THE BLOG

What A Time To Have No Voice

30/05/2017 16:25
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

I sit in a café in Berlin, talking to my friend Jane about the forthcoming UK elections. She is a Londoner living in Germany, I am a German living in the UK. Neither of us will be able to vote.

In the past, this didn't matter: I paid my taxes in the UK, voted in local elections, had faith in British common sense when it came to national party politics.

In the year since the referendum, everything has changed. Government rhetoric and a mostly hostile press have turned me from a fully integrated citizen into a foreigner, immigrant, someone who is at best tolerated. And sometimes told: "get citizenship or get out". An astonishingly hostile approach from the EU's biggest exporter of migrants, with about five million Britons, or 8% of UK citizens, living abroad.

Immigration has become the dominant issue of this election, and the government's approach has been to wield the stick rather than the carrot: there is no talk about improving the structural weaknesses that are responsible for insufficient British talent hitting the job market, there is only talk of cutting immigration down to the tens of thousands. Which currently would leave Britain with millions of unfilled jobs.

On a personal level, this election is crucial to both Jane's and my future: what will be the fate of nearly five million people who are directly affected by the outcome? I may not have a vote - but I have a worried husband who asks me who to vote for. My response: vote for those who vow that Brexit should not alter the daily lives of five million EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU. And who will do their utmost to settle this issue first and in a separate agreement.

This is an election unlike any other, where past allegiances don't count. Where millions of people are disenfranchised, their fate rarely discussed compassionately and rationally. And we should matter: many of us are becoming British citizens, most of us have British relatives who are able to vote.

I have become a reluctant activist, part of a new grassroots organisation to protect EU citizens' rights, the3million. Those of our over 32,000 members who are getting British citizenship have mixed feelings. "Since the referendum, it feels less like something that I want to do, but rather like something that I have to do in order to secure my future - and my future rights - here," says Kristina from Sweden.

Brexit is a new lens through which we view politics. It is bringing together unlikely allies, uniting EU and non-EU citizens - people like Peter Spiegel, news editor of the FT who comments on the Tory manifesto proposal to tax companies employing non-EU immigrants: "As a non-EU migrant worker, I may have to recuse myself from editing this story. #LegalAlien."

We all hear the message loud and clear: you are now all foreigners and we will curtail your existing rights as much as we can. This is not the message of the majority of British society, but it is the message of the governing elite. As divisive at this is, it has prompted tentative alliances between EU and non-EU citizens, to support each other and to oppose defamation and discrimination. And we are not the only ones who feel their opinion doesn't count.

Dutch-born the3million member Monique Hawkins got citizenship a week ago and although very pleased to be able to vote, she says: "since I don't live in a marginal constituency, my voice is effectively not heard. I would prefer a form of proportional representation where every vote in the country counts equally."

One of Europe's oldest democracies is in trouble. We need nuance, grownup debate, compromise, rather than a binary "you lost, we won" attitude. Britain has 20 years of structural neglect to make up for. Blaming foreigners and using the language of war will do nothing to help us prosper. May is no Churchill and the EU is not the enemy.

Proportionate representation and a fair, free press would restore my faith in the country I call my home.

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