A record number of 139,000 EU citizens left the United Kingdom in 2017. Many of them cited “not feeling welcome anymore” as one of the reasons for uprooting and leaving. Those who campaigned for leaving the EU often produce survey data showing that Britain is one of the most welcoming countries in Europe. They say that EU citizens who contemplate leaving the UK are simply hypersensitive or overreact.
This raises the question why despite surveys showing a positive attitude towards migration EU citizens feel unwelcome. There seems to be a strange disconnect. The answer to this conundrum is simple though: perception.
I arrived in the UK from Germany in the summer of 1998 at the height of Cool Britannia. No place on earth was able to compete with Great Britain then: music, laid back attitude, work/life balance, tolerance, and openness towards new people and ideas.
During my first 18 years in the UK I experienced very little hostility. Yes, once there was this old couple in a restaurant behind me discussing whether I was German concluding: “They are not all bad, you know.” On four occasions I was greeted with a Hitler salute and I had to endure the odd goose-stepping incident over the years. Not a lot though over a period of 18 years and I definitely never felt that I had to justify my existence in the UK. I was just one of the 65 million people on this island busy working, spending time with my family, holidaying in Norfolk and watching football on the weekends.
This all changed in the run up to the referendum. In the mornings my carefree journey to work suddenly turned uneasy. Walking past the newsagent, looking at the papers, I realised I am not one of the 65 million but that I am one of the others - an EU immigrant. Suddenly I was one of those who was to blame for wage stagnation, unemployment, rise in sexual and violent crimes, austerity, the demise of curry houses and traffic jams, as well as the NHS, housing, welfare, and school crisis. Front page after front page told me it was people like me, immigrants, who caused all the ills of the UK.
When the referendum campaign was in full swing I hoped that politicians would stand up for me. I hoped they would debunk this nonsense. I was proven wrong. While Vote Leave and Leave.EU worked hand in glove with the press fostering anti-immigration sentiments, the Remain side kept silent on that topic focussing all their energy on the economic benefits of the EU.
During the campaign I kept telling myself that these views about me and my fellow three million EU citizens were just those of a minority, pushed by the conservative and right wing press, aided by some unsavoury misguided politicians.
The referendum result then felt like a kick in the stomach. Of course, I knew that not everyone who voted Leave believed the migration myths but how could I tell who did? I felt alone; I felt rejected by the country I love, the country I embraced and had made my home. Suddenly every other person on the street was potentially one of those who voted Leave because they agreed that people like me, EU citizens, are the root cause of everything that was going wrong with the UK.
It has been two and a half years now since David Cameron announced holding the EU referendum. Not much has changed since. As confirmed by a recent Home Affairs Committee report there still has not been a real debate on immigration. The UK government has dragged its heels. Meanwhile, influential politicians like Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees Mogg, Dominic Raab and Robin Walker continue to use this vacuum to further fuel the anti-immigration sentiment.
Thus, please forgive us EU citizens when we say we feel unwelcome, when we pack our bags and leave, and when we are not convinced by survey results telling us we are welcome. Our perception is different and the wounds caused by the unexpected and unjustified attacks on us by both the press and some senior politicians will take years to heal. The UK Government’s avoidance of debate, the continued indifference shown by the wider public on how EU citizens are portrayed and even the current Remain campaign’s uneasiness around us EU citizens specifically are not helping to change our perception.
What we need is for the British public to stand up, for British politicians to stand up, for British public figures to stand up and say: “Stop! Enough!” We need to see that the UK of 2018 is as welcoming and open as it was in 1998 when I arrived. We need you, British EU citizens’ champions, to show us and the rest of world that the Great Britain of 2018 has not changed from Cool Britannia to Cold Britannia and that our perception is wrong.
We need people like you, people willing to be an EU citizens champion.