23 Jun 2016

Brits in NZ worried about 'divisive' Brexit referendum

9:15 am on 23 June 2016

Campaigning leading up to Britain's EU referendum has been divisive and racist, say British expats in New Zealand.

Politicians in the UK have been making their final pitches to voters before the historic referendum on whether the country should stay in the EU. Polls have continued to suggest the 'stay' and 'leave' sides are neck and neck.

European Union and the United Kingdom flags.

The vote on Britain's membership of the European Union is the first for more than 40 years. Photo: AFP

Aucklander Billy Aiken, who was born in Newcastle and lived most of his life in Scotland, has been worried about how divisive the debate in the UK has become.

"I'm particularly... concerned over this incredibly xenophobic nature a lot of the debates are taking.

"It's taking place in a time when anti-immigration sentiments across Europe are quite high, and it's interesting that some people's answer is to be even more xenophobic towards Europe as well."

He said the killing of British MP Jo Cox - who was fatally shot in the street last week - highlighted the dangers of divisive debate.

Mr Aiken moved to Auckland in 2002 where he works for a marketing and e-commerce company.

While he registered to vote too late in the referendum, he hoped Britons would decide to stay in the European bloc - though he was no fan of the EU.

"I have no particular love for the EU as a concept and a lot of what they've done. But there's not been an alternative, non-racist argument put forward.

Auckland University media lecturer and Nottingham native Neal Curtis is also "not a big fan" of Europe.

"I think it's a giant neo-liberal machine full of bureaucrats, operating largely in the interests of invested power.

"But I still think Europe offers certain defences in terms of labour rights and civil rights that are important in preserving."

He said the Leave campaign had continued to scapegoat immigration for the pressure currently felt on the country's public institutions, and as a result xenophobic language had become more common and accepted.

"It's not just that the powerful people are allowed to use it as a means of deflecting attention, they're telling working class, particularly white people in Britain, that they're allowed to use it too, that it's perfectly legitimate for them to feel this way.

"It troubles me, deeply troubles me."

Mr Curtis said he worried how that language might escalate if Britain leaves the EU.

United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) leader Nigel Farage campaigning to leave the EU

United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) leader Nigel Farage campaigning to leave the EU. A poster released by Mr Farage depicting immigrants arriving in Europe has been called racist. Photo: AFP

Other expats are in favour of staying in the EU for more practical reasons.

Yusuf Qureshi, who grew up in Birmingham, is studying marine science at Auckland University and once he finishes his degree, he hopes his British passport will open doors for his OE.

"Personally I feel like as a student, it'd be a lot easier to go traveling if we stayed in the EU. You don't need your passport or anything to go into any other country in Europe."

He said he felt both sides of the debate had been hyping the issues and that the outcome might not be drastic whatever the decision.

But for Welsh-born Donna Skoludek, a teacher and poet living in Hamilton, it could have real implications.

She said Wales was one of the poorest countries in Europe, and relied heavily on economic aid.

"It was decimated in the '80s with a miners' strike and through the Thatcherite government. The EU redistribute funding to the poorest areas, and Wales benefits from that directly."

Ms Skoludek said the UK government had made no promises it would replace that financial assistance if it leaves the EU, and if they did not it would have drastic effects on the Welsh economy.