Scientists in the World

The Brexit and me

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The time before the referendum
When I went to live in Manchester back in 2014, nobody talked about the question of whether the UK wanted to stay in the EU. I was in a foreign country and had just started my PhD at a new university; I really had other things to worry about. I do not remember the exact time when I started to realise that the Brexit vote might become a reality; I think I remained oblivious for quite a long time. Even after the general election in 2015, where Cameron won and promised a referendum, I do not think I completely grasped the importance of what was happening. Nobody in my social circle or at work believed that there could possibly be any other outcome than for the UK to remain in the EU.

Leading up to the referendum  
For a long time, I believed the people that told me that the outcome would be to remain in the EU. I later realised that I was living in a bubble, going to university and being in contact with people from different countries but with the same mind-set. I only saw things from one perspective. I started to realise what it meant to be less well off in the UK when I moved to a different area of Manchester, which was a former council estate (social housing area) and still contained a lot of social housing.

The move made me realise that people who have less in the UK are affected by austerity cuts a lot more. The cuts imposed have devastating effects on people who already have little, affecting every aspect of their life. The use of food banks and the number of homeless people had increased dramatically; there were cuts to the emergency services such as the police, while crime rates were on the rise. I think all of this lead to a sense of unfairness and inequality, which, in the end, lead to the result of the referendum. I think that, maybe, it was an easy solution for some people to blame “mass immigration” from the EU and EU regulations for their current situation, which was implied by some part of the media and vote leave campaigners.

The day of the vote…
…was a normal working day for me. I went to the lab and was told that nothing is going to happen and that I should not worry about it.

After the referendum
I was worried whether the outcome of the referendum, to leave the EU, had an impact on my life as a PhD student. I knew that it was going to be a while until the UK actually left the EU and, back then, nobody knew about the chaos that was to come. So, I only worried a little.

It was 2016 and life was going as normal as it can go when you are halfway through your PhD. As the months continued there were small incidents that you heard about in the news of “Brexiteers” giving abuse to immigrants from the EU, especially to people they thought were Polish for some bizarre reason. Luckily, I personally did not experience any major hostility.

In 2017, I started my final year of my PhD; polishing up my data and tackling the pile of things that I still wanted to do in the last year occupied my mind and gave me little time to worry about anything else. The shock of the referendum had faded away.  

Did the outcome of the referendum affect me?  
While I was still living in the UK, my everyday life was only affected marginally. There were no immediate consequences to my life in the lab and I felt that the University and my funding body would have both prevented (or actually did prevent) any direct consequences for me as a PhD student.

However, Brexit became a topic that was extensively discussed and many concerns about future funding of research and collaborations with scientists in mainland Europe were expressed. In the end, the Brexit vote was one important factor in my decision about what I will do after finishing my PhD. The UK has become a country that I feel strongly connected to. Even though I was not born there and would never consider myself British in any way, I always wanted to stay. It makes me very sad to know that whatever opportunities I had that have enriched my life so much, they will probably not be offered, at least not to the same extent, to EU-students who come after me.  

Witnessing Brexit from within the EU
Now, in 2021, after the UK has officially left the EU, the current pandemic has somewhat overshadowed the events. The uncertainty about whether there will be a Brexit-deal at all until the last minute, in my view, just underlined the ruthlessness and stubbornness of the current Prime Minister and his government. There is little consolation in the fact that a majority people have actually voted for leaving the EU, as the vote was based on what appears to be lies. One of which was more money for the National Health Service (NHS). The current PM, Boris Johnson, toured the country with a big red bus on which it said: “We send the EU £350 million a week, let's fund our NHS instead”. Unsurprisingly, to this day, the NHS has not received this kind of funding, as the figure of £350 million a week was falsified to begin with.

With Corona wreaking havoc in the UK it has become blatantly obvious how broken the NHS is and how dramatically the current government has failed to protect everyone who lives in the UK. Witnessing this from within the EU feels like I have narrowly escaped from it. It feels like I was lucky to have made the decision to move back to Germany at the right time. At the same time, it hurts me a lot to see the people of the UK, including my friends, having to deal with it. As the situation in the UK becomes more dramatic again, I sometimes have to do my best to ignore the daily influx of bad news that comes from the country where I was once living very happily.

What has changed for EU students and scientists?
As we all know, collaboration is key in science. For a long time, it was not clear whether the UK would be participating in EU-funded research or exchange programmes. After a long period of uncertainty, there is some good news for the scientific community in the UK as it is now clear that UK-based scientists will still be able to apply for funding bodies from the EU (e.g. Horizon Europe) and that the UK will be financially contributing to it. This was met with a lot of relief in the scientific community. However, there will be no freedom of movement anymore. The UK has introduced a points-based immigration system for EU scientists and, similarly, UK scientists will have to apply for visas in the respective EU-countries. As of now, it remains to be seen how well these systems work or whether this will work as a “repellent” for scientists, who consider moving in either direction. By now there have been some reports about EU citizens being questioned and held at airports for a long time by border control.  On top of that, some of my friends, who are scientists in the UK, are complaining about lab supplies being stuck in customs and having to spend a lot of time dealing with customs instead of research. They feel like their project’s progress is affected by this in the long-term.

Having experienced personally, how much one can grow from spending time abroad, I am saddened that the UK has decided to withdraw from the ERASMUS exchange programme. International collaborations are seeded by undergraduate or graduate students, who temporarily move abroad and make friends while learning new skills and broadening their horizons. As I have feared above, it is now clear that this kind of opportunity, that I was so fortunate to have, will not be made available to future students. In these uncertain times, all that remains now is to wait and see what the future will bring.

Written by Jana Schepers; Edited by Gabrielle Sant. Image: NGC/Design.

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