It was an easy question, at least from the perspective of the radio presenter who asked it. “So would you apply for a British passport if this would allow you to stay in the country?” The scene took place Monday early afternoon, at Western House in Central London, right next to Oxford Circus. I had been invited to share some of my experiences as a European in a post-referendum Britain, on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2, and there we were. Right at the heart of the question.
Imagining that the European Freedom of Movement could be restricted or even revoked after a British EU-exit, would I still want to live in this country and, secondly, would I apply for British citizenship in order for me to be able to stay? It´s an interesting thing to think about, especially for me. So far, I have merely seen the outcome of the referendum as an unexpected turn in British history. I have watched the pound crash, Cameron resign, EU-Commissioner Hill step down. Within days, Boris Johnson was knifed, George Osborne dumped his austerity goal and Nigel Farage quit.
As a journalist, I watched it with fascination – seldomly, we get the chance to witness decades happening in a couple of days – but I haven`t really contemplated on what all this means for me personally. I have been in the UK for three years now (four if you count the year that I did at the London School of Economics in 2011) and I always liked it here.
I find it disappointing that a country with so much potential is now slowly dismantling its reputation in the world, its relevance as Europe’s leading financial center, its relationship to Europe. Of course, from a journalist point of view, this is as exciting as it gets. But from a personal perspective, do I still want to be here?
The huge amount of racist incidents since the referendum has clearly not helped. These days, you watch videos in which Brits are telling Europeans to leave their country. You read about insulting behaviour on trains and trams, in streets and restaurants.
The more worrying to me though is the debate about Europeans living in the UK and the question of whether they will be allowed to stay, should the UK really trigger Article 50 and sever its ties with the EU. For a long time, we were told (and happily believed) that nothing would change for those who are already in the country, that there would possibly be grandfathering of those arriving between now and the formal exit.
However, over the course of the past days, the debate has changed a little. Theresa May, currently Interior Minister and one of the favorites for the job of Prime Minister Cameron, alluded that she might be using the Europeans currently living in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations in Brussels.
On the Peston Show, May stated: “What’s important is there will be a negotiation here as to how we deal with that issue of people who are already here and who have established a life here and Brits who’ve established a life in other countries within the European Union. (…) There’s no change at the moment, but of course we have to factor that into the negotiations.” Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made similar comments on Monday.
Although May and Hammond were criticised heavily for what they said – not only by Remain-supporters but also by Leave-campaigners – I guess these comments give us a bit of a foretaste how the negotiations between the UK and the EU turn out once the UK officially starts the divorce proceedings. May and Hammond have made clear that they might want to use the approximately three million Europeans currently living in the UK as bargaining counters. (According to the FT, May’s team rowed back on Tuesday, stating that “Her position is that we will guarantee the legal status of EU nationals in Britain as long as British nationals living in EU countries have their status guaranteed too.”)
Given that the negotiations will not start for a while, I find this development deeply worrying. With comments like these, and the amount of racist incidents that have been reported since the Brexit vote, the UK has already changed dramatically. To me, it seems to be a less friendly, less open place to live in. I know that it all depends on the outcome of the negotiations so I think there is no need for premature panic. But – many of my European friends share my worries and some of us fear that the climate will become more heated once the divorce talks are under way.
A long answer to a short question. Would I apply for a British passport, in some years from now, and give away my German passport that allows me to travel to a record 177 countries, visa-free, according to most recent edition of the Visa Restrictions Index? I don`t know. Maybe not. Hopefully, there will be an alternative solution to this.