Brexit is consuming the U.K. and Europe with concern right now. From afar, all I can fathom from the campaign is an undeniable sense that you can’t trust a word of what politicians are saying, or in fact any people with a dogged agenda. It’s all spin, big statements, pointing fingers and trying to discredit the opposing side. Who on earth is telling a word of truth, it’s hard to know.
I grew up in a member country of the European Union where borders were breaking down and we were fast becoming friends with all of our nearest and dearest neighbours. At 18, I could get a summer job in Germany and all I had to do is buy a plane ticket, get some deutsche marks and go. No restrictions, no questions really (except from the parents of course), no answering to authorities about our intent or motives (still the parents). It’s incredible really that it could be that easy to move from country to country. It’s something we take for granted now. My husband grew up behind the Berlin Wall and as a young teenager, had no realistic hope of ever seeing West Germany, not to mention the U.K. or America. It was a pipe dream for him and his story has probably fine-tuned my awareness and appreciation of freedom of movement to a considerable degree.
America has always been hard to get in to, that’s a whole other continent of distrust of all who are entering in. Immigration was certainly intimidating and tough when I worked in San Francisco and Boston on 2 different occasions. I always had the right visa, sponsored by respective employers but still, these big burly steely-eyed guys had the power to send you packing if they had any doubt about your motives or intent. By the time I got through each time, I was so delighted with myself, I was sure that big ol’ American dream was waiting for me around the next corner… they had put me through the ringer for it at immigration so it must be, surely.
The hilarious thing then was, once you were inside the 4 walls of North America, you could fly from state to state with abandon, no checks on internal flights. I distinctly remember turning up late to a flight from San Francisco to Seattle. I was with a colleague and we absolutely legged it through the airport. We checked in at the departure gate, THE DEPARTURE GATE which was announcing last call and ran on to the plane. An American friend said once that flying within America before 911 was like hopping on a bus. He was right. Trust and ease in abundance.
I think that travelling within Europe has not been much different to that for years. As a citizen of any member state, you can easily hop on a plane to another, no visa or no permits required, no limitations on your stay. Overall, the European principle of free movement of people and goods has really worked. In recent years, it has become a bit harder to actually get from one country to the next but staying there is still easy. Increased security checks, taking your belt off, security checking an iPad per child, people trying to get a 51ml tube of toothpaste through on their hand luggage for God only knows what reason, it all takes processing time at airports. But they are just operational necessities and perhaps inconveniences, free movement is still alive and kicking.
It was something I was concerned about moving here to Norway, as of course, Norway is not in the European Union. We had no Norwegian family or anchor of any sort. Why were we moving here.. amm, umm, because we had 2 great weekends here, you all seem like very nice people and sur’ you need a bit of upheaval in your forties don’t you. Would the Norwegian authorities buy our powerful story and let us in? Would they let us stay (on the basis that we were still alive and able to stay after the first Artic winter). How soon could they throw us out if they didn’t like us? All the slight niggling concerns you have when you are moving lock, stock and barrel with the kids in tow.
In fairness, we could not have stayed here without being financially independent. In Norway, EU citizens have a right to enter but not to stay. My husband’s job was central to our visa application and granting of a residence permit. We absolutely, understandably, had to be financially independent. If we cease to be financially independent, we have 6 months leeway and then we are out. So it’s fair. It’s controlled. It’s a bit scary.
So if the U.K. drops out of the European Union, it’s logical to think that there’ll be an impact on mobility of British citizens around Europe and also Europeans living and studying in the U.K. . There is already talk of a border going back up between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Healthcare, pension rights, lower university fees that are shared and granted between EU member states would all stand to be in for a stark review. And of course, if the result is Leave, the EU may not give Britain an easy ride in terms of trade and movement agreements as it will open the gates for others to follow suit.
As a member of the European Economic Area, Norwegians can move freely around Europe and famously, many here have holiday homes in the south of Spain where they go in retirement to avoid the long cold winters. Looking at Norway as a blueprint for how it can work in retaining domestic control over laws, imports, immigration, while still needing to access EU markets on their doorstep is all well and good. Norway pays hundreds of millions annually with no top table say in decision making in Europe. It’s a precarious balance. I can’t help but think that the Norwegian dream of attaining a balance here has been hugely facilitated by the ultimate economic enabler, money. The Norwegians didn’t need the European purse like say, Ireland did to protect small farmers through milk quotas or to build motorways. Their own purse is fat enough to protect domestic markets in fishing and farming as well as the good healthcare, subsidised childcare, free university, all of which contribute to contentment here. The U.K. could of course follow this blueprint where they can fund the shortfall of the former EU subsidies, support infrastructure as always and still pay out to the EU for trade and free movement agreements and whatever else they manage to negotiate. Big purse, that.
After 5 years here in Norway, we will have the right to apply for permanent residency, which would allow us to stay indefinitely. This gives us “extra protection from expulsion” but that is not saying that we can’t be expelled if we manage to badly offend the authorities. As rank outsiders, we won’t have the peace of mind that we would have in an EU member state. If we did decide to move abroad for over 2 years for work reasons or for the sheer thrill of it, our permanent residency could be revoked and we would have to start all over again in applying for the right to stay here.
Here in Norway, in Europe but outside of the EU, the fortune of foreigners very much depend on economics. If the economy is doing well, employment is high and everyone is reasonably safe. When the economy turns southwards, as it did with the downturn in the oil industry, people lose jobs, and there is an exodus of foreigners because they have no grounds to stay without financial stability.
In the EU, it’s more about politics than economics for migrants from other European countries. EU migrants living in member states have a right to remain regardless of work, so they are more at the mercy of politics, anti-immigrant sentiment in terms of being welcome by society or not.
The funny thing in the U.K at the moment is that there is now just 5% unemployment which is practically full employment. The wave of anti-EU immigrant sentiment is a hangover from some 10 years ago when the economy was struggling, and there were floods of people arriving from Eastern Europe. If even half the EU workers disappeared in the morning, there may be less pressure on schools and the health service but the economy would take a serious knock. Right now, there is a huge dependency on foreign workers in a thriving economy and this will get a lot more complicated if Britain leaves the EU.
We love it here in Norway but at the end of the day, we don’t have the peace of mind that we had in the U.K. It’s our choice to be here, of course, and I think we are fortunate in a thousand ways. We don’t plan to leave. We work, we want to work and pay our way, abide by the rules and make an overall contribution. But for me, there is a new sense of insecurity that we could be in trouble if we lost our means of income through redundancy or illness. It’s not a great feeling. But the reality is that there are fewer safety nets living in Europe outside the European Union.