Freedom of movement has been wonderful. It has enriched lives and enriched the UK. It has broken down barriers and opened up opportunities. It has helped cement unity and fellow feeling in a European continent historically torn apart by conflict. Its loss is a tragedy, with a direct impact on the lives of millions. On 1st January, the long fight-back to reclaim it will begin.
The government, deploying its usual mendacious armoury, will assure you that nobody has suffered, that the rights of the 3 million EU nationals in the UK have been guaranteed and that life for them goes on as normal. It will say that the lives of the 1.2m British citizens living in EU countries are largely unaffected but are a matter for host governments. Michael Gove even told BBC Radio 4 Today last week that people would still be entitled to free healthcare and access to the Erasmus programme “for a period”, omitting to say that this grace period would end in less than three weeks.
It doesn’t take more than a few seconds to debunk all this. Read the countless anecdotes from the @the3million or @BritishinEurope; open a copy of In Limbo, or In Limbo Too, which contain story after story of those affected; and what you’ll find is pain, human pain – endured for the most part by people who had no vote in the referendum that was to affect them so directly. Some of the pain is intense; some of it more muted. But all of it is lasting. Families divided. Careers cut short or made harder. Businesses rendered unviable. Goalposts moved. Key workers departed. People told to apply – not always successfully – to be allowed to stay in their own homes. Others forced to choose between love for their parents and love for their spouses, because their sick parents need their help but their EU national partner doesn’t meet the income threshold to be allowed to live in the UK. People afflicted with depression, anxiety, a loss of a sense that they belong anywhere at all, after years of being treated as bargaining chips.
Even for those who acquire settled status in the UK, there is for many that sense of no longer feeling welcome in the country they call home – be it because of personal abuse received in the street or psychological abuse inflicted by the government. Imagine you’re French and living in the UK, listening to talk of gunboats in the English Channel. Imagine you’re German, reading that a UK government “source” has ramped up the misplaced sense of grievance by claiming that Angela Merkel wants “Britain to crawl across broken glass”. Imagine you’re Romanian, with repeated airtime given by our state broadcaster to a man who was happy to say it would be undesirable to have you or any of your compatriots as a neighbour.
Only by reading these stories, one by one, do you begin to understand the scale of what has happened. There is no well deep enough to contain all that damage to the reputation of a UK that I grew up thinking was a tolerant, liberal sort of place. And all of it, all of it, caused by the decisions of our government, citing the Brexit vote as justification. All of it preceded by the promises casually uttered before the referendum by those who now govern us that nothing would change for anyone. All of it glossed over yet again only this week, as if in some perverted celebration of cruelty, by ministers still proclaiming the loss of freedom of movement as though it were some great triumph rather than an attack against us all.
For our children
Then there is the great sea of lost opportunity for those who would one day have sought to work or study in the EU. We have made second-class citizens of our own children. We have forced them to compete with hands tied behind their back with their peers in other countries. Think of all those future job-seekers whose CV won’t be looked at by European employers. Think of the students who won’t take part in the Erasmus scheme. Think of the relationships, the families, that might have been but now won’t be.
In the Brexiteer world, of course, to bemoan the loss of freedom of movement is to be selfish, to be uncaring about the plight of communities that feel beleaguered by waves of immigrants, which have been persuaded that immigrants push wages down, use up much-needed housing, and claim benefits they’re not entitled to. To go on about your own rights is to show how little you care for community, for the local. Some even say that the vote to leave was a vote for the “we” and not the “me”. It’s a beguiling argument, if you buy the myth that to be internationalist in outlook means you can’t also care about people at home.
So enough of the nonsense. It’s not selfish to feel the suffering of others and to want to right the wrong. It’s not selfish to want the best for your family, to want them to learn languages and embrace other cultures, to see them discover that to spend time overseas is often to learn to love home all the more. I look at my children and I feel intense anger at what has been taken away from them. I vow to do what I can to make sure they get it back. And one day they will.