Last night I went to a meeting with nationals of other European Union countries who are living in our part of Northumberland. We gathered in a café at Hexham's independent cinema. Others in the room were looking forward to the evening presentation - Hidden Figures, maybe, or Fences. There was the happy atmosphere of expected enjoyment.
But our gathering was not for entertainment. On the night before The Queen was due to sign off the legislation paving the way for Article 50 to be invoked and the Brexit process triggered, this group of fifteen or so was contemplating what their destiny could be after the United Kingdom had left the EU. For as we all know, the UK government has failed to offer any undertakings to non-UK citizens of EU nations about remaining in this country once Brexit is a reality.
In this fascinating, articulate group of people many nationalities are represented: German, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Greek, French, Swedish and Italian. They had lived in the UK for many years, decades even. Some were retired, some in employment. They were entirely indigenised. Their English was fluent. Their children had known no other life but in Britain. They paid taxes and social security in the UK. They owned property and had put down roots here. Most had long since ceased to feel they belonged anywhere else. Some had all but forgotten what it was like to live elsewhere.
You'll realise why I felt that my presence at this gathering was under somewhat false pretences. I am not facing their anxieties. I don't have to fear for the future of my family's or my own life in Britain. But I do know something about what it means and even how it feels when your future is not secure and you don't feel safe. Regular readers of this blog know that my late mother was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who came to Britain in the late 1930s. Her parents escaped with their lives because they had been taken in and cared for underground in German-occupied Holland. Books of German poetry, 19th century Jewish prayer books, some pieces of china, a seventeenth century map of Edam on in our entrance hall and an old Dutch cupboard in the living room symbolise that story and help keep it alive as it recedes in time from the present.
I'd been invited to attend as a known champion of the EU in Tynedale. A few knew about Christians for Europe which I co-convened during the Referendum campaign (and where a still active Twitter feed @Xians4EU can be viewed if you are not on Twitter yourself). A couple of other people from continental Europe had acquired UK citizenship. But most had not. They had assumed that in a United Kingdom that was an EU member state, there was no need to worry about national citizenship because now, after a terribly destructive war, we were at last Europeans together. Why shouldn't they make that assumption?
I heard a lot that helped me to empathise with the predicament of these good people. "We love Britain. It's our home. We belong here. We've worked here for years. We contribute to its wellbeing. We make a vital contribution to our locality here in Northumberland. We do not want to live anywhere else. We are all Europeans now - or thought we were." In all this, there was a striking lack of bitterness or self-pity. Yes, there was a lot of anxiety, together with puzzlement and hurt that their host country had not offered any undertakings about staying in Britain after Brexit when it could so easily have done so.
Indeed, I think it was the not-knowing that was the worst thing. Some said that British friends and neighbours had tried to reassure them by telling them that they wouldn't have to leave, even if they would have to wait to be told. Nobody said they had experienced hostility from locals; indeed they spoke of the warmth and friendliness of Northumberland people. (As a southerner blown in from London, I could identify with this.) But wonderful though this all is, anyone can see why it isn't enough.
Listening to the members of this group, I couldn't but feel a sense not only of profound sympathy but of shame. Many of them spoke about what it was like to contemplate being treated as "bargaining chips" in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. They believed it would not have cost the UK much to take the generous, moral high ground and offer unconditional undertakings to long-standing European citizens from other countries who have made their home in these islands. They spoke about Britain's famous traditions of welcome to people from overseas (not simply continental Europe of course).
I didn't think I should say too much as a native Brit, but I did want to tell them that many of us, even some Brexiters I'd spoken to, were completely on their side. We understood their fears. We wanted to do all we could to help. And many of us were, I also said, ashamed that our country had treated them so badly, not just because of all they were contributing to the UK but, more basic even than that, because they are our fellow human beings and as the Hebrew Bible says, we have a responsibility to care for the stranger in our midst. Only they aren't strangers any more. They are our friends. And that makes it all the more shaming.
I understand the arguments about UK expats who live in mainland EU countries. A number of them have become friends through our regular visits to France. They too are anxious about their future after Brexit. I sympathise very much with them too, not least with those who have lived long enough outside Britain not to have qualified to vote in the Referendum (a particularly mean attitude on the part of the government, I thought). But two wrongs don't make a right. I believe that if the UK had behaved in a principled way and given the undertakings our fellow-European friends needed, it would have created a more propitious environment within which to negotiate a good Brexit deal. Generosity begets generosity: the other 27 EU nations might just have felt more inclined to behave generously towards Britain as a result. This country badly needs friends abroad right now. So it would have been an act of enlightened self-interest to say to my conversation-partners last night, "Yes, of course you must stay in Britain. This is your home, and we wouldn't have it any other way".
But we didn't say that, despite the best efforts of some in Parliament. And to that extent, Britain has shown itself to be a less kind, less generous and less fair nation than I thought it was. With less heart, you become less great. This is why I am ashamed. Aren't you?
So I'm going to show solidarity. I'm sure many others will do the same. We must change this situation, and give back to our friends with whom we share this continent, our brothers and sisters, the future they want in our midst and have a right to expect.
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.