Journalist Bettina Schulz has lived in the UK for 30 years. Brexit has changed a lot, mostly for the worse. She’s grown ambivalent about her second homeland.
The United Kingdom is celebrating Brexit. I’m not. After all that has happened, I do think it is right that Britain is now finally leaving the European Union. Politically, there is no other option available. It is not possible to tell the people year after year that life will be better once the country has left the so-called undemocratic and oppressive EU and then not follow up on it. But for economic reasons, I think Brexit is a big mistake. In reality, Brexit is nothing more than a huge distraction from the failures of successive governments to implement better economic and structural policies. But I would like to have seen the country get a different Brexit and a better future.
I was full of enthusiasm when I moved to England 30 years ago. But that is gone. Every day, I am angry about the government’s lies. Prime Minister Boris Johnson likes to be celebrated as a kind of Churchillian hero who saved country from the threats emanating from the Continent. What was it he said? The EU is trying to dominate and rule Europe as Hitler and Napoleon once sought to do, and the EU would fail. I find this distortion of history an insult.
Brexit hardliners even wanted Big Ben to ring at 11 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2020, the moment that the UK will leave the EU. Doing so, however, would have had a much deeper meaning than just innocently celebrating the hour of Brexit. Last year, Big Ben rang out in memory of the end of the Great War, World War I, a century ago. Such is the dramatic connections that Brexiteers are trying to draw with the country’s departure from the EU.
Leaving the Peace Project Behind
I like to think of a completely different anniversary: New Year’s Eve 30 years ago. In 1989, we celebrated with people from around the world right between the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall. I will never forget the cheer and relief when a group of young people raised the blue EU flag on top of the Brandenburg Gate next to the German flag. It was clear to all that a reunited Germany would be part of the EU. It was an important signal of peace to the world.
To this day, I see the EU primarily as a peace project, now more so than ever. I am a child of the Cold War, raised in Osnabrück, the home of the largest British military base outside of the UK. When taking driving lessons, I learned to stay well away from the British tanks on the street during maneuvers in spring and autumn. Summer, by contrast, was when the British fighters flew loops in the blue sky, rattling our windows when they broke the sound barrier.
When we cleared out my parents’ home a few years ago, I grew interested in the yellowed photos of my grandfathers as soldiers. I discovered boxes containing medals, the Iron Cross and letters from my grandfather written as a prisoner of war. I began reading about what really happened in the Argonne Forest in 1918 and on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1941-1942. It was so much more horrific than what the people might think nowadays when they watch the pomp and spectacle of the UK honoring the Great War and their veterans.
I am often told by the English that they don’t need a peace project. They say they have always been a peaceful nation, that they have always fought on the right side of morals and history. How convenient, I think, that the British historical memory only starts with World War I and ignores the atrocities of colonial times. The fact that the British allowed 28,000 people, most of them women and children, to perish in concentration camps during the Boer War in South Africa before World War I is never mentioned.
The present-day view of the Empire is a rather filtered one. How convenient, I think, that the boats full of refugees can’t make it from Libya to Cornwall and that the huge border fences in Calais are on French territory – so that the UK does not really have to deal with the refugees or confront the legacy of their warmongering in the Middle East.
London as Utopia
When I arrived in Britain 30 years ago, London was freedom for me, a living utopia, a model for how people from all over the world could live together, work together and love together. There were no foreigners. Everybody belonged. Nobody was treated as exotic or patronized with teddy bears.
It was a new beginning for me. My neighbors invited me to lunch and we became close friends. The grandmother at the table still had the number from Auschwitz tattooed on her arm; she had been the only person of her family to survive. Another neighbor I meet for tea is a pediatric ophthalmologist. On one occasion, she adjusts her headscarf and then examined the medical files of my daughter, who had had an eye operation. The neighbor and her family are from Libya. Back in Tripoli, she used to perform eye operations herself, but her degree isn’t recognized here in Britain. Still other neighbors are from Iraq. He once served as an ambassador for Saddam Hussein, but not many people know that.
We adopted our daughters from India, so I know about the difference between Germany and Britain. In Germany, they were first called “sweet little dolls” before later being insulted as “shoplifting gypsy children” in the Taunus near Frankfurt. Later, the pediatrician asked my daughter if I had covered her in chocolate sauce. There were the constant questions about where we had “borrowed” them from and whether they were ours. Later, when one of my daughters became a teenager and started talking about boys, a friend told her: “But that guy won’t be interested in you anyway. You’re black.”
