In a small room above a pub a group of people gathered together to talk about how Brexit touches and will continue to touch the very minutiae of their lives. The event was a Beehive run by my wonderful friend Nicky and her foundation Final Say for All, a crowdfunded group who’s stated aims are to keep the UK in the EU and to give a voice to the groups of people who were completely ignored during the referendum.
Her Beehive project seeks to gather testimonies on video to be shared to a wider audience. People stand up and speak about how their lives are being impacted whether it is because they are EU27 citizens in the UK or whether they are British people living in the EU or whether their livelihood or career is endangered or whether they feel a personal violation at having their European Citizenship removed against their will. If they agree the speakers are recorded but this is not mandatory to be able to take part.
After the London march in June, many of us were unhappy that the 5 million were not to be represented in the formal speeches at all. I marched with FSFA that day. We were a big group and a pub had been booked for us all to go and have a drink together afterwards. So, at the last minute some people were asked by Nicky to stand up and speak about why Brexit is Personal. This led to several others being moved to get up and tell their personal stories and it was all filmed. The pub we were in was the Beehive in Vauxhall and so the Beehives were born.
Nicky opened with her personal experiences. She is a British national who was disenfranchised during the referendum because she has lived outside the UK but in the EU for many years. She lives in the Netherlands. In fact, not only was she disenfranchised in a vote that seriously impacts her life, but she has not got a vote at all in British general elections either as the vote for life was removed from British citizens overseas some years ago. If we go ahead and leave the EU she will not be able to vote for an MEP and there is a question mark over whether she will even get a vote in the local elections – as is the right of all EU citizens wherever they are resident in the EU. For the British in the EU, their disenfranchisement will be complete. This seems to me a completely unhealthy step backwards for our democracy.
Her quandary does not stop there. She cares for her husband, a Dutch national who is disabled and she also has elderly parents in the UK who need her help. In the post Brexit world, she will be finding these two demands on her time difficult to manage together. Her freedom of movement will have been removed. It is doubtful her parents could move to the Netherlands or her husband could move to the UK. Nicky delivers her story very calmly, but you can feel the sense of intense emotion just below the surface.
Tim then spoke very movingly from the point of view of Northern Ireland. His direct experiences of growing up and living in Northern Ireland, of the bombings and the conflict and the people he knew who died or were damaged forever by the bloodiness of the divisions there, give him a perspective on the EU that everybody should listen to and actually hear. The Good Friday Agreement was made possible by people talking together and the EU and our EU citizenship made it possible for the groups on different sides to find a way to work and live together and shun the violence. This was only 20 years ago. The pain of the conflict is still fresh in the memory of many people. Tim’s intensity brought a tear to everybody’s eye.
A couple who didn’t feel confident enough to stand up and speak for the camera nevertheless shared with the group what they had gone through since the referendum. Out of a fear their status was under threat, they had applied for the Permanent right to Reside, a ridiculously bureaucratic procedure that demanded a filing cabinet full of evidence from their many years in the UK and they wanted to get their daughter a British passport to protect her rights to come back as she is due to study abroad for a spell under the Erasmus scheme. Although they started with the practical issues, their personal feelings started to spill out.
They quickly got onto the issue of how it makes them feel, how the atmosphere towards them in the community changed and here we get to the nitty gritty leave voters don’t want to take responsibility for. EU27 citizens in the UK are angry and have been hugely hurt by the fact that their neighbours and even their families and friends did not for a moment consider what the real impacts would be on their lives. Not only that, but this issue continues to be ignored and dismissed as if they are second class citizens, an afterthought. People point to the various proclamations of government that they will be protected but how can we trust politicians on this one issue when they have shown themselves so demonstrably willing to lie and row back on every promise ever made both pre and post referendum. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Don’t forget there has not been a single piece of legislation voted through the house of commons which protects the rights of the EU27 citizens or the British in the EU to date.
I could sense the relief in the room at finally being in a forum where these issues could be fully discussed without somebody trying to shut down the debate with platitudes by saying “it will all be okay” or “what about my rights too”. I am afraid this goes on in some Remain circles a little too. The fact is there are 5 million people around the EU and their families who are now uncertain about their status. How would you feel if you had lived happily in your house for 5, 10, 20, 60 even 80 years and your neighbours voted in such a way that overnight you had to actually ask for permission to stay or return home having been away travelling? I urge each of you to walk for a moment in the shoes of the people whose lives have been plagued with uncertainty for over 2 years. I think this would change your outlook and your perspective.
There was a kind of round table discussion in the room at this point and several people made some interesting and thoughtful points. What came out was the shock felt as people learned things they simply had not realised about the details of the impact of brexit.
It was my turn. I was feeling rather nervous. It’s been some time since I had to get up and speak before a room full of people, but I wanted to do it having opted out in London. I had things to say. Of course, anybody who knows me well will know I always have things to say so I tried not to ramble on for too long.
As I started to speak, somewhere deep inside me the anger that has driven my intense opposition to
Brexit flared brightly and drove my words and probably drove me to do rather too much arm waving – my latino dna showing itself. I found myself speaking about my family history, a history of immigration of course, about the beautiful EU Citizenship umbrella that made sense of the different fragments of my identity. I spoke about the intolerable interference of Brexit on our lives, on decisions made by families in good faith in the context of our citizenship rights. I spoke about the outrage and offence I feel on behalf of honest and hard-working people like my father whenever foreign people are measured as economic units, whenever they are spoken of as if they are a problem to be fixed but never depicted with a sense of the positive, vibrant, colourful and beautiful loving contributions they bring to our cultures and our communities.
The meeting was rounded off with a few brief words from Nicky’s husband about his family history and their connections to the resistance in WWII to Nazi occupation. This was a very intense and emotional moment for us all. This reminded me of one of the most important reasons why the European Project came into being and absolutely must continue to thrive. 70 years of peace in Europe have been brought about by the EU, surely a thing that we take for granted but which in fact has improved the lives of millions beyond recognition across the continent. Dimitri is an artist and musician and played us a wonderful and uplifiting song he wrote about the campaign to end the meeting.
From a personal point of view, I felt intense relief after I had spoken, I was emotional by the end of my contribution, and it was liberating to speak of these things aloud. I would urge people who have stories to share about why Brexit is Personal to them to go to a Beehive if they possibly can and get talking, it’s an intense experience but a worthwhile one. Leavers may learn a thing or two if they go and watch, campaigners will get some valuable insights which they will be able to use on street stalls. These videos will be an important resource as we all bear witness to the effect of this horrible EU Referendum result in the lives of ordinary people.
You can follow @FinalSayForAll and their events on twitter or look at their website for more information on the Final Say for All foundation and their aims and activities www.finalsayforall.eu