The following article is a record of the conversations between German national Ellen Höfer living in Scotland and Scot Laura Muncie living in Germany
How did you feel on hearing the Brexit referendum result?
I was worried as soon as they announced there would be a referendum. I knew that the debate was going to be horrible, I had a bad feeling in my stomach the whole time. When I woke up and saw the result, my first thought was am I really this stupid? Have I just spent 15 years of my life betting on the wrong horse? When I came to the UK it was an open society. It was aspirational to be part of such a diverse place. But it had changed over the years.
When you say things had changed Ellen, what do you think caused that change? I have been thinking about this and asking myself what on earth happened, because I have not been away from the UK that long yet and I have seen a huge shift in public opinion.
For me in the UK, what changed opinion was 7 years of Tory rule. The Tory party have been pushed to the right by UKIP. The British public has been complacent about politics. I think once they got fed up of Blair and Labour there was a vacuum. Anger about social inequality, which increased with austerity, got laid at the feet of people who had nothing to do with it- foreigners and people on social welfare. I left England because I could see what was happening. Being a German it was very hard. I felt very much a foreigner in England. Then I went to Ireland it was different, much less discriminatory and more open.
I was pretty shocked by the Brexit result. Scottish people, in my view, have always been fairly open, fairly liberal compared to other countries. Based on that, I had a lot of confidence that the vote would be to stay in the EU in general. I laugh at myself now, because the night of the referendum I was at a German friend’s house and they asked me what I thought would happen. I said we will still be here tomorrow! Whatever way London votes the rest of England will reflect! But the reverse was true! I don’t know if I was just not receiving the target messages on social media that other people were.
You are in a similar situation to me in Germany. When I left Germany years ago all the neo Nazi stuff the AFD wasn’t out in the open. I had no experience of it. I remember going back and being in a Christmas market in Koln and seeing a crowd of neo Nazis. It is really hard because as a German you struggle with your past. But before we could at least say “that’s in the past”, but it is not completely in the past now.
People have said to me that these referendums, take things down to the personal and that’s why it is hard to accept referendum results, or even get into the discussion in the first place. What is being talked about, the language around the topic, is about people and it can be hurtful.
It really is and it was dealt with in such an inhuman way. In the context of this, I think EU citizens got off quite lightly. At least visually we pass as white British, most of us. I know now that the UK has been acting in a way that is racist, in the home office for example, towards non EU nationals for much longer than I was aware of and more than I cared about. I know I should have cared more. I wasn’t aware I was a migrant until Brexit! I didn’t think of myself as a migrant, I was just doing the European thing where you can choose where you go and live the life you want.
How has your life been affected by events since the Brexit result?
I left Germany without many qualifications, which is unusual for someone coming from the EU. But I was accepted for a course in product and service design at the Glasgow School of Art. A few months before the Brexit result I graduated and thought my career would now go in a more secure direction. But the opposite has been true. Businesses have 400 applicants for a job and 399 of them are Scottish, what is the incentive to hire a European whose status you cannot be sure about? Not even the Government is certain about our status. So it has been detrimental. On a personal level it causes insecurity and it makes you think a lot about your identity.
Do I want to be British? No.I don’t have the money to do so anyway, because Theresa May when in the Home Office changed the requirements. So it has been hard, but it also made it clear that if I had the opportunity to become a Scottish citizen I would do it today. I would have done it yesterday, but I don’t have that opportunity. I have been in Scotland 10 years now, a big part of my heart is Scottish. Scotland values its diversity and I am part of that diversity. I also think European values are extremely Scottish. Scottish values come from past struggles . That is what European values evolved from also. Europe now is about peace and peaceful cooperation.
In my case we were in the process of having a house built. In Scotland building a house is something very rich people do, but here in Frankfurt there is a lack of housing so it is something that a lot of people have to do. There are incentives to build and it was part of a new housing development. We knew the building project would be at least 2 years, our friends who had done the same warned us to add a year or two on to whatever the building firm said, so there was a good possibility the house would not be finished when Brexit fully happened. Then our status within Germany would change, which like you, created uncertainty for us especially over what our rights would be.
