I always stay up all night on UK election nights (unless I really, really have to be somewhere at the crack of dawn), but I think I may have broken my own personal record on Thursday/Friday by staying awake until almost 9am. It's amazingly difficult to drag yourself away from the TV screen when you can't quite believe what you're looking at. I then managed to get four hours' sleep before I received another phone call from Canadian TV asking me to go on for a second time. Just by chance I still had the iPad I borrowed the previous night, so luckily I was able to do it, and this time I made a point of mentioning my Hungarian friend Anita (who I told you about the other night) and her reaction to the referendum result. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I put her reaction into my own words, because what she actually said in her early morning email was "WHAT THE **** BRITAIN!!!!!"
It turns out that Anita had managed to complete our 'interview' just before polling day (I sent her the remaining questions by email), but hadn't had the chance to send the voice-file back. So here it is belatedly, and by the time you get to the end I'm sure you'll be able to imagine exactly how she's feeling now.
Me : You were about fourteen years old when Hungary joined the European Union in 2004. Do you have any memories of that period?
Anita : Yeah, I have loads of them. The first thing we all thought was that we would have the euro, you know, join the eurozone. That didn't happen! But I knew that there were all these new possibilities, that we could move, that we could travel, and you wouldn't need a passport. You could just go anywhere and see the world. I'd never been abroad before, so it was something that I really wanted to do. And everyone wanted to do that.
Me : Did you notice any changes in Hungary in the first few years after it joined the European Union?
Anita : Well yes, I have. Prices started to go up, and people started to leave - at least, there was the possibility for people to leave, and many started to use that chance, or live with that chance, you know? For me, when we joined the EU, I was fourteen, and at around that time I started to think about, you know, not spending my life in Hungary - the rest of my life, my whole life in the one place. I realised I could go elsewhere, I could live elsewhere, I could visit places. I remember there was a trip planned to go abroad, I think it was Austria - this was pre-2004, and we would have to have passports to go on this trip. I think it was like a hiking thing...I can't remember, actually. But the point is we didn't have passports, so we didn't go, and later on with the EU coming in, or us joining the EU, we didn't need it anymore, so you could just go. In Hungary we have these ID cards, so you have your name on it, age, date of birth, whatever, your nationality, a hologram in your picture, so it's like a valid proof of ID. Like in Britain you have your passport, and licence for driving...in Hungary we have these ID cards, and that was enough. With that you could cross borders. So you get that ID card when you're fourteen. No matter what, you get that, and with that you have the opportunity to do stuff you couldn't before. So that was one big change.
I mean, there were other things, like people moaning about prices going up, and they did - to be fair, they did. Because obviously we joined the EU, and I don't know if there's this thing that you have to match your prices, or it's because of importing, or whatever the reason was. Prices did go up, and one silly example is the Hungarian equivalent of pound shops. In Britain you have the pound shops, you go in and you buy anything for a pound. We had the same in Hungary, they were called the Hungarian hundred forint shops. Right, so you went in, and you spent one hundred forints on any one item, and that was it. Now, the equivalent of that would be about thirty pence, so we have hundred forint shops. And after the EU...well, not immediately after, but shortly after, they went up to become the euro shops, with the one euro, which is the equivalent of over three hundred forints, right? Whereas previously you would spend one hundred forints, you'd spend three hundred. So, it's a silly example, but I think it proves the point.
There were good and bad changes. Obviously people would moan about prices going up, but I think the good overwhelmingly overtook the bad. I mean, it's not just the everyday examples of "oh, you could actually go abroad", like some people take it so for granted - you know, "we've been to Tenerife, we've been to Gran Canaria, and we're going to Switzerland" or whatever, Yeah, that's British holidays, going to Tenerife. For Hungarians, the holiday is going to Balaton, maybe, which is the local...like in the country. There's huge, huge social differences in that regard. But yeah, once you had the European Union, you could just go. And in fact that's what I did. Not for a few more years after, but I did it nonetheless, and I don't think I would have if it wasn't for the EU.
Me : What does the EU mean to the average person in Hungary? Is there a fonder attitude to the EU than there is in the UK?
