I’m in Italy at the moment and having a great time seeing sites and museums but, like most of us, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the upcoming referendum next week. Having lived abroad for 15 years I believe I have a perspective on the EU that hasn’t received much attention in the debate. I’m voting to remain and, for those of you who can forgive this excursus away from ancient monuments here’s why….
In the summer of 1999, I’d just finished by BA degree in Ancient History and Archaeology and went to work as a volunteer on archaeological dig in the Netherlands – at an Iron Age/Roman period site in a small town called Oss. I’d dug at the same site the previous summer and was glad to get back to the sun and the sand and the cool beer that felt so deserved at the end of a hard day’s manual labour. By the end of the campaign season I was at a bit of a loose end and decided I’d like to stick around in Holland for a bit to see what life was like in Leiden where my new friends were all still studying. I thought I’d get a job in a factory or picking tulips or something for a few months and move back to Britain by Christmas, my thoughts clearer about the direction my life was going in. Little did I know I’d end up living there for fifteen years and would return with a PhD, a Dutch wife and a beautiful little daughter.
In the first few weeks of trying to establish some kind of normal life in Leiden I was sleeping on someone’s floor, had no job, no bank account, no social security number and no certainty that my plan was going to work out. I can remember one of my friends saying “I don’t think that it is that easy to just decide you want to stay” but I just took it for granted that I could and I turned out to be right. I soon had a room in a shared house and a great job working for a commercial rescue excavation company, essentially getting paid to do what I’d been doing over the summer only in worse weather as the autumn crept on and in sluggish wet clay that clung to the spade instead of the light sands that I’d been used to. It was a great life. It was only some time later after I’d been living there a while that I gave it any thought that it was because of the freedom of movement allowed within the EU that I’d been able to choose to move to Holland.
After getting so much out of my time abroad I’ve been getting a bit frustrated in the run up to the referendum that so little attention is being paid to the positive side of freedom of movement – to what UK citizens like me have been able to get out of it and the possibilities that the EU has opened up to so many British people, particularly young people at that stage in their life when they aren’t tied down by commitments and seeking foreign adventure is still a viable option. Most of the talk about freedom of movement is about immigrants coming to the UK committing crimes, sponging off the NHS and our benefits system or taking jobs. (How immigrants can, on aggregate, be both out of work parasites and job-stealers is one of the big unresolved mysteries of the whole referendum debate).
When UK citizens abroad are mentioned they are usually the retired pensioners living on the Costa del Sol. I’ve no idea how many younger people have moved to Europe for work and it may well be that that demographic is an insignificant minority in the bigger scheme of things. Nonetheless, it is the opportunity to look for work abroad and the enormous benefits that can come from taking that opportunity that I believe means that freedom of movement deserves a fairer hearing.
Moving to the Netherlands turned out to be extremely beneficial for my future career. While still working in commercial archaeology I took my MA there, then got a PhD and then worked as a lecturer before moving back to the UK, with an EU funded fellowship. But the fact that I’ve benefitted from the EU’s freedom of movement is unlikely to persuade anyone else to vote to stay in EU. I’ve been very fortunate I know. More relevant to the argument are the things I learned from living abroad both about Dutch culture and about how society can be run. I can now see that many of things that we in the UK assume – or are told – have to be the way they are do not. This is a lesson that I believe we could all benefit from learning and I’m convinced that Britain will be a much poorer place if we block opportunities to do so by closing ourselves off to Europe.
I learned that trains can run on time, don’t need to be overcrowded and can be a great deal cheaper than they are in Britain. I learned that there doesn’t need to be a black and white choice between students paying exorbitant tuition fees or having free university education. Dutch students pay fees but they are significantly lower than the £8,000 per year now charged at some UK institutions.
I learned – from personal experience in being temporarily out of work – that unemployment benefits can be high enough to live comfortably on. In Holland you would now get 70% of your last salary, significantly more than dole money in the UK and I think it might have been higher than that a few years ago. There is a requirement that you have to have worked first, to have paid something into the system before you get something back, something that many people would like to see in the UK. But the required period is 26 of the last 36 weeks, significantly less than the four years that David Cameron seems to have plucked arbitrarily out of thin air. There is clearly more than one way to reach a balance between fairness and generosity.
