As of today, I am British. I don’t feel much different from yesterday, when I was not British, just German, but I am almost £1,400 poorer than I would have been without being British, and I am finally eligible to vote and stand in the General Elections. Which, after many years’ reflection, I decided was worth the £1,400 in administrative fees. Quite apart from the much anticipated blue passport (my first one was green).
I arrived in this country 21 and a half years ago with nothing much to show for, other than a university degree, a temporary job offer and an open mind. Without the European Union, I would not be here. My law degree would not have been recognised in the UK, and the job offer would not have guaranteed me a right to stay. Of course I might have had a similar career in Germany. It might have been easier, smoother, without the need to learn new idioms, new habits, new social codes. But it would most certainly not have been as enriching.
Free movement is more than just logistic simplification. It is not just about queues at airports. It is about life opportunities, cultural experiences, dialogue and understanding. It is also about adaption and integration – skills you only learn outside your comfort zone. Restricting the freedom to move between countries, therefore, is restricting all these opportunities and skills. It hits hardest those who would bring most to their new residence: the curious, the entrepreneurial, the ambitious. It does little to deter those who come with malicious intent - they will find a way to cross borders illegally.
Freedom of movement is not one-directional: in a Europe without borders, people follow opportunities. Over time, jobs, income and wealth spread more evenly over a large area. Accompanied by free movement of goods and services, and the mutual recognition of degrees and qualifications, free movement of people increases wealth for everyone: those who choose to stay, and those who choose to move.
So, my Eurosceptic friends intersect, what about self-determination and sovereinty? What about preservation of cultural heritage, what about immigration and crime?
Allow me, as a new citizen, to respond with a personal view – a view informed by the experience of a migrant, a former EU bureaucrat, a lawyer working for an international organisation – a view therefore marred by bias.
The European Union was never designed, nor is ever likely to become, a Superstate. Those who fear loss of self-determination or ‘sovereignty’, however defined, overlook the fundamental principle of the European Union: that of subsidiarity. In simplified terms, this principle says that decisions must be taken at the lowest possible level of power. If we think of levels of identity such as family, neighbourhood, town, region, state, country and continent, it makes perfect sense that issues concerning just our neighbourhood, such as the upkeep of the beautiful walled garden in Ravenscourt Park, should be decided by local residents, while the question of a new cycle path along Hammersmith Road is for all residents of Hammersmith and Fulham, or – if part of a longer cycle route across Boroughs, all London residents to decide. Only issues concerning all of Britain are decided in Westminster, and only issues concerning all of the European Member States are decided in Brussels. These are issues which transcend national borders and are of equal importance to all people across the continent. Examples are air and sea water pollution, online commerce, most organised crime, and rules for competition between multinational companies. Greenhouse gases and online fraudsters do not stop at national borders. Delegating the powers to deal with these issues is not a loss of sovereignty, it is crucial cooperation.
Over 61 years, this cooperation has delivered real, tangible benefits to citizens: guarantees of basic workers’ rights, free access to healthcare in emergencies across the EU, the protection of fish stocks from extinction, the introduction of harmonised maximum pollution levels to name but a few. Open borders have led to much lower prices, and much more choice for consumers, across all industries from food to electronics. The single digital market has brought inner-European mobile roaming charges to an end, so you no longer need to switch your mobile data off and desperately search for wifi when you travel. And yes: you don’t need to queue at borders. Within most of Europe, you don’t even notice borders anymore.
Beyond these very tangible benefits, there is the small issue of peace in Europe. Yes, I am going to mention the war! Not because I want to dwell on it, but because I am old enough to remember the bombed-out buildings in my home town Cologne, ninety percent of which was destroyed by British and American bombs in 1944. I am old enough for my mum to remember a childhood marred by fear, starvation and the disappearance of friends. I am old enough to have spoken to survivors of the Holocaust and yes, I have been reminded many times in my new home country of the weight I carry because of my nationality. Nationalism does not simply disappear. Nationalism is mitigated by mutual interdependence, education and understanding. Countries that rely on each other for their wellbeing are more likely to settle conflict by diplomatic means. Extremist tendencies are less likely to prevail in a society that recognises diversity and freedom as its basic principles.
Secondly, immigration and crime.
Surely, you say, open borders have led to the rise of right-extreme tendencies throughout Europe, not least in Germany?
I don’t think this is true, at least not in this direct cause-and-effect way. What causes backlash is the abuse of hospitality. My home town, Cologne, was the setting of one of the most shocking of such abuses, where migrants attacked the weakest members of the society that had offered them refuge. Any such abuse is terrible, and the victims are not just those who were attacked, but also those who were subsequently viewed as potential attackers. Collective guilt, which has victimised many innocent Germans after the war, victimised the majority of migrants who were innocent. The abused host becomes wary of opening the door to the next stranger in need.
This is not the full story though. Abuse of this kind may be unavoidable, but it can be mitigated. Migration requires integration – a willingness on the part of the migrant to integrate, and the facilitation of integration on the part of the host. Integration, at the very least, means learning the host language and respecting customs and rights of the host, even if this requires changing some of the customs learned as a child. To me, this particularly pertains to gender and LGBT equality which were achieved in our society through hard struggle.
