This Thursday, me and millions of other British citizens are supposed to vote as to whether we want to stay in the EU, or get out – yet on both sides of the debate, it’s been little more than confusing messages, exaggerated statements, and fear-mongering over what our choice will mean.
More than anything, I’ve been having difficulty seeing the meaning my choice might have – who is it actually going to affect? But a recent chance encounter blew that sense of detachment away.
“Brexit feels like it is voting me out, you know?” I overheard Mariel saying. “It feels like I would no longer be welcome in a place I call home.”
Mariel works in the office next to mine; under normal circumstances we’d be making small talk while the kettle boils. That day though, she was uncharacteristically distressed. Intrigued to hear more about her worries, I asked her for a chat over an afternoon coffee. We talked about her – her life, job, relationship, hobbies, how settled and happy she is in Manchester. But most of all, we talked about how much of a rupture the EU debate has caused.
“More than anything, I’ve been having difficulty seeing the meaning my choice might have – who is it actually going to affect?
“I’m afraid if Brexit wins I may become like a non-EU migrant, which means uncertainty… even if I manage to get a residence permit, how many people won’t? And what about people who live here and who have children with UK citizenship? Many people I know are in this situation, and they’re very worried right now. We’re all very worried right now.”
At first glance you could presume Mariel to be an ‘economic migrant’, someone who came to the UK in search of a better life or chance of a job. Actually though, Mariel transferred her existing job from Barcelona to Manchester three years ago, “for love”. Ironically, her salary comes directly from Brussels.
Throughout our conversation Mariel was passionate yet gentle, but on certain points, her voice rose with emotion. “There are lots of stories behind this whole Brexit thing that involve people’s lives being torn apart,” she said. “Voters need to be aware of these repercussions... This is not about tactics. It’s my life.”
Mariel’s fears touched and saddened me. They brought home that when we make decisions about seemingly abstract things like the European Union, there's always someone, somewhere, whose life will be touched by that choice.
Intrigued to hear the other side of the debate, I looked up my local LEAVE campaign. Later that evening, phone in one hand, stirring stew with the other, I found myself in luck.
“Hello? Is that… um… Morven?” a friendly Manchester accent inquired. Polite, amicable, and with an easy telephone air, Darren seemed miles away from those racist or xenophobic narratives Mariel was worried about.
“This is not a left or right argument, it’s a pro-democracy argument. We should be able to make these decisions, and shouldn’t have this body so far away making them for us.”
For Darren, leaving the EU is a serious decision to take. He believes it will make our country better for everyone living here, now, and in the future.
“I think most people don’t know that much about it, until they do some investigation. That was me really. Never thought that much about politics until this whole referendum thing."
After looking into it more, he became convinced that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic. Darren is calm and measured, and recognises that change will not happen overnight. But he’s sincerely convinced that leaving is the best course of action for everybody in the UK.
““I think most people don’t know that much about it, until they do some investigation. That was me really. Never thought that much about politics until this whole referendum thing.”
Of course, Mariel and Darren could both be challenged on their arguments (and they’d probably challenge each other!) On the allegation that the EU is undemocratic: some say it’s no more ‘un-democratic’ than the UK where much power is held by an unelected House of Lords. On the concern of migrants having to leave the country: research has shown that it’s highly unlikely EU migrants will be turfed out in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote.
Whoever is 'right' (if there is such a thing), Mariel and Darren's voices are proof that those of us who think our vote doesn’t matter are wrong. Mariel’s fear of losing her home, her relationship, and her job; and Darren’s fear of taking his country in an unknown and undemocratic direction, are in our hands. Like so many other economic choices we make, we can’t help but affect the lives of others – so let’s take that seriously when we choose which box to place our cross in.