Monday, 26 September 2016

The Brexit diaspora

After Brexit, many British expats are considering never returning to a home that now feels alien to them.

I'm in Brussels this week, and have spent much of it catching up. I was away all summer, and though I was here briefly for work in early September, this is the first time I've been able to see a lot of my friends since that fateful day on 22 June.

Belgium may be experiencing a sunny Indian summer at the moment, but somehow the city still feels dark. There is a palpable fear about where the world is going. Post-Brexit, and possibly pre-Trump, we find ourselves in a moment of extraordinary unease. In my entire life, I've never felt such an overwhelming air of pessimism and fear all around me. It seems as if everyone has lost hope.

Nobody seems to be feeling this more acutely right now than Brits in Brussels. They've dedicated much of their lives to the idea that they were part of a grand project - citizens of a unifying Europe. Suddenly, half of their countrymen have pulled the rug out from under them, upending their entire lives. You are no longer a European citizen, they have been told. Come home at once.

Every British person I know voted remain. Many of them travelled to the UK in the weeks before the referendum to campaign for remain. I even have some British friends who temporarily left their jobs to go to the UK and campaign for several months. That's how passionately they felt about it. 

Now they have returned from the front with the air of troops returning from a lost war. They are shell-shocked, horrified by some of the violently xenophobic things they heard from their countrymen on the doorsteps as they campaigned. More than anything, they do not know what to do next. Their entire lives have been upended. 

Many of them only planned to stay in Brussels or Berlin for a few years and then return home, like someone from New York choosing to move to LA for a few years. In this analogy, New York has suddenly seceded from the union and the New Yorker doesn't have the right to live and work in California any more. Does he return home at once, or try to regain the US citizenship that's just been stripped from him by applying for it in California?

Brexit isn't just an ethereal question for them. Once (if) Brexit occurs, they will lose their right to live and work in continental Europe. Whether any special accommodation can be made will be determined in negotiations - talks in which they will be bargaining chips. 

British Prime Minister Theresa May is refusing to guarantee that EU citizens who live in the UK will not be deported after Brexit. And if EU citizens can't remain in the UK, there is no way British citizens in continental Europe will be able to stay in their adopted homes either.

Citizenship lost, citizenship gained

Not one of my British friends is willing to take the chance. All of them, in Brussels or Berlin or wherever in Europe, have begun the process of trying to acquire citizenship in the country they live in. 

Many of my British friends have been in Brussels longer than five years, so they meet the criteria for acquiring Belgian citizenship. It's never occurred to them to apply for it before because, as UK citizens, they had all the same rights as a Belgian citizen here except being able to vote in national elections.

My British friends in Belgium will be able to keep their British passports even after they become Belgian. But others will not. Several European countries, including Germany, do not allow dual citizenship. Those expats may have to make a very difficult choice - do they stay in the city they've lived in for 15 years, or do they renounce their birth citizenship?

It isn't just Brits in continental Europe saying this. Many (I might even dare to say most) of my British friends in London are considering leaving. Some have already made the choice. 

My British friend Simon has decided to leave London and move to Brussels. "For me, this is going to be a permanent move - my feeling of not belonging in the UK was confirmed in June," he told me. "I don't think I have a single friend here who voted to leave. London is a bit of a bubble but we are surrounded in the press by awful right-wing extremism." 

This feeling of not understanding one's country any more, and of feeling unwelcome as a university-educated person who is globally-minded, is something I've had described to me over and over. Given my own history as an American, it's something to which I can relate.

"My homeland has been stolen from me"

Talking to my British friends this week, I couldn't escape the feeling that I had heard some of these sentiments before. Growing up outside New York City, I had several friends whose parents had fled their home countries because of a regime change, and could never return. 

Some were extreme cases, educated people fleeing Iran, North Korea, or Vietnam. Others cases were less extreme - people who had left South American countries after right-wing demagogues took power. But all had one thing in common - they were educated elites who left their countries after a violent anti-intellectualism took power.

