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The Brexit in Groningen

While the debate over a ‘Brexit’ – the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum - heats up ahead of a vote next week, British students, instructors and alumni are wondering how it will affect them here in Groningen.

British RUG alumnus Tom Wilcox has been living in Groningen for over 25 years, which means not having a vote in the referendum in his case. But the outcome could impact his whole life. ‘I don’t have a Dutch passport as I am still a British citizen. I am living and working here and I don’t want to change my life.’

He is one of many British people living in Europe who could be negatively affected if Britain votes ‘leave’. As of 2015, there were 1.2 million Britons living in the EU outside of Britain, and the Netherlands alone is home to roughly 50,000 British expats. That includes 267 students and 42 researchers at the RUG.

‘It’s a privilege’

A British exodus from the EU could change their lives overnight, since even travelling to Britain may become trickier if they are no longer part of the same union. Wilcox visits his home country quite often, as his parents are still living there, but he wonders whether it will still be so easy after June 23rd. ‘I can now travel between the UK and the Netherlands whenever I want to, but it would be funny if in the future things became more complicated.’

Besides the impact it could have on him personally, he is in favour of staying in the EU for principle reasons as well. ‘Isolating your country and becoming less and less international is a bad thing. As an expat, I think it’s very important to live in a multicultural environment. Many countries are trying to be in the EU, so I think it’s a privilege for us.’

‘I am using the benefits the EU offers every day and I will lose them all’
Although Wilcox cannot vote in the referendum, British students and staff at the RUG are making sure their voices will be heard. Sam McCaddon, a first year student in international and European law at the RUG, has already signed up for a proxy vote, which means he has empowered someone else to vote on his behalf.

Non-EU students

‘I am using the benefits the EU offers every day and I will lose them all if the majority is against it’, McCaddon says. ‘I am worried about things like free movement within the EU and my tuition fees of course, as they will definitely increase in a Brexit scenario.’

If Britons vote to leave the EU, that may also mean that British students abroad would have to pay the same amount in tuition fees as non-EU students. In recent years, many more British students have come to the Netherlands because tuition fees are far cheaper here: university in Britain can cost as much as 12,600 euros (9,000 pounds) per year, whereas British students will pay 1,951 euros in the coming academic year in Groningen. If Britain drops out of the EU, that could instead range from 8,000 to 13,900 euros. No longer qualifying for EU tuition fees could likely lead to fewer Brits choosing to study here.

But Duncan Saunders, another British first year student who will also vote by proxy, doubts that the amount of money British students pay would change. ‘The tuition fees in Switzerland, for example, are the same as the rest of the EU countries. Probably something similar will be arranged for the UK as well.’

Saunders believes that Britain would be better off out than in. ‘I don’t feel the EU is democratic enough,’ he says. He brings up the Five Presidents Report which, in addition to outlining plans for strengthening the economic and monetary union, also calls for further integration into the EU by 2025. ‘England will never accept that, so it’s better to leave now,’ he says. Even if the majority of Britons opt to stay in the EU, he is certain there will be another referendum in the near future.

Premature

Stefan Couperus, an assistant professor of European Politics and Society, believes the effects of a Brexit will only be visible in the long run. ‘I think the heaviest impact will be on trade. British people tend to forget that almost half of their trade is conducted either with or within the EU.’

And even if European tuition fees do not change for British students, studying at university in Britain is almost certain to become more expensive since they are subsidised in part by the EU. ‘A Brexit will create a gap in their budget and it would lead to higher tuition fees,’ Couperus explains. Couperus also suspects Britain would lose its privilege to participate in the Erasmus programme, which would make staff members and students’ exchanges much more complicated.

‘It is more an issue created by the political parties’
Opinions of British students, staff and alumni aside, RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens believes that questions regarding a possible Brexit are still altogether premature. ‘A negative outcome of the referendum does not mean that the UK will leave the EU immediately. Separation dates have to be set and additional measures have to be taken. My impression is that present students would not have to fear.’

‘Splendid isolation’

McCaddon feels quite confident that the majority of Britons will vote in favour of staying next week. ‘I can’t really see a Brexit happening. From my experience, our EU membership has never been much of an issue in the UK, but it is more an issue created by the political parties.’

Although Couperus says that modern Britain is diverse and sees itself as a part of the EU, the British have historically considered themselves to be something other than just a European nation. ‘Some still think that they are an isolated superior power: they call it ‘splendid isolation’. Some contemporary historians are still in favour of this.’

No matter what the historians believe, the majority of Britain has yet to decide, and Wilcox is anticipating the final results nervously. If a Brexit is indeed on the horizon, he would be forced to consider abandoning his British passport in order to get a Dutch one so as to retain European citizenship, as he would not be allowed to keep both nationalities.

‘Although I have been living in the Netherlands for long enough in order to feel that this is my home, I am still not ready at all to give up my British rights’, Wilcox says. ‘On June 24, I will keep checking my news websites all day and hoping that people in the UK will make the right decision.’

15-06-2016