As we enter a party conference season that it is clear will be dominated by Brexit debates, some no doubt more constructive than others, the 3 million EU nationals living in this country may be feeling that they have become collateral damage in the political fallout from last year’s referendum. Many of them will be worried about what the future holds, and many will feel that they are no longer welcome in the UK
Here in Hackney, where cultural diversity is integral to our way of life, around 15% of our citizens – that’s 41,500 residents - are from other EU countries. The East End has been home to people from across the European mainland for centuries, from the Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields, to the Hassidic communities of Stamford Hill. European citizens in Hackney make an enormous contribution to the civic, economic and cultural life of this borough, and it seems right that at this time of anxiety and change, we should let them know how much we value them, and the contribution that they make.
Hackney had the third highest Remain vote in the UK (after Gibraltar and Lambeth), with 78.5% of people voting to stay in the EU. Part of that is a London thing; this is an international city, and many Londoners hold that very dear. But it’s also about what makes Hackney special. This borough has been described as the ultimate global village; its part of what makes us who we are. We value our European citizens because of the cultural richness that they bring to Hackney. They are our friends, neighbours, and colleagues. But we also need them for the skills, expertise, creativity, energy and economic contribution that they make.
It would be very difficult to deliver public services in Hackney, and in particular in the NHS, without EU workers. Visiting the Homerton hospital, and realising just how many of the staff, from nurses, to surgeons, to physiotherapists, are from other EU countries, makes the prospect of running services without them seem very daunting. The social care sector, in London and across the UK is particularly dependent on workers from the EU, and councils and providers fear a recruitment crisis. Many of our thriving local businesses, in tech, fashion, and other industries, have been founded or enriched by EU nationals who chose to make their home here in the most creative and dynamic part of London. We know that their success depends on a global economy, which is why we have worked with them to build international partnerships, and continue to advocate for a Brexit that will work for them, and not just big businesses.
Hackney’s economy has grown rapidly over the past 15 years. There are more, and better, jobs here than ever before. We want all local people to benefit from that growth, and if the local economy suffers, so will the opportunities available to Hackney residents. Staff shortages in public services will directly impact on the quality of life for everyone who lives here. And if Hackney starts to lose its EU nationals, it will lose out in many other ways, that are less easy to quantify but equally important.
As a local authority we can’t do much about Brexit, apart from collectively lobby Government to lessen the impact on local services. But what we can do is to tell our EU citizens that they will always be welcome here, and that Hackney values all the positive things that they, collectively and individually, bring to the borough; and whilst we recognise that hate crime in Hackney has not increased a greatly as elsewhere, we must be vigilant and stand up for our shared values. With that in mind, we’ve produced a special, limited edition ‘I Love Hackney’ badge that celebrates our EU citizens. As a veteran of many political and charity campaigns, I know that you can’t change the world with badges. However, there is something powerful about giving people a way to express the way they feel, and I hope that, even in this small way, we can make our citizens feel welcome and valued, at a very uncertain time.
As part of this campaign, we want to hear your stories about the contribution of EU nationals to Hackney life. So whether it’s your story you want to tell, or you want to celebrate a friend or neighbour, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet us using the hashtag #hackneylovesyou, and we’ll send you a badge.