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The Departing #3: The EU citizens stuck in limbo after the Brexit vote

“Why would I have to leave? To let them win?”

In the finale of a series on the precarious situation of EU nationals in the UK since the Brexit vote, we look at those who can't leave, or have decided to wait and see. Read episodes 1 and 2.

The morning of the Brexit referendum, Adam Slawek Fejfer went to work and was greeted by British colleagues with “Oh you’re here? We thought you’d be leaving.” This happened not just once, he says, but several times, in different places. “I have lived in the UK 13 years,” he says. “It’s the first time people called me ‘Polish’ anything.” Fejfer, 33, lives in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. He came to the UK to study and is now married with two children, both born in the UK.

Like many other EU citizens, Fejfer’s life has been turned upside down by the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. But unlike many who have already left the country or are planning to do so, he isn’t sure what to do about it. What he knows is that he doesn’t want to go back to Poland:  “It’s part of me, but it’s difficult to go back to a country so close minded when I try to be open minded. Here, I’ve got friends from the Philippines, Australia… In Poland, it would be difficult to have these connections.” Another reason is economic: “It’s difficult for the Brits to understand, but my mother in Poland earned roughly £1,000 a month, as a nurse with 25 years of experience.”

He and his wife don’t know what they will do over the next two or three years: “Asked to leave 18 months ago, I would have said no, but now I don’t know.” There is the mortgage to pay, the many friends they would leave behind if they moved. “We haven’t decided yet”, he adds. “I prefer to stay. The UK is my home.”

All the EU citizens I talked to for this series know many others in the same situation – friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people befriended on Brexit forums. All can cite several families who have left the UK, or are leaving. All have thought of leaving themselves.

Like most EU citizens who are still here, Fejfer has seen friends leaving for mainland Europe. “It’s difficult to count all of them,” he says. He tries to encourage people to stay, he adds, because going back – and “being an immigrant again” – is just as hard as leaving. A Polish family he knows left during the summer. “It’s hard for them to adapt, in jobs, find a place to stay,” he says. “The people who have been back in Poland don’t feel at home there either.” And those who stay behind see their social circle thinning.


Adam Slawek Fejfer
Credit: Msikoraphotography

Lisa has no idea what to do after Brexit. She asked me not to use her real name, because she is wary of its impact on her partner’s potential application for permanent residence (PR). She moved to the UK from Germany in January 2011 with her partner, Markus. “We came to stay,” she says. Then two things happened: in 2010, the five-year rule (PR applicants must have been in the UK for five years) was introduced, followed in 2015 by the Comprehensive Sickness Insurance (CSI) requirement in PR applications. This latter change was poorly communicated, with many EU citizens only hearing about the requirement to take out insurance after Brexit, and the details of who must take it out remaining opaque. In the case of Lisa and Markus, both are academics in scientific fields and switched roles in 2014: he started work and she starting studying for her PhD, which meant that by 2015, she had CSI as a student and he didn’t.

This distinction became crucial when they tried to apply for PR in 2015 and realised the law had changed. “When we arrived, that didn’t exist, so we didn’t have it [CSI]”, she says. Suddenly, for her partner, “the five years in the country were void”. Only Lisa received PR, and then citizenship, in 2016. “I am a dual citizen but Markus remains German. There’s no chance he gets [PR] before Brexit”, she tells me. “Of course, we’ll stay together. But we have no idea what the rules are going to look like [after Brexit]. We have been here eight years, we have a life here.” Markus even volunteers as special constable with Hampshire Constabulary, 10 hours a week, which is ironic, he says, because that means he “basically works for the Home Office for free”.

