If I learned one thing from the debates prior and post the EU referendum in the UK, it’s that the community I imagined to be a part of for the past 17 years has at worst never existed or is at best unravelling. I was born in the former GDR and as an East German national I had the right to live, work, love, be only within the state’s clearly defined borders. When the wall came down in 1989, my boundaries shifted dramatically. Not only did they encompass the rest of Germany but, as Germany is part of the European Union, other European member states as well.
As an EU citizen I was suddenly free to live, work, love, be in France, Portugal, Sweden, for example, and later in Romania, Latvia, Poland, and also in the UK. Put it down to language education (I learned English first, and later French), an interest in the culture and music, or a belief that it was a liberal, open-minded place to be, I chose the UK. But I suppose the UK never chose me.
This divergence became particularly clear during the past 18 months. I had been asked ‘Where are you from?’ frequently before but the question took on a new meaning. I no longer thought (perhaps) the asker had an interest in my cultural origins but understood they wanted to pinpoint my nationality. And so I regressed from being an EU citizen to being a national of a particular country.
The public language used by politicians and the media to refer to EU citizens confirmed this: no longer referred to as citizens, or even nationals, we are now predominantly called EU migrants. People who come to the UK not as fellow citizens but ‘in order to find work or better living conditions’, as the dictionary states. And while this might be true for many or even most, the term ‘migrant’ denies the existence of a union, of a shared undertaking.
Perhaps this divisive rhetoric is required for the UK to untangle itself from the European Union. But it also has real human consequences. Hate crimes against EU citizens are on the rise, communities are being eroded, and even if we, the EU migrants, were allowed to ‘stay’ without a reduction in our rights, outside of the EU the UK is no longer what it once used to be: a place of European possibility.
But where does this leave me? A migrant in my home of choice (my Wahlheimat as we say in German) or a virtual foreigner in my country of birth? Of course, people have always had to adjust to shifting political circumstances, and the present shifts are much less traumatic than many others. In effect, the EU might be contracting but I remain an EU citizen. Nevertheless I feel as if my world is disintegrating, as if I, an East German-German-European, am suddenly a citizen of nowhere. No longer part of the UK-European community, no longer ‘truly’ German.
But perhaps I have gained something from this experience as well. I understand that my sense of belonging is not tied to a nationality. It is tied to certain values and beliefs. It is tied to something to strive for, an ideal. The ideal that we could live peacefully in a world without borders, a world of human unity. And that can never be taken away from me.