Insight: EU expats’ sense of betrayal

As Britain prepared for its raucous Brexit party Scotland’s European expats shared their feelings of loss, abandonment and anger with Dani Garavelli.

Svenja Meyerricks (37) from Berlin, Germany with daughter,
Tara (16 months) at the Language Hub in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
Svenja Meyerricks (37) from Berlin, Germany with daughter, Tara (16 months) at the Language Hub in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

Andrea Wieler Goodbrand remembers the first time she became aware of hostility towards her as a European living in the UK.

“It was a few weeks before the EU referendum,” she says. “The campaign had passed me by because everyone I knew was going to vote Remain. But then I was out walking and I saw a Brexit stall and it really offended me. I said to my husband, Paul: ‘I am really upset now,’ and he said: ‘Why?’ and I answered, ‘Because this is about me.’

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

“It was a big realisation for a white European. In the past people had always been benevolent to me. I was the quirky Swiss girl. And that’s completely unjustified. It’s disgraceful that my nationality meant I was treated more favourably. But that is the way it was.”

Wieler Goodbrand is talking to me in the kitchen of her home in the south side of Glasgow where she lives with Paul – a Scot – and their two-year-old son. The UK is poised to leave the European Union after 45 years. The following day will be a festival of triumphalism: government buildings will be lit up in red, white and blue, Michael Gove will talk of his “relief and his delight”, and a digital clock will count down the minutes until the country “takes back control.”

Some of this triumphalism will push its way north. A few dozen Leave voters will gather in Glasgow’s George Square to wave their Union Jacks and toast their new-found “freedom”.

In Wieler Goodbrand’s flat, however – and elsewhere in Scotland, which voted 62 per cent to Remain – there is a visceral grief, not only for the EU as a political entity, but as a symbol of peace, tolerance and collaboration. Those who feel European to their core – those who come from immigrant stock and prefer their passports maroon and their borders open – are seeking catharsis.

As the appointed hour draws near, some wag will co-opt the Duke of Wellington – Tory stalwart that he was – to the Remain cause by placing a pro-European cone on his head. The hashtag #LeaveALightOnForScotland will trend all day. Outside Holyrood, pipes will be played and candles lit.

No-one, however, will be in greater need of solace than the new Scots: those Europeans who – like Wieler Goodbrand – have built their homes here and have spent almost three years in a state of uncertainty.

These immigrants staked their futures on the UK, and yet their loyalty and investment is being disputed, not by the Scottish Government, which has consistently expressed its gratitude, but by Westminster, which controls their fate.

Having to apply for “settled status” has been a source of humiliation. So too has seeing themselves portrayed as freeloaders when they have worked so hard to make a contribution.

Few have worked harder to make a contribution than Wieler Goodbrand. Her homeland is not a member of the EU, but has a bilateral agreement granting freedom of movement. She moved to Scotland in 2009, after five years in Italy, to do a master’s degree at Heriot-Watt University. Very quickly, she fell in love with Paul and – after finishing her studies – she started freelancing as a translator and interpreter.

Post-Brexit, this route will be closed to EU citizens, who will have to be able to prove they earn £30,000 to be eligible for a work visa. Wieler Goodbrand didn’t come close to earning this sum when she started out. And yet today, she runs the Language Hub – a social enterprise offering affordable language classes and promoting bilingualism in Glasgow’s West End.

“It’s brutal what you see online and in the newspapers,” she says. “We are told we have treated this country too much like our home. Well, it is our home and this is a good thing. When people treat the country like their home, they treat it well.

“If I don’t care about my community, then nothing good comes from it. But I do care about it. I run a social enterprise because I think this community is lovely and deserves care.”

The way the UK government talks about immigrants has made her question her decision to settle here.

“I have lived in Scotland from the age of 30 to 41. I have had my career here,” she says. “But now I wonder if I made a mistake because, if I am being told I should not be here, then why did I give you my time and the best years of my professional life?”

Wieler Goodbrand has not experienced much personal abuse – like the other EU citizens I speak to she believes living in Scotland is a protective factor – but she has faced logistical hurdles and much hurt.

Last week, she finally applied for settled status. Then she downed two whiskies because she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. Her application has been accepted, but with no documentation to prove she is legally here she does not know how much help it will be. This is particularly worrying for her as her son suffers from a chronic illness which requires regular treatment.

“Nothing has changed yet. But people started making things up as soon as the referendum was over,” she says. “When I was pregnant, I phoned the midwife and I was asked if I had been here for 12 months. I was angry. No-one from the government had told staff to ask that question, so why was it being raised?”

She is worried she will be forced to defend herself if she turns up with her son at A&E. She is also concerned employers will start to discriminate against those who are not British, not out of malice, but because they are confused about the rules or to avoid extra administration.

Days earlier, she watched Nigel Farage bid goodbye to the European Parliament with an undignified display of flag-waving (while elsewhere MEPs linked hands and sang Auld Lang Syne). But she says greater hurt has been inflicted by those closer to home. “OK, there are these people who think it’s about flags. I don’t agree with that. I find it childish, but I don’t identify with them,” she says.

“What is more problematic is that the people in whose community I live don’t understand how awful the last three years have been. When they read headlines in the Daily Mail, they don’t realise it is me they are talking about.

