The end of the summer of 2017 can be counted among the most stressful times of my life. As a Finnish national, I was already shaken by the prospect of Brexit. Earlier in the year, the government had sent European Union nationals reassuring emails about our immigration status. But then, on 18 August, a nondescript-looking letter arrived from Sheffield.
Thinking that it might have been a call for papers that I had forgotten about, I opened it promptly. But it was not a call for papers. It was a notice informing me that “a decision has now been made to remove you from the United Kingdom”.
I am a historian of early modern Britain who studies Renaissance people crossing borders and travelling to faraway lands. I have built a career on the ability to come and go between Finland and the UK. For most of my life, walls have been coming down, not going up. The Academy of Finland, which funds my current research, encourages researchers to spend time in foreign research centres, archives and labs. Now the Home Office had decided that I had failed to show that I was “exercising Treaty rights”. I had a month to leave. Otherwise, I would be detained or deported.
After an initial meltdown and panic, my British husband, James, and I went into emergency mode. Our first reaction was to consult an immigration lawyer to see whether the decision could be overturned. It turned out that contesting it would be costly and time-consuming. So I spent the following weekend emailing everyone: my diplomat friends, my MP, the Finnish embassy in London, the British embassy in Helsinki, my heads of department at both the University of Helsinki and Queen Mary University of London. I continued with the big guns: the European Parliament’s Guy Verhofstadt and the Brexit correspondents of major newspapers.
To people wondering “why didn’t she just contact the Home Office?” I can only say that when the Eye of Sauron is upon you, you do not simply walk into Mordor. But, prompted by the Finnish consul, I did try several times to phone – with meagre results. Interestingly, the Sheffield office claimed not to “deal with you EU nationals” at all. I was instead asked to call another helpline, whose operator unhelpfully told me to contact my MP and embassy. Desperately worried, exasperated and also concerned how all of this would affect an important impending work trip to Helsinki, we lodged an appeal, stating that I had a right to family life under the European Convention on Human Rights; that I was indeed exercising Treaty rights; and that the Home Office’s decision was unlawful, arbitrary and disproportionate.
Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest Finnish daily newspaper, covered my story. But it was a later tweet by Irish journalist Naomi O’Leary that led to its being reported in The Guardian and then everywhere from Der Spiegel to El País. Such attention was a novel and slightly surreal situation for someone who had spent most of the summer quietly writing her book.
The pickup was probably so widespread because I was the “dream immigrant”: a taxpaying PhD married to a Brit, palatable to even the most fervent Brexiteers. It turned out that the same letter had been received by another 105 EU nationals, and Theresa May attributed our treatment to an “unfortunate error”. Shortly afterwards, the Home Office called me to apologise. But I wonder what might have transpired had I not been employed or had I not received so much help. After all, being harassed by the Home Office is nothing new to non-EU academics in the UK. The novelty in my case was merely that I was an EU citizen threatened by deportation just when the UK and the EU were about to start Brexit negotiations.
The current plans are to make EU citizens apply for “settled status” after Brexit, which the Home Office promises will be a “streamlined, low-cost, digital process”. But I remain wary. On the March day when Article 50 was triggered, I had applied for a registration certificate because it had seemed like a streamlined, low-cost, digital way to gain peace of mind amid all the uncertainty. This now seems ironic. My application resulted in more than £3,500 in legal costs, on top of the £65 application fee.
We are assured that “settled status” will only cost the same amount as a British passport. But when you start adding these payments on top of everything that the British university sector looks likely to lose after Brexit, it does not seem so affordable. Access to significant amounts of research funding is threatened. The likelihood of EU students going elsewhere to study is rising. Easy research cooperation and travel for scholarly purposes are in jeopardy.
Academics are already troubled with myriad uncertainties and pressures. Making the EU citizens among us feel like strangers in a hostile environment is too much.
Eva Johanna Holmberg is an academy research fellow in the department of philosophy, history, culture and arts studies at the University of Helsinki and a visiting fellow in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London.