Brits Living in the EU React to Brexit
"My youth was shaped by a rhetoric of unity, equality of opportunity, and multiculturalism. These values have always felt like an integral part of my national identity, but it seems I was wrong."
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday, in a petulant, ridiculous act of self-sabotage, 52 percent of the population of the UK voted to leave the European Union, making Britain the first country to ever do so in the 60 years since the European project began. Against every expert's advice, against every warning from within and without Europe, Britain (or more specifically, England and Wales, with the exception of London) has now chosen to isolate itself from its neighbors, trade partners, and allies of the last 40 years. The campaigns, particularly on the Leave side, have felt exploitative and misleading, and exposed a climate of racism and a willful refusal to engage with facts. "Stop them stealing our jobs! (And don't worry about whether the jobs were created by our relationship with the bloc of countries they came from)." "European politics only benefits the elite! (But don't look at the figures that show how much the EU subsidizes UK projects in rural, Eurosceptic areas)." Somehow, reason has not prevailed, and Britain is on its way out of the EU, likely with disastrous financial consequences ahead.
Most of the conservative rhetoric during the referendum campaign focused on EU immigrants living in the UK, whom many Brexiters would like to leave. There are also 1.3 million Brits living in EU. I am one of them. The free movement in the EU means that, unlike my American, Australian, African, and Asian friends in Berlin, I was able to turn up to the city three-and-a-half years ago with zero plans. I was able to figure out a life for myself without needing a visa either to earn money in my new home (without being exploited) or to just hang out.
For non-EU expats in Berlin, attempting to get a visa at the Ausländerbehörde is a dreaded rite of passage—particularly for non-German-speaking immigrants, who must hire someone to help or, if they can't afford that, beg their Deutsch-fluent friends to come along with them. As an EU citizen, I didn't have to think about any visa requirements, how long I wanted to stay, why I was even there in the first place. I didn't need to prove I had enough money to live in Berlin, nor that I was a useful asset to Germany. I waltzed into the city to try my hand as someone who was still figuring it out. While this may sound spoiled or entitled, it should be an option available to anyone. This choice—which I was able to make without threat of deportation, without anxiety, and without over-analysis of what the future might hold—has changed my life in innumerable, irreplaceable ways.
Over the past few weeks and months, as the polls began to look progressively worse for Britain's chances of staying in the EU, the consensus from my German friends was that the UK would be stupid to leave. Now that it's happened, Britons abroad are dreading having to face their EU counterparts. "I'm embarrassed about having to speak to Germans about why this happened," said Lizzie, a 28-year-old research consultant who recently moved to Berlin but is currently on holiday in Italy. (Freedom of movement within the EU is great, and has also been threatened by Brexit.) "I think they'll be confused and sad, and not out of self-interest. The German press have been really supportive—I think they really appreciate us."
As British people living in Berlin, Lizzie and I have both benefited every single day from the UK's membership in the EU, and relied on it being there for a while in order to make plans. "I'm less secure about my future in Germany," Lizzie said. "But also sad that future generations might not have the chance to do what I did—have the freedom to live in a different country with a different culture."
Living on a small island with a succession of nationalist, right-wing governments is the least appealing option I can think of.
Forty-four-year-old Kev, a Brit who has lived in Sweden for ten-and-a-half years, is also concerned about the effects Brexit will have on his finances—and health. "I'm currently on long-term sick leave," he told me, noting the benefits of the Swedish health-care system. "As a Swedish resident, I'm entitled to the same health care as Swedes. That is, as long as I am allowed to stay here."
Since no one has ever been stupid enough to leave the European Union before (mostly countries actually try to join, since it gives them more leverage on the international stage), no one really knows how the next part works. Will Lizzie, Kev, and I all need visas to obtain residency in the EU countries where we've built our lives? It's just not clear. We know we're in for a cataclysmic change, but no one can tell us what it will actually mean. For at least the next two years, we will be in limbo as the Conservative government—itself in a intra-party turmoil after the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron—figures out exactly how it's going to negotiate our rights and obligations in the Union. Will we be able to continue living in Germany and Sweden? And if so, under what terms?
For some, the Brexit result enforces their resolve to stay in their country of residence, like for Lizzie, or for Sam, a 26-year-old marketer who also lives in Berlin. "I thought I'd want to move back [to the UK] at some point in the next ten years or so, to be closer to my family," Sam said. "But living on a small island with a succession of nationalist, right-wing governments unmediated by Scotland [who voted strongly to stay in the EU] is the least appealing option I can think of." For others, this referendum has prompted feelings of anxiety at their own isolationism from a country they love. "I feel a pang of guilt for almost avoiding the UK's problems by living abroad, in a bubble," said James, a product manager in Berlin. "If too many who disagree with Brexit leave, then the debate will only feel more unbalanced and one-sided."
Because, of course, British EU residents are experiencing feelings that go far beyond simple selfishness. It's not just about our own lives, or whether we'll be able to stay in the countries we live in without having to comply with too much bureaucracy: Living in other EU countries gives you a different perspective on what it means to be British. "I'm not as concerned with my own circumstances," said Ella, a 28-year-old stylist, writer, and artist who also lives in Berlin. "I'm sure I can get a visa here in Germany or elsewhere—all my American friends manage to. It's a much broader horror. It's a historically selfish result. It's xenophobia and ignorance.
"Born in 1988, my youth was shaped by a rhetoric of unity, equality of opportunity, and multiculturalism," Ella continued. "These values have always felt like an integral part of my national identity, but it seems I was wrong. This is devastating."
British EU residents also expressed concern for the future of the UK, and all the family and friends who live there; the financial and social impact of this move will surely, as usual, fall on the most marginalized in our society: people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and disabled people. "My main worries are for people back in the UK," said Eileen, a 23-year-old editor who (also) lives in Berlin. "It's for all of the people who'll go back to being disenfranchised and voiceless—the people who will suffer the economic downturn, whose stories we'll probably never get to hear."
For British people living outside Britain, the EU has become our rock, the structure we build our lives on. It's frustrating—and not to mention desperately depressing—to watch from a distance as the country that we are connected to by this thread of national identity becomes more and more embittered against the European people we call neighbors, friends, lovers, and colleagues. When you've been living in another country for a certain amount of time, the idea of nationhood and home start to mean something very peculiar, something important and special that no one should be able to take away from you. This referendum has forced us to reconsider what being British means. We are no longer offered the option to cloak ourselves in the security of our other label, the one that has so enriched and privileged our lives: "European."