European Students in a Brexit World - by Sofia Demler
EUROPEAN STUDENTS IN A BREXIT WORLD
“Europe is very different from Britain. For instance, their windows open inwards rather than outwards, and it is almost impossible to buy Monster Munch in Bulgaria.No wonder we could not get along.”
I found this quote while strolling through a bookshop in Cambridge. There is some truth in it. Even neighbouring European countries are surprisingly different. Though we consider each other as Westerners, and even more, as young Europeans who have a sense of being a European first before anything else, we do currently face challenges. It is not only Brexit; there seems to be something changing in Europe, but it hasn’t yet been decided which direction will prevail – separation or stronger connection. For now, many Europeans are still using their chance to study or work abroad. They come to Britain, to study the language or to make use of the great educational system, with some hoping to stay for good and start a successful career1.
Brexit seems to be both fascinating and confusing to us non-British-Europeans. As a German, I have always loved talking about it, but learned very early on not to mention my views on politics here in this country. When I do so, I can never be sure of my communication partner meaning what he says about Brexit, because of the famous British talent of ‘understatement’! As a German I love a straightforward, honest discussion and so instead of talking much to Brits about it, I have found myself exchanging thoughts with other Europeans. They seem to be on the same page.
They often do want to talk about it. They want to understand the reasons behind Brexit; they want to know where it will lead (though I’m afraid, even the British can’t tell) and what it means for their lives. For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to find European students who plan to stay in England for a longer period and are likely to be affected by possible changes in the political system. In so doing I found a variety of feelings and opinions on this topic.
But why would this matter to us? It is exciting to see how many Europeans are currently visiting our international cafés in Cambridge. They are an essential part of our international family and a possible Brexit makes them think, affects their future decisions, and may even affect how much they feel involved or a part of the society here. What might be some considerations for our interaction with European students coming to our events? Do we as Christians have a role to play, or is there not much we can do about it?
PERSONAL INSECURITIES AND CONCERNS
When European students are asked to describe their feelings, they range from excitement to intimidation. No one really is very afraid of Brexit, as current events don’t yet allow the drawing of concrete conclusions. Nonetheless, our European friends have a strong sense of connection and belonging to Europe. They are used to being able to move within the EU and some of them have plans to establish an economically secure life away from their home country, especially if they are from eastern or southern Europe. For most of them, an English-speaking country is the first choice after studying here. So, the potential of having to change their initial plans drastically is confusing their future hopes.
Every student I asked has some sense of insecurity. Sometimes, life in their home country hasn’t always been easy: they are trying to build up a new life in a new place, but now they feel like the doors are closing in front of them once again. It makes some feel like a foreigner and yet they can’t imagine going back to their own country, simply because they know they wouldn’t find any job related to their degrees. They are not willing to waste their degrees by taking on very hard, time-demanding and poorly paid jobs, if they even manage to find a job back home at all! Studying hard while here in Britain and yet possibly not having the chance to stay is a challenging prospect. At the same time, they might also be uncertain about the near future, because they don’t feel well informed. Reading the newspapers from their home countries gives them a different picture from reading the ones here. Some are not following the news anymore – reports and events all seem slightly chaotic – and so they don’t even know when to expect what. Most of them are aged under 25, and yet are facing changes once more, including political and economic uncertainty, while still only young adults. This raises feelings of intimidation, of not having things under control.
Others are simply curious about how this “experiment” will end, and would like to see some movement against the tendency towards more uniformity within the EU, which is large and diverse. However, at the time of writing, there hasn’t yet been any clear agreement, most students feel they still have some time to think and prepare.
Nonetheless, some very practical questions remain for non-British-Europeans:
· Will health insurance in the UK still be available?
· Will it still be possible to find a job in the UK?
· Will Brexit lead to increased fees for students?
· Will travel back home become more expensive?
· Will there be an equivalent for Erasmus?
THE WIDER IMPLICATIONS
They not only worry about their own lives, they also think about Europe as a whole and what Brexit may mean for their own countries, along with any corresponding changes in society. When they were growing up, Europe was expanding. It seemed to be a good thing to join the monetary union and establish a European parliament.
