On Thursday 23rd June 2016 British citizens will decide on Britain’s future either in or out the European Union. However over 3 Mil of EU citizens who live and work in Britain will not be given the voice on the matter which will affect their life more than the British people.
Alice Velt, a Dutch national who has been living in the UK for more than 20 years tries to raise the awareness why the voice of the EU migrants shall be taken into consideration. Half a year ago she launched a petition on the official website of the UK Parliament (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/108884) in order to give the EU national the right to vote in the referendum.
In a conversation with Alice, I had the opportunity to ask her about her initiative, why the opinion of EU citizens should be taken into consideration on the 23rd of June and how their life might be affected by the so-called ‘Brexit’.
JO: When did you arrive to the UK for the first time and what made you stay here?
AV: Actually it has to do with the EU, because when I was at the University in Rotterdam, there were people from Northern College in Aberdeen,, who asked students if they were interested in coming over to Scotland and do part of their degree there. It was partially funded by Comenius and Erasmus programmes while the other part was funded by the Shell, which headquarters were in Rotterdam. So the European Union helped me to study in Aberdeen. I went back to Rotterdam to finish my degree but I decided to come back because I met somebody who I later married. We moved to Dover, where my husband got a job, but after a year we moved back to Scotland because my husband is from here. This is where we are now.
JO: How did you come up with the idea of starting the petition?
AV: I am a teacher. I teach Modern Studies which is like social studies and politics. So I teach my pupils about the importance of voting. We had the topic about the EU and it was actually one of my pupils who was really spurring me on. He said so, “why you don’t start a petition if you think is so unfair?” That was really very supportive. He kept asking me if I started the petition and so one day I did. That is basically how it started and I was very pleased to see that, in the last couple of weeks, it really took off.
JO: Once a petition reaches 10, 000 signatures, it has to be responded by the government. The Government responded by dismissing your petition arguing that “[u]nder the EU treaties, EU nationals have the right to vote in municipal elections and elections to the European Parliament in other Member States […] [b]ut this right does not extend to national elections or referendums”.. Are you satisfied with the answer?
AV: No, I am not, because I stand on my point that if Britain leaves the EU it will affect many EU citizens. I have spoken to other EU citizens, German nationals and Dutch nationals, and all said that they are very concerned about this matter and seriously consider leaving the UK in case of Brexit. The government also says that the British nationals did not vote in French and Dutch referendums in 2005, but it forgets that the British decided to take a special position to that issue. I feel that this will affect us more than the British people. Especially the Human Rights Act which the conservative government intends to turn into British Bills of Rights. It will have a huge effect on non-British nationals. I know that there is opposition because terrorist and criminals are receiving legal protection, but there are more people who are decent citizens and will lose their legal protection too, since they will no longer be able to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. That is really worrying.
JO: Do you think that reaching 100,000 signatures, which would make the petition considered for a parliamentary debate, would change anything?
AV: Actually, I am really surprised how much pace the petition has gained in the last weeks. However, I don’t think it would change much, because this issue does not affect the British people directly. Maybe, it would draw media attention and raise awareness. I would like that the conservative government acknowledges the enormous value that all EU nationals who live and work here brings to the UK. I feel that there is so much negativity in the press, about us, the foreigners, and it should not be the case because we are part of the community and we should not be treated differently just because of our country of origin.
JO: Have you ever felt that you were treated differently because you are not British?
AV: Oh yes in a certain way, but realised it later on.
JO: Can you give any example of that?
AV: Yes, I live in a very remote area of Scotland. It is a very rural area with a strong community feeling. At the beginning, somebody misheard when I said I am from Holland and thought that I was from Poland so, from then on, I started to be ’the Polish woman’. Whenever I tried to apply for any little jobs, like shops and fish&chips, the jobs ‘were already taken’. I realised later that the reason behind it, it was just because I was treated as an outsider. It does not affect me much but there are people who see me in this way and I think that all the people who came after me from the eastern European countries had tougher times than I did. I came earlier and from the Netherlands, which is perceived a bit different from, for example, Poland.
