With only 10 days to go until we are due to vote on our future membership in the European Union, let me throw in my two pennies’ worth. Oh, am I allowed to say “we”? You see, like my friend Lena (read her blog about Brexit), I’m an EU immigrant, and since I haven’t naturalised yet (though I’m working on it), I’m not allowed to vote. But the thing is, I’ve established my life here, I’ve permanent residency (meaning the government can’t kick me out anymore), I will naturalise in the near future, and for all I know I will
stay remain here. And even if only half of that were the case, the vote would still affect me as much as anybody else in this country. So I reckon it’s fair enough I chime in; like it or not.
A note upfront. The below points are all rather extensive. If you are not interested in the background story, just read the last paragraph of each item in the list and you’ll get a good summary of what I intend to say. Also, they are not complete in any sense. They are just the five things that had the most direct impact on my own life, so this may be somewhat different (or not) to those factoid lists of EU membership benefits.
Five things the EU has ever done for me…
A preamble: I’m 30 years old. I’m sometimes told that this means I’m inadvertently unable to compare the Europe we live in today to the pre-EU Europe our parents’ and grandparents’ generation have known. Indeed, my parents hadn’t even met when the EEC was established. I was 7 when the Treaty of Masstricht (which formally established the EU) came into force. I was 9 when borders in the Schengen Area were abolished; and I was 15 when the Euro entered circulation. Yet, as you may guess from the above itinerary, I’ve seen a bit of change in my life so far. You might also be surprised to learn that, like many other young people, I do actually talk to my parents, and perhaps worse still, I tend to occasionally listen to what they have to say.
So much for background. Now what’s the EU ever done for me?
1. No border controls
I grew up in the beautiful city of Freiburg, in South-West Germany, not too far from the French and Swiss borders. With this comes a long history of frequent border-crossing.
As long as I can remember, my dad and us kids would make a fortnightly trip over to the French town of Colmar in near-by Alsace to go shopping in the Cora hypermarket (I wonder if the staff still wear roller skates in-store?). This meant we’d cross the border at least four times a month, sometimes more for various other trips.
I remember very well how, before the Schengen Agreement came into force, this meant queuing at the border (often for 10-15 minutes at a time), repeatedly making sure everybody had their passports with them, having armed border guards curiously peek inside all the windows, etc. You probably know the drill from the last time you entered the UK, which is of course not part of the Schengen Area with its open borders.
Once the Schengen Area came into force, not only did the armed border guards disappear, but so did the queues, the amount of preparation one had to do for a corss-border trip, and the anxiety, added temporal and emotional disincentive to travel that way. When I visit my family at home now, I frequently land in Basel–Mulhouse and just take the bus or train home, like it’s not even a big deal or anything. Likewise, when I go to my dad’s village, I usually travel via Luxembourg; same thing, apart from the different languages it’s often easier to travel through other EU countries now than it would be to land somewhere in Germany itself and then travel to my destination.
Courtesy of my Catalan ex I’ve also undertaken a few multi-day road trips from Wales to Spain. Plan your route and stops to your heart’s contents, without having to worry about the different borders, countries, entry requirements, etc. You get out the map, say here, here and here I want to pass through, sit in the car and go. That would have been quite unthinkable pre-EU; and it gives me a great sense of freedom to be able to just go and do that.
Now of course I also go on holidays (except for Turkey so far always within the EU), and as an aspiring academic I travel to conferences abroad (also so far always within the EU), and here too, EU rules and Schengen have made the whole thing so fantastically easy I barely even have to think about it before I book a train or flight.
OK, let’s cut to the chase. Effectively then, the open borders have saved me a lot of time, hassle and money over the years. But they’ve also done something else: they’ve increased the amount of time I spend in various European countries, and so they’ve brought my repeat custom to these place and increased the way I value the people and cultures I so encounter. Without doubt this has also brought economic benefits to all those countries I now visit without even thinking about it. I’ve also seen a massive increase in inbound tourism and through traffic, both in Germany and (to a somewhat lesser extent) here in the UK.
