Brexit through a Portuguese window in London
An immigrant’s thoughts on a hate campaign and a historic Leave vote.
When I was in school I learned music playing the European Anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, on my recorder. That’s the kind of small thing that sticks with you as years go by. I catch myself humming it every now and then and realise that, in some way or another, the European Union (EU) has always been a major influence in my life.
I was not born in the EU, but I grew up in it (Portugal joined in 1986, do the math). As a young graduate, I won a paid internship in another EU country of my choice through a program called Eurodyssey. It allowed me to jumpstart a career.
My father had a farm and the EU regulations dictated how much milk he could produce, the amount of cattle he could own and what he should grow. However, I was young and for me the EU meant the opposite of these restrictions. It gave me freedom. I was free and with increasing cheap flights I could go anywhere I wanted.
The EU allowed me to be ambitious and to carry on dreaming even though my country’s financial situation was on a downward spiral. After being made redundant from the newspaper where I used to work, I just packed my bags and hit the road to London.
If this freedom is now something we take for granted, Brexit is here to remind us how fragile it really is. When friends call me now, they are afraid. Most of them came to the UK to pursue their education and attend renowned universities that asked for pricy tuition fees. As Europeans, we paid the same amount as a British citizen (it’s usually double the price for international students, meaning people that come from outside Europe). However, as Europeans we didn’t have the strength of the pound on our side nor the British salaries. Will the loans they have taken be cut off? Will they be sent back to their countries? There are a lot of questions and not that many answers for now.
The referendum’s results seem to have caught us all by surprise, UK government included. To some extent, it seems like a big chunk of people that voted for the Leave option didn’t even know what they were choosing. According to a Google Trend report, immediately after Thursday’s vote Brits flocked to the Internet to ask “What is the EU?”. Hold your mouth open because there is more. Other questions were intellectual delicacies like “Which countries are in the EU?” or “What does it mean to leave the EU?”.
One might think that maybe there wasn’t enough information on the subject, but the accurate explanation is that the situation was oversimplified by the Leave campaigners who reduced it to a matter of us against them. Us, the British people, against them, the immigrants that come to our country and take our jobs. Us, the British people, against them, the EU rulers that tell us what to do.
Reducing a complex situation to a simple good-guy-versus-bad-guy story has always helped politicians win elections. Fear is an endless fuel for racism and bigotry. The EU is flawed because it is made up of people who are flawed. With all its imperfections, it is founded on a dream of brotherhood and I chose to believe in that unity ideal. It is an institution that listened to the insults of Nigel Farage, the gloating leader of UKIP, a party that pushed for the Leave vote, because it is democratic – and that is something to be respected in a world of cowboy superpowers.
The UK, who was in the EU with a ‘special status’ thus not having to abide it the way other member states did, always looked at its European partners with some disdain. I believe that it will pay a high price for its arrogance, as will we who love Britain, who have faith in its greatness and have made it our home. We did not have a voice in this matter, but we will suffer its consequences. And even though both sides will lose, it is clear that now there are two sides. Us and them.