Hilary Freemans life has been turned upside down by the EU referendum vote she and her family feel like pawns in a very political game
Have you heard the one about the British woman who married an immigrant just so she could leave the country? Thats the joke that Ive been telling, ever since 24 June last year, when I woke up in some kind of parallel universe to find that my compatriots had voted to leave the EU. But Im not laughing and neither are the thousands of other people in the UK who are in a similar situation.
My partner, Mickael, father of our 19-month-old daughter, Sidonie, is French an EU immigrant. As things now stand, he might not be allowed to stay in the UK. Going to live in France assuming the British will still have rights and Ill be welcome there might be the only way we can stay together as a family. Exile from my homeland or the breakup of my family: its not a pleasant choice.
When Mickael and I met, having a relationship with an EU citizen was (aside from the air miles and the language difficulties) little different from dating the boy next door. I had gone to Nice to write a book; he worked at the apart-hotel I was staying in. For the first few years, we conducted our relationship as a long-distance one, taking advantage of low-cost flights to hop back and forth across the Channel before, in 2014, deciding to settle down and start a family. Mickael moved to London primarily because I have a mortgage and because his English is better than my French. Migrating for him, as for other EU arrivals, was as simple as getting on a plane, opening a bank account, registering with the local GP and securing a National Insurance number. And yet, two years after he gave up his home and his job and learned to play the theme tune to The Archers on his harmonica, he was told Sorry, but youre no longer welcome here and you might not be able to stay.
To date, the prime minister, Theresa May, has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK until those of UK citizens living in Europe are also guaranteed. But this game is messing not only with the lives and futures of Europeans, but also the British lives she claims to wish to protect. What she has failed to acknowledge is that EU immigrants do not live in ghettos in the UK. The three million are intimately connected with British people, as their partners, their parents, their siblings, their grandparents. They have mortgages together, businesses together, children together. My rights and those of my daughter, also a British citizen, are being threatened by Mays refusal to promise EU immigrants that they can stay. According to article 8 of the Human Rights Act which the government hasnt yet done away with we are entitled to a family life. So why isnt she ensuring this?
My family is particularly vulnerable. Mickael has lived here for less than three years and is therefore not yet entitled to permanent residence or citizenship (you qualify after five years). He is not highly skilled. In fact, he is exactly the kind of immigrant were told the country neither needs nor wants. Except my daughter and I want and need him.
I havent slept very well since 24 June. Im still shocked, anxious and depressed by what has happened, grieving for the country I thought I lived in, for my identity and for the future I was promised. Im scared for my familys future. Most of all Im angry. You could say I have a giant bargaining-shaped chip on my shoulder. I feel like Ive been lied to all of my life, taught to think of myself as European, to take advantage of free movement, only to have the door slammed in my face at the age of 45. Even my educational choices were made because of the EU, my school persuading me to choose French A-level because the 1992 Maastricht treaty means the whole of Europe will be opening up for your generation.
You might think Im overreacting (or as the rightwing press would have it, that Im a remoaner). Most people do. Dont worry, they say. Everything will be fine. I see no evidence of this. Eight months on, and the three million EU immigrants are still being used as pawns in a political game with no discernible rules. EU families have had no assurances; we have been shown no compassion.
The second thing people say to me is: If youre worried about Mickael not being able to stay, why dont you just get married? Contrary to popular opinion, being married will grant Mickael no automatic right to live in the UK. The law quietly changed in 2012 when the then home secretary a certain Theresa May decided to put a stop to immigrants marrying Brits just so they could stay here.
Dont underestimate the levels of misery and fear Brexit has generated. Some people were actually scared to talk to me, for fear that being quoted in this article would mean their names would find their way on to a government list, and theyd be deported. This level of paranoia, whether it is warranted or not, in 21st century Britain, is deeply shocking.
A French friend Veronique Martin will speak out and say shes distraught. A writer, she has a British PhD, a PGCE and a British husband, and has lived in the UK for 30 years. Like the majority of EU citizens settled here, she didnt take citizenship because, until Brexit, it wasnt necessary. Now she finds herself caught in the legal minefield that faces any EU immigrant who hasnt been in continuous employment while living in the UK (carers, full-time mothers, disabled people, students etc) because she doesnt have Comprehensive Sickness Insurance, which was made a requirement for permanent residency in 2006. Why not? Because she was never told she needed it. Without it, she faces the possibility of deportation.
Miles and I have just celebrated 31 years together, she says. Yet our relationship is threatened by the British government. I came here in good faith, was told to consider Britain as my home, built my life here, yet overnight, through no fault of my own, Im being treated like a pariah. My only sin was to fall in love with a country that until now had welcomed me, and with a wonderful British man.
My husbands human rights are also being trampled on. His EU citizenship is going to be forcefully removed from him, and with it his freedom of movement. Where are we supposed to live? Is it moral or democratic or even just respecting basic human rights to separate families and couples? Where has my beloved, tolerant and open Britain gone? Where should we go?
The psychotherapist and philosopher Professor Emmy van Deurzen says she has numerous clients in cross-national relationships who are struggling with Brexit. I think the terror that has struck at the core of EU citizens is hard to understand, even for their British spouses. In one couple I work with, the British husband is finding it hard to believe that his Greek wife might no longer be allowed to stay in the country, having had no health insurance, and the wife is feeling greatly diminished and terrorised, and having nightmares about having to leave on a ship to escape from persecution. I work with a Polish lady who is remembering her parents war stories and feels she is reliving these at the moment.
I dont think people in the UK quite appreciate how EU citizens living here are beginning to feel like second-class citizens and therefore potentially fear becoming refugees. The sense of safety and individual rights that we normally take for granted has exploded, and it takes a lot in couples or families that are multi-national, to encompass and share those tensions equally. We are really creating a situation of grave human distress, which will channel down the generations, exactly as did the wars.
My head is telling me there will be no mass deportation of EU citizens. Not because of any benevolence on thepart of the government, but because it would be a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare. For one thing, there is no register of EU arrivals, so just working out who is here would be close to impossible.
Whatever happens to Mickael and me, at least our daughter Sidonie will be able to live freely in whichever country she chooses. She is a dual national, entitled to both passports. As the granddaughter of German Jewish Holocaust refugees, I am in the process of obtaining a German passport, so that if I do have to move to France, I will still be an EU citizen with whatever rights that grants me.
Even if Mickael were to be offered permanent residency in the UK, that status would be revoked if he left the country for longer than a few months. Then we would not be able take our daughter to live in France to experience French culture and to embrace the French half of her identity. That is why, for us, as for many other thousands of people who dont wish to see the breakup of their mixed UK/EU families, only free movement will do. Otherwise, one partner will find themselves, whether willingly or unwillingly, for ever exiled in the others nation.