If each UK family already lost £900 to Brexit, this is a far, far greater cost. On the profound loss of trust of EU citizens in the UK in Brexit times.

Trust is our default attitude; at the same time it is fragile. As small children we have no choice but to trust our caregivers they’ll help us survive and tell us the truth. As adults, we still need to trust others. We trust that the food we buy isn’t poisoned, that our co-workers will do their part, and that our partners won’t murder us in our sleep. Without trust there is no cooperation, no trade, no friendship, no division of labour, no government.

The Danish philosopher and theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup💬 argued that trust is vital for human flourishing. Løgstrup lived through the Nazi occupation during World War II in Denmark — he was part of the Danish resistance — and he witnessed first-hand how fragile trust can be. Trust is woven into the fabric of our social realm. If we cannot trust our neighbours, family, or co-workers, we find ourselves isolated and emotionally empoverished. His experiences as a resistance fighter taught him that living in perpetual distrust is possible, but that any life that isn’t built on trust is a diminished life, a pathological life form, in which we are cut off from realizing fundamental goods.

To trust is to make yourself vulnerable to the other: when we trust someone, we open ourselves up to the possibility that this trust will be betrayed. We do not expect to be betrayed of course, as Annette Baier explains, but we are opening ourselves up to the possibility that it might happen. Løgstrup goes further and says that when we trust someone, we surrender ourselves to the other. Though you can harm me, I trust that you won't (see this paper for a deeper exploration of Løgstrup’s view, by Bob Stern). This surrender explains why betrayal of trust comes as a shock.

A while back I asked on several Facebook groups of EU citizens in the UK how they felt after the EU Referendum. This is what the Wordle based on their responses looks like:

Wordle based on responses on EU citizens in UK Facebook group.

The biggest word in this Wordle, dwarfing all the others, is “Betrayed”, a betrayal of trust.

Prior to the EU Referendum, I think most EU citizens in the UK felt relatively trustful towards the government and towards local community. This trust is now gone, and will have large downstream consequences for civic participation and integration of EU citizens in the UK. I’ll first explain what the sources are of the breach of trust, and then argue why trust is so vital and why it is so important that trust be restored.

Betrayal of trust by the UK government.

I could not believe it when I first heard politicians like Liam Fox claim that our lives and our rights were now to be used as “bargaining chips” or “negotiating cards”💬 to get a better deal. Theresa May’s insistence we should be used as human shields to protect the interests of UK citizens living in the EU was not much better. With a sense of unreality, as if I had woken up in some parallel world, I changed my Facebook profile picture with the badge “I am not a bargaining chip”, the first time I used a badge for a social media picture, ever. How strange it is to have to assert: “I am a human being, not a thing to be used for political ends!” It never ceases to amaze me that a government could stoop so low.

Screenshot from the “I am not a bargaining chip” YouTube video.

Although the UK is set to leave the EU, there is no intrinsic reason why our rights should be diminished. And yet, it was clear from the start the UK government was determined to take as many rights from us as they could possibly get away with. We will now have to apply and pay for lesser rights than we enjoyed before, without having had a say in the Referendum that precipitated this loss of rights.

The latest instalment of the concerted effort to remove rights is the immigration exemption from the data protection bill. Immigrants won’t have access to data the government holds about them, which will decrease their ability to fight any mistakes the government makes. (If you care about this issue, donate to the crowdfunder here).

The EU’s initial offer for rights was not even properly acknowledged by the UK. Then began a dispiriting round of haggling about what sorts of things we can be subjected to: fingerprinting, ID cards, registration, how many years out of the country before we lose the right to stay, and for British citizens in Europe, loss of right of free movement in the EU. Even more depressing is that our rights now seem to be out of the picture entirely, eclipsed by topics such as the Irish border. I still don’t understand how the EU could — at least provisionally — agree to a sunset clause for ECJ jurisdiction over our rights, particularly given the track record of the UK government in treating its immigrants.

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Loss of trust in friends, neighbours, family.

We are not in the grim situation Løgstrup found himself in, where virtually anyone could sell you out and people would betray their Jewish and Resistance fighter neighbours and co-workers, but Brexit Britain nevertheless poses serious challenges and has damaged the fabric of society. Immediately after the Referendum, I could not help but make assumptions on how people around me — neighbours, friends, co-workers voted (based on e.g., them flying an English flag or Union Jack at their house during sports events).

Flags now have gotten a whole new meaning. (Geograph.org.uk/Mick Malpass)

Some people told me they “voted out” because there are too many immigrants but, they assured me, “I don’t mean you, you’re OK”. Apparently I am tolerable because I am not from an undesirable, racialised nationality, and because I have a job and pay taxes. When I talked about my loss of rights and the uncertainty, people would lecture me about spoiling the mood with politics and that as far as they’re concerned, I could stay (I live in a Remain area. It’s worse for people who live in Leave areas).