Most EU citizens in Britain, and indeed most migrants from anywhere else in the world, respect this requirement of integration. Integration is not a question of ‘foreigners’ versus ‘natives’, it is a question of respect for fundamental rights. For a society to function, this respect is needed from everyone, British or not. Freedom ends where someone else’s rights begin. A society with a functioning legal system, including a strict and non-discriminatory law enforcement mechanism to protect these rights, has a better chance at integrating migrants and mitigating xenophobic tendencies.
Britain has such a system. It could be better, but it exists and is overall robust. I am confident that Britain can cope with open borders, not just for EU citizens, but for those who seek refugee from war or starvation. With goodwill from both sides, migrants integrate, bring skills and create jobs. British people, most of whom descend from migrants, are hospitable and tolerant. I have experienced this hospitality, and, hosting refugees in my own home, I am trying to pass it on. I have never seen my own hospitality abused, and the rewards of working with refugees and migrants have outweighed the costs many times. My daughter is cooking Ethiopian meals and learning about political persecution and human rights from first hand accounts, not textbooks. When I despair at the state of our world, it helps me to think that our spare room is saving a young woman’s life. It is this kind of personal, small encounters which make our lives richer. Encounters which can only happen in a place with open borders.
In a world with 65 million displaced people, a world with unprecedented inequality in wealth distribution, armed conflicts and starvation, uncontrolled migration is not possible. It should be, but it isn’t. Free movement of people across national borders is predicated on a degree of economic equality, reciprocity and cooperation. The European Union has enabled all three – more work is needed, but the achievements in only 61 years since its creation are remarkable. And in Britain, 45 years of free movement within the European Union have not lead to an influx of millions of people and breakdown of social systems. On the contrary: inner-European migration has benefited all Member States. A net recipient of EU migrants, Britain has gained an estimated £20 billion in tax and productivity, and there is no evidence that wages have fallen as a result of immigration. When jobs became scarce and real wages fell, many EU migrants returned to their home countries or third countries. And the trend would have been positive: in historic terms, the EU is only in its infancy. Over time, the dynamics of closer integration between Member States lead to a virtuous circle: like any other borderless society, economic conditions level out and the ability of people to follow opportunity leads to optimal levels of employment and population density across the single market area.
Third, cultural heritage.
A single market is an economic and trade entity. There are many of such single markets across the world, and none has led to the ‘melting’ of cultures or loss of traditions – if anything, open societies have shown to look after local or national languages and cultures more carefully than closed societies. Immigrants have helped some of their cultural traditions to survive where they became extinct in their countries of origin. Britain is a country rich in cultural heritage from all corners of the world, and a diversity of languages and cultures at local and regional levels. Most British people happily identify at many levels: Welsh, Caribbean, Mancunian, Bengali, Scottish, British. Most see no conflict between these identities. Identifying as a European does not betray my identity as a German, a Londoner. My new British passport will not change my feeling of belonging or identity. I support the NHS, drink at my local pub and listen to the Archers. But I also cherish my German and (distant) Russian heritage, and preserve language and traditions to the best of my ability. There is no conflict, or melting – there are distinct, equally important, rich cultures which coexist peacefully.
Finally, I spare a thought for my British friends and neighbours who do not have a second passport. Why should they lose their right to follow opportunities and explore other cultures? Why should my daughter’s class mates not have the choice to study in Spain or train in Finland? And, in the worst case scenario, where would they go if Britain fell victim to natural or man-made disaster?
Our children did not have a chance to vote in the EU Referendum. And yet it is their future which is affected most drastically, both at home and abroad. Had they been asked, the Referendum would almost certainly have had a different outcome. It is for them that I am fighting for a second chance, for a chance for the pubic to vote on the final Brexit deal. Not for myself, not for my own daughter as we are fortunate enough to retain two passports. For my British friends and their children, for my Italian colleagues, for everyone who is worried about a future of restricted freedom of movement. This is not about reversing a democratic decision. It is not about the institution of the European Union with all its shortcomings and democratic deficit. To me, it is not primarily about the bleak economic forecast and the rising cost of imported goods. To me, it is primarily about an open society.
Over time, breaking down borders benefits all. This is true for any community: local, regional, national or regional. In a utopian future, it could be true for a global society. Only 61 years ago, Europe was such a utopia. Today, it is well on its way to making it reality. Only Britain will be left outside.
That is why I am fighting for a public vote on the final Brexit deal. Whatever is agreed in March 2019 should be put to the people to approve or reject, with the option to remain in the European Union. It is possible. Article 50 can be rescinded, and the other 27 Member States would welcome Britain back. It is also increasingly likely: it has been demanded by Liberal Democrats and moderate Labour MPs across Britain. It has been officially called for by Hammersmith and Fulham Council, and, importantly, it is supported by a huge and ever-growing number of British citizens. As of today, I am happy to be one of them.