“When they discuss, on social media, whether or not immigrants are an economic benefit, again it is me: the person who is their friend or relative.

“Even those who are pro-immigration; who think they are being helpful when they point out immigrants contribute 1.5 times [more in taxes than their indigenous counterparts] can be hurtful. I want to say to them: ‘I am so much more than this. I am a mother, a wife, a human being. I am not a 1.5 times contribution.’ It is horrible to be reduced to a statistic.”

Artist William Saraband had never visited Scotland when he made the decision to move from Portugal four years ago, but he was smitten with the image that had formed in his imagination. His early fascination, kindled by reading Walter Scott and listening to Celtic music, was reinforced by friendly customers in his mother’s café in Tavira in the Algarve.

“Compared with other parts of the UK, the Scottish customers would be the ones who would always say: ‘Oh, you should come over. It’s brilliant in Scotland. We need young people just like you,” he says.

By 2015, Saraband and his boyfriend had decided there was no future for them in Portugal, which was still suffering the after-effects of the economic crash. There were few job opportunities for someone with a master’s degree in medieval history, so he was serving tables in his mother’s café while his dentist boyfriend worked six days a week for €700 a month.

They moved to Edinburgh, knowing no-one, but immediately felt at home. Within a few months, they both had jobs, Saraband in the marketing department of a tech company, his boyfriend as a dentist.

That was in November 2015. By February 2016, the anti-immigrant rhetoric was already being ramped up.

“I started seeing something very dark. EU citizens were being talked about more and more in relation to NHS waiting times,” he says. “It led me to do something I had never done in Portugal: join a political party. The SNP wasn’t the only party to reject the xenophobia early on – the Greens and the Lib Dems were also good on the issue – but the SNP had the strongest non-apologetic voice. It was saying quite clearly that immigrants were valued.”

Still in Portugal, Saraband’s mother is already feeling the impact of Brexit. The number of British tourists frequenting her café has decreased. So too has the number of expats. “Four families – three Scots and one from Northern Ireland – have come to say goodbye because they are selling their apartments and moving home,” he says. Friends who moved elsewhere in the UK have also been affected. He tells me about researchers in Liverpool who returned home in 2017. “They told me that after the vote people were saying to them, ‘Aren’t you leaving now?’ as if that was what they were supposed to do.”

In his Edinburgh bubble, Saraband feels insulated from the toxicity of Brexit, but says he is an optimist, not an idiot. “I know it is the Home Office, not the Scottish Government, that will take the decisions that affect my future.”

Brexit will have no impact on his own relationship with Europe or cause a disconnect with his family. “I keep reminding myself that it is not me who is losing out. I still have 27 other countries where I can exercise my freedom of movement,” he says.

“And yet, the one country where I want to exercise it is the one in which it is being denied to me. That is the irony”

Eight-week-old Luna De Luca is lying on a changing table in her home in Maryhill, Glasgow. She is wearing a pretty hand-knitted dress and gurgling contentedly. Luna means “moon” in both her parents’ languages. In a week of symbols, this eight-week-old baby – born a fortnight before Boris Johnson won his victory, making Brexit inevitable – is a beacon in dark skies; and a powerful testament to the European ideal.

Luna will grow up to be tri-lingual. Her father Manuel, a university lecturer, will speak to her in Italian, her mother Caterine Arrabal, a lawyer, will speak to her in Spanish, and she will speak English in school. “She truly is a European breed,” says Manuel.

Brexit poses no greater threat to the De Luca family than to anyone else in the UK. As the Spanish-born daughter of a Scots mother, Caterine already has dual nationality. Manuel, from Sicily has become a British citizen. Having moved to Scotland together 11 years ago, they have good jobs and a comfortable home.

Yet none of this has made them complacent. They are shocked at the way attitudes to European immigrants have changed over the past few years; and dismayed by the way the benefits of being a member of the EU have been so casually discarded.

“What I love about Europe is the potential it offers for meeting people of other nationalities and doing all sorts of different things in different countries,” says Manuel.

“When I moved to Spain, I saw lots of European people making new lives, mixing together having children. It is one of the highest achievements. In the UK, however, it is going to change. There will be quotas and fewer Europeans mixing with people here.”

What frustrates Manuel is the lack of an angry fight-back. “We have seen some marches against Brexit, and some marches for independence, but there doesn’t seem to be a culture of demonstrating here. In France, they demonstrate all the time. People in France went on strike for a month over changes to the pension system. Those changes happened here and nobody said anything. Why can we not make more noise? Why can we not speak out with one voice?”

While he and Caterine are upset by the UK’s departure from the EU, they believe Brexit might be the catalyst required to shake the country out of its complacency.

“If you see this strategically, it could be a chance to change a system that is pretty old and not fair and not working any more,” says Manuel. “There is an Italian saying: ‘Si chiude la porta, si apre un portone’ or ‘sometimes a door will close, but an even bigger door will open’.

“A door has been closed with Brexit, but maybe there will be a bigger door – an even stronger relationship with Europe in the future because people will have come to appreciate it more.”

“I hope so, for this one’s sake,” adds Caterine, who has been breast-feeding her baby daughter on the sofa. “I want her to have all the opportunities that I had and more.”

Luna lies milk-drunk and blissful in her mother’s lap. Luna. The moon. Leave a light on. We will find our way home.