I also learned, incidentally that there are UK citizens in Holland taking advantage of the Dutch system by working in seasonal jobs like bulb planting and living a pretty good life on benefits in between seasons. Not that I’m advocating British citizens moving abroad to do just that but it does put a different perspective on the issue of benefits tourism than the one we hear so much about.
Having gone on to pursue a career in academia another thing I learned is that it’s possible to have a system where PhD students can get paid as members of staff at a University for carrying out their research. How many UK PhD students, paying fees and often working part-time to support themselves while struggling to write their thesis realise how incomparably worse their situation is than that of some of their continental peers?
Some of the other eye-openers that life in the Netherlands had in store for me were that houses don’t have to be overpriced and undersized, that everything sold in a supermarket doesn’t need to be excessively wrapped in wasteful plastic and that it is possible to use a bike or the bus as your regular means of transport instead of your car.
Now I’m not saying that all of these things could be implemented in the UK or would necessarily work here. I’m also not saying that the Netherlands is some kind of perfectly ordered Utopia because it certainly isn’t. What I am saying is that looking beyond our borders can give us a wake up call to problems in our own country that we didn’t even know existed. Just think what might happen if enough people started asking why it is that the Dutch can have a generous benefits system without bankrupting the country and we can’t, or why it is that their public transport is so much cheaper and more efficient than ours.
Freedom of movement – people spending time in other countries, getting to know how they work is such a valuable resource in thinking about how to improve our own society. And of course it isn’t just Holland where certain things are done better than they are in the UK – the EU makes it easy to look to Sweden, France, Spain, Belgium or any of the other member states to get ideas for how to improve our own lives. And they, of course, can and should also being looking to us for the things that we get right. Poised on the edge of Brexit we’re in real danger of throwing that resource away.
Seeing that certain things can and do work differently in different countries within the EU also puts the lie to the argument about surrendering sovereignty and clearly shows how much power national governments still have. I don’t believe for one second that all of Britain’s current woes are caused by the country being inundated with immigrants as the Leave campaign would have it, but even if that were true then surely we should be asking why other wealthy EU countries, like the Netherlands aren’t suffering to the same degree as we are from things like a chronic shortage of affordable housing and an overstrained health service. If our benefits and healthcare system really do act like magnets drawing in parasites from all over Europe – and again, to be clear I should stress I don’t believe they do – then we have to blame our own government and not the EU. Again, we only need look beyond our borders to see that the way we organise these things in Britain can’t have been imposed on us by the EU because other EU countries do things differently.
Of course you might by this point be wondering ‘if you love the Netherlands that much why don’t you just move back there?’. Perhaps one day I will. However, I’m also very happy living in the UK because there are many things that I love about this country and that brings me to the other great thing about living abroad – it also puts a new perspective on the things you value most about your own country so that you can better appreciate them when you come back. Living in Holland I missed the English landscape, the rolling hills, the river valleys, the woodlands. I missed the history, the crumbling stone castles and the magnificent cathedrals. I missed certain food – fish’n’chips, Cadbury’s chocolate and Chinese takeways (most Dutch Chinese takeaways are actually rather more Indonesian in their cuisine, a product of Dutch colonial history, and though they’re pretty tasty they’re somehow just not the same). I missed English television and I missed the British sacred respect for not pushing in front of anybody in a queue.
They say that travel broadens the mind but that’s only true if you actually spend time in another country and really soak up something of its way of life. Two weeks each summer in the South of France or a weekend break in Venice doesn’t teach you about that country, or about yourself and the place you come from, in the same way as actually living abroad.
My big worry about a vote for Brexit next week isn’t about the economy or what will happen to the NHS – the things that are in the limelight – it’s about the enormous loss to our own culture that will result from shutting off young people’s opportunities for easily spending a lengthy time abroad like I did. My children – I now have two – are lucky in that they have joint UK-Dutch citizenship and will still be able to move around the EU even if Britain does vote for leave but young British people wouldn’t. And if a Brexit vote triggers a domino-effect and brings about the collapse of the EU – a far from impossible outcome – then my children won’t either.
If our young people are not able to move abroad, to follow their dreams and possibly to return with new ideas about how to make their country of origin an even better place it will be a sad loss for all of us.