In London, things were different. Nobody asked. When I started talking about adoption, the response was usually: “Oh, I thought you might be married to a someone from India.” Multicultural life was part of the fabric of society. The British were interested in the whole world and got their news first-hand, unfiltered by translation or parochialism. I had the feeling of being part of the outside world. And I am happy that I was able to raise my children in London. For a time, I felt quite at home here and would perhaps have liked to stay forever.
But I remember driving to Cornwall for summer vacation with my children three years ago and stopping at a parking turnout for our dog to pee. The dog returned from the bushes with six frightened men in tow, a group of refugees who had climbed out of a truck just an hour before. Their hands were bleeding and they were so exhausted they could barely stay awake. They had been on the road for more than a year and almost cried when they saw the summer green of the English fields. In Afghanistan, they had paid human traffickers $10,000 each, they said. Now, they wanted to know where they were. I called the Red Cross, but they said refugees were not their responsibility. Nobody answered the phone at the refugee assistance office. Finally, I agreed to tell their traffickers where to find them. Later, I called the police, who wanted to save them from the traffickers and to help them to apply for asylum. I hoped that was true.
But times have changed. Recently, parliament rejected a law that would have forced the government to allow family reunification in Britain for child refugees. These days, the country prefers closed borders and Brexit. Politics have changed the country. The cosmopolitan tolerance is gone. But maybe that’s what happens when a country isn’t doing well economically. It opens up the door to populism.
When I moved to London in the early 1990s, things weren’t all that bad yet. Back then, the UK was stuck in a recession; it was a low point in the British economy’s constant boom-or-bust cycle. But instead of wanting to leave the EU, the British were looking at the “German model.” They admired the German economy’s secret to success: long-term planning, research, excellent training and strong investments with a view to the future.
But the English don’t like to invest. They are traders. Which helps explain why the next boom was fueled by the City of London, the biggest financial trading-center in the world after Wall Street. The City produced the largest economic boom the country had seen since World War II, giving Britain a renewed feeling of self-confidence. Let the Germans keep tinkering with their manufacturing. Service industries were the future. In interviews with bankers, it was all about global aspirations. They were reaching for the stars, and their confidence was contagious.
Populism and Dishonesty
Then, in 2007, it all came crashing down. The head of one of the big investment banks told me at the time: “Now, they’ll have to save the banks. After that, we’ll see an avalanche of court cases and then political extremism. We’ll have to weather the storm.” I think he already knew that it was a storm he would be unable to weather. He lost his job, and then his health.
The financial crisis rattled the self-confidence of the British. The empire was gone, the commonwealth had lost its importance, the “special relationship” with the United States lay in shambles as a consequence of the Iraq War – and now, the industry of Britain’s future was hanging by a thread. On top of that came the accusations and schadenfreude – often unfair and petty – from elsewhere in the EU, particularly from Germany. The City of London became a scapegoat for the financial crisis.
At the time, I was disconcerted to see that Germany had become gripped by what I now see and reject in Britain: populism in the media and in politics. Bankers were discounted as “greedy bonus-bankers” and “Anglo-Saxon locusts” – aspersions that were informed by a complete lack of expertise in the field. It was combined with constant – and frequently misleading – attacks on the European Central Bank and its president, Mario Draghi. Even as the ECB turned to legitimate monetary policy instruments to guide the common currency through the most challenging crisis it had ever faced, it was being undermined by German central bankers and economists with, in my opinion, unbearable self-righteousness. There was no way to stand up to this wave of populism and I even took the step of quitting my job as a financial correspondent. It was a time when I began to take an emotional step back from Germany.
I didn’t suspect in that moment that political populism and dishonesty would ultimately take root in British politics as well. It took another 10 years of government-imposed austerity before millions of British people realized that they were being made to pay for the financial crisis despite not having benefited from the boom that had preceded it. The impoverished industrial cities in the North of England had received nothing from the extended party in the glitzy towers on the banks of the Thames – not even a new motorway connection or a faster train connection. They didn’t get better schools or training programs. There wasn’t even enough money left for the A&E department in their hospitals. I have rarely held such hopeless interviews as I did in Sunderland and Workington, the port cities on England’s east and west coasts. I spoke with people in the pubs, in the fish ‘n’ chips shops and on the streets between drab, gray houses – people with no vision, no future and no education. They said they were “on the sick,” meaning they were dependent on state help. I hadn’t even known the expression before then.
The Lie of EU Culpability
Of course these people voted for Brexit. What else could they do? Boris Johnson is claiming that, with Brexit finally becoming a reality, the government will finally be able to focus on domestic policy and invest billions of pounds in infrastructure, schools and the health-care sector. What a lie! The government could have done that in past years as well. As if the EU had ever prevented the UK government from making such investments.
