There, I’ve said it.
As a non-Brit living in the UK, I’ve been wondering whether I am even allowed to have an opinion in this. It’s a big, no, VERY BIG decision for this country, and its consequences will affect its citizens here, those abroad, and anyone living here or considering moving here in the future. The outcome of this referendum on the 23rd June will undoubtedly affect me, too. And this is why I felt like I needed to write this piece.
I moved to the UK in 2012, and immediately felt at home here. I identify with the people, the mentality and culture – more so than I ever did in my home country. This language feels more my own than my mother tongue. I have made some of my best friends in this country (Brits, Italians, French – you name it!). I met the person I want to spend the rest of my life with here, and will soon be able to call some fabulous British people “family”. I’ve chosen this place as my home.
So it hurts when people in the Brexit camp talk about “immigrants” in a derogatory tone. I’m not here to steal anyone’s job. On the contrary – I want to contribute to this society, to make it an even better place to live. The only taxes I have ever paid in my life, I have paid in this country. I love the NHS and what it stands for, and am more than willing to pay my share. I love the diversity London offers, green Brighton’s variety in vegan cafes, the rough-on-the-outside artsiness of Manchester, and the fact that you never have to travel far in this country to reach the sea.
I moved here initially to do a Masters programme in a discipline which would not have been open to me in my home country. I’ve been lucky enough to secure funding for the PhD I am now on – an opportunity I only had because of the EU. I appreciate the UK’s higher education system, and, at the same time, am grateful for the benefits EU membership offers to students and academics EU-wide. Students – and young people in general – are unfortunately largely ignored by any pro or contra arguments made on either side of the mainstream referendum campaigns.
Mainstream politics focus on older demographics, either blissfully unaware of or flat out ignoring the plights of the young. The dilemma is that voter turnout for young people in the EU referendum is expected to be low – just as in any other election. It is a dilemma because young people will be affected by the consequences of this decision for the longest time, and yet, they have the quietest voice and are not taken seriously by mainstream campaigns.
The campaigns on both sides seem to focus on negativity and creating fear. Dire warnings about economic crisis or a flood of immigrants overwhelming the UK’s shorelines are just getting old now. In reality the consequences of leaving the EU are entirely unpredictable (which, coincidentally, may actually be the best argument for the Remain side right there!).
Young people, current students, twenty-somethings seem to be disillusioned by politics in general, and perhaps rightfully so. Mainstream parties do not seem to represent young people’s interests (case in point: increasing tuition fees). Most likely because – due to low electoral participation – parties don’t have to care about this group’s vote at all. “Disillusionment” is probably a good word to sum up the zeitgeist of this generation: worried about a future where job opportunities are scarce, there is no hope of ever getting on the housing ladder, rents are skyrocketing, and the people in power recklessly set 18-year-olds up for a life in debt. Voting must seem like an entirely pointless affair.
Only 43% of voters aged 18-24 cast their vote in the 2015 election (source here). All this does is highlight how out of touch mainstream politics is with this generation, and that there is a huge responsibility on education providers (mostly university lecturers!) not only to teach their own subject but to engage students in politics.
Many of these disillusioned could-be-voters probably would care a lot about this referendum, if they realised how it could affect them personally. BECAUSE this decision is so big and BECAUSE it will affect them the most, it is vital that campaigns reach and engage young people. As Professor Anthony Heath, director of the Centre for Social Investigation at Oxford uni, points out in his blog post for the CoVi Think Tank, today’s under 25s have very different values compared to their parents and grandparents. It may be time to use different, more positive arguments.
A welcome and fresh perspective is offered by the grassroots campaign We Are Europe, who are trying to engage young people on social media (see http://www.weareeurope.org.uk and their hashtag #infor), and have been getting a bit of publicity in mainstream media, too, thanks to this beauty of a mural (see e.g. an article in the Telegraph and one for ITV):
The EU offers so many opportunities that young people in this country could take advantage of more. It is easy to study abroad, and, if the job market looks dire over here, the EU offers opportunity elsewhere, often even in English. The EU gives young people a chance to improve their employability, their skills, and their openness to other cultures – a chance to thrive in an uncertain future. I am quite aware that the EU is not a perfect system, but this generation should be given a chance to improve it rather than be left out.
The UK higher education sector benefits greatly from the shared pool of resources and talent the EU can offer. By being able to collaborate internationally, UK universities can ensure they remain competitive. The EU as a whole, based on free movement and EU-wide collaboration, is a “science superpower”, as Mike Galsworthy from Scientists for EU put it at a recent debate on the impact of the EU on UK higher education (see #EUImpact). UK science cannot exist in a vacuum: innovation relies on changing perspectives. Remaining in the EU means that the UK will still be able to take part, and continue to shape the future of science.
The “island mentality” exhibited by many Brexiteers, this metaphorical building of walls, will not result in protection from the “evil influences” of the outside world. On the contrary, it will breed division and isolation. Young people all over Europe are interconnected anyway – much more than their parents or grandparents, who did not live in a world where travel was this fast or this common, and where communication and the exchange of ideas across the world was so easy.
Like any other young(-ish) person in this country, I will have to live with the consequences of this decision. I will be affected both personally and professionally, and therefore, I think, I have earned the right for my voice to be heard. I am not allowed to vote. But I urge everyone who can to register, and go to their polling station on the 23rd June.
Don’t let people who don’t care about your interests talk over you. Have a voice.
Grab your National Insurance number and register to vote NOW: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote
Remember to do this before 7th June!
If you won’t be able to vote in person on the 23rd June, make sure to apply for a postal vote before this Friday, 3rd June.
Polling stations will be open on the 23rd June from 7 am to 10 pm.