JO: Do you think that Brexit is possible and which implications you think it will have on the EU citizens?
AV: If you believe what the media says, it is about fifty-fifty, so I think it is possible and I am really concerned. Especially taking into consideration that the conservatives want to turn the Human Right Act into a kind of ‘British’ Right Act, which would leave anyone without the British citizenship pretty stuck. If you are wrongly accused, where can you go to appeal?
JO: Do you think that visas and work permits will be introduced for the EU nationals?
AV: I think it could happen, because that would be the great excuse for the conservatives to stop the steam of immigrants from the EU.
JO: So, do you consider going back to Holland if that happens?
AV: It is a very scary thought, but yes, I think about it. I am very well settled here. I have children, animals, job, so I am attached to Scotland, but I also feel unsure.
JO: In your opinion, what are the advantages for the UK to stay in the EU?
AV: There are many. Especially in the area where I live, there is a lot of funding from the Regional Development Fund, which is an EU funded support for areas which are poor and remote. The funds are not only going to the Eastern European countries but also we receive a lot of them here in Scotland. We have had roadworks done and an airport built partially from that funding. Besides, many farmers and tenant farmers benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy. Many universities are collaborating in scientific research with European universities and institutions. If the UK leaves the EU, we will not be able to get any funding and send our researchers over. Another thing would be that UK will become a single market without consumer protection. We need to remember that products such as dangerous toys and food labelling comes from the EU. I also think that the food will become more expensive, because there will be some import taxes. Worth mentioning is also the smoking ban, which is spreading around the EU. I think that this piece of legislation helped improved health of the Europeans. I know that there are many people who think that the EU interferes in our life in a negative way, to me it seems the opposite. I see the influence rather positive. Similarly, we have protection of the environment thanks to the EU, regulations on emissions, water quality, beach quality and tourism. Without the EU, everything would be very tangled.
JO: Do you see any disadvantages of staying in the EU?
AV: I think that many people will vote to leave the EU because of the fear spread by the media of the migration crisis. I am Dutch, so I read Dutch news and listen to the Dutch radio every day, and approximately one year ago there were published allocation lists, how many refugees will be allocated in the countries of the EU, but the UK was not even on the allocation list, the majority was going to Germany, Greece, Turkey, Netherlands. The media makes you believe that every migrant just wants to come to the UK, which is absolutely not true.
JO: Is there any negative influence of the EU on the UK?
AV: Many people can say that we pay much more in taxes to the EU than we receive and also that we cannot negotiate own trade arrangements with the United States, so there is less independence. I think that these are the main reasons why people think is better to be out rather than in.
JO: If you were to persuade Euro-sceptics to vote for staying in, what would you say?
AV: I would say that the value of sterling will drop very badly and the prices of goods will rise due to high inflation. The farmers will struggle because even now they already have very low prices on their goods and it is the EU which helps them to survive. It would be a serious step back for the British producers because they would have to export the goods with import taxes. I think that many businesses and large institutions may withdraw from the UK which it would cost way more jobs than the Easter European migrants are accused to be taking. I hope that, in the end, the UK will decide to stay in the EU. I teach at a High School and the vast majority of my pupils are very pro-European, especially because they have been recently involved in a Comenius project with other 7 European countries. The project title was ‘Four elements’. We travelled every 3 months to a new country which hosted pupils in families from other countries. There were many events and presentations held by the pupils on how the four elements affect their countries. For example, water is very important for making Whisky in Scotland, and fire is associated with volcanos in Italy. It was a really good project. In the two years which lasted we had the opportunity to meet many interesting people and friends. It was a very international experience that helped to connect with and understand a foreign culture. We hosted Polish student in our house, my son was hosted in Finland as a student part of this programme and I, as a teacher, went to Greece. So I am sure that Comenius and Erasmus projects for schools and universities are really very important. Being part of the European community means stability, peace, understanding and exchange of culture and that is what we all should be proud of.
The deadline for signing in the petition is 24 of March 2016. If the petition reaches 100 000 it will be considered for a parliamentary debate.