Axel Scheffler’s picture for the Draw for Europe project.

Things that before sounded innocuous “Where are you from?" now feel like I’m being put on the spot and being evaluated. The Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler summed up this loss of trust perfectly.

“But after the Brexit vote it feels, despite our contribution, as if this country is saying, “It was all a mistake! We don’t really want you after all.” A Brexiteer would, of course, say, “Of course we want them when they make money for us.” — Axel Scheffler.

We’re OK as long as we make money, as long as we are net contributors. That is quite frankly a scary thought. Best case scenario, I become old, frail, no longer a net contributor — what happens then? We can see a preview in how older Windrush generation citizens are being treated. Worst case scenario: some mishap befalls me: I am made redundant or I become sick or disabled. Challenging circumstances in any case, but imagine what it feels like if you’re merely tolerable for being economically active and so your whole worth as a human being depends on it?

It is ironic that Brexit (and yes I know it hasn’t happened yet, but psychologically, it might as well have) has made so many EU citizens who live in the UK, who felt perfectly integrated, alienated from their community. After Brexit, we cannot take anything for granted. The book In Limbo💬 provides many testimonies that tell of this loss of trust in our immediate community, as does the tweet below:


Loss of trust in civic institutions.

EU27 citizens in the UK are generally well integrated and participate in a variety of civic institutions. I am for instance a churchgoer, and used to sing in a church choir, but after I saw the lack of response of the Church of England to the way citizens are being treated, I don’t think I can do it anymore.

YouTube/Conservatives Home

In particular, it was painful to see the Bishop of York argue against an amendment that would secure our right to stay in the event of a no-deal scenario in the House of Lords, and then to see the majority of Bishops vote against this amendment. Apparently, the Church of England congregants only matter if they’re British. Since I’ve published an open letter to the CofE’s leadership in the Church Times on this topic, I have had dozens of emails of EU citizens who have expressed a similar loss of trust and don’t feel welcome anymore.

Loss of trust in the self.

Perhaps least visible but not least important is loss of trust in the self. Self-trust is of crucial importance. Without self-trust, we lose the ability for autonomous action, the ability to learn from our mistakes, and to take risks. What has happened since the Referendum is a series of concerted actions, by better and less well-meaning individuals to undermine the self-trust of EU citizens who chose to make the UK their home.

One way in which this undermining of self-trust occurs is through gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation by which the perpetrator seeks to sow self-doubt in their victim through lying, misdirection, and contradiction. It often occurs in intimate relationships, for example, perpetrators of partner violence will often gaslight their victims into believing they somehow are to blame. Gaslighting EU citizens in the UK takes many forms. Just to give a few examples:

  • “Your rights are secured now. Stop the self-pity party!” (no they are not. Our rights aren’t ring fenced. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.)

  • “We don’t mean you.” (sadly, it’s not up to you who you did mean.)

  • “We never asked you to come here.” (well, that was the whole point of freedom of movement.)

  • “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go home?” (I thought home was here.)

  • “If you don’t like it, why don’t you become a British citizen?” (Will you fork out my £1,330 citizen application? Will you help me sort through the permanent residency paperwork? Will you help me study the trivia for life in the UK test — you know, the height of the London Eye and that sort of thing?)

  • “You were never used as a bargaining chip, that’s just ridiculous.” (I had to go back and check the news to see I wasn’t misremembering. But that’s how gaslighting works — they make you doubt your memories).

  • Maybe at a macro level, UK politicians such as Gove insisting the UK can now afford to be more tolerant to migrants because they can finally stop the stream of EU migrants due to Brexit. It hurts to think that Windrush citizens can only now hope to get the bare minimum of decent treatment because we’re being treated worse.

Why trust matters.

Philosophers agree that justified trust is better than distrust. Trust allows us to live together harmoniously. Trust allows us to flourish, as we are a social species and we need to depend on others. Many EU citizens I know are leaving. Some have lived here most of their adult lives. They don't feel welcome anymore. But the vast majority of EU citizens (absent forced deportations or some major economic calamity prompting a mass exodus) aren't going anywhere.

If we are to live as a harmonious civic society, we need to mend the trust that's broken. This is even the case for the bristling Daily Mail reader, who still depends on EU citizens to be his doctor, teacher, caregiver in old age, maybe his in-law. As Løgstrup (cited in Stern) explains:

“Trust and distrust are not two parallel ways of life. Trust is basic; distrust is the absence of trust. This is why we do not normally advance arguments and justifications for trust as we do for distrust. To use a modern philosophical expression, distrust is the ‘deficient form’ of trust.”

How do we undo the damage? As victims of abusive relationships, rape and other trust-destroying personal experiences know, trust is not completely under our voluntary control, and yet it is important, for everyone involved, regardless of how they voted.🔷

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(This piece was originally published on The Blog!)

(Cover: Unsplash/Tess Nebula.)