The thing is, since the UK is one of the only two countries in Europe not part of the Schengen Area, the benefit of this might seem much less tangible to you than it does to me. But consider this: if every time you took a trip abroad, you’d have to go through UK border control twice when leaving and twice when arriving (for every country in which you set a foot on the ground), how much extra annoyance would that cause you? Add all that together for the collective inward and outward travel from any one country and you get an idea of the impact this can have not only on the potential travelers but also the respective economies.
2. Great Education
I first came to the UK after I finished my A-levels in Germany in order to take an English language course in London. I would say that was fairly effective (wouldn’t you think?), and boy was it easy, thanks to the EU right of free movement for the purpose of studying: I just booked the course, a room and flight and off I was. By comparison, many of the friends from outside the EU I’ve made on that course have had to go through a right bureaucratic nightmare to be able to enroll and come here for a few months, and often lost a fair amount of money on useless admin along the way (money they could have needed much more than I, might I say). When I compare the ease with which being in the EU has allowed me to do this to the hassle my non-European friends had to go through, I feel extremely lucky (so much so I wish it would be that easy for everybody). Again, this goes both for inward and outward study: I know tons of people (all the same age or younger than me) who’ve done the reverse and spent some time in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Poland to study their languages and cultures, all with relative ease thanks to the EU.
But wait, that’s not even the big thing. The big thing is what followed that. After I’d lived here for a while (studying, working, …) I decided to go to university. Thanks to EU regulation, I could apply to any university in the EU knowing that they’d have to treat my application the same as everybody else’s. Similarly thanks to the EU, I was entitled to the same support as everybody else. So when I decided to go to Bangor in beautiful Wales, not only did they treat me the same as the other freshers, but I also got a partial fee grant from the Welsh government and a fee loan from Student Finance Wales for the remainder; I wasn’t in the UK for a full 5 years by then so didn’t get a maintenance loan, but neither would I have got one in Germany. With the whopping fees of £9,000 per year right now, going to a UK university without this EU-based entitlement to a fee loan would be pretty much unaffordable to all but a very rich few from the remainder of the EU. And remember, this also goes the other way around too: any British school leaver can apply to any university in the EU, and they will be treated the same in terms of applications, entrance criteria, entitlements, support, etc. etc. I think that’s pretty cool, and it would be a big loss to future generations to take that away from them.
While I haven’t taken advantage of the Erasmus program (so far, anyways), this is also worth a shout out: according to a Guardian article on UK students studying abroad, around 15,600 UK students spent up to year at a university of their choice in Europe as part of their degree. And wait, the best thing: the EU pays for the whole thing! That’s right, British students can get an extra year of free university education abroad, entirely paid for by the EU. This means they can take extra courses, learn another language rather well, learn about a new culture and gain international experience which is a big boon on the employment market after they graduate. In reverse, the universities abroad that take them on benefit from exchange of ideas, growing international ties for their students and academics, and really getting that “international campus feeling” going (of course they also get extra students, including the money they bring). And by the way, Erasmus also has initiatives for doctoral students and researchers, which are an important tool in making sure that British academia is internationally competitive—in many fields cross-border collaboration is the only way to make big advances.
After I finished my BA in Bangor, during which time I also learned to love Wales, the Welsh and the Welsh language, I applied for a masters and then a PhD at UCL. Now that much studying can get quite expensive, and although I’ve been relatively lucky with the family I was born into, I doubt I could have shouldered this myself even with the support of my parents. But thanks to the EU, when I applied for these courses and one of the few AHRC scholarships available for my subject, I knew that my chance to get the financial support to do these courses was down to merit only, and not due to the circumstances (including the country) I just so happened to be born into.
With a bit of luck and hard work, I’ve been able to embark on an amazing educational journey, the doors to which wouldn’t have been open to me had it not been for the EU. I would think it fine if future generations of young British people (and others from the EU) could enjoy the same privilege: to be able to compete for the educational opportunities they choose, at whatever level, anywhere in Europe, and have the same chance to get in and receive support as everybody else, based on their merit alone.
