If nothing else, the subject matter of my novel Christobel (published on this website) gives me a vehicle to share my thoughts with the world (well, get them off my chest, anyway) about Europe and Brexit. The book is unashamedly internationalist and pro-European. The characters: Chris and Frieda and her father and grandfather are very much subscribers to the freedom of movement in Europe principle. In fact, so is Chris’s Great Great Granny Christobel, really, as she is living and working in Brussels (symbolically, really) when the catastrophic events of WW1 engulf her.
There is a regular flow of sad stories – infuriating ones to me – published nowadays by The Guardian and other liberal news outlets about people who have settled in Britain and made a life here with their partners and often raised children as British citizens too, but now they are being pressurised, and sometimes compelled, to leave by a heartless Home Office playing the ruthless numbers game in order to try and keep immigration under control.
But what sort of empathy-lacking bureaucrat thinks it’s acceptable to divide families like that? All right; leaving aside the freedom to live where you choose for a moment, it might be argued that the family could uproot, having to give up possibly good jobs, and disrupt children’s lives too, to move to the non-British partner’s home country, but what if
a) that country was dangerous and unstable, or poor, or inhospitable, or
b) it was an EU country that thought: right, two can play at that game; if Britain wants out of Europe and no more freedom of movement, then we won’t welcome immigrants from there into our country either.
So the hapless inter-nationality couples become pawns in a stupid negotiating game. The people in these reported situations (and even some who haven’t been actually threatened with deportation) feel that that’s exactly what they are; they feel extremely insecure. And all because Ukip has played on the populist Other-fearing tendency of some people and engineered a narrow majority vote for Brexit, often simply on the grounds of stopping immigration.
Yes, I can see that perhaps there should be some controls in the future on (single, unattached) people coming into the country because of pressures on services and local jobs and so on, unless they are coming to do vital work that the indigenous population either can’t or doesn’t want to do, and will make a net economic contribution. But it’s cruel to put it mildly to disrupt the relationships of people who meet partners who just happen to be non-British and want to make a life with and even marry them.
What sort of oppressiveness is that, which dictates whom people should fall in love with? Which ordains that we should only form relationships with ‘our’ people, not nasty Johnny Foreigner (and least of all people of a different race)? That way lies the road to authoritarianism. I thought the first half of the twentieth century with its extreme nationalism had taught us that bitter lesson.
And it’s certainly not the behaviour of a welcoming society to turn round and move the goalposts after people have settled here, concocting new draconian rules such as paying for private health insurance or the ‘foreign’ partner earning more than £18,500 in their own right, regardless of how much the British one does. Or having to have lived in Britain uninterrupted for a certain number of years, on pain of deportation if they don’t.
There’s a harrowing case going on at the moment concerning a woman from Singapore who came to Britain in 1988 and has been married to an Englishman for twenty-seven years, no less. They have two British-born sons and a grandchild. She had already been granted leave to remain, but she spent lengthy periods back in her native country looking after her dying parents (as you might reasonably expect a loving daughter to do) and then became a carer for her ill husband too.
But Britain’s compassion-lacking Home Office decreed that because she spent lengthy periods out of Britain (never mind that it was for a good reason) she had forfeited her right to permanent residency. Repeated attempts to reapply for leave to stay failed, until she was arrested like a criminal and incarcerated for a month in a detention centre before being summarily deported back to Singapore, wearing just the clothes on her back and with twelve pounds in her pocket, without even having the opportunity of saying goodbye to her husband.
Well perhaps it’s just me, but I would have thought that natural justice and human rights would suggest that simply having been married to an Englishman for so long, (although it shouldn’t be a matter of length of time) and the fact that she returned to Britain and her family after her parents died, was sufficient entitlement to permanent, un-revocable residency, quite honestly! It’s cases like this, of utter callousness in the dubious cause of simply keeping immigration numbers down, that sometimes make me deeply ashamed of my rightwards-lurching, insular, sometimes xenophobic country.
And returning to the specific EU context: even some government ministers are admitting that whatever Brexit deal Britain manages to secure with the EU, it will probably have to give way to some extent on the question of freedom of movement of people in exchange for continued access to the internal market; and numbers coming into Britain won’t alter very much. In which case, the economic aspects apart, what’s the point of Brexit then?
But if Brexit turns out to be hard and uncompromising; a complete withdrawal with no accommodations at all, as many Brexiters want, it doesn’t bode well for European non-Brits living in Britain or it’s expats, as it prefers to call only British migrants, living on the Continent.
If you’d like to sample the latest published chapter of my novel Christobel, see the blog post preceding this one, Trouble looming. Or if you’d like to begin reading from the beginning, please go the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each successive one from there.