A chat with Tanja Bueltmann

When the last Parliament granted Boris Johnson the election he craved, the fuse was lit on a Conservative campaign notable for two features: an Orwellian level of deceit and disinformation, and a doubling down on the attacks that EU citizens, in the UK, have suffered since the day the referendum was called. Despite having pledged, as the face of Vote Leave in 2016, to “automatically” grant indefinite leave to remain to EU Nationals, and treat them, “no less favourably”, he pressed on, instead, with the abhorred ‘Settled Status Scheme’, while he and his Ministers blew hard on the dog-whistle, accusing EU citizens, of enjoying ‘preferential access’ to the NHS, and labelling them as ‘potential terrorists’ who had treated Britain ‘as their own’ for too long.

One person unsurprised by Johnson’s classless courting of anti-immigrant sentiment, is Tanja Bueltmann, a prominent campaigner for the rights of EU Nationals, and founder of the EU Citizens’ Champion campaign.

What has been particularly shocking to see is the renewed anti-immigrant rhetoric that implies we do not contribute; implies that we cause harm,” Tanja tells me as I ask for her take on the recent campaign. “I find this dog whistling now even worse than in 2016. First, because it comes on the back of a good 1250 days of uncertainty, and secondly, because the Government’s own evidence disproves all of these statements. That is why I can only conclude that it is deliberate, designed to gaslight.”

The gaslighting of EU citizens is something Tanja is all too familiar with and very publicly calls out; a stance which has seen her targeted with horrific abuse, including death and rape threats and even stalking. I can’t imagine that this is something one can ever truly take in one’s stride?

On the one hand the answer is clearly: no,” Tanja agrees, “I have seen things that nobody should ever have to see. But there is a slightly bizarre normalisation in this. Most of the time it is now a case of “been there, seen that” to adapt a saying … But there is always the one new thing, the one new approach. Or the scale of it sometimes. So of course, it never becomes normal. And obviously it shouldn’t!

Looking through Tanja’s Twitter posts today, it seems remarkable that she once rigorously held to a policy of not discussing politics on social media. It was back in 2014, when the referendum of the day was on the issue of Scottish independence, that this first began to change for her.

I was not a supporter of independence originally,” she explains, “I would have made the case for change, but opted for a proper federal system for the UK. But I changed my mind when I began to look more closely at the political representation Scotland has had, and opinions in Scotland. They simply do not match those of England (on the whole) in a very fundamental way.”

Scotland, it soon becomes clear, holds a special place in the Professor’s heart, something, which influenced her evolving views on the topic.

“Scotland, I think, deserves better representation of its collective views and values, and I eventually concluded that independence really is the only way. So, I began to say that a bit more openly in 2014.”

Scotland, as well as being a country for which Tanja’s love is obvious, has featured prominently in her academic work as an historian of diaspora; a journey (no pun intended) that has brought her a long way since her days as an ERASMUS student at the University of Edinburgh.

I come from a working-class background,” says Tanja. “My father worked in a small factory and my mother as a curtain maker. So, in terms of my background it was very removed from higher education and what I now do. In Germany the school system stratifies very early and initially I went to a school from which one cannot even get the right qualification to commence a university degree. But because my marks were good, I chose to continue and do what is the German equivalent to A-Levels. With that qualification in hand I decided that doing a university degree would be the right thing. When I was younger, I liked the idea of being a teacher, so while I had not always planned a career in academia, in many ways I still pursued that original idea – after all, being a professor also involves teaching.

Pursuing that original idea has turned out to be a wise move. I’m curious though, what led her to choose history as her path?

In terms of what led me to pursue my historical interests … I am not actually all that sure what the original trigger was,” she muses, “but I had always loved historical novels and been interested in the past ever since I was young. I liked it as a subject at school too. That explains partly why I chose to study it, but there is actually quite a story behind that because it was, at least partly, also what we call a “Trotzreaktion” in German: a sort of act of defiance. While I had always loved history at school, the last history teacher I had was not especially good. I don’t like teacher bashing, but he really just wasn’t good. Nobody in our class got good grades and he told me (and most others) that I was crap at history. So, I basically decided to show him that that was simply not true. That is how I came to do something that I don’t do particularly often: go with a gut reaction rather than my head. I had actually filled in my university application to do two major subjects: British Cultural Studies (a combination of British Literature, Linguistics and History) and Sociology. But it was literally as I was about to post that application at the university office that I changed my mind and went with one major, British Cultural Studies, and two minor subjects, History and Sociology instead. That was in 2000. 17 years later I became a Professor in History, so I thank my gut reaction … and I guess I did show that teacher!”

She certainly did. Today, Tanja is a highly respected Fellow of The Royal Historical Society, with a string of well-received texts behind her, including 2015’s, Clubbing Together, which won the Soltire Society’s Research Book of the Year award. I ask how Tanja’s specialism in diaspora – the study of dispersion – developed.

My research has its roots in Scotland as my interest in migration, and Scottish emigration specifically, first developed there – I had a course on Highland history and the Highland Clearances were an important topic, and with that also forced emigration. The Scottish story of emigration is more complex than that, but that is where the initial interest was stirred, as it were. And that is how I eventually ended up in New Zealand: I wanted to do more on the Scots abroad, so it seemed obvious to actually examine their history somewhere where they had moved to. Since then the focus has widened and has a much broader diaspora perspective now – so that essentially reflects my academic ambitions.”