Anita : I think...hmmm, I think it's quite divided, to be honest. I don't know any person in my generation who has anything against the EU. Not those that I know, at least, or not those that I speak to, right? I mean, it gives us opportunities, it gives us a chance to go and broaden our horizons. Several of my peers have gone abroad to look for jobs and to study, just like me. I came to Britain after graduating from high school, and went to university here, and worked, and without the EU I wouldn't have been able to do it. I would have stayed in Hungary and possibly would have ended up doing some menial job in a factory. Instead I feel like I'm actually achieving something...well, most of the days. I actually feel like I've made steps to live up to my potential, which I highly doubt I would have been able to do if I stayed in the one place - be it Hungary, be it whatever, you know, I think people need to see the world. I think people need to experience different cultures and different ways of living. It's my preference that I stayed, but I know people who go abroad, and then stay for a week, stay for a year, and then go back, but I think the opportunity itself, that you can do that, just means a lot. So I don't actually know anyone of my generation who sees anything bad about the EU. Not in terms of economic possibilities, not in terms of intellectual benefits, you know? As for the older generations, I think there might be some people who are not so fond of it, but in general...I don't know, that's the answer! I've not lived in Hungary for some years, so this is a tough one to answer.
Me : Apart from making it possible for you to live and work here, what practical benefits have you enjoyed from EU membership since you moved to Scotland?
Anita : It's not just living and working here as such, it's also me going abroad, visiting Iceland, visiting Norway, going back to Hungary via Slovakia without any issues in terms of passports and whatnot being required, I mean all these things. It's not just Britain as such, it's all the other countries in the EU that I had a chance to interact with. OK, it's not as many as some other people have visited, but still you feel it, and it does make a difference, and knowing that I have the chance to visit more also. Other than visiting countries, and going on holiday or whatever, there's also...for example, when I was at university I had classmates from different EU countries, and just the possibility to exchange experiences, and knowledge, and interact with them, to find out more about their culture and ways of living, and their viewpoints, you know? It just broadens your mind, it just gives you...I don't know, it just makes you more aware of things. You find out about their history, their viewpoints. And also, being part of the EU, I felt like a part of a community, and a practical benefit...of course, it's important to have a European health insurance card, but it's not just about the practical benefits. It's also about, as I said, intellectual and other benefits as well.
Me : How did you feel when you first heard there was going to be a referendum on leaving the EU, and in particular that you as an EU citizen wouldn't be able to vote?
Anita : Well, my thought was **** this ****, I cannot believe people are this stupid that they would even call the referendum. I mean, OK, I can understand it's a democratic thing to do, isn't it? Holding referendums on things that are important to people, fair enough, do it. But I mean, personally, myself, I cannot see the problems with the EU for Britain. I know there are things that Britain maybe could do better independently, maybe, I'm not sure, but I cannot fathom how the benefits of the EU would be less, you know, than the benefits of an independent UK. I just can't see that happening. So when I first heard there was going to be a referendum, I was like, "for real?" OK, well fair enough, if there's going to be a referendum, fine, just give people the chance to vote if they so want it. But I honestly did not think that it would come to this, in terms of the media coverage, in terms of the scaremongering, in terms of all this stupid rhetoric that people have put on, you know? Project Fear - what the hell, honestly? And as for not being able to vote, again : **** this ****. Honestly, I'm an EU citizen, as you have noticed, I have been here for seven years...coming up in August it's going to be seven years. I have worked my ass off, paid all my taxes and National Insurance and everything you need. I'm a good, honest citizen, you don't get any trouble, you know like problem with the police. Never even used a GP. I've only ever seen the nurse once, so you can't say I'm like a drain on your system. I don't get benefits, I don't get anything that all the scaremongering people are talking about in the media. So personally, I feel quite excluded, I feel like I'm not actually a valid member of this country. You know, like my voice doesn't count. I've been here for seven years and I don't get to vote on one of the most crucial questions of my lifetime, in terms of whether Britain should stay or go, or leave the EU. Because that will have, I assume, quite strong effects on my life, on my future, and still I don't get to have a say. People from Commonwealth countries who live here do get to have a say. Just please try to explain to me why someone from India has more of a say in this question than I do! How is it going to affect their life more, and therefore how do they get a vote, as opposed to me? How? Again : **** this ****.