Even if Markus can get citizenship, Lisa says, their future in the UK is uncertain: “Research funding in the UK comes from EU and already breaking away. Money is leaving and so are jobs, so there may not be work for us.” The couple are calculating that Brexit will happen on 29 March 2019. In a no deal scenario, “Markus loses his right to work overnight, so I need a job at that point”. She could manage, as she will hand her PhD in December 2018. But the law might change again by then, and for the past year and a half, the British government has constantly refused to guarantee the right to remain for EU nationals in the UK after Brexit. So they may leave – not to Germany, where they “never intended to go back to”, but to France, Sweden, Ireland or Austria. “Where are we going to feel at home?” she wonders. “At the moment, the UK is home.”

For the European nationals still in the UK, Brexit has had a double cost. There’s the possibility of discrimination, the fact that the government still hasn’t guaranteed their rights, their friends and relatives slowly leaving. But every other general aspect of Brexit, like inflation, is hitting them too. Before the referendum, Lisa and Markus were planning to buy a home. They wired their savings from Germany. “And then the pound crashed”, Lisa says. “We definitely lost money in that.” Yet with uncertainty hanging over them, they made the costly decision to wire the money back. “We’re not willing to invest anything in the country at the moment”, she says.


Lisa and Markus
Credit: K. Seier

Some EU nationals don’t have the choice to move. Since the referendum, there have been times when Vie, a Frenchwoman who has lived in the UK for 17 years, wondered whether she should leave the UK. “But I can’t leave,” she says. Vie is divorced and would need permission from her children’s father to leave the country with them. “He is a refugee, so he couldn’t really visit,” she tells me. And so she stays.

Because she may still apply for citizenship, Vie declined to share her family name. In the 16 months since the EU referendum, the Yorkshire resident has had to apply for citizenship for both of her French children – aged 11 and 16 – and for permanent residence for herself, which cost lots of money. “I don’t necessarily want to become British,” she tells me. “My head is all over the place, I lost my job in June.” (She has since then found a new one). Financially, at the moment, she can’t apply for citizenship for herself.

Leaving wouldn’t be easy, either: Vie came to the UK age 19. “I am losing my French, I don’t know how to get a job in France, my kids would struggle to adapt,” she says. In the UK, she has worked as a community development coordinator, but she fears that in France, her degree in health and social care “wouldn’t mean anything”. She sighs: “A year ago, I would have said that I’m not leaving, but now…” Now, she’s seriously considering it. “There are no good options, it’s quite depressing.” Vie is one of many EU citizens who have shared their testimonies of life in the UK since the referendum in the book “In Limbo”. She is also an activist with the3million.


Vie reading the book "In Limbo"

The EU citizens stuck in the UK often are so for family reasons. Petra was 19 when she moved from Germany to the UK, and she only planned to stay for six months. She is 48 now, and she is still here, for a reason she shares with many other EU citizens in the UK: a few months after her arrival, she met a nice British man, and they married. Petra isn’t her real name – like other Europeans who have no choice but to stay, she’d rather not go on the record if that could be used against her in potential future applications. “This country scares me, it really does”, she told me, adding that she would have left after the referendum if she could have. But she can’t, because her husband is British: “He doesn’t speak German, he won’t find a job, he has a business here.” She admits it would be difficult even for her: “We’re 50, we can’t just pack a suitcase. I’ve never lived as an adult in Germany, it would be like another country.”

Because she had several careers in law and journalism, travelled in and out of Britain, and took time off to have children (who are now at GCSE age), Petra doesn’t qualify for permanent residence: she never had constant CSI. The CSI requirement, she says, was applied retrospectively and the change was not announced. “So a group of people is suddenly an awful situation.”

Because her husband is British, not a European national, treaty rights don’t apply to her. “If we were living in France or Germany, my husband would be protected as a spouse: one’s healthcare would cover the other’s,” she says, appalled that the British system doesn’t allow this. “They’re doing all they can to break families. I studied law [in the UK]! I don’t recognise this law and country. It’s absolutely frightening.”

Without permanent residence, there’s no citizenship; and without her husband’s capacity to move, there’s no leaving, either, so Petra is stuck in legal limbo. “I couldn’t apply to PR, but I thought: If it all goes wrong, I’m the mother of British citizens, surely they have the right to have their mother here?” she tells me. But as it turns out, it’s more complicated.

