The invisible Europeans
Why EU citizens in the UK have no voice
Hello dear readers,
I hope you’re well. If you’re in the UK, you might still be reeling from a particularly interesting week of news. It’s hard to pick a highlight, but it’s the scuffles and vomit during UK Government lockdown parties complete with Karaoke machine that did it for me.
So you’d be forgiven for missing out on the story that is the subject of this newsletter: The latest migration figures from the Office of National Statistics which, I’ll admit, doesn’t have the initial ‘wow’ factor of tales of drunkenness in Downing Street.
But stay with me. The line that caught my eye was the growing number of EU citizens living in the UK who are applying for British Citizenship. More and more Europeans are choosing, many after decades of living here, to become British. And though there are many reasons behind each personal decision, I believe that
the indirect impact may end up being a lack of true representation of one of the biggest minorities in the UK.
Applications for citizenship by EU nationals are 21% higher than they were two years ago. European applications have also been growing as a proportion of all UK citizenship applications. To put it in context, when I applied for my UK citizenship back in 2011, only 4 % of all citizenship applications came from EU residents in the UK. Now that number is closer to 30%. (Great article here about this by migration experts Marie Godin and Nando Sigona , one of my favourite follows on Twitter on the subject of Migration. )
The path to citizenship isn’t easy or cheap. You won’t get much change from £2k and you’ll have to take the Life in the UK test, which I suspect most native Brits would fail.
If you don’t believe me, answer this actual question without Googling: “Who was Kenneth MacAlpin?” Let me know in the comments if you got it right. No cheating!
Getting British citizenship may be a convoluted process, but it’s easy to see why so many Europeans are applying. The mere mention of the phrase ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ is enough to sow the seeds of doubt in anyone’s mind about Brexit being done and dusted.
I guess it should be good news. Finally some security for so many Europeans living in limbo since Brexit.
But my first reaction wasn’t relief but one more akin to disappointment. Not because so many fellow Europeans are deciding to take UK citizenship when they previously might not have. But because changing their citizenship status will make the European communities living in the UK even more invisible in the media than they already are.
There are millions of EU citizens who call the UK home. More than 6 million applied to the Settlement Scheme, through which they retain the right to live in the UK that they enjoyed pre-Brexit. For a variety of reasons, the 6 million figure should be taken with a pinch of salt. But a more realistic estimate still hovers around 4.5/5 million people. That is a huge number, which should be seen as a key part of the UK’s diverse society.
But it isn’t. Certainly not when it comes to British media. At a time when diversity and inclusion are rightly seen as crucial to true representation of British society, Europeans just don’t seem to count. Literally. They are not counted or assessed in most statistics relating to diversity and inclusion.
Nationality is not a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equalities Act like, for example, religion and race are. This is understandable. The Equalities Act is a British Law which relates to Britons. But the effect is that more often than not, the EU community is just not seen as a minority which is a part of this country and should be represented. To put it bluntly, there are no boxes for us to tick.
I’m a broadcast journalist by background, so TV and Radio is what I focus on, and I’ve been obsessing over this issue for more than a decade. OFCOM, the communications regulator in the UK, published its 5 year review last autumn into diversity and equal opportunities in British broadcasting, and nowhere in it is the word ‘European’ mentioned. The times I’ve spoken about the issue with industry leaders, it seemed like it had never even crossed their minds.
Sometimes, like in the Census, the question of national background is asked and it provides valuable insight into the European communities and much else. But now that more and more Europeans are opting for British citizenship, even that marker will disappear on the few times that the question of nationality actually comes up.
This is a thorny issue so let’s be clear that I am not equating the difficulties with being an EU citizen to the discrimination someone may face due to their religion or ethnicity. And, true, until Brexit Europeans did have a privileged entry path to this country. But since the 2016 vote EU citizens have faced huge upheaval, with their very right to live in the country they call home called into question. There continue to be legal difficulties for some and the emotional toll of Brexit has been huge for many.
Speaking personally as a European who’s lived in the UK nearly 30 years, it’s been difficult not to see it as a rejection, and one that seemed to invalidate the life I’ve worked hard to build for myself.
So where are the European voices? I don’t mean groups like The3Million who do a great job of supporting EU citizens when they need help. I mean journalists. Commentators. Community leaders who are given the space to highlight their concerns. Not just as vox pops or case studies on the odd day that the issue of EU citizens in the UK makes the news. Right now Europeans are (sometimes) talked about, but they are rarely the ones who really do the talking. We are never truly part of the conversation. We didn’t really have a voice leading up to the Brexit vote, and we continue not to have one since.
I know that many of you might be thinking of some European names in high profile media positions. Beyond entertainment and the slightly predictable roles of TV Chef/Dancer/Football commentator I would argue that most of the names in current affairs, journalism and thought leadership aren’t representative of the EU community. Almost invariably they came to this country as children, which means they ‘pass’ for native Brits and they simply don’t have the lived experience of being a European in the UK. Basically, the lived experience of being a foreigner.
I’m happy to be persuaded though, so please tell me in the comment section below if you agree with me or if you can think of some European voices that have made a difference.
It’s complex issue which has various aspects to it. One is language, and I’ll write more about that soon, in relation to this interesting article on Journalism.co.uk. about the impact of language on all of this. Messages from EU journalists working in British newsrooms are particularly welcome, and I hope to be able to highlight your work in several different ways soon.
And please remember that all paid subscribers can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org (using the email you subscribed with) with thoughts, comments and suggestions.
Thank you all for reading. Chat soon.
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