By Michael Roberts*
A student at Kosice’s Safarik University in eastern Slovakia once used a very public meeting to challenge me to explain why, when she was in the UK, she was typically referred to as an “East European immigrant”, while Brits abroad were more usually called “British expats”.
This embarrassing observation points to a lack of balance and perspective in the discourse about our continent, our shared history, and about the EU.
The twentieth century was probably the most devastating in Europe’s history. While NATO won the Cold War, it was the EU that won the peace as well as the stability and relative prosperity that has accompanied it.
I was present to see border controls between Slovakia and Austria completely dismantled in 2007 when most Central European countries joined the Schengen zone. The emotion on the faces of those who had for decades known this border only as the Iron Curtain spoke volumes.
Indeed, citizens of fifteen – over half – of today’s 28 EU Member States were living under some form of totalitarian rule when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973. Today, Serbia and Kosovo are being persuaded to put aside their differences so as to be able, eventually, also to join the EU.
Seen from afar, the EU is a remarkable and unparalleled model of cooperation between sovereign states, one that has pulled down divisions between people and one that countries on the outside remain keen to join.
We in Britain perhaps take for granted what the EU has made possible. And we tend to see it as a one-way street. Nearly one and half million Brits have gone to live and work in other EU countries. Over two million have come from other EU countries to live, study, and work here in Britain. As EU citizens they have exercised their free movement rights.
Brits move abroad not just to indulge in sea and sun. Hundreds of thousands of British students have benefitted from the ERASMUS Scheme to study at universities in other European countries.
Millions of Brits journey across the continent with EHIC cards entitling them to free health treatment wherever they end up, or to compensation when their flights are unduly delayed.
Thousands invest on the continent. Tens of thousands trade. Hundreds of thousands buy property. Who knows how many find their partners for life.
Being an EU citizen makes this possible like never before – easier, more manageable, more secure, underpinned by a familiar and generally predictable legal system.
What of the slightly larger number of non-British EU citizens who have made Britain their home.
By voting with their feet, they have shown our universities in Britain to be among the best in the world. On graduating many have returned home, fluent in the English language and culture, to trade with Britain or to manage British investment in their home countries.
And those that have stayed? There’s no evidence to justify labelling them benefit scroungers. Or to complain that they don’t contribute to our economy when so many engage in work that wouldn’t otherwise be done.
Our fruit-picking industry, which we once sought to protect from Polish competition, is now dependent on pickers from Central Europe.
Our hospitality trade would have collapsed without first Spanish and Portuguese, and now Central European labour.
Like Greeks, Swedes and others before them, Central Europeans who arrived here less than 10 years ago are now high-flying executives in the City of London. Poles are now doing great business providing GP and dental services to patients who can’t wait for the NHS.
They enjoy their rights by virtue of EU citizenship. Besides the right to compete for work on equal terms, to have their qualifications recognised, to use a hospital if they need to, they also have the right to vote, and stand, in local and European elections. A very few do stand, and some of them prosper. But a large proportion fail even to register to vote.
So next May’s European Parliamentary elections matter like never before for those across the European Union who have benefitted from the rights conferred by EU citizenship, who can speak from personal experience, and who believe in a reformed EU.
Getting EU citizens to register to vote for those elections is the immediate challenge.
Beyond that looms the prospect of a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU is the next challenge. James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill proposes that the franchise for that referendum should be the same as for national elections.
Which means that non-British EU citizens – though not, curiously, those from Malta, Cyprus and Ireland – as well as any Brits who have been living on the continent for more than 15 years will have no say on the continuation of those rights on which their lives and livelihoods have come to depend.
A vote to leave the EU would pull the rug out from beneath the feet of Brits living in Europe and EU citizens living in the UK.
Even if they cannot yet vote, they should certainly have their say.
* (The author was British Ambassador to Slovakia from 2007-10, and is a founder member of New Europeans)
Brits’ and all EU citizens’ rights are at stake