If her children were only EU nationals, treaty rights would guarantee their mother’s right to remain. The Home Office's guidance regarding children born in the UK to EU citizens specifies that “family members have a right to reside in the United Kingdom so long as the EEA national remains in UK in the exercise of treaty rights (until such time as the family members gain a right of residence in their own right)”. But Petra’s children are British, so “British laws apply, and they already have one other British parent to take care of them”, Petra sums up. “I feel trapped. As a lawyer, I’m in this situation and I can’t help myself! I’m vulnerable. No one is speaking out for European spouses of British citizens.”

Like Petra, Frederika Roberts wasn’t planning on staying in the UK after her graduation, but she revisited her plans after meeting her husband at university. The 45 year old, an Italian and German national who grew in Luxembourg, moved to the UK because “British universities are wonderful”. Now she finds herself in the “national suicide” that is Brexit, and feels lost.

To Roberts, moving would mean leaving her daughters behind for their studies. It would also mean selling her house and “relearning to be adult somewhere else” – a feeling many EU citizens share. Her husband, a technical engineer, would struggle to find a senior position matching his current one, and he doesn’t speak Italian or German. “We’re applying to Italian citizenship for him, at least, so that he retains EU citizenship”, she says. Her daughters have told her they will leave the country as soon as possible once they graduate.

 “I have visions of being stuck, I feel like a fish out of water, it’s horrible,” Roberts says. “On one hand I want to leave, but I’ve got to consider my family, and I have a business partner, how would our business model work?” And then the rage comes in: “I don’t want to bloody give in! Why would I have to leave? To let them win?”

Not every European national will leave as a result of Brexit. But those who will choose to stay will never forget the way the Conservative government treated them. Some wanted to believe David Cameron had a plan. Many tell me they still hope “Brexit will not happen”. None trust Theresa May’s government.

“The government has shown no respect for rule of law”, Petra, the German woman married to a Brit, tells me. “People’s rights are being weakened by applying laws retrospectively [like the CSI requirement for PR]. A country that behaves like that – and not just with the EU, but with Grenfell, with disabled benefits – it worries me for my children.”


Frederika Roberts

For some, Brexit has been the spark that triggered a deeper interest in politics and activism. Fejfer, the Polish man who has been here 13 years, hopes to stay, but he wants to “be treated better, to be equal”. “I live in uncertainty”, he says. “I want to focus on politics.” He says he is planning to become a UK citizen, a necessity to advance a political career, but the £1,200 application fee is “almost [his] monthly salary”. “They can reject your application and you won’t have your money back”, he says. So that will have to wait – but he has already run as a local candidate in council elections and is a proud member of the Liberal Democrats. “I believe Brexit can be stopped,” he tells me. “I would like to be prime minister of the UK.”

Frederika Roberts is worried about the rights May has promised to give EU citizens: “‘Broadly similar’ isn’t ‘the same as’. I don’t feel reassured about what my government says. Without protection like the European Court of Justice, I don’t feel reassured with any of that. What if I’m not earning enough?” Vie, the Frenchwoman from Yorkshire, agrees: “The right-wing language of the home office is very worrying.” She works with people with dementia, and she feels insulted that the government would consider such work “low-skilled” in their “settled status” proposal. “It requires skills to work with people with dementia,” she says.

EU citizens are stuck between bad options – leaving or staying, abandoning everything or being possibly denied rights. “It just feels shit! I’m sorry, that’s what it is,” says Roberts in a very British way. They’re also stuck between identities. “I love Britain, I love living here, it is my home, it’s where I’ve chosen to live,” Roberts says. “I didn’t come here as an economic migrant: I came here to study and happened to fall in love.”

“But I also feel German and Italian, I am attached to Luxembourg… My identity is European, it’s not one place or one country, and that, I feel, is being dripped away.” Vie feels the same: “All my friends are here in the UK, home is here. It breaks my heart.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.