I was honoured to speak at the European Movement’s Europe Day celebrations on the 9th of May 2018 alongside Lucy Anderson MEP, Stephen Dorrell, Brendan Donnelly, Jean Lambert MEP, Femi Oluwole and John Stevens. This is the full text of my speech.
I am here today as a member of the3Million, a grassroots organisation set up by volunteers in the aftermath of the referendum aiming to protect all the existing rights of millions of citizens who made this country their home thanks to freedom of movement. Some of what I will say is in a personal capacity, as the organisation does not take a stance pro or against Brexit per se, but focuses on protecting citizenship rights under all scenarios.
This is a day of celebration and I want to give you the positive side of the story, and reasons for hope. But first a bit of background. Our key activity right now is campaigning for clarity on the government’s proposed settled status, a registration process for more than 3 million citizens. We believe there are major, worrying issues with it, and our lawyers in fact have compiled 150 questions to the government which we are waiting an answer for.
As of today, I can announce here that we are in fact stepping our campaigning up a gear, planning to take the government to court over a clause that was passed today in the data protection bill which strips foreign citizens of the right to access data held by government departments, including the Home Office, making it impossible to challenge any decision it takes, and which risks making the appalling Windrush scandal look like a walk in the park compared to what is coming our way. Please check our twitter feed for info on how to support our legal challenge fund.
But on this Europe Day celebration, let’s talk about what we love about the EU.
Firstly a bit about my story, plus some other ideas I crowdsourced from our 30K strong online forum. People mentioned a variety of pieces of EU legislation on the environment and consumer protection, but overwhelmingly they talked about the wonders of freedom of movement as a key achievement of the EU.
I have worked in 3 different EU countries and all without major paperwork. The opposite was true when I attempted to get sponsored for a work visa in the US. It was complicated and upsetting, so my British husband and I decided to give up – why should we bother, when we have 28 countries to chose from where neither of us needs a work visa?
In fact after that I immediately got a high profile UK campaigning job, and I remember feeling amazed about the fact I was working with UK MPs and debating the need for a new Climate Change Act with them all over the country, and they were – rightly – treating me as entirely equal to other British campaigners, even though technically I was not even a British voter.
When I went to Brussels, I would work with politicians from all over the EU and they did not seem to care which country I was from. Thanks to EU law, I was in fact able to chose to vote for British MEPs rather than Italian candidates, which in the absence of a vote in national elections gave me a better sense of belonging to this country and the confidence of being a politician’s treasured constituent. The European Parliament has been in fact leading a fight to protect the rights of the3Million as well as the British in Europe, so thanks to the MEPs who are here today.
Since I first arrived in the UK in 1996, I’ve changed jobs many times, and then set up my own pan-European consultancy business, mostly with no sign of discrimination or difference in treatment based on my accent or nationality.
Up to 2016, this really was the land of opportunity for many people. And no, I am not a particularly privileged person and I know plenty of people from working class background –who are taking advantage of this freedom.
In a similar way, British people have been moving across the EU and settling in other countries, contributing to the local economy. Far from just the stereotypical pensioners in Costa del Sol, they are largely of working age, and contributing greatly to the culture and economic life of their host countries through their businesses and jobs.
AS a fellow Italian said on the3Million forum, one of the best things about the EU is “the understanding that there is a core set of rights which has to be respected in any EU country, that each citizen is to be treated on the same terms of their fellow residents, obeying the same rules, having access to the same opportunities and contributing to the cohesion of society to the same degree.”
Of course we all know that the EU has made peace possible on this once war torn continent.
When I think of it properly, I still find it shocking to think that that Britons and Italians of my grandfather’s generation fought each other in the Second World War. Yet here we are, living and working in peace in each others’ countries, becoming neighbours and friends and colleagues and partners, having children with dual nationalities and the ability to speak two or more languages. And running businesses across boundaries with great ease.
But one thing that is rarely talked about is how freedom of movement has in itself been crucial for keeping the peace in Europe. You know about the importance of freedom of movement for peace in Northern Ireland. But do you know this freedom to move around has brought peace to other parts of Europe? In the North east of Italy there is a German speaking minority. When I was a child I remember hearing stories of bombs planted by people who wanted to leave Italy and hated Italians. Guess what, now those fellow citizens have freedom to work and move across the border with Austria and now this is one of the most peaceful and prosperous parts of Italy, a magnet for walkers and skiers from across the world.
