Tanja Bueltmann: thick-skinned in fight for EU citizens’ rights

Northumbria historian discusses how her research has informed her advocacy and the abuse she has suffered for her campaigning

February 26, 2019
Brexit protest
Source: Getty

When David Cameron won the 2015 British general election, Tanja Bueltmann “wrote an email to a friend saying that if he runs a referendum he would lose it”.

But while she predicted the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, she “never in a million years thought” that she and the roughly 3.7 million EU citizens living in the UK – plus the 1.2 million Britons in other EU countries – would become “bargaining chips in the negotiation”.

A professor of history at Northumbria University, Professor Bueltmann now spends most of her spare time campaigning for the rights of the “5 million people who are essentially at the heart of the EU because they exercise freedom of movement – they live the EU” and are now being “punished” for it. She has set up a campaign called EU Citizens’ Champion and produced a pamphlet for a German political foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, about how Brexit affects the rights of EU citizens. She is also one of the most vocal advocates on social media for EU citizens’ rights.

Even while campaigning, she recognised “the overlap and relevance of my research all the time”. She has worked, for example, on Scottish as well as wider British “migration away from the British Isles to somewhere around the world. I find what is happening now very interesting…British people do not see themselves as migrants, when they are among the most prolific migrants there are.”

Professor Bueltmann also cited research that suggested that “English identity is on the whole quite weak. What is Englishness? There is hooliganism, which obviously isn’t a good way to define yourself, and then a version of the London Olympics opening ceremony, from morris dancing to a bit of Shakespeare.”

Although grateful that “Northumbria has been incredibly supportive of EU staff”, Professor Bueltmann noted that “the emails sent out by other [universities’] HR departments were quite shocking, because there wasn’t any warmth in them at all”.

Professor Bueltmann acknowledged that her advocacy had exposed her to some bitter attacks. Shortly after the referendum, Professor Bueltmann recalled, she “was walking through Newcastle and speaking on my mobile to family in Germany and was told, ‘Fuck off back to your own country!’” More recently, she has “had someone follow me in London, thankfully when I was not on my own, and after that for several days I jumped sideways if someone just happened to walk a little more directly at me”. On social media, she has had to put up with appalling abuse, “see[ing] all the time that many Brexiters generally hate experts, women and foreigners. It’s a sort of perfect storm.”

Despite the inevitable upset, Professor Bueltmann claimed to have “a fairly thick skin”, perhaps partly because she “used to be a fat child and [knew] one or two things about having crap thrown at me. That probably made a difference. There has always been someone who said some sort of nonsense to me.”

Her new public role has certainly required Professor Bueltmann to develop new skills, such as speaking to “a march of 15,000 [people] or even more”. But if emotion largely trumped evidence and argument in the Brexit vote, didn’t that leave academics rather ill-equipped to intervene?

“Being a little bit more emotive doesn’t mean you have to forget about the facts,” responded Professor Bueltmann. “It doesn’t mean you abandon objectivity, abandon your standards, [but] it does mean that you have to use the knowledge you are generating more openly to try to inform debate.”

Given that much of her earlier research had involved working with community groups, she has found it “absolutely possible to engage with Brexiters if one breaks it down to the more personal level…One of the biggest hurdles is that people think it won’t affect them, but you can speak to them about the National Health Service or who their doctors are, and then you explain to them how what’s happening now relates to those people. In many cases, there is a sort of ‘Aha!’ moment and it does really help to get people to understand what the impact is. They don’t think about their dentist or the person who cuts their hair.”



Print headline: Research and thick skin are handy in fight for EU citizens’ rights

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Reader's comments (7)

A professor of history coming from another country to teach students here. Is history really an area where we have a skill shortage? Precisely will the penny drop that it is precisely this sort of thing which has angered so many in this country. lets put this another way, would a German university employ an English professor to teach German history, how about an English professor teaching German in Germany, with such a thick accent they cannot be properly understood. Unfortunately students here have to put up with such bizarre anomalies of staffing and teaching, and then pay dearly for it.
Science is international. If universities look for the best staff they better look for the best candidate worldwide than limiting their search to their own country. So this is actually good for students if they want to learn from the best. And yes, in Germany there are international professors for history, f.ex. https://www.ag.geschichte.uni-muenchen.de/personen/mitarbeiter/jimenez/index.html
Classic, what makes you think that being English uniquely qualifies a person to teach English history? I'm sure Professor Bueltmann knows far more than myself about the history of my own country. I've seen US academics talking on TV about Shakespeare, English history and many other themes, and conversely English academics research cultures and histories all over the world, sometimes as employees of foreign institutions. This interest in developing expertise in cultures not our own has a long pedigree. Think of the French and British archaeologists that opened up the scientific study of Egyptology, for example. The logic of your beliefs is that British researchers should not take up posts with foreign universities, particularly if they are involved in researching/teaching foreign history. Is that really what you believe? If so, this seems to me at least, a narrow and small-minded attitude. When will the penny drop with those angry many of which you speak that we all share this world together, and the better and sooner we get on, the better for the world and for the survival of our species. Cross-cultural intercourse helps promotes understanding between cultures and that's a good thing. It’s a big world out there, and we all need to lose the ‘Little Englander’ mentality.
Knowledge knows no boundaries, no nationality. Nor should it. The only people 'angered' are the narrow-minded, the jingoistic, the ones with whom the academic community have no common ground whatsoever.
Professor Bueltmann actually specialises in the history of British migrants as they have spread round the world, particularly to places like Asia and New Zealand. The ironies of Classic's complaint are thus too manifold to cover here...
there are UK academics everywhere ... and to their advantage, they tend to lecture in English -- having foreign academics enriches the learning experience of students and of the entire institution where they work
It is obvious that there are winners and losers of globalisation and we see this now evolving into a love-hate discourse on social media and strange political phenomena like Brexit. I just wish more energy was spent into rationally rethinking globalisation and how we can compensate losers in our democracies. Otherwise it will be hard to turn the current tide of hate and anger that is do damaging to the social fabric and can lead us down dangerous paths that we know all too well and should never forget led to the loss of lives children, men and women in camps less than 80 years ago. But maybe the lapse in memory of the generational gap is part of the problem. Another important solution is stricter financial regulation and oversight since finance rather than culture is the real reason for the alarming cost of globalisation on the poor.

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