Finding myself as one half of an international couple with a dual nationality baby just at the point in which the UK began the messy process of extricating itself from the EU was, quite frankly, poor timing.
As Brexit looms into sharper focus, it’s clear that what would have been an easy story of girl meets boy and both have automatic right to reside has become the kind of complicated narrative that most of the rest of the world has to deal with when finding love with someone from abroad.
This reality check shines light on the ease with which British people have been able to meet and mate with Europeans in recent decades, and how this compares to the immigration process for others. Several of my friends have partners from outside of Europe, and I’ve watched them face the gruelling process of immigration applications, spouse visas, and forced separations. I’ve seen money scrimped and saved or borrowed to pay for the regular renewal fees, NHS surcharges, and astronomically expensive immigration lawyer costs. There has been marriage made necessity, dossiers of personal information sent to be poured over by immigration staff, and nail-biting moments when the future of two people who want to be together hangs in the balance of bureaucratic decision.
The recent and ongoing discoveries about the Home Office’s human rights violating behaviour show that people of colour and those from parts of the world formerly invaded by the British face a very different reality of institutional racism and colonial violence to the problems which could be faced by EU citizens in the future. However, what is clear is that we are experiencing a moment of national definition when it comes to immigration. Things will not be as they have been, whatever is agreed in the lead up to March 29th. Our attitudes to immigration have changed. From cockroaches to go home vans to citizens of nowhere – we have legitimised xenophobia on the public stage.
So where does this leave those who wish to make a life in the UK? In our case, despite well-meaning but deeply troubling assurances that we’d be OK as my partner is the ‘right’ type of immigrant, or that it’s not people like him who are the ‘problem’ – I don’t feel that reassured.
I have a very real sense of doubt that the UK offers a future in which we’ll both be able and welcome to live in the same place. Being as we are from two different countries, where we live is not an open and closed decision. We’ve considered our futures in both nations and put the different respective offerings on the table to be picked over. In September, we opted to move ourselves and our baby to the Spanish capital.
This decision is based in part on the as yet unknown consequences of Brexit and some of the known implications of the change in attitudes towards immigration. But it’s also based on the concrete certainties relating to the series of bad choices made in Britain in recent years. Childcare, even in Madrid, is significantly cheaper than in England. For full-time nursery care in London, we would have needed to find somewhere in the region of £300 per week. In Madrid, full-time care at non-state subsidised nursery costs around €400 per month.
As the old cliché goes, having a baby can change your priorities and indeed it changed mine. I knew that I wanted a different pattern to my working life, but retraining in the UK meant adding close to ten thousand more onto my already substantial student debt, while my salary would only just cover childcare costs.
I’m currently studying the Spanish equivalent of a PGCE, at a cost of €1,500. The severe issues around recruitment and retention in the UK education system are well known, as is the volume of teachers haemorrhaging from the profession. In Spain, the picture is different. Secondary schools are harder to get a job in; there are far greater numbers of qualified teachers and securing a role in a state school means taking part in lengthy and complicated entrance exams. Like any education system it’s far from perfect, and there are large numbers of temporary teachers on rolling contracts moving schools each year. But working conditions have been controlled through a combination of unions and public sector protections, and, by law, teachers can only teach 20 hours of classes per week.
I know that Spain is not the land of milk and honey. I know that for many it’s an extremely tough place to live. It’s a nation facing its own serious economic challenges, the lived legacy of a generation of young people who have faced worklessness, and the fallout of years of economic downturn and brutal austerity. It is also grappling with its own problems when it comes to attitudes around migration and the rise of the extreme right. I also know that we are operating from a position of privilege in being able to choose where we live, and being in the extremely fortunate position of having jobs in fields where there is relative security.
But Spain has made choices which make the immediate future for us more liveable. Education is accessible. Childcare is more affordable. Working life – at least in some fields and industries – is controlled so that a balance can be struck between earning and living. Crucially, we have a greater certainty of being able to reside there into the future than we do in England.