Why should it be the fault of the EU that Britain doesn’t have a functioning care system for the elderly? For years, my daughters would wake me up at night, saying: “Mom, the man is screaming again.” I would sleepily grab the key and go into our neighbor’s house to calm the 90-year-old man who was lying in his bed, lonely, bedridden, not remembering where he was.
The fact that the UK’s health-care system is broken has nothing to do with the EU. I am tired of being dependent on doctors who are required to issue wrong diagnoses to keep costs down. When I went to my general practitioner in Kingston with a torn meniscus, she sent me to physical therapy. When I complained to the general practitioner after getting my knee operated on by a private doctor, her reply was as brutal as it was honest: “We are no longer allowed to diagnose and operate on a meniscus for patients of your age for cost reasons.” I’m 60 years old. My private doctor confirmed the general practitioner’s claim. “Those who have a private insurance come to me. Those who can’t afford it just have to live with a painful knee.” Doctors, it should be noted, are opposed to Brexit because they will be losing EU research funding and personnel.
The Easygoing Cosmopolitanism Is Gone
With each passing day, it is becoming more and more difficult for me to stand the government’s hypocrisy. In parliament, they complain about the freedom of movement for EU workers, but at the same time, the council is building the bicycle path in front of my house using workers from Poland.
How can you talk about fair taxation when you’re allowing billions in capital flight from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Russia to enter the country untaxed via offshore islands and tax havens? How can the government speak of equal opportunity when this money is jacking up prices for real estate, private schools and university education to the point that British people can no longer afford to live in their own capital or attend their own universities?
One of my daughters is currently studying biochemistry at the Technical University in Munich, an excellent education that is costing practically no money at all. For my other daughter in Britain, I just paid 11,000 pounds to the university for her law studies – for just one year. That is unbelievably expensive and out of reach for most people. But that is the product of the oh-so-fantastic free market. And it will get even worse once the UK no longer has to adhere to EU regulations pertaining to offshore companies.
I never would have thought that one day I would have to apply for a British passport just so the country that has been my home for most of the last 30 years could remain my home. My children grew up in this country and I want to have the option of living here whenever and however I wish, irrespective of the decisions made by politicians seeking re-election. In the future, that will only be possible with a British passport in addition to German citizenship, which I would never give up. Deep inside, I am German and that isn’t going to change. It is a feeling deeper than politics.
So, I dutifully filled out my application for a residency permit and then the 80-page passport application for me and my daughters. I provided evidence that I am an acceptable citizen, that I have always paid my taxes and that I have private health insurance – that I am not a burden on the state. I presented a list of my assets, proof of income and details about my bank accounts. I had my fingerprints taken, took an English test and passed the citizenship test. Then I received a reply to my residency permit application – telling me that I had unfortunately filled out the wrong form. I had to do it all over again. The entire process lasted more than a year and cost the equivalent of 5,000 euros for the three of us.
Such was the 2012 “hostile environment policy” administered by then Home Secretary Theresa May, a policy initially aimed at scaring off illegal immigrants. But it was then expanded to include those with legitimate citizenship aspirations. The government had suddenly succumbed to populism. Suddenly, it had decided that immigration was a threat, that certain people did not belong here, that they were foreign. Those who saw things differently were traitors. I found myself thinking about Germany’s dark past.
England has changed. The easy openness to the world has vanished. In the news coverage, the country has become self-absorbed. The Union Jack is the new packaging of marketing. Questions about where you come from, why you’re in the country, whether you are from inside or outside the EU and whether you have the right to stay, are suddenly part of life. These days, my doctor’s Portuguese nurse receives letters shoved under her door saying that she should go back home. It is shocking how quickly society can change.
I Don’t Want to Go Anywhere Else
I find it worrying that people in Britain seem to think the country is infallible, that it is impossible for extremism to take root in the country. I still want to believe this is true, but the British have just elected a government that has cleansed its own party and its own parliamentary group of people who stand for liberalism. It is a government that silences parliament and hopes to reduce the power of the Supreme Court.
When I received my British passport, I felt nothing. I was simply relieved that my children and I could now decide for ourselves where we wanted to live in the future. Dual citizenship is an opportunity, but it is also a sign of having been uprooted. I am unable to feel British, nor do I want to any longer. There are things that, as a German, I could never adapt to: The adoration of the royal family, for example, and the pride felt in the two world wars.
Open the British passport, and on the first page you will find a drawing of a compass and a ship’s rope that can easily be untied before sailing off and seeking one’s fortunes elsewhere. And that’s exactly what Brexit is. But I have never wanted to sail off and search for new horizons. I really just want to stay where my trip began – in the EU.