Me : Do you think it's fair that citizens of Commonwealth countries like Canada, India, Swaziland and Barbados have a vote in this referendum, but citizens of other EU countries don't? If not, why not?
Anita : Well, I think I've just answered that question! No, I do not think it's fair, I think it's a ****** system, I think it's ridiculous, and I think it's set up in a way that actually encourages EU bashing in a way, and you know, all this scaremongering that "oh, you bloody EU people come here and steal our jobs", well **** you, you can go and work in Hungary if you want. You know? Nobody's telling you not to. And if you don't want to, you can stay here and get a job. All my jobs since I've lived here, all these seven years, ALL of them, were underpaid, undervalued, and jobs that an ordinary person if you asked them on the street would not quite happily take on! You know? And I did. So you're welcome.
Me : As a matter of principle, do you think the free movement of people across the continent is preferable to a points-based immigration system that gives priority to people with particular skills, regardless of where in the world they come from?
Anita : To be honest, I don't know. I know Canada has the points-based system. I don't actually know which other countries do...oh, and maybe Australia. I'm not sure, I think they do. Anyway, I can understand, you know, points-based system, OK, if you're well-educated, and well-off and whatnot, and you get a preference, I can understand in terms of the country looking after itself, and saying, you know what, we only want the best, we don't want the scum of the world. But I mean, isn't that a bit selfish? That you're just taking in the best people, so to speak, the best...whatever that means. Where's equality of opportunity? Hmmm? Where's that in the points-based system? Nowhere. It presupposes that you can make yourself well-off or well-educated in your own country. That you can be good enough for Canada if you study in the best university in your own country, and then you can go and live in Canada, because you've already trained. Well, not every country has the best education system, so you're already excluding those who don't have the opportunity to study at home. And you're not giving them the chance. I don't know. Personally, I don't think it's fair, because as I said, equality of opportunity does not exist in a points-based system. I can understand from the country's perspective that it's for their own benefit, only taking in the best, but that's a very exclusive system.
Me : What do you think the consequences will be for you and other EU citizens in the UK if there is a Leave vote? Are you reassured by Michael Gove's assertion that the rights of people who are already here will be unaffected?
Anita : No, I'm not reassured by that. At all. He cannot promise it. I'm not a legal expert, or an EU legal expert, or lawyer, or whatever, but I know that the rights given by the EU will not be unaffected, because the UK will not be part of the EU anymore if they leave, will they? So they will have to come up with new laws and new regulations, and policies and all. They cannot promise that the law will remain the same. One of the main points of the Leave campaign is that they will no longer have to abide by EU regulations, so obviously that applies especially to immigration. So nope, I'm not reassured at all. Especially since one of the biggest things they always chant is "oh, bloody EU people coming in and stealing the jobs". Well, if they vote to leave, isn't that one of the pulling-powers? The Leave campaign saying they can regulate all of the people coming in, so that they will not steal the jobs? No. The consequences will be a big ****-up, and uncertainty. Which is not very nice, is it?
Me : On a scale of 1 to 10, how relieved will you be if Britain votes to remain in the EU?
Anita : Er...100.
Me : Finally, a question about Hungarian politics. The Prime Minister, Mr Orban, is one of the most controversial heads of government in Europe. On the face of it, his stated desire to replace liberal democracy with an "illiberal state" seems to run counter to the EU's values. Why do you think his ideology has resonated so much with the Hungarian electorate?
Anita : Well, he is...oh God. Honestly, that man. Right, let's focus on the question, before I go off on a rant. It's because Hungary is quite old-headed, I think, in the way that they always want to be able to do their own thing. I mean we've had the Turks, we've had the Habsburgs, we've had the Russians, we've had our share of people coming in and telling us what to do. And the EU sometimes feels like that as well. So I think when people say "we don't want to be ruled by all these things", that's what they are thinking of, all these past hurts. I don't know, that's the only reason I can think of, to be honest. But I mean, as I said I've not been in Hungary for the past seven years. But yeah, he is quite controversial, in that he is going after what he wants, and not giving a **** how it comes across, to be honest.