Being an EU citizen living in the UK for the past three years has largely had the same rhythm as an undergraduate degree: relax, relax, panic for a week, enter a deep state of denial, relax, relax and repeat.
We have either been forgotten about for months at a time, breezily told that everything will be fine (but we shouldn’t bother filling our pretty little heads with the fine print), or reminded that our main function resides with the services we provide to Britons. EU citizens are mostly great when we pick your fruit or treat your gran; we may choose other professions, but should have the decency to stay quiet if we do so.
At least it hasn’t been boring: forget hobbies or speed dating, if you feel you spend too much time stuck inside your own head, constantly wondering what will happen to your legal status in the country you chose to call home should keep you busy.
In the latest instalment of our saga, the home secretary, Priti Patel, has rejected previous plans to maintain freedom of movement until January 2021 in case of a no-deal Brexit – instead now aiming to end it on 31 October if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal, which it currently looks like it will.
Given that we had originally been given until 31 December 2020 to apply to the EU settlement scheme – and that the Home Office has a less than tremendous record of dealing with people who have a complex immigration status – this does not seem ideal.
There is a certain element of fatigue to all of this: if previous hare-brained government plans are anything to go by, they will eventually figure out something for us which, while still bad, will at least be marginally less inconvenient. Well, maybe they won’t, but as with everything else in British politics at the moment, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Still, there is something particularly grating about this new development and the nagging feeling that, had she been able to, Patel would have retroactively ended free movement on 24 June 2016.
The past three years has forced EU citizens living in the UK to learn not to take things personally. The country you visited and fell in love with and decided to move to voted to leave the bloc your home country is a member of partly because of people like you who decided to move here.
The country across the Channel from all your family and childhood friends where you decided to spend a while, maybe the rest of your life – who knows? – strangled itself in red lines just so it could make sure that it becomes harder for people like you to move here.
The language you learned and lovingly perfected over the years and now speak every day became deafening in its attacks on the scheme that inspired you to pack up your bags and start a new, hopefully better life here.
The prime minister who made a career out of wanting as few of you as possible moving to her country was ousted, in part because her efforts to make it harder for people like you to move to this country were not deemed ardent enough.
She has now been replaced, and the priority of the new home secretary is to make sure the likes of you find it harder to move here, as quickly as possible. But it’s not about us, of course – the British people voted to leave and now they must leave, but sometimes they do worry about their fruit and their gran, and so we are trotted out once more, then put aside until we are needed again.
The problem with internalising this need to remain quiet and out of the conversation is that unacknowledged melancholy only grows stronger. There are only so many times we can choose to be quiet or pointedly sardonic, lest we be accused of being melodramatic, or told to leave if we no longer like it here.
The UK has not been a pleasant place to live for European immigrants since the referendum, and phases of brief panic followed by months of denial do not make for the most stable of mindsets.
Maybe free movement will not end on 31 October as Patel wants, or maybe it will – maybe it is an overreaction to find this desperate move to close borders as soon as possible profoundly disheartening, or maybe it isn’t. Who knows?
As British people may recognise, the problem with bottling up your emotions for too long means that sometimes they all come out at once, not when they should but when you’ve had enough.
That it is such a typically British way to cope is, at the very least, a decent sign of thorough integration: hopefully that will count towards something if the Home Office changes its mind again.
• Marie Le Conte is a French journalist living in London
Being an EU citizen in the UK was hard enough. Now Priti Patel has made it worse – The Guardian