I came to live in the UK in 1998, to study for a PhD. Before that, in 1993-94, I had been an exchange student here, partly funded by the EU’s Erasmus programme. It was on that occasion that I got to know and love Britain as an open-minded and welcoming country. My landlady was one of the kindest and warmest people I have ever met. My fellow students later came to visit me at my (then) home in Berlin, and I’m still friends with many of them. I returned to Britain as soon I could.
After finishing my PhD, I embarked on a post-doc and then moved to another university, where I worked for eight years, before taking up my current post. I have profited from the openness of UK academia and the mobility offered by EU membership. I have very rarely encountered prejudice or discrimination, and have been able to thrive as a result.
Give and take
But, as in any good partnership, I have given a lot back. I have worked hard to educate thousands of students over the years. I have undertaken research and written books and articles. I have worked as a head of department and an external examiner, and taken on countless administrative roles at my own institutions and in other bodies.
There are thousands of people like me at British universities – one study puts the figure at 15 per cent – and the country has undoubtedly benefited from the international nature of this workforce. To compete internationally, the UK’s universities have to be able to attract the best talent, wherever it is found. Success in the international rankings relies on their ability to do just that.
If the UK votes to leave, it will become less attractive not only for EU nationals, but for the brightest and best across the world. Several US-born colleagues, for example, have told me that one of the reasons they settled in the UK was because indefinite leave to remain here gave them access to the EU.
But the signs are ominous. The referendum campaign has created an atmosphere of hostility towards immigrants, in ways I have never experienced in my 18 years in this country. We are being blamed for the state of public services such as health, housing and education, and for undercutting wages, even though the real culprits – chronic underinvestment, poor planning, ineffective governance and watered-down labour laws – are entirely homemade.The tales of intimidation and threats against pro-Remain campaigners, immigrants and their supporters are a cause for serious concern. There is no doubt that many Leave proponents are decent, thoughtful people, but there is also no doubt that parts of the campaign have played on xenophobia and emboldened nasty, violent racists.
‘It’s not you, it’s them’
I have been told: “It’s not about people like you, it’s the others.” I am, apparently, a “useful” foreigner. So who are the others they are talking about? The Polish plumbers? The Lithuanian fruit pickers? The Spanish nurses? The Greek doctors? Or is it the benefit tourists, those mythical creatures that, like the Loch Ness monster, have never actually been spotted, but that surely must exist, given the amount of conversation about them?
Even in the event of a vote to Remain, it will be difficult to control the forces that have been unleashed in this campaign. And it is difficult to imagine what the UK would turn into after a Brexit, possibly under the leadership of Messrs Johnson, Gove and Farage. What is certain, however, is that it will no longer be the country that embraced me – and that I fell in love with – all those years ago.
I don’t know whether I would be allowed to stay, but, like many others, I am beginning to wonder why I would want to. I would hate to leave the country that has been my home for almost 20 years and that has been so good to me – but if it comes to that, the real loser will be Britain.
The writer is an EU national teaching music at a Scottish university