In the last few years, what seemed to be unshakable and strong has been shaken, and not only by Brexit. There are two conflicting movements: some leading politicians are aiming for greater uniformity, while others desire more independence, wanting to fight for their own national rights. It has become clear that changes are ahead of us, and no-one can predict what that means for their own country. Will Brexit bring a financial crisis, some ask? Will it affect the economy, both for Britain as well as the other European countries? Will it lead to a more seriously pursued uniformity with joint forces or more cut-back national autonomy? Some worry about growing nationalism and xenophobia in all countries, including Britain.
THE SEARCH FOR HOPE
So, there is a component of disillusionment about personal and commonly shared visions. But students continue to have a hope in looking beyond Britain for a secure future, given the general mobility of young Europeans. This might mean, however, for our international cafés and other events, that in coming years we might have fewer European long-term students visiting.
Asked whether religion, and particularly Christianity, might provide an answer to the changing European world, none of the students I spoke to could see an obvious link. One student, however, appreciated the international café as being a place open to diversity, and as a visible effort to work against possible racist tendencies. Thinking more about it, we indeed can play an active role in creating places like international cafés, where Europeans feel at home. Overt racism doesn’t yet seem to be a strong reality and people might not be consciously aware of the changes in anyone’s mindset. Yet, my conversations with some European friends showed the actual existence of feelings of insecurity and intimidation beyond the normal challenges of living abroad.
More importantly, this is the place at which we can meet European students at their point of need. We can listen, understand and unify people again, enabling a sense of belonging and stability. Besides providing information for what Brexit means for them, there seems to be another great opportunity: this may be just the right moment for us to challenge our European friends with the gospel and the security God wants to give us. Perhaps this is precisely the place where they can begin to relate to the hope that the Bible gives us through Christ. Perhaps Brexit has created a season in which we can openly share our fears, and discover how God meets us in the midst of our insecurities. A person who is perfectly happy might not understand their need for a redeemer and a Lord, but someone whose visions and hopes for the future have been shaken, will.
SOME WAYS TO BEGIN THE CONVERSATION
We don’t have to wait for things to become reality. We already have a start by asking the very questions that we ourselves might not want to think about anymore. We can do this in a bigger discussion group or privately, and it is almost certain that some of our friends from more direct cultures will start naming the issues which concern them.
Here are some ideas which might help us engage more deeply with our European friends on the current situation:
A good way to open up about feelings, at least for people who prefer a more ‘visual’ approach, might be to use pictures and ask them how they feel about the future in general. This could be done in a Bible discussion or as one of the conversation topics around the café tables. The Cru resource, Soularium2, which provides a range of attractive pictures as a focus for sharing is great for that. The pictures also come with a few suggested questions to initiate a conversation:
1. Which three images would you choose to describe your life right now?
2. Which three images represent what you WISH were a part of your life right now?
3. Which image would you choose to describe God? (If they say “I’m an atheist” ask: Which image describes that?)
4. Think about your life so far. Which image best describes what you’ve experienced spiritually?
5. When you think about your spiritual life or journey, which image best represents what you wish were true?
Questions 1) and 2) could be adjusted for European students by asking: Which images represent the situation in Europe? Which describe your feelings and your dreams?
Another approach is a position line drawn across the room, giving people a chance to move physically into a position on the line that expresses their feelings about this topic or about the future. This method allows people to express their feelings without a sense of being pressurised or forced to give very concrete opinions. At the same time, there is the chance for those who are more open to explain why they chose their position.
None of us wants to start unhelpful political debates or polarising arguments, especially in our international student events! But perhaps we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about the whole issue of Brexit and its implications more openly, as Europeans often are very happy to share their opinions on this matter and to express possible worries. Communication is, after all, the safest way to overcome differences. Then our different ways of opening windows and the lack of Monster Munch in Bulgaria might not matter so much anymore.
Written by Sofia Demler. Sofia is currently a Friends International Reach Trainee in Cambridge. She comes from Germany and is interested in politics and reaching out to Europeans.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Insight. To read the other articles from this edition, or any of the previous ones published since 2011 Click Here.
1. In 2016-2017, the number of EU students in the UK was 134,835, representing almost 30% of the total number of international students. Of these, more than half were pursuing undergraduate degrees. The largest numbers were from Germany, France and Italy, with more than 13,000 in each group. Source: www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/International/International%20Facts%20and%20Figures%202018_web.pdf