3. Work Anywhere
When I first came to the UK, my plan was to stay only for around four months and then go back home. But once I was here I made a lot of new friends and discovered that I quite liked living here. So, I decided to stay for a while; just like that. The next day, I looked for jobs and sent out a few applications, just like that. A week later, I did a trial shift as a kitchen porter at The Alma in Islington, and they hired me, just like that. Two years and two kitchens later I had worked my way up to chefing (is that 1 F or two Fs, I wonder?), just like that.
Now in case you haven’t noticed, the important thing here is that I was able to do this “just like that”. I didn’t have to worry about a permit, work visa, special papers, or anything. There was neither an incentive nor a disincentive to hire me for my employer, and I was treated just like any other applicant. That’s pretty nice. Of course there’s many jobs I applied for and didn’t get (probably a few hundred), but then that’s always been the same back home before: I’d applied for literally over a hundred apprenticeships to get two offers when I was still in school.
So, there are three scenarios here in which this is of benefit to me and others as workers: First, if I want to live somewhere without having tons of cash stashed away for a year-long holiday, I can just try and find work there (you’d be amazed to hear how many young Brits spend a few years in various European countries teaching English or doing other odd jobs), and have a reasonable chance of getting the job if I’m qualified. Second, if I see my dream job abroad, or think it would benefit my career to get experience abroad, I can apply to that job, no matter what the salary, conditions, my background, etc. As long as I’m the best candidate, I can be safe in the knowledge that if the employer wants to hire me there are no obstacles in the way of me going and taking the job I want. Third, if job prospects in my chosen career (or just in general) are dim (there are very few jobs for academic phonologists to go around every year (-: ), I can now look for work Europe-wide. That means a much higher chance of finding a suitable job, and hence a higher chance of getting a job in my chosen career. I imagine this is also pretty good for employers: you get to choose from many more candidates, and the chance of finding the best person for the job increases as a direct consequence of this, nevermind all the bureaucratic hurdles you avoid compared to what is normally involved in hiring someone from abroad.
4. Health Insurance Abroad
Unfortunately I’ve gotten ill while I was on holiday abroad on more than one occasion. But thanks to the EU and the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), I was able to seek medical attention on the exact same terms as the locals in each of these instances, typically by visiting a walk-in centre or making a GP appointment. For instance this meant paying €10 Euros when I needed to visit the doctor’s in Germany, and paying nothing at all on another occasion when I got pertussis in Catalonia. In each case I just gave them my EHIC, and by some miracle they rearranged whatever cost they had with the NHS, but I didn’t have to worry about a thing; they just treated me the same as everybody else (apart from the occasional language barrier, of course).
It seems that a lot of my friends are not aware of the EHIC scheme, which is unfortunate, but I’d say it is a definite benefit of EU membership if you don’t need travel insurance within the EU (because your national insurance takes care of it via the EHIC if the need arises), and you don’t have to worry about getting ill abroad or any costs that might be incurred as a consequence of this (in fact, even if costs arise for things that the NHS would normally cover, but the system abroad doesn’t, you can often get this refunded once you get home). With more than half of Brits taking a holiday abroad, mostly in the EU (according to ABTA) every year, that’s a direct benefit to the majority of the British public; although one most people probably don’t think about until they get unwell on a holiday unexpectedly.
5. Peace and community
As I’ve mentioned above, I grew up in a region that straddles two other countries, France and Switzerland. In fact, throughout history, and following a number of small and big wars in Europe, my home town has belonged to most of the (historically) near-by countries at one point or another. Surely, if history class has taught me anything about Europe, it is that Europe has been one of the least peaceful, conflict-ridden, power-mad places on Earth for quite a long time. Of course I’ve no knowledge of what it may have been like to live before the Great War or during the time of the two Word Wars. Do I have any fear that that may happen again any time in the near future? Not really. The kind of peace I’m talking about is on an inter-human level: having equal respect, appreciation and love for every human being, no matter what flag their government flies. We are all the same, and the only way we can find true peace with one another is by accepting that and acting accordingly. No one people is better than another, and what the borders of our respective countries are is no more than a historical accident. This is why I’ve always hoped for a “true” Europe of Regions, even though I doubt this will come about in my lifetime.
