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Five years on: voices from Wales – Wiard Sterk

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Brexit made EU citizens in the UK ‘immigrants’ – but Wales is still my home

Wiard Sterk is a representative of the3million, a trustee of Settled and a Director of Wales for Europe

“The outcome of the 2016 referendum was a crude awakening for EU citizens in the UK, in particular those settled here for decades. The sudden realisation of how much we had taken for granted came as a shock. If that wasn’t enough, language used subsequently by leading politicians to describe EU citizens in the UK, including by the PM (‘queue jumpers’, ‘citizens of nowhere’), and the abandonment of the promise to automatically ringfence the rights of EU citizens resident here, was a further blow. We had presumed to be fully part of UK society, unalienable, and that the country we had chosen to be our home would not renege on international treaties and alliances. We were reminded again that we were immigrants, whose rights could be revoked if this was politically expedient. 

In this we were only unique in our slumber, our complacency, our presumption that somehow we were exempt from what most other immigrants accepts as part of the hazards of moving from one country to another. Most of us had lived our whole life as a citizen of the EU, as well as our nation of birth. We had seen the EU member states pull closer together and their number expand. The UK had been a strong promoter of the free market, which brought along free movement of labour. As labour is enacted by people, this meant free movement of people and we were foremost citizens of one EU nation with a home in another, not immigrants. Our homes were paid for by jobs and housed families. Jobs meant paying taxes, NI contributions and rates. We were net contributors in other words. All we lacked was voting rights for Westminster elections and UK wide referendums, including the EU membership referendum, but in any other aspect we could have been UK citizens as well. 

Until the aftermath of the referendum, when we discovered that none of that mattered much and that, in spite of all promises, we could only secure our rights to reside, to work, to study, to rent or to receive medical treatment free at point of delivery, if we applied again to have these rights granted. If we failed to apply, or the application was rejected, all those years of living and working in the UK, of paying contributions, of raising families, of making friendships, of volunteering, of investing, of being part of building a better society, would be void. Eventually, after having lost jobs and homes, a forced return to our nation of birth would be the outcome. We found ourselves to be immigrants again.

For me, this meant joining the3million and supporting the campaigns to raise awareness of the problems inherent in the settlement scheme for EU citizens, both in the UK, in Brussels and in our nations of birth. It meant helping to set up Settled and work with many other organisations to provide support for all who faced difficulties in submitting their application to the settlement scheme. 

Finally, it meant being part of Wales for Europe. Wales is my home and in spite of a Welsh referendum result in favour of leaving the EU, there was no effort to ‘other’ or exclude EU citizens living here. To the contrary, the Welsh Government has been generous in its support for EU citizens, in providing resources to assist with the application process for the settlement scheme and granting voting rights to all foreign citizens in Wales (I look forward to the first non-UK citizen MS elected in 2025). 

My children were raised here as UK citizens, I married into a Welsh family and have many close friends here. They still feel European, in spite of the decisions made in Westminster. I am, as a Dutchman, still a citizen of an EU member state, with all the benefits that entails. So, and call this cheesy if you like (and there is, of course, more to it), I feel an obligation to be part of and support those in Wales that were and are still committed to keep the nation close to the EU, maintain the many links and exchanges EU membership encouraged and work to narrow again the gap that has now forced Wales and the EU apart.”