Local elections don’t usually stir fierce emotions, but for EU citizens in Britain polls on Thursday could be their last chance to impact policy and make their voices heard.
Pro-EU campaigners have urged the estimated 3.7 million EU citizens living in Britain to use the vote to signal discontent over the government’s Brexit direction, using the typically low turnout in such elections to amplify their message.
“It’s a muffled cry for help,” Maike Bohn, founding member of The 3 Million lobby group, told AFP.
Fellow campaigner Cristina Tegolo, who is running to be a councillor for the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats in Prestwich, north Manchester, has been trying to get EU citizens to the voting booth and convince Britons who back staying in the bloc to make Brexit the key issue — with mixed results.
“It’s made me even more likely to vote Liberal Democrat than before because both the Conservatives and Labour are so Brexit-focussed,” said Charlotte Dalgarno, on the driveway of her Prestwich home, where Tegolo was canvassing Wednesday for last-minute votes.
The voter, a 40-year-old mother who has an Italian husband, said she was applying for Italian passports for her family, adding “after Brexit… we thought, if this could happen, what next?”
– ‘Make a difference’ –
Sicilian native Tegolo, who is in the process of applying for British citizenship, said she hoped that pro-European supporters nationwide would “really make a difference” by backing pro-EU parties, “which is really the Lib Dems or Green Party”.
But across the road, Dalgarno’s neighbour, who wished to remain anonymous, highlighted one of the problems facing campaigners trying to coordinate a united message.
“I am a remainer, but I won’t be voting on Brexit,” he told AFP on the doorstep of his home in the leafy suburb.
“I see the local council is about (spending) cuts, period.”
The difficulty in convincing people to think nationally when voting locally is particularly evident with British voters, said Tegolo.
“The British, sometimes they are very ashamed with what happened with the referendum, but in reality we are not a major issue for them,” she said at a local councillor’s home temporarily turned into a campaign war-room.
“Some people say ‘why do you want to have more rights than we have?’.”
Tegolo has also faced challenges in engaging European citizens in local democracy, particularly among Manchester’s sizeable Eastern European community.
“In my experience, we see the Italians, the French and the Spanish (are) very (well) informed,” she explained.
“But knocking on doors in the Polish communities around Manchester, going to Polish delicatessens, not many people knew, or understand the problems they could face,” she added, with factors including language barriers and the community’s more transient nature.
‘Sense of belonging’
Polish PhD student Kuba Jablonowski, also a 3 Million campaigner, said assumptions that EU citizens would naturally join forces in Thursday’s vote were simplistic.
“I don’t think there is a single message, I don’t think there should be a single message,” he said.
“It is not a coherent, single body of voters, we have multiple loyalties, some of us are left-wing, some of us are right-wing.”
He believes the elections, which could be the last ones EU nationals are able to vote in — depending on Brexit negotiations — are instead crucial for integration.
“The question about sense of belonging is the key one because voting gives you a stake in your local community, that’s why removing it is massively problematic.”
More practically, the campaigners are also encouraging all voters to choose candidates who have signed up to the lobby group’s online pledge to protect EU citizens’ rights and help them negotiate the bureaucracy created by Brexit.
“No-one in Britain has actually said EU citizens shouldn’t keep their rights, you’d think we are running in an open door, but the current government has refused to guarantee our rights,” said German native Bohn.
She pointed to the recent “Windrush scandal” in which Commonwealth citizens who arrived decades ago in Britain as children were targeted over their status with some even threatened with deportation.
“People just don’t know what’s going to happen, they feel homeless in many ways, and vulnerable,” she added.
With recent elections across the western world swinging the pendulum ever further away from those who identify as global citizens, Thursday’s vote represents another battleground in a wider fight, said Tegolo.
“I can’t even say to my husband, ‘let’s move to Italy’, the situation is probably even worse (there),” she explained.
“So we have to fight where we are and be strong with our beliefs.”