I have been anxious about my ability to work because I’m a freelancer and dependent on EU citizenship. It would have been a strain on us to drop down to one salary during a house build. Relying on my husband’s job is also not who I am as a person. A house is a huge investment and half way through the build if we found my husbands’ job changed or I couldn’t work we could have a problem. So we had a rethink, decided it was too risky and pulled out. That was tough, saying we are going to have to abandon this. We had worked so hard, 6.30am starts Monday to Friday for years to get ourselves into a position of having our own house.
So I decided I wasn’t going to be quiet, because I know other people in this Brexit boat, and felt the public should know about the real life people the result effects. Brexit is not some abstract thing, it is closer to life than people realise. One impact is that Brexit speeds up your need to make decisions. People making decisions about lots of things including relationships and plans changed because of a political vote.
So, I got started writing. People have responded because what I write is not just about data and statistics, politicians and experts, it’s about real life stuff.
We have only given up a house, but it will end up more than that. What restrictions are going to be placed on lives? I am going to have to prove in future that a German cannot do my job? Am I going to have to go back into a German educational system to get German qualifications to do job I have already been doing for 6 years? There are questions but no answers.
Absolutely, a friend of mine is getting married and she said to me she would not have done so at this time but they are now going ahead early to secure her rights. It is really difficult for British citizens in Europe too because you’re facing 27 different systems.
Ellen recently organised the Phoenix public art project in Glasgow in response to the Glasgow School of Art going on fire
Ellen is creative director of the group EU Citizens for an Independent Scotland.
The group has organised an event – Jock Tamson’s Europe Fest to be held in Dundee 14th July that will host guest speaker Nicholas Hatton founder of group The 3 Million.
The 3 Million has been involved in talks with the EU parliament and at Westminster in progressing discussion about citizen rights post Brexit.
The Interview was conducted by Laura Muncie
Laura is a contributor to The Orkney News, covers Europe related topics and is a teacher in Frankfurt and Mum to a lovely German Scottish boy.
This is real, Laura. You write about real things, in a real way.
And I agree, many things played their part, and a vacuum was one of them. There was, and still is, a real question of “Who do I vote for? Who is there to vote for?”
After decades of membership of the Labour Party – I resigned, and got the impression that they didn’t care tuppence for my resignation, which was accompanied by a clear letter, stating my reasons. And who else is there? A system where there are only two parties with any real chance of being in power, means that you pretty much have to vote for one or the other – or not at all – which, for me, isn’t an acceptable option. The vote was hard won for the working people, and then for women, and we are negligent if we don’t use it as best we can, whatever the choices. If both parties become much the same thing – where do you go with your vote? Thank you, Tony Blair, multi-millionaire.
Who is there to vote for? So – there is a vacuum, and a vacuum never stays so, for long.
I advised a young Jehovah’s Witness who used to call round our house, to go to the big, new estate across the fields from us, as many of the folk there had no ‘religion’ but filling their trollies in Tesco, and watching ‘soaps’ on the telly. I have no religion, now, but at least when we were brought up with one, we could then decide what to do, for ourselves – we had the option, and we had been given the basis of ….something.
I believe there are parallels here – humans aren’t happy with a vacuum, in certain areas of their life, they need to know where they are and who to look to.
Who is there, today, in this place which I refer to as Britain, as I won’t use the term United Kingdom?
The vacuum played its part, as did greed, complacency, laziness, and………. the media.
We just have to keep pegging away at those things, and wait for the wheel to turn.
Ellen mentions the difference in being ‘white’ – another term I don’t like to use – who’s white for goodness sake – unless they’re ill!? I agree, though, and that’s another thing I go on about – it’s so much easier to point the finger when they can see the difference. Otherwise, one generation, a different accent, and who can tell? Except those who pay attention to facial characteristics – and those people are usually thinking people who don’t hold it against someone for looking Slavic, or Irish.
Once again, laziness plays its part. Lazy thinking, or not thinking at all. If only people could be taught to think, in school – that might help.
