They say that grieving is a process. This week, after two years of denial about Brexit and what it would mean for me and my family, this week, it really sunk in. I woke up jet lagged halfway around the world and listened to Theresa May saying that it was official government policy to end free movement for EU nationals.
Were it not for free movement, I would probably never have met my wife. How many other couples are in the same boat?
She came to the UK on an EU passport from South America, in 1995 with a plan to study. She could have gone anywhere in Europe. As with many immigrants, despite having been a teacher in her home country, and being completely fluent in English, she took any job she could find to support herself through her masters.
She started out serving tea in Kew Gardens then would get up up at 5am to work in duty-free shops at Heathrow. Six years later, she was appointed as a director of a multimillion-pound food importer and distributor managing a team of people. Her story is not unique. Another immigrant friend, started out from nothing and now runs a hugely successful nursery in my area.
The government is obsessed about reducing “low-skilled” immigration. They never acknowledge that those who fill these low-skilled jobs from the EU may be hugely overqualified but often end up working their way up in organisations or running their own businesses, like my wife and our friend did.
Immigrants frequently take the lower-paid jobs that Brits shun, knowing that hard work and persistence can pay off. I wonder how MPs would cope if suddenly all EU nationals that worked in the Commons team rooms and the bars or who cleaned their offices upped sticks and went back to their home countries tomorrow?
The reaction from British business to the government’s new proposals was damming. May never looked at the facts before claiming we “have” to end free movement from the EU. A recent study by Oxford Economics concluded that the average UK-based migrant from the rest of Europe contributed approximately £2,300 more to the UK public finances in 2016/17 than the average UK adult. There is no evidence of a drain on public services from EU nationals in the UK, and there is no evidence that immigration from the EU pushes down wages. But telling the Tory heartlands that the government will end free movement is all about throwing out red meat to the floating voter in marginal seats. The kind of people who complain about there being too many eastern Europeans in the UK, while forgetting who picked the vegetables that sit next to their Sunday roast.
I have benefited from freedom of movement myself – when I lived in France twice. Living there opened up my horizons, and career opportunities. Many cabinet ministers have not taken these opportunities themselves, so they do not know what it means to take it away from those who have done. May did not study in Europe thanks to the Erasumus programme and has never lived abroad. I highly doubt she has any desire to live in Spain when she retires after decades of dreary winters in this country. Yet millions of people will have had their dreams of retiring to the Costas or to France shattered by this week’s announcement.
The prime minister will never understand the excitement and wonder of moving to a new country, fending for yourself and learning another language.
When I knocked on doors to campaign for Remain, I met entire households who had built lives in this country after moving over from Europe, but were denied the chance of voting in the EU referendum. Yet Brexit and ending free movement to the UK now has profound consequences for EU nationals who want to move back home if their spouses are British and cannot go with them. British nationals in Spain are giving up their own passports and nationality to become Spanish because of fears of what ending free movement means for them.
Our children will never have the same life chances that my wife and I have had thanks to free movement. Confirmation that we will no longer have it has lead me to move this week from denial to anger. Anger that freedoms which have been so fundamental to my life have been ripped away from the next generation.
Perhaps if May had experienced for herself, the life-changing opportunities that free movement can bring for people like my wife and I, she wouldn’t have sacrificed it for the sake of winning a few more seats at the next general election.
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