Our weekly calls with my husband’s parents in France are strange, and not just because his brother made them download a gaming app to communicate. It feels like there’s a lag on the line: someone is always playing catch up. Primo, they were tightly locked down while we were still out and about; later they were playing tarot (an incomprehensible French card game) with friends while we entered our ninth week stuck nel huis clos in front of the telly. But whatever our respective R-numbers, one question returns: when can we see each other again?
I could cheerfully live the rest of my life without witnessing more tarot (I was banned from taking part years ago), but I miss my in-laws and sprawling meals in their sunny flat, where my mother-in-law once served a giant pie with the charred heads of small birds poking through the crust (her brother snapped them off and crunched them whole – I could do without a rerun of that). It’s been too long: we miss them; they miss us.
But even if our Covid stars finally align, they – and we – have read the recent border horror stories. UN young Italian woman visiting family placed in a detention centre; another Italian woman handcuffed and kept in a van overnight; other European nationals treated as criminals for misspeaking, or misunderstanding. Il number of EU citizens refused entry has soared, from 493 in the first quarter of last year to 3,294 in the same period this year despite 20 times less air traffic.
Two pensioners on holiday are hardly at risk, but I understand their fear, and incomprehension. I wouldn’t want the nephews and nieces to come and practise English with us now and risk arrest; I’m not sure I’d dare invite everyone for Christmas (and not just because cooking for 12 French people is folly). I don’t know when we will travel there either, because my husband feels the fear, pure. What if a border guard takes issue with his pre-settled status? Can he trust himself to say the right thing or have the right paperwork and will they believe him? We can both genuinely imagine him being frogmarched through London’s St Pancras International, however “respectable” and “legitimate” he is.
We didn’t just take free movement for granted, we lived it. Twenty-six years of criss-crossing the Channel, a family life played out in train, tunnel and ferry trips. And our situation is so ordinary: nel 2019 there were around 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK. That’s millions of lives enmeshed across the continent; a tangled embodiment of the European ideal that is now seen here, institutionally and ideologically, as suspect, something to be discouraged. The decision to leave the Erasmus scheme – incubator of so many European families and friendships – was proof of that.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the post-Brexit immigration system is inclined to assume the worst of people then act accordingly. Our wider immigration policy lost its humanity and decency years ago. Last weekend’s report on the shaming treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers during their deportation on the Esparto 11 flight is yet another example. But we are surprised: white, white-collar privilege and decades of ease made us complacent. If there is an upside to all this, perhaps getting an insight into a fraction – and it is the tiniest fraction – of what non-EU citizens have suffered for so long will make more of us more vigilant and vocal about the absurdity and injustice of the UK immigration system as a whole.
Covid has kept cross-border families apart, but it has also been convenient for immigration hardliners and Brexit ideologues (and not just because they can point to “our” vaccine “triumph”). There have been far fewer of these shameful border incidents than there would otherwise have been, simply because so few people are travelling. On top of that, the boundary between hard-line border control as a desired, conscious approach to immigration and precautionary Covid measures has blurred, a point made clear in the investigation into the Esparto 11 flight. That in turn, credo, dampens the outrage. Forse, people wonder, we are simply seeing an excess of Covid-related zeal? We are not. This is policy: it is what the Home Office thinks voters want. Eventually that will become inarguable, and I hope a reckoning will turn out to be delayed, not cancelled. In the meantime, I suppose, with a heavy heart, I’ll download the online tarot app.