A very insightful comment, I appreciate you took the time to write it!
Personally, I only exist as a human because my (red-haired, pale-skinned) Italian grandmother and my real, dark and handsome German grandfather met in Venice during the war, fell in love and welcomed my father into their lives once grandpa had been deported as a POW, she followed and found him a year later in Germany.
While I absolutely agree with the absurdity of what is ‘white’, I think the question is one posed in privilege. The privilege of being part of the group that society considers white. The point I was making is that our physical passability as quite white Europeans (if we keep our mouths shut) means the majority of us EU citizens have not borne the brunt of the continously unfolding and increasing xenophobia in the UK. The UK increasingly thinks in Black and White images when it comes to migration. The words migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, immigrant all stand for snapshots of the same fears now.
The Brexit referendum coincided with the ‘refugee crisis’ and all talk of migration was connected to the public panic of the perceived invasive otherness of ‘non-whites’ threatening red, white and blue Britishness.
Skin colour is not about semantics, it is very bitter life reality for those in the superficial minority. I empathise because Brexit impacted me in just as arbitrary a manner – and only at that point I became aware of the clear privileges I as a white-skinned European held over people who do not fit that narrow and utterly pointless die the dying, patriarchal political and social landscape of Britain narrows itself down to.
Indeed, Ellen – it’s not about semantics.
I’m not old enough to remember it, but I know that boarding houses in England, at one time, not that long ago, would have a sign in the window saying “No Blacks. No Irish.” So – empathy is there. They wouldn’t get away with that now, but….they don’t necessarily need to have signs.
Also, I do use humour a lot, to deal with things – as does the anonymous person who wrote this, which was circulated among the Maori staff in a New Zealand government office.………
Dear White Fella
When I am born I’m black
When I grow up I’m black
When I am sick I’m black
When I go out ina sun I’m black
When I git cold I’m black
When I git scared I’m black
And when I die I’m still black.
But you white fella
When you’re born you’re pink
When you grow up you’re white
When you git sick you’re green
When you go out ina sun you go red
When you git cold you go blue
When you git scared you’re yellow
And when you die you’re grey
And you go the cheek to call me coloured?
Having quoted that, which I think is a good one – I’ll mention that my friend Goldie, from Zimbabwe, would be pale when he wasn’t well and I would notice it, because I knew him. Also, maybe because of growing up with lots of different kinds of people, I tend to…..see through the difference.
It can be relative. Goldie returned to England, some years ago, for a visit, with his wife and children, and his wife said it was easy for her to recognize me, due to the red hair and being short, as, to her…..many of the ‘white’ people, looked much the same – dark–ish hair, big pale faces. Seriously, that’s how Yolinde saw, and described, the ‘white’ people she came across. It was easier for her at home, as there weren’t so many of them/us. Coming across me, was a great relief to her, as I looked a bit different.
A friend of mine, Ukranian descent – father came to England to escape the Nazis – was beaten up for being ‘white’, while two of his closest friends – Indian and Malaysian, were held back so they couldn’t help him . This was in Bradford – years of being picked on, meant that the Asian youths decided to fight back, but they weren’t too careful about who they picked on.
I am wittering, and will stop, as we are in agreement, where it matters.
When Barack Obama became President, I had an exchange with someone about that. Here’s part of it……….
“I’ll add one thing though about Barack Obama becoming President. I honestly, personally, don’t think that so much fuss should be made about him being black. So what if he is black? That’s what I see as the problem with people having a prejudice against black people, it’s only because they can point a finger and say “Look, a black person”. J.F.K. was Irish, people in Britain and America, are Irish, Ukrainian, Polish, German, etc. After one generation, the accent has gone, and no-one can point finger at anyone. Unfortunately, colour is easy to point at. I grew up in Bradford, in Yorkshire, where you can get purely Asian people who talk with a broader accent than me!! I suppose that’s why I don’t see the whole colour business, my friends were, and are, from all sorts of countries, like the Liverpool song says “There’s every race and colour of face, and ever kind of name, but the pigeons on the pier-head, they treat us all the same”!