Tea and Sympathy Won’t Cut It

, by Jenny Hayhurst

Tea and Sympathy Won't Cut It
Source: britishineurope.org

Berlin, February 2018. The city’s sparse streets are bitterly cold; the continent is in the grip of a vicious icy snap. People have looted their wardrobes for every ounce of warmth imaginable, wrapping so many scarves around any exposed skin that it becomes impossible to recognise faces. On a Wednesday evening, several of these bulky, anonymous figures make their way to an address in the north-east of the city, cautiously withdrawing one exposed finger to ring the bell.

Upstairs, they file into the apartment, forming an orderly queue to unpeel the many layers of winter clothing. Glasses steam up as brief hugs and handshakes are exchanged. The procession makes its way to the corner of a kitchen, where mugs of black tea with milk are being distributed into grateful hands. English fills the air: a familiar, homesick babble that grows gradually louder with the arrival of more guests.

A man is passing around slim blue leaflets with a solemn look on his face. Papers are shuffled, introductions made. The variety of backgrounds and experiences is staggering: “I’m a lawyer,” says one member. Another teaches English to small children. “I work in logistics.” “I’m a charity worker.” “I’m a student.” Translators. Filmmakers. Academics. Musicians. Parents. Grandparents. Children. This is just a small section of the estimated 107,000 British citizens who live in Germany, each and every one of whom has his or her own story to tell. The round complete, the blue leaflets are turned over. Die deutsche Staatsbürgerschaft: applying for German citizenship.

This is a meeting of Berlin-based members of British in Germany. Since the June 2016 referendum, a coalition has been forming from one corner of Europe to the next, bringing together British nationals who live abroad and whose lives, rights, and livelihoods are seriously threatened by Brexit. With over 35,000 members, the aim of British in Europe is to protect the futures of the 1.2 million British citizens living in the EU27. To this end, the group works closely with its sister organisation, the3million, which has been lobbying tirelessly on behalf of the three million EU citizens currently living in the UK.

Surprisingly for such an international endeavour, the language barrier has been closer to home. Who makes up the group called British in Europe? In answering the question, English native speakers are caught between a rock and a hard place. “Brits abroad” conjures up unappetising thoughts of stag nights in Prague, stories of which turn listeners’ faces every colour of the Union Jack. For some, “expats” smacks of floppy-haired elites swaggering around some Swiss ski resort. Both terms imply an inward-looking, caricatured Britishness: the kind that calls for an un-ironic stiff upper lip as it throws itself off a cliff, jumps from a plane without a parachute, cuts off its nose to spite its face…or whichever Brexit metaphor you prefer.

Here in Berlin, it’s a different story. One member is recalling how he left Britain for Germany following the Thatcher government’s austerity politics. Many moved for love and have raised bilingual families here. One man came even before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The youngest in the room have never doubted for a second the frictionless marriage between British and European identity, using their EU freedom of movement to pursue their hopes, dreams, and passions across the continent. Roots are easy to put down and hard to dig up.

That the success story of these EU migrants underwent a Brexit-shaped plot twist will come as no surprise. Yet amid talk of trade deals and negotiations, the human face of Brexit goes unnoticed too often. The people sitting around this Berlin kitchen table form part of the largest single national group affected by Brexit. An estimated 60% of them were denied a vote in the referendum. Since then, their rights have been auctioned off in the negotiations that concluded on 8 December 2017. Back in the UK, one member of British in Germany was violently confronted in a pub and accused of abandoning his homeland.

If the December agreement is followed to the letter, British citizens in the EU27 will find their freedom of movement – as well as all the rights this implies – curtailed to one “host state.” The impact on jobs will be catastrophic, with cross-border workers, freelancers, and young people worst hit. This is not a small group of people: the vast majority of British in Europe are of working age, and cross-border employment is becoming more and more the norm, especially for a start-up generation who have been raised to think outside border-shaped boxes. What is more, the UK Government’s introduction of a “settled status” registration and residency scheme for EU citizens living there post-Brexit means that British nationals in Europe could also face a complicated and fallible registration process. The negotiations have also endangered the mutual recognition of qualifications, which could spell disaster for established professionals and young people alike.

British in Europe has been fighting the good fight since the start. A team of volunteers has bundled their expertise to lobby politicians at the highest level in London, Brussels, and beyond. Public demonstrations such as the This Is Our Home march on the British parliament, organised with the 3million, have helped highlight the immediate threat to over four million people’s rights. Important steps have already been taken and the political will on the part of some politicians to protect these citizens’ rights should not be underestimated. But like all things Brexit, there are no easy answers. The difference here is that side-stepping the question pulls the rug out from under people’s everyday lives.

Back to the little blue leaflets. Under German law, obtaining dual nationality with a non-EU state is not possible, with the exception of two countries: the UK is not (yet) one of them. Even if all the other boxes are ticked – language requirements, sufficient funds, time spent in Germany, integration into German society – British nationals in Europe who apply for German citizenship post-Brexit could be forced to renounce their British passport and face rising restrictions on EU migrants’ access to the UK. Where does that leave caring for elderly parents? Students studying abroad? And ultimately, where does it leave individual identities, opportunities, and futures?

Despite these existential questions, the mood in Berlin on this February evening is determinedly positive. The outcome of Brexit is not set in stone, nor is the question of these citizens’ rights done and dusted. It is both un-British and un-European to give up now, to sit back and leave such fundamental issues to men in suits behind closed doors. Every single one of us should challenge the loss of our fellow citizens’ rights. Every single one of us should stand up for the positive impact of immigration in our communities. Every single one of us should demand that Europe stands up for its citizens, regardless of how they take their tea.

British in Europe is run and funded entirely by volunteers. Donate your money, lend your time, and add your voice to the campaign to protect citizens’ rights post-Brexit.

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