Even with over 40 years having passed between the end of WWII and my birth, I’ve seen tremendous change in how the different European peoples view and treat one another. When I was a child, it was commonplace to hear our neighbours stereotyped, easily dismissed as different, labelled with racial slurs such as “Scheiß Franzake”, all without very much resistance from the masses. Regional tourism was pretty much non-existent when I was little, and neither was cross-border co-operation. In fact, both Germany and France had a habit of building nuclear reactors directly on their border so that, should a fatal catastrophe ensure, a huge part of the damage would hit the other nation and not their own people. Germany had a lot of immigration post-WWII, from Turks (the so called “Arbeitertürken”), repatriations from those expelled by countries in the East, and many others. They made up a notable part of my peers when I grew up, maybe a quarter of my class at school. When I was in primary school, they were treated by many with nothing but open discontent—in fact, my mother never forgets to remind me that, presumably because my familie’s skin colour happens to be a little darker than most Germans, people used to openly shout at her to go home in the street on occasion. If you want to get a feeling for what I mean, you should watch Pepe Danquart’s Oscar winning short Der Schwarzfahrer (the fare dodger/black rider), which puts across quite well what I felt some people were like. When I finished middle school, the open discontent had gone, but they were clearly still disadvantaged and often presumed to be less trustworthy, less intelligent, etc., and above all noticeably underrepresented in the public sphere (they still are to a certain extent). This has always bothered me, and to this day my heart bleeds at some of these memories. I can hardly even imagine how much worse this must hurt in the hearts of my forebears and those who’ve been at the receiving end.
By contrast, while problems definitely persist, and there is a worrying rise in racism in recent years (directly linked to the make-believe of national pride in my view), this historic antinomy has all but disappeared for the most part. It is heart-warming to look at the German national squad, or in fact those of most central European national teams. When I’m at home I see as many regional tourists from France as I’d never have been able to imagine as a child, and the last time a Frenchman ignored me because I was German is now almost 15 years in the past. Almost all of my friends who have married have married a partner from a different country to their own. There is co-operation across the borders between European countries wherever you look, with common projects, shared economic plans, growing friendship between peoples and a new generation of young people, many of whom don’t even realise that there once was an enmity between them and “the others”. I think that’s beautiful. And I think it shows that on a human level, the EU has been a rampant success. Had it not been for the EU and the developments that came of it, I doubt very much the situation would have changed much from what it was when I grew up.
Let me sum this point up thusly: You and I have done nothing, absolutely nothing, in order to be born into the respective places in which we entered this word, and so we have nothing to be proud of in terms of our nationality. In my eyes, there is no such thing as inherent entitlement based on pure circumstance. Of course it’s fine to say I’m proud of what my government has achieved with this and that, or what progress my country has made in respect to some thing, but to say we must be proud of our nationality? No, that stands only in the way of seeing and treating others with the respect they deserve as our absolute equals. Pride is the antidote to charity, and pretense is a poison for love. In terms of peace between the peoples of Europe and our community then, the EU is great love story. It’s like a marriage between our people. There are rough spots, disagreements, discontentments, things truly difficult, things out of our control, like in any long term relationship. And like in any long term relationship, there are two possible responses to these rough spots: either you give up and walk away with a bruised heart, the worse for it, or you both put in your whole heart, work through it, and your love only grows stronger because of it. Even with all its imperfections, I think the EU has been until now and still can be the latter, and wow the benefit of that to each of our souls.
Here you have the five things that the EU has done for us which have had the greatest direct impact on my short life so far. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence: Without the opportunities, inter-European co-operation and legal co-ordination that the EU provides its members and citizens with, I would not have the education, experience, friends, prospects, security or personal freedom that have made the last ten years of my life worth living.
My appeal to you is simple: when you go to cast your vote next week, think not only of your own emotional, sentimental or historical attachment to an abstract construct of nationality and national pride, but think of the future generations. Recall what massive benefit young people like me have drawn from our membership in the EU, and ask yourself, would you not want your children and their children to have all these same opportunities and more?