Last year there were about 1300 students from EU countries studying in Durham, that’s roughly seven percent of all students. I am one of them, although I have the privilege of being a dual citizen of Germany and the UK. To me, and I suppose the other EU students in Durham, Brexit has been an extremely sad affair. Over the past four years it has been excruciating to watch as former partners became increasingly antagonistic as the trade negotiations wore on. Thus, this Brexit deal is bittersweet. It doesn’t align the UK as close to the EU as hoped but it is nevertheless much better than having no deal at all, since there is now a chance that the UK and the EU are not going to be adversaries going forward.
One might view the agreement as a Christmas miracle if it weren’t for the fact that whatever this deal has to promise, it is little compared to an EU membership. The European Union is one of the greatest post-war projects. It has unified this diverse continent to strive for common goals and work as ever closer partners. It is an institution that respects its members’ individuality even as it seeks to set common policies in areas where it is seen as beneficial. It is not simply a common market, although the UK has always been slow to appreciate this. Generations of politicians have used the EU as a scapegoat for their own failed policies, pointing out its flaws while quietly reaping the benefits of EU membership. To those of us who are not blind to its flaws but see the EU as a positive project nonetheless, this has often been infuriating. Too many people in the UK never became aware of the wonderful possibilities that a shared European culture has to offer.
Freedom of movement has ended between the EU and the UK. In the short-term this isn’t going to change much. No current residents will have to leave, students who are currently at university will be able to continue their studies and we can still happily go on holiday to Florence, Barcelona and Amsterdam. But in the long-term the added hurdles will lead to fewer people from the UK choosing to settle in the EU and vice versa. Fewer students will choose to study at British universities and there will thus be fewer stories like my own which have become commonplace over the past 47 years. The UK will once again be an island off the coast of Europe separated by a narrow but significant chasm. And the EU will become less British, something that many will mourn.
What has been gained by leaving the EU? Mostly sovereignty and some fish. No more laws and regulations dictated by Brussels or rather agreed upon by the British government and voted on by UK representatives in the European parliament. Instead, the UK will need to follow laws and regulations that were passed without any input from the UK government or British representatives, unless it wants to lose access to the European market that is. At least the British parliament can now in theory pass laws that violate EU regulations.
But the problem with sovereignty is that it is a term that is meaningless by itself. What matters is how sovereignty is used. And this is where the government falls short. All the things that they are promising could have been achieved at least to some degree within the European Union. The UK could have become a centre for the development of future technologies as an EU member. Germany for example has announced that it will invest nine billion euros in developing technology related to hydrogen. So surely it isn’t the EU that prevents the UK government from investing more in the development of new technology. And the fishing industry began to suffer even before the UK joined the EU. The number of people employed in the fishing industry fell by 55% between 1948 and 1970, so the number of fishers in the UK was already down to about 22,000 before the UK joined the EU. If the government were truly committed to helping local fishermen, there would have been many opportunities to do so. Now the industry is a shadow of its former self, and leaving the EU isn’t going to fix that.
One promise that has been kept is reducing immigration. This year immigration numbers have gone down dramatically but this goal has been achieved not because of the Brexit deal but rather because the UK is having one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world and the worst recession of all G7 countries; the UK has simply become unattractive to settle in. So the promise has been kept but it didn’t improve life in the UK. And it also does EU nationals willing to settle in the UK a disservice to see them merely as a burden rather than a valuable addition to society.
For me, coming to Durham to study was one of the best decisions of my life. It’s a wonderful university with an incredibly welcoming student community. But whereas before Brexit I was sure that I’d spend a large part of my life in the UK, even after completing my degree, I am now less certain. I find it hard to shake the feeling that at some level I am unwelcome. I suppose this is hardly surprising given that the British public decided to endure unnecessary and uncertain economic hardship in order to not be what I wholeheartedly am. A European citizen.
Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash.