Ihave a confession to make: I’m not sure I could trust myself if I actually ran into David Cameron. Ever since the Brexit referendum, I have been trying to avoid any occasions where I think we might have to meet. I know myself, and if I saw him I’m not sure I would be able to stop myself from telling him in no uncertain terms exactly how I feel about the damage that he has inflicted on Britain, both economic and political, and about how he has impaired the chances of young people, while endangering the European project and European values precisely when we need them most.
I might even tell him that I know he did all this out of arrogance, that he chose to put himself and his own party above us all. I’d be tempted to tell him too that he only has to look at just how deeply divided both the country and his own Conservative party are to realise that nothing, absolutely nothing, good has come from what he did in calling the referendum.
My husband, Nick Clegg, who feels pretty much the same about the vote on the UK’s continued EU membership that Cameron so casually convened, reacts differently to the prospect of seeing him. For years, our different attitudes to showing our feelings led us to – in Brexit parlance – “unfrictionless” moments. However, with time we have learned to see this for what it is: a cultural difference – we just deal with our emotions in a different way. As a Brit, he tends to keep them all in check; as a Spaniard, I tend to be open with them.
Indeed, it is because I know full well that many British people tend to hide their emotions that I was surprised to see Theresa May speaking openly about her feelings towards people like me, Europeans living in the UK. This is a woman who often seems robotic, and whose speeches are plagued with meaningless platitudes, so it has been a shock to witness how full of meaning and how openly offensive she has chosen to be.
We Europeans like to see ourselves as modern citizens of our own country and at the same time citizens of the EU who can seamlessly pile up allegiances at ease. But scratch the surface and you’ll discover an old-fashioned, enduring doubt that lurks within every immigrant: do I really belong to this country? Do I truly belong to my own country? Has my nation changed in my absence? What May told us so plainly is that we did not belong: not to this country, nor to our own. For her, we belong nowhere. Like many other Europeans living in this country, I felt fear when I heard the prime minister utter those words. To this day, she has not even apologised.
Her latest comment about EU migrants “jumping the queue” was more lighthearted but also crueller, for it aimed to deprive us of what every single human being, immigrant or not, hopes for: meaning, making a difference, a life that matters, ensuring you can make your mark on something, anything at all, no matter how small. Never mind the many years of effort in our jobs, our daily struggles to make this country better, our endeavour to educate our children with British values, the causes we have sponsored, the people we have helped, the friendships we have forged. Instead, for her, all we were doing was “jumping the queue” – nothing more than jumping an immigration barrier. As if we were just here trying to cheat the system rather than dedicating years of our lives to contributing to it.
I grew up admiring the UK – its freedom, its ambition, its diversity. When I came to live in London, more than a dozen years ago, I saw for myself that most of what I used to admire from a distance was actually true: that the UK is a place that lets individuals thrive, that it’s a country with a sense of possibility difficult to match elsewhere.
Like many other Europeans living in Britain, I can only deal with May’s comments by refusing to accept that the prime minister was speaking for the country when she used these hurtful words. The British people I know are welcoming, not hostile. They want to help, not reject. They are compassionate, not cruel. They are simply not like her.
Theresa May will pass, as Cameron did; they all do. But while some prime ministers, such as Cameron, do political and economic damage to the countries they govern, by accident as much as by design, May is inflicting moral damage too.
• Miriam González Durántez is a lawyer specialising in EU law