Given the extent of anti-immigrant rhetoric that clouds so much of today’s political scene, in Britain elsewhere, Tanja is focussed on applying the historical perspective of her work as a tool in the modern world.

With so many politicians riling against migrants, better understanding diaspora and migration history can help people understand that migration is simply a part of what it means to be human … and everyone had best get used to that because migration won’t stop. In the UK context this is especially important because many people here would never even use the term migrant (or immigrant) for themselves, even if they clearly are one. Britain, and the British people, need to recognize their own migration history.”

Sadly, the lessons of the last three years, show us that British – or perhaps more specifically, English – exceptionalism is a stain that is difficult to shift. I ask Tanja is she ever regrets taking the stand she has or making herself such a visible target.

Despite all the shit I have seen since, and let’s be clear: this is shit that needs spelling in all caps SHIT, I do not regret that decision. While small in the big scheme of things, I know that I have made a difference…. I wanted to try make a difference by defending the values I believe in. I often get accused of seeking the spotlight or doing what I do for myself. That makes me very angry. If I wanted to do something for myself, I would stop right now. Being a recognised campaigner is not easy for anyone, I think. Every single campaigner I know is paying some kind of price. But for women in particular it is even worse. Most of the time there is not one day that is SHIT-free, as it were.

As I listen, Tanja is keen to point out the value of the friendships she has made that keep her going in this struggle.

There are also many beautiful moments. In particular I remember many a hug from strangers. Or the time I was sent a huge bouquet of flowers. I am not saying that I want such things, but I have no idea who they were from and the surprise of it was just so beautiful. And of course, there are the new friendships forged. For life, I think, because the new friends I have made have been thrown into situations with me (mostly “thanks” to me being a recognised campaigner) that other people don’t ever experience in a lifetime. Without them I would have stopped a long time ago, I am sure. That is true in particular too because some old friendships have broken over may campaigning and Brexit.”

But surely everyone has a breaking point, somewhere; has she ever come close to packing this in?

Yes. Twice. And both times – and people won’t like to hear this – it was not because of any of the abuse or threats from Brexiters, but the behaviour of “my own side”. I find that much more difficult to deal with. It’s fine to disagree, but what happened in these two instances was simply self-defeating, hypocritical idiocy. If we cannot be better than Brexiters, we’ve lost already. My friends keep me going, but mostly one much more basic factor: I want to be able to look in the mirror at night, look at myself when I am old, and be able to say that I did all I could.”

Few could say she hasn’t. As well as her vocal online commentary and written articles, Tanja also founded the EU Citizens’ Champion campaign, as a way of supporting the work of citizens’ rights group The3Million.

Initially the idea was much more small-scale: I just wanted to use my summer annual leave to offer free history tours and try raise money along the way. Then I thought I would try and involve well-known people – they’d be an EU Citizens’ Champion – and we’d do that together. That is when the name for the campaign was born. But then I had the great luck to discuss this with David Schneider and the hook changed and it became a much larger-scale campaign. The campaign has since raised £46k and this has funded staff time; outreach events; office space; and the new charity Settled. I know that 1000s of EU citizens have been helped, and that is what motivates me to keep going with it. What frustrates me is that I think there could be more support for EU citizens overall: for them Brexit is not something that might happen in the future, it is something that has been happening for 1200+ days.

While the campaign’s achievements are enormous, Tanja’s original plan to offer free tours came to an end after a frightening incident of stalking in London. We talk about the level of abuse and hostility faced by women, for daring to raise their views publicly; I ask her if she thinks we are making any progress in getting away from that?

No.” she answers, emphatically. “I’m afraid I think we, collectively as a society, are going steps backwards. Just think of the stepping down of so many female MPs. To get away from this a lot of change is needed. This does have to involve men helping along the way. And for that here too the hypocrisy must stop. What I mean is: nobody gets to be outraged that I am called a c*nt, only to then say to a female Brexiter that she is a c*nt. That’s just one example, there are many others. My biggest concern is that female voices simply do not get, on the whole, the same reach and platforms as men. That is not a criticism of the men, but all of this needs to change. I am working on a new idea to help with that … let’s see.”

As I write this, Britain is barely weeks into five years of a hard right, nationalist Conservative government, returned to Office, after a campaign of undisguised dog-whistling. EU Nationals, having been abused, lied to, scapegoated and gaslighted since 2015, can expect little but more of the same at the hands of a sizeable Tory majority. The Britain that I grew up in, and that Tanja fell in love with, seems not just sleeping, but dead. I ask her as we finish up if she thinks it can ever come back?

I am afraid my honest answer can only be: no,” she answers, with regret. “I think it is impossible to go back to the care-free pre-EU referendum state. Brexit has driven divisions through whole communities, even through families. EU citizens have effectively been cast out, so we have to find a new sense of belonging. This sort of thing doesn’t just disappear againI must note though that I personally would differentiate here and say that, for myself, this applies to England and in Scotland I see an entirely different view… attitudes are different and the Scottish Government has pursued very different policies (as much as is possible for them).”

I’m inclined to agree. As I thank her for her time, Tanja closes with more hope than one would expect from someone so abused.

That does not mean that wounds cannot heal…”

I hope, for all our sakes, she is right.

To find out more about the EU Citizens’ Champion campaign, head to http://eucitizenschampion.co.uk/