Why I will fight to protect the opportunities I had to work and build friendships in Europe

Two months on from the referendum, Tom Cameron is still reeling from the UK's Brexit vote 

August 17, 2016
European Union (EU) flags flying
Source: iStock

The European Union People programme took my family and I to Sweden for three years.

In short, the programme supports the training and development of researchers, and it allowed me to work in one of Europe’s top aquatic biology research groups. It completely changed my life – yes of course professionally, but also personally.

What good friendships we made! We moved when our second child was just born, and our third was born while we were there. We left with our eldest speaking Swedish and all of them missing "proper" winters. Living and working in Sweden had now become part of our identity – that place, that adopted nation which so openly adopted us.

And we met so many Brits – from other academics to folks who just fell in love with Swedes and upped sticks to move to be with them. What culture, what language, what food and what landscape. It is now very much part of who we are.

In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum vote, I felt undeserving of those relationships forged with my overseas friends. Do I represent Britain to them? Personally, I cannot identify with the outcome. If this vote is "British", then I am not.

Time has passed since the result, of course, but I still feel the shame and upset. There is less anger now, and more understanding of what this vote means and why it happened.

 As I come out of the coffee room at work it strikes me that the small group of people gathered there venting their frustrations and sharing their stories are not talking about money. Money was all the remain campaign seemed to talk about, and yet that is not why I now hurt.

The premise of many to ignore the experts was that they had vested interests – EU research funding. Fair enough. The irony is that the EU research funding is an open and inclusive programme, that supports social mobility for individuals from all sorts of backgrounds, at all sorts of stages in their career. It is not elitist – far from it. Show me another "investment in people" programme that puts experience on an equal footing to qualification. Certainly RCUK and the learned UK societies do not.

It is the mobility, not funding (even though you could argue they are inextricably linked) that our small social gathering bemoaned. This group included the German-born researcher who received EU funding for his PhD and one of the jobs that first brought him to the UK, where he now lives and contributes to the lives of so many. There was also the British-born professor who never had EU funding, but whose daughter spoke so highly of her Erasmus placement year studying abroad, about how her life had completely changed following that experience, bringing a new set of horizons and a new set of friends.

Then there was my story. Why I would never have moved to the south east of England to contribute to this local economy and help build the futures of so many young people from this area if it were not for the EU.

Simply put, without my own EU People Programme opportunity in Sweden, I would not have been competitive enough to win the job I have. It is not about the money – it’s about the knowledge shared and the new skills learned, the relationships made and the collaborations started. The whole point of the various EU People programmes is to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and skills to develop the strength of research across the EU.

It is, or was rather, something to believe in.

Despite the deep emotions I feel, I’m not giving up my European passport without a fight. I am no member of the elite – I am the grandson of coal miners and navy servicemen, of cloth sellers and waitresses – and I will be fighting for their great grandchildren to have the same opportunities I had to live, work and build friendships across Europe, for access to Erasmus and all future EU People programmes.

Tom Cameron is a lecturer in aquatic community ecology at the University of Essex.

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