The EU Referendum is probably the most significant political event there will ever be in my life. Bigger than any general election I have ever voted in, bigger than the electoral reform referendum a few years ago. It is also the one that will have the greatest impact on my life personally and I say that as a true believer in voting in every election I can.
I think that, for most people, the way they will vote is a gut reaction, not a rational one. In many ways I guess I am not different when I say that this is an emotional vote for me.
But to say it is emotional doesn’t even really cover how I feel – it is a personal vote. In all honesty, I feel like the leave argument is a personal slight against my family and my community. To reject membership of the EU is also to reject many of the things that have benefited my life.
Let me explain.
I was born in England to British parents and have lived most of my life here. Nevertheless, as someone who grew up in the 90s and came of age in the 2000s, I have personally benefited from open borders, educational grants and money given by the EU to projects and communities around me. It goes even beyond that, though. There is a significant amount of EU-originated legislation that also benefits me (and you) imperceptibly – the ECHR, strong consumer protection, strong privacy protection and, for all its alleged neoliberal faults, the tendency to come down in favour of the people, not corporations or wayward elites.
But this is still the rational argument – a good argument, in my opinion, but one that has been discussed thoroughly elsewhere in words better than I can put forward. Like I said, for me this is personal.
In the mid-2000s, I went to Europe to study – visa free and with an Erasmus grant, courtesy of the EU. After the 12 months were up, I returned with a French boyfriend (now husband), who was (is) intelligent and hardworking, but had few qualifications and no job prospects. He came here not just because he loves me, charming as I am, but also better employment opportunities and the chance of career progression with less red tape. He was an economic migrant, if you will.
After a couple of low skilled positions, he got a job in the accountancy department of a UK firm and has moved up to a more skilled IT job. He was employed, though, because he is bilingual – the organisation was unable to find a Brit with the requisite skills. He is a net job creator as, had he not already been here, the job he is now in, which contributes taxes to the treasury and money into the economy as a consumer, would not exist in the UK. It would have gone to a French person in France.
Then there is the community I live and work in.
“Multicultural” has become a dirty word, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. I see no problem in having many cultures living side-by-side and that is how my community is. My neighbours are German, Russian, American and British. In the wider neighbourhood, they are Portuguese, Polish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Romanian, African (not sure which countries, I’m afraid) and, I’m sure, other nationalities.
At church, when I teach Sunday School, the children are Polish, British, Franco-Irish, Anglo-Japanese, and East Timorese. The last group fled the country seeking refuge and asylum here from the terrors of their home country.
At work, we have a significant number of EU citizens, who all contribute to our economy. And on and on it goes.
When I hear people say that foreigners are taking our jobs, that they are ruining our communities and changing our country, what I hear is that you hate, or at the very least resent, the people who I know and love. My friends, my family, my colleagues.
When I hear people say that people speaking languages other than English in public makes them feel like they are no longer in England, what I hear is that you are suspicious of my neighbours, of the kids at church, of me.
And when I hear them say that we must leave the EU to take back control or our country and stop mass migration, what I hear is that you want to tear my community and my home apart.
For me, these are real people who are a huge part of my life. They are not figments summoned as bogey men who push up house prices, take jobs and steal benefits.
Reassurances that Europeans living here won’t have to get visas or won’t be deported – and that we won’t suddenly be inundated with angry expatriate retirees now forced to return from the costas – do not wash with me, because, frankly, we don’t know. We do not know what will happen to people who have enjoyed the freedom of movement offered under the EU, should we leave it, in the same way that we don’t know whether we will need visas to travel, whether we will face trade barriers, how we will negotiate with the US, China, India, or whether all the people who work at the Mini factory (which I live just by) will lose their jobs.
I support our membership of the EU, because I have seen the benefits personally in my life and I acknowledged their influence in a wider sense too. But even if I hadn’t and didn’t, I at least know that this leap into the dark is a huge risk. A terrifying risk.
The EU is not perfect, but I do not believe that we will be better off outside it. I will certainly be worse off if we leave, personally, and I think you probably will be too.
(main image: MPD01605 on Flickr)