With my privileged background (white, middle-class, educated), it is rare for me to feel personally offended by political rhetoric. Outraged, yes. Disgusted, yes – but I am lucky enough to not usually feel personally under attack or threatened. That all changed over the last few months, in the run up to what has to be one of the most important referendums held in UK history: that which will decide whether Britain remains in the European Union. It also has to be one of the nastiest and most depressing political debates in recent history, having somehow descended into a completely unhinged and unbalanced assault on immigration. The ‘us and them’ fear-mongering propaganda that has been casting an increasingly large and dark shadow over this country took a frighteningly real turn last week with the violent death of Jo Cox MP. A horrific tragedy at a personal level (a husband left with two small children; devastated friends and family; constituents in tears) and a political event of truly shocking significance.
Ever since I first moved to the UK, my mother has always poked fun at the ‘splendid isolation’ tendencies of this island nation that has stubbornly and inconveniently held on to its national currency and plug sockets and insists on referring to ‘Europe’ as if it is on a different planet. I always affectionately defended these quirks. I love this country. But recently I have wondered, what have we become? Are MPs no longer safe to hold open access surgeries for their constituents? Are we really so frightened of ‘the other’ that we want to turn our backs on our neighbours and bolt the door? The Vote Leave campaign has knowingly and unforgivably deployed language and images redolent of Nazi propaganda, most notably the UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ poster depicting a line of Syrian refugees. I am astounded that this is even possible in a supposedly civilised nation in 2016.
And for the first time in my life, I am taking it personally. Just yesterday, the odious Nigel Farage was on Today talking about putting a stop to people coming here to study and then staying. Like me, Nigel? Came here to get a degree, found a job, paid taxes here for 14 years – outrageous. I’m so angry about the relentless xenophobic rhetoric proclaiming things like ‘Halt ze German advance’ (yes, really) and ‘Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU’ – the latter a blatant untruth. It would be funny if it wasn’t so desperately serious.
I have always felt European. The Netherlands is a small country and working together with our neighbours has brought peace and stability and prosperity, on the whole. Immigration is beneficial, in principle: it leads to interesting cultural and ideological exchange; it boosts skills; it brings new perspectives. Quite apart from the fact that it is the goddamn moral duty of rich prosperous countries to welcome the displaced and the dispossessed of this world. The European Union started as a peace project, let’s not forget. And for all its flaws (of course there are many, many flaws – the current refugee crisis painfully and tragically underlines that), in this at least it has been successful. We have not been at war with our neighbours for 70 years. But if we turn our back on the EU, who knows what will happen in the next 70 years?
It is a fallacy, anyway, that Britain will be able to ‘take back control’ quickly and easily. And the sad thing is that the people who will probably suffer most from the economic chaos resulting from a ‘Brexit’ vote are exactly those who feel disenfranchised and angry enough to vote Leave in the first place: those who have been led to believe that the reason why they are ‘losing out’ and stuck in dead-end, low-paid jobs is not the irresponsible and self-serving actions of politicians, but an unstoppable tide of greedy immigrants who come over to usurp the NHS and claim school places and council housing. I am genuinely worried about what will happen when the toxic cocktail of economic unrest and xenophobic sentiments fuelled by the tabloid press boils over. And I feel impotent, because as a non-citizen I do not have a vote in this referendum whose outcome will so deeply affect me.
Without the EU, my life would have been so different. The EU allowed me to pursue my dream to go and live in the country with which I had always felt a strange spiritual bond. I would never have been able to afford my tuition fees if it hadn’t been for the EU. I would not have been free to settle and work and build a new life here. Yes, I competitively integrated to such a degree that you may not notice I am an immigrant. But I am. I am proud of it, as I am of my Dutch and European heritage. In these times of unrest and uncertainty we need to stand united and celebrate our common ground, as well as our differences. This does not in any way have to be to the detriment of our ‘sovereignty’ – whatever that is, exactly. We should not burn our bridges. We should influence and negotiate and effect positive change from the inside. We should lead by example in promoting tolerance and unity, not hatred and division and xenophobia. We are better than this, surely.
I love you, Britain. Please don’t let me down on Thursday.