The rhetoric against elites and intellectuals during the the Brexit campaign was plain to see, immortalised in Michael Gove's now-notorious assertion that "people in this country have had enough of experts". Nearly every leader from business, academia and industry was urging the public to vote remain. The public ignored their pleas, deeming the gut feelings of demagogues like Nigel Farage to be equal in value to facts.

"I felt these people's hatred when I was out on the doorsteps, and I felt it was because I went to university," one friend in Brussels told me. "They feel like they've 'toppled the elites', and maybe they have. I feel like my homeland has been stolen from me. Why would I think about moving back there ever again?"

How are these educated people, call them 'elites' if you like, now supposed to feel? The public has not just rejected their argument on Brexit. They have rejected intellectualism itself. Like the intellectuals who fled right-wing coups in Latin America, theocracy in the Middle East or Communism in East Asia, these "Brefugees" may start forming a diaspora community abroad. 

A website has even been launched to help the people choosing to leave the UK and never look back - The tone of the website is striking because it clearly does not view this as a temporary exodus. It's telling people to settle in for the long haul.

The brain drain

Time will tell how all of this pans out. It may be that Brexit is never triggered. Or it may be that the US election result on November 8th throws the world into a period of such dramatic instability that Brexit will seem like small potatoes. Within a few years, there may not be a European Union to leave any more - or perhaps even a NATO. 

But barring such a dramatic scenario, people can only plan now based on an assumption that Brexit will happen, the EU will continue to exist and the Western world is not about to collapse. If that is the assumption, than it seems many of my British friends have concluded that the future is brighter for them outside the UK.

If British intellectuals choose to remain outside the country, it will have a big impact on the UK in the future. Losing a whole class of intellectuals - of 'elites' - didn't work out great for the Latin American dictatorships or for Iran. 

If the Brexiteers want the expat intellectuals to consider coming back, and the domestic intellectuals to resist the urge to leave, then they need to offer a real plan for what the country is going to look like going forward. Right now it seems nobody has any idea, and the remain voters are left to conclude that the anti-intellectualism that pervaded the referendum debate will remain the guiding principle in their country in the years to come.

And that wouldn't be a very nice place to live in.


Anonymous said...

In this analogy, New York has suddenly seceded from the union and the New Yorker doesn't have the right to live and work in California any more

But this is the whole point: New York and California are parts of the same country. The UK and Germany are different countries.

And we in the UK do not want Britain, a proud sovereign nation with a great history, to become a mere state of a union, subservient to a federal government, the Mother of Parliaments reduced to a mere regional administration.

So in a way, your analogy makes the Brexit point right there…

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous above: New York and California are individual states in the United States of America, which is a federal republic. They set many of their own policies and are actually moderately autonomous, having their own legislative body and so forth. The USA is only a simple homogeneous country in the eyes of people who have no bleedin' idea about what it is or how it works. That's actually what makes it such an interesting place.

Similarly, the UK is only a simple homogeneous country in the eyes of people who have no bleedin' idea about what it is or how it works. For example: England is already merely a country within a larger union, notably the United Kingdom. (It isn't even a sovereign state, having lost that status in 1707.) Countries within that union largely already have their own parliaments, as you know. The recent fall of the "Mother of Parliaments'" into violent dementia is probably going to be enough to persuade those other nations to pack the old ancestor into a retirement home where she can no longer embarrass all of us by lashing out at strangers and wearing her underpants on her head. Whilst I don't necessarily endorse that course of action I certainly find their reasoning easy enough to follow.

Your whole point is basically, "The world should be a simple place and I should be allowed to feel uncomplicated pleasure in my nation's greatness," but it isn't and therefore you can't. Britain has never been the straightforward sovereign nation that you like to imagine; a clusterfuck of squabbling regions, more like. I'm afraid that Britain's - oh, let's face it, England's - behavioural problems are eventually going to result in all of us (including you) discovering that the structures that we thought we could take for granted will crumble around our ears.