for longer requiring proof of employment - a major disincentive for those in industries with low job security such as the arts. I envision European students unable to study in the UK, put off by the international tuition fees and no access to student loans.

All of this is speculation, as no country has ever actually elected to leave the European Union. Both the Leave and the Remain campaigns offer no more than elusive hints at future scenarios. The European Union is an institution so tremendous in scale that the debate struggles to relate to our daily lives.

On the continent, the impact of the European Union has always felt more tangible. Many of us grew up a quick drive away from the border with our neighbouring countries. There has always been a stronger sense of solidarity and mobility across countries, languages and cultures on the continent, simply because of the euro, geography and the Schengen-agreement.

However far removed the impact of the EU in the UK might seem, it is important to highlight that the vote will have a significant impact on Britain's ability to have a seat at the table, to trade with the continent, to benefit from extensive EU grants, and to enjoy rights as EU citizens to live and work in Europe.

But it will also have an impact on the 3.3million Europeans whose voices have hardly been represented during the debate. We moved here legally, make extensive efforts to integrate fully, and contribute to British society. Yet our futures depend on a vote in which we cannot take part.

Although I do not have a say in this referendum, I have encouraged those with the right to vote to ask questions and get informed. I hope all British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens take ownership and cast their votes on 23 June. The outcome of this referendum will not only shape their own future, but also that of continental Europeans who now call the UK their home.

HuffPost UK Young Voices is running a month-long focus on the EU Referendum, examining what is at stake for Britain's young people on 23 June and why it's imperative you register to vote and have your say. If you want to have your say and blog on our platform around this topic, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com. Register to vote here.

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