The Brexit vote and the immigrant


This is not the kind of post you’re expecting from me. But I feel the need to make my position in the current political situation clear to myself and to anyone who’s interested.

On 23 June 2016, Britain voted to leave the EU by 52-48%. This result will have far reaching consequences for this country that will take decades to resolve, whatever happens next. This means that my position in this country will remain less secure than it was before that day. Here is why.

I am an EU immigrant. Although this has been the case for 24 years now, I had never thought of myself as an immigrant until the Referendum campaign got into full swing. In the final few weeks, the Leave campaign explicitly turned its attention towards immigration, and suddenly immigrants from the EU were blamed for practically every problem in the country. Of course this blame is grossly misdirected, but I felt it directed at me.

The events following the Referendum result didn’t make me feel any better. Incidents of racism and xenophobia increased dramatically. The social media aphorism rings true: ‘Not all Leave voters are racists, but the racists now think that 52% of the country agrees with them’. Some of that xenophobia was directed at me and people like me. Remain voters, watching this unfold, felt bereft of the country they believed they lived in. I felt that too, very keenly.

A few days later, Theresa May started her campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party. She made it clear that she intended to use my position in this country as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with Europe. She was willing to play politics with people’s lives and condemn them to years of uncertainty. MPs voting overwhelmingly to advise against this policy but the government refused to take their advice on board. The fact that May’s position is now acceptable at the highest level of British politics is deeply worrying. It is a sign of what may come.

Because I have been here for so long, people assume that I will be fine. After 5 years in the UK, you qualify for Permanent Residence, so surely that should be easy for me? Well, it isn’t. The ins and outs are complex, and the immigration lawyer we spoke to thinks my case is ‘interesting’. It’s never good to be ‘interesting’ when it comes legalities. If you really want to give yourself a headache and work out what it involves, you can go and look at the form people have to fill in to prove their Permanent Residence. There are 85 pages of it, and applicants have to work out for themselves which pages do and do not apply to them.

Even though my own position is likely to be clarified in the near future, I still feel keenly for other people like myself. I now know what it feels like to be an immigrant and not wanted in a society I consider to be my own. If this whole thing has done anything, it has put me firmly in the shoes of people regarded as ‘other’, whether that be people with a European accent or people of any minority group. I will now be their advocate, whatever my own status in the country.

The fallout of the Referendum is much wider and deeper than this, though. The result has made obvious a number of fault lines that fragment this country. Whatever happens next, politics in Britain will never be the same.

Make no mistake. Othering human beings, deliberately blaming whole groups for the injustice you suffer, and treating them differently from everyone else is a known phenomenon. It has made for some terrible events in history. It is called fascism. And because of how the Referendum campaign was run and because of its result, the far right is now a real force in British politics.

It is abundantly clear that whatever is done about the result of this referendum, nobody is going to get out of it what they want. The Leave side never had a unified vision in the first place. People voted Leave for a wide variety of reasons, from a crude desire to kick out all the foreigners to an idealistic dream of rebuilding this country independent from the EU’s neoliberalism. What will actually happen is anyone’s guess, but it is likely to anger a lot of people.

The Remain side would still like all of this to go away. They (I would say ‘we’ if I’d had a vote in this, but of course as an ‘immigrant’ I didn’t) are desperately looking for a way to save the situation and return to the status quo. But of course, you can’t turn back the clock.

The Referendum has changed everything. Even now, the British economy has taken a hit, just because of the uncertainty following the vote. This uncertainty is unlikely to go away in the short term, and a recession is likely. History shows that recessions are often followed by an increase in authoritarian tendencies. Emboldened by the Referendum result, the right wing of politics is likely to dramatically increase its support, even if there is a general election in the short term. Without strong leadership with a bold new story for the Left, there is little to counterbalance that trend.

If the result of the Referendum is ignored, in whatever way, many Leave voters will not take that lightly. They will flock towards the parties that led them to victory in the Referendum. A hardening of the right wing seems likely in that scenario as well.

If we get as far as negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit, the EU will understandably and justifiably work for its own interests and its own preservation. It will not be inclined to give Britain a deal that is easy on its economy. Further economic downturns will then inevitably be blamed on the EU, which won’t make it any more popular in Britain. Again, recession and a trend to the right is likely.

None of this is pretty. I can’t see a scenario where the right wing in British politics is not boosted by the Referendum and its aftermath. With the atmosphere in the country as grim for immigrants as it is, that doesn’t bode well for me.

There are a lot of things short of forced deportation that you can do to make life in a country impossible for someone. All it takes is finding yourself among neighbours who don’t want you living among them. And there are a whole raft of rules that can retrospectively be applied to people who are considered undesirable.

Is that likely to happen in the short term? Of course not. But I will be keeping a beady eye on the direction of travel in politics over the coming years.

I will be applying for my Document Certifying Permanent Residence. I even intend to become a British Citizen. It will not be, as I always hoped it would, because I love this country and I feel British as much as I feel Belgian. It will be because I fear what Britain might become, and I feel the need to protect myself from it. That in itself is a tragedy, and may in the end make me question whether I want to live here at all. So meanwhile, I will keep an eye out for nice houses in Antwerp.

I will also do what I can to help bring about a broad coalition of the Left. I think it is the only thing that can stand between us and decades of potentially ugly right wing rule. I want to help shape a bold new story for a tolerant and open future for this country. But I do not take it for granted that such a coalition will actually happen, or that it will win overwhelming popular support. I just hope that it will be enough to steer Britain back from disaster.

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