By Dr Michael Ward
Thirty-one years ago, my wife and I drove in a clapped-out Lada across the border between the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal German Republic (West Germany).
Then we headed for the United Kingdom. We were crossing a border perfectly legally, after unravelling a great deal of red tape, that many others died trying to navigate. That's the reality of what border controls in Europe used to mean.
That's the background to why freedom of movement exists. My wife is the daughter of a refugee. Her father came from what was then East Prussia, now part of Poland. In the dying days of the war, he and his family tried to flee from the advancing Red Army. The Nazi authorities were under orders to shoot 'traitors' trying to flee East Prussia – though by this stage their authority was crumbling – and the Allies were bombing the escaping convoys. Nobody, on any side, wanted the refugees to make their journeys successfully.
As events unfolded, my father-in-law and his fellow would-be-escapees were overtaken by the Red Army. My grandfather-in-law ended his days in a Soviet labour camp. His son, and the remainder of the family, were eventually transported to Berlin in open cattle trains and unloaded there with just the clothes on their backs.
Europe is strewn with the remains of people who were unlucky enough to be born at the time when freedom of movement was a matter of life and death.
Karin – my wife – had been given rather a large and impressive stamp in her East German passport by the British embassy in Berlin. This entitled her to enter the UK. We had already obtained a Benelux transit visa for Karin from the Dutch embassy in Berlin so that we could pass through the Netherlands and Belgium and get the ferry from Zeebrugge.
We arrived in Dover and headed north to make a new life in the UK. We had very little money but at least we now had complete freedom to travel. Or so we thought. Travelling abroad from the UK as an East German citizen, we were soon to discover, involved not just obtaining visas for any countries we wished to visit but a far lengthier, more complicated and expensive process to obtain a 're-entry visa' for each trip. Since the UK Home Office visa department never ever answered the phone, everything had to be done using the postal system or by travelling to London and queuing in person at Petty France – an office staffed with the most misanthropic people I have ever encountered in any country in the world. As far as they were concerned, Karin was guilty of being foreign and the just punishment for this crime was that she be subjected to as much inconvenience and general unpleasantness as the Home Office had it in its power to inflict.
And then, on my birthday in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Karin received a shiny new all-German passport and we were suddenly free to travel, work, study, retire, and receive health-care anywhere in the EU, without any paperwork or aggravation. She got a teaching job here. We raised two children of our own as bilinguals with UK and German passports. We became, in time, a complete family of freely-moving Europeans.
Until last June. At five o’clock in the morning of June 24 we awoke with a sense of trepidation and switched the wireless on. We were about to discover that 51.9% of those who voted in the Brexit referendum had decided to take away our control over our lives.
We began to worry and have not really stopped worrying since. Would Karin be allowed to stay in the UK? Would she have to try apply for UK citizenship? Would she be able to obtain this without losing German citizenship? Would I, stripped of my EU citizenship, be able to go and live in Germany if Karin had to leave the UK? Would we still get our full UK pensions if we had to move to Germany?
We still have no answers to these questions. 'Of course people like you will be able to stay,' insist British people (some of them even Brexiters) who have never had to deal with the Home Office and do not know how cruel, incompetent and Kafkaesque it can be.
As it happens, they have made it clear that Karin is, in their eyes, simply a negotiating chip. It is often assumed that people who have lived in a country for five years or more automatically acquire rights to remain there. As this chilling 'Brexit: acquired rights' report from the House of Lords European Union committee makes clear, this is simply not the case. Acquired rights are very meagre indeed and will be of no real help to EU citizens in the UK or to UK citizens living abroad who are going to lose their EU citizenship.
But Karin has been here thirty-one years. She has worked and paid taxes all that time. She has held a UK driving licence for twenty-five years. She has a EU passport. Surely she can just walk into a local town hall and pay a small fee and get her residence permit in half an hour or so – like in other EU countries?
Actually it transpires that Karin has to fill in an eighty-five page form. We have been at it in spare moments for two months now and are still a long way from completing it. The form asks for the exact dates of every exit from and return to the UK since Karin came to live here in 1985 and for bank statements and P60s and mortgage records and utility bills and evidence of how Karin supported herself as a part time MA student twenty-five years ago and proof of the medical insurance she had for that period – even though she did not need medical insurance. Just to hand it in we need to go to another city, make an appointment to see somebody, hand over £65 and present her identity documents.
Even after you've got to that point, about 30% of applications are refused. Some failed applicants are then also being instructed, for good measure, to leave the UK, even though the Home Office knows perfectly well that it cannot force law-abiding EU citizens to leave as long as we are still members of the EU.
By default, any of the three million people settled in the UK, including Karin, who have not yet obtained citizenship or a resident's permit (which is to say most of them) will wake up on the morning of April 1st, 2019 with no right to be here, or even in possession of an explicit demand from the Home Office that they depart these shores.
Future generations of young British people will lose their rights to work and study and fall in love in other European countries – though I suppose some will manage it in spite of everything, just as I did.
As for existing UK residents, one hopes the Home Office come to their senses and start making clear what on earth they are going to do. There are only two years and a couple of months to go and I have every expectation that there will be utter chaos when the time runs out.
This is not a return to Cold-War-Europe-style control over the movement of people. But, in my short lifetime, we gained and are now losing some very special freedoms. We shall all face more red-tape and delays when travelling or trading in Europe. We are all losing our guaranteed rights to go and live in twenty-seven other countries.
I have never felt so alienated from my country. We are seriously considering leaving the UK and, assuming that Germany will be kinder to me than the UK has been to Karin, moving back to eastern Germany to regain our freedoms. There is, I think, a certain irony in that.
Mike Ward is a data-modeller for a European firm. He can be found on Twitter as @Schroedinger99.
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