“We’re now talking about removal of rights. It’s unprecedented in our history.”
Polish and Irish families, Italian and Spanish waiters, Eastern Europeans in construction and healthcare, and French musicians—Bristol certainly has a visible pro-European feel. Out of its 459,000 or so inhabitants, 30,000 are from a European country, according to the Office of National Statistics. The remain vote exceeded 60% in Bristol.
However, despite the thumping majority, the result highlighted divisions in the city, and a simmering discontent directed toward the EU. Over a quarter of the city’s wards voted to leave, some by as much as 66%, especially working class neighbourhoods outside of the centre.
But in Bristol, as in the rest of the UK, the Brexit process seems to be satisfying no one. Caught in the mix are European Bristol residents, whose future is still cruelly uncertain. Only Irish citizens have a special agreement with the UK: others may lose the right to free movement within the rest of the Union, the right to vote in local elections, the right to family reunion – or simply the right to stay.
A breach of rights
According to Christophe Fricker, a translator born in Germany, this could mean the largest loss of civil rights in Europe since the Second World War. “We are now five million people threatened: three million Europeans in the UK and two million British people in other European countries,” he told me at his home in south Bristol. “The British government uses our lives as a matter of negotiation. For centuries, European nations have seen progress in matters of civil rights. We’re now talking about removal of rights, it’s unprecedented in our history.”
Christophe has been living in Bristol with his British partner since 2012, and travels extensively for work. For several months he wasn’t sure if he could meet the requirements to get ‘settled status’ or permanent residence documentation, for which you need to have lived in the UK continuously for five years.
“In Germany, we’ve learned a lot about war and destruction. For us, the European project is a peace project. Out of the ashes, a new community was created by nations that had vowed each other’s destruction. Economic cooperation was a means to reach political harmony. Here in the UK, the narrative is different: we talk about ‘deals’, ‘good deals’ and ‘no deal’ as though this European project was just a business transaction. In reality, Europe is about peace.” This rosy view is certainly not shared across the country or region. Political discontent has been increasingly directed towards the EU, from both left and right. But Christophe is determined to stay.
Like thousands, he marched for the controversial People’s Vote in London in October 2018. Eight buses took protesters to the march from Bristol. In the middle of this stressful process, Christophe has managed to keep a sense of humour and write a book dedicated to the country: 111 Gründe, England zu lieben, or ‘111 Reasons to Love England’.
Cross-border culture pulled apart
Maike Bohn, another German citizen, also went to the march. She’s an active member of the3million, a campaign from EU citizens in the UK. “My son was born in Germany, for medical reasons. I came back here five weeks later. His father is British but he cannot have British citizenship before he turns 18, and I’ve only learned this recently. If I leave the UK now, he would not be able to be a citizen of the country he spent all his life in!”
As well as families and friends, Brexit threatens to separate artists and colleagues. Europeans are well represented in Bristol’s art and music scene. For example, the Bristol European Jazz Ensemble (BEJE), in which each musician is from a different country.
The string quartet Petit Soleil was in a similar position and has now split. Sebastien Gutiez, the guitarist, is French and has been living in the UK since 1997. He spent 17 years in France and 21 years here with his British partner, Kilda, and their son. “We’re not married, we didn’t need to… until now! If we leave for France, Kilda will have troubles getting residency. There is no easy way.”
Their Spanish cellist, Sonia Cano, went back to Valencia after three years in Bristol. “I loved Bristol and I’m sad I’ve left,” she told me over the phone. “But the future became so uncertain. I had a part time job in a shop. I wouldn’t be able to find work after Brexit. I also heard, every day, European people complaining about insults they receive, jokes about going back to where they came from, it’s sad.”
Essential workers in limbo
European citizens are also highly represented in the health services. French writer Véronique Martin, based near Bath, reported their stories in the book In Limbo. In the NHS, the proportion of nurses and doctors from the EU is high, in part because these hard jobs are paid with relatively low salaries and poor training opportunities for British-born staff. Most nurses I spoke to in Bristol were unwilling to talk about it publicly having already experienced aggravation due to their nationality.
Joan Pons Laplana, a Spanish nurse for the NHS agreed to be interviewed. We met in London at a counselling session from the Existential Academy, which created a programme named ESSE3 to support people facing desperation because of Brexit.
“In Spain I couldn’t find a job [but] here in England hospitals cannot find nurses,” Joan told me. “I have three kids, their mum is British. I love this country, I’ve been living here 20 years. I pay my taxes but wasn’t allowed to vote in the referendum. I was in shock when I saw the results… Now I see these tabloids blaming migrants for anything. On top, the Brexit deal is putting the last nail in the coffin of the NHS! The Brexit campaign lied about it. Meanwhile the budget is cut and cut again.”
Joan worries for his children. Others for their parents.
“For many, the core issue is the dispute about the NHS,” says Nicolas Hatton, founder of the3million. “It’s a national treasure for the British as foreigners”. Nicolas and his British wife have separated recently, like many couples facing Brexit. Now, he is thinking about his ageing parents. “What if one gets ill and I want to bring them close to me? In 2020, it might not be possible any more.”
He and ‘the3million’ are currently creating a platform to inform European citizens about their potential future in this country.
Like the Polish café Zapiekanki, on Stokes Croft, recently closed, Bristol’s European community has already gone through a lot. Christophe Fricker explains in his book that despite all this, his love for England won’t disappear. And organisations like ‘the3million’ are showing that it is possible to get organised and respond to the seemingly endless chaos of Brexit with cooperation and solutions.