Having lived in the UK for 21 years, EU citizen Sonja Morgenstern was shocked by the Brexit vote. But as long as she’s allowed to stay, she’s determined to make her feelings heard
It’s an ordinary Monday morning and I am standing outside the Houses of Parliament, singing Ode to Joy with an odd-looking impromptu choir. Some are dressed in blue and waving EU flags; some look like they’re on their way to work; for my own part I am wearing a Stronger Together T-shirt with a defiant fist in a circle of yellow stars. I’m here because the UK Government is expected to trigger Article 50 today and as an EU citizen who has lived in the country for more than two decades, I can’t think how else to make my voice heard.
Although I have lived in the UK for 21 years, as a German national I cannot vote in UK general elections and wasn’t able to have my say in the referendum on EU membership. I had been so complacent about the referendum, thinking that the Leave campaign would never win, that I had taken no steps to gain a right to vote. After all, I had happily gained a UK university degree, toured the country as an actress, got a stable job in a West End office, bought a London home, released a few jazz albums under an English label, given birth to a British child and voted in local elections. The £1,236 fee to get UK citizenship didn’t seem worth the expense or hassle.
Waking to the sound of midnight fireworks on 23 June, 2016, however, I got a sinking knot of worry in my stomach that hasn’t left me since. At the time, my priority was dealing with a recent redundancy, so I didn’t do much apart from photograph the tabloid headlines, still in disbelief.
But in October 2016 I received an email from 38degrees, a grassroots organisation working towards getting more people actively involved in politics. They wanted local volunteers in all UK constituencies to set up meetings with their MPs to discuss a “people-powered version of Brexit” based on a survey to find out British people’s priorities for the process.
As a reasonably organised person used to making appointments with high-level executives in my day job, I volunteered to reach out to my constituency office to secure a meeting with my local MP, Emily Thornberry, during one of her regular surgeries for residents. I ended up chairing the lively, hour-long discussion in February 2017, and I felt my concerns were heard and taken seriously. Our group was made up of Leave and Remain supporters, but a lot of common ground emerged.
We passed the result of our discussion back to 38degrees to share with the wider membership – as a member of the opposition Emily agreed with most of our points, but regretted to tell us she wasn’t able to do much other than to keep voting to protect the rights of EU citizens ( along with a majority of MPs,she later voted to trigger Article 50).
I’ve also been able to make my feelings heard through media coverage. I appeared on CNN pushing my toddler, who was carrying an EU flag, at the Unite for Europe march on 25 March. And some banners I made for One Day Without Us, a campaign to celebrate the contribution of migrants that coincided with the mass lobby on parliament organised by The3million on 20 February, were all over the national and international media.
It was exciting to feel part of a movement to bring awareness to the main group of voteless taxpayers. Standing in the queue wearing an EU “pussy hat” given to me by another peaceful protest group (the “crafty Europeans”, who work to bring about awareness through yarn-bombing: knitting tiny EU and national flags to drape around strategically positioned trees), I caught the attention of a German news crew. A friend photographed the people, from babies born to EU citizens to those who made their home here in the 1970s but never formalised their status, for the social media campaign.
However, we were not able to stop the triggering of Article 50 without any of the amendments to protect citizens’ rights, which is how I found myself in Parliament Square singing Ode to Joy with the others. Earlier in the day I staged a one-woman protest, standing in the centre of the Oxford Circus crossing for one hour, getting thumbs-ups, handshakes and waves as the commuters headed to work.
Later, I cycled around Parliament Square with my flags and gave a TV interview to Norwegian TV2, which I streamed live on Facebook. Then I joined some campaigners from Open Britain who were giving out leaflets to a generally disinterested public on their way to Downing Street.
Those who had a vote seem mostly silent now, but for the EU citizens who are still here, Brexit is harder to forget. Being left in limbo for nearly a year has induced anxiety, depression and a lack of hope for the future in many of us. How do you make decisions about mortgages, schools, jobs, study, even relationships without some kind of reassurance of the continuation of your rights? We all fear the political and economic situation will get worse for all those around us who currently appear oblivious to what may be about to happen.
As we wait to see how Brexit will take shape, I am studying for the “Life in the UK” test (which most of my British friends are unable to pass when I ask them the test questions). My permanent residency card won’t arrive in time for me to vote in the snap election but I can still use my presence, my conversations and my writing to persuade others to use theirs wisely. I may be voteless but I am not voiceless.
Sonja Morgenstern is a freelance journalist living in London