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6 December 2019updated 21 Sep 2021 6:21am

I cannot vote in the general election. And now more than ever, my life is in your hands

By Sarah Manavis

A story I’ve been telling for the last three and a half years is how my boyfriend and I almost got married in our first three months of dating. It was July 2016 and high off too many romcoms and probably a little drunk, we thought it’d be funny to do a Vegas-style wedding – an idea born out of the sudden, overpowering unease that my time in this country might soon be up and a level of recklessness that thrives in the honeymoon stages. We seriously looked into it but, ultimately, being an EU citizen meant that there was too much paperwork to make it funny. At the time, I thought this was a charming anecdote I’d repeat to demonstrate a level of shared weirdness. But what I didn’t know is how that story was both the starting pistol for, and the shield I’d carry to guard against, my intense anxiety about my legal status. 

The end of that summer marked four full years of living in the UK. I moved to Edinburgh in 2012 to go to university – a cheap and exciting alternative to my American options – from a small town in Ohio, and moved with the intention of leaving after my degree. By 2013 I realised I wanted to stay permanently and, thanks to my Greek citizenship, was able to get a job that didn’t require a visa. I’ve been a UK taxpayer since I started working part-time six years ago and have been paying tax on full-time wages since June 2015. When the EU referendum result came in, I was two months away from starting my first permanent job. And on Thursday, for the third time since moving here, I won’t be able to vote in a British general election. 

Every election eventually becomes about more than the driving force behind it: this election is as much about the NHS, benefits, gender, race, and social inequality as it is about Brexit. The way you vote will affect all of these things, plus more, and for many people, Brexit may be the least of your worries. But the reality also is that Brexit is the reason why we’re here, and people like me are part of the reason why we’re even talking about it. It’s hard to describe how weird it is to be the reason for a general election and have no alternative but to watch the sidelines and beg the people around you to vote the way you would. 

For the last three years, speaking to relatives in Greece or the US or even vague acquaintances asking what my plans are for the future, I’ve always made the same lame joke of “I’m going to stay in the UK for as long as I can… until Brexit kicks me out!” This was my dad-ish way at avoiding a real conversation, one that might have had to be taken seriously. “Have you done settled status? Would your boyfriend marry you so you could stay? Would you move to Greece or America or somewhere else in Europe if you were forced to leave? What do you think is going to happen?” For years these questions have been looming, unanswered, and like a chronic illness that you’d rather not know about, ignored. With every potential departure from the EU, there was the near-security of an extension, knowing that most people in parliament did not want to crash out. And while Brexit is the reason why the 2017 election happened, the threat felt less real and being torn from my home still felt like the punchline to an unserious question I’d never have to answer. 

I, like the other three million EU citizens living in the UK, have felt a shift in this election. No longer is Brexit a thing that will haunt us for years without ever actually happening, but something that, with the prospect of a Tory majority, will be a reality we’ll have to face next month. This general election forces us to look June 2016 in the eye and recognise that the foundation upon which we built our lives no longer exists, and to face the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know what our lives are going to look like. 

I am, of course, privileged in many ways. I am, on paper, a Greek immigrant, but I have an American accent and I’m a blonde white lady. I didn’t grow up middle class, but I now have a staff job at a well-known magazine and live in London with my also white journalist partner and our cockapoo. When we talk about who will be the target of racial or xenophobic abuse, it will not be me and when we talk about who will be the most at risk of being “kicked out”, I’m unlikely to be at the top of the list. It’s hard to write about my very real fear and the helplessness I feel over what will happen on election night, because so many people have an even greater fear than me. Either they have lived here longer, they have children embedded in communities, or other more serious dependencies. 

There are limited options for EU citizens to have their voices heard on 12 December. We can campaign for parties and candidates we prefer, encourage friends and colleagues to consider us when at the polling booth, and the few that have a platform can use it to sway those with British citizenship (please vote Labour or whoever is best posed to unseat your local Tory). But beyond that, it’s hard to figure out what we’re supposed to do, and even with those options, it’s hard not to feel powerless while doing them. I’ve lamented over writing this piece that you’re reading for this very reason, because I’m dogged by the voice in my head saying, “What’s the point?” What is there to say other than that I’m potentially fucked, but it’s impossible to say whether or not that’s true? I’m dogged by the voice in my head repeating “There is nothing to say beyond ‘I may be fucked, and there’s nothing I can do about it’.” And it’s likely that not a single person in parliament, Downing Street or the opposition headquarters has a clue whether or not I’m fucked either.

I am 25-years-old and have lived in the UK for more than seven years, meaning I’ve spent more than a quarter of my life here. I’m politically engaged, informed, and I could name backbench MPs from every party – even some backbench MSPs thanks to five and a half years spent living in Scotland. I pay taxes, I donate to UK charities, and I try to be a good citizen; my friends are here, my partner is here, my life is here. But I have no choice as to what happens to that fact, and no way to even mark my political preference. 

So on 12 December, I’ll put a rosette on my dog and go with my boyfriend to a polling station. We’ll take a picture, I’ll tweet it, and I’ll stand outside while I wait for him to vote. I’ll trudge home, feel impotent, and stay up all night waiting for my fate to be sealed. 

Whether you’re sick of Brexit, hate all of your options at the polling booth, or know your sitting MP will just be re-elected, you have a say – something that will inevitably be taken for granted in this election. You have the ability to do something about the direction of this country while many of your neighbours, colleagues, and friends don’t. My future is more than ever not in my hands, but yours.

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