Also on our forum, a person said: “Growing up in western Poland I remember having to queue for border checks as a child just for a day trip to Germany, and since Poland joined the EU it never ceased to give me that little tingle of joy going over the German border and having to look out for a sign that said “Germany” or else you’d miss it completely. I met so many fantastic people from across Europe when I moved to the UK (not to mention meeting my other half, who is Welsh) and I think every young person should have this opportunity, as it really expands your mind.”
And ultimately let’s not forget that a lot of EU countries were until not so long ago struggling with undemocratic hostile regimes, from Spain and Portugal in the west to the communist block in the east.
The closeness these countries have now achieved within a few decades and the integration and freedom of movement between them – whether through young people doing erasmus programmes, or workers enjoying reciprocal rights to access the job market, or tourists accessing each other’s health services in emergencies through the EHIC card – is simply amazing. There is no need to talk about the 2nd world war to make this point, this is far more recent.
But let’s be clear, freedom of movement is not perfect. No, it’s not about the mulch talked about “legitimate concerns” about too much immigration. Those were – I am sorry to say – fuelled by politicians playing with people’s fears rather than addressing their real causes. And to some level these fears have been stoked up by some perhaps well meaning people, including some remainers who perhaps inadvertently keep feeding myths about freedom of movement when they talk about renegotiating free movement with the EU in order to prevent a hard Brexit, with emergency brakes, etc. This is unrealistic at this stage, and in addition, if there is no real evidence of any problems caused by immigration, and in fact many EU nationals are actually leaving the UK now, why bring this up at all?
That sounds depressing and on this Europe Day celebration I am not meant to do that. But the good news is that there is something we can all do something about that.
Just like we learnt the EU referendum could not be won with a half-hearted, almost embarassed approach to arguing for remaining in the EU – while constantly apologising about its faults, the same is true for freedom of movement.
Please, while you campaign to remain in the EU, consider that you will not succeed unless you have the courage to challenge the lies about immigration. Actually I’ll go further, you will not manage unless you are prepared to speak positively about freedom of movement. Guess what? It is in the name of taking away the rights of EU citizens living here that the UK government is trying to persue a type of Brexit that will kill British people’s own freedom of movement.
But Freedom of movement is not the same as old fashioned immigration. It is a freedom that is reciprocal, it is the choice that countries have made, freely, to give each other’s citizens reciprocal citizenship rights and the choice to not discriminate against them on the basis of nationality, to treat them like equals. This should be celebrated and not talked about as a necessary evil, needed just in order to get a trade deal. It is a fundamental part of human progress in this continent and a model for the rest of the world about what citizenship rights are and how they can evolve.
Celebrating this should be easy. Far from being a burden, EU nationals in the UK are in fact an asset. Their influx has been a sign of this country’s success – but I don’t hear enough people with the courage to say this. It is a fact that non British EU citizens are more likely to be working than on benefits compared to the average British citizen, and are more likely to be propping up public services as doctors, nurses or teachers than causing queues for those services. And there is no evidence of a reduction of wages caused by immigration. Honestly, that is nonsense and shame on some supposedly progressive politicians and commentators for periodically fanning the flames of xenophobia with these myths.
And finally if you campaign for a People’s Vote, which seems like a good idea, please ask for 3.6 million Europeans to get the vote this time. Unlike Commonwealth citizens, EU27 nationals (and British in Europe, in fact) were despicably denied a say in 2016 on something that would fundamentally alter their lives.
Is this what British values are about? Voting to take away the rights of a minority without even giving them a vote? What would people say if there was a referendum on abortion that excluded women or a vote on gay rights that excluded gays? Surely that would be considered unacceptable in a modern democracy.
So on this Europe Day of celebrations I say – don’t just assume that stopping Brexit will stop the Hostile Environment and the slide of this country into an intolerant and racist backward looking place – in fact it quite possible that foreigners will continue being subjected to a tide of hatred under any kind of scenario. So let’s all be far more proactive in standing against lies on immigration, as well as for the rights of EU nationals and more broadly for freedom of movement.
Let’s campaign to give everybody a fair say in the future of the country we all call home, so that we can better protect ourselves and work together to explore the true meaning of what it means to be British AND European.