I haven’t posted anything on this blog for a while – a question of time, mainly, though I know some of you enjoy my threads on Twitter. A question of motivation too, as I have felt increasingly alien in the country I am living in. This is going to be a long, personal, non-nature related post…
I remember the June, 23rd 2016 vividly. Or more precisely the 24th. I woke up at 4am (I never do – I’m more of an owl than a robin) and looked at my phone: LEAVE. That word didn’t make much sense at first. Why? How? Really? Until I started reading the news later in the morning. And it all clicked – those lies about the EU that the population had been fed up for years before, more money for the NHS, foreigners taking jobs, laws restricting competitivity. They…worked?
The truth is, not much changed in our day-to-day life, at first. I continued my work for a national charity, travelling to amazing gardens around the UK. I enjoyed restaurants, visits to the cinema, exihibitions, conferences. I came back to see family in France and Belgium, happily returning to my home in London.
Something changed though. With every passing week, strange news started appearing, giving an idea of the direction the UK was going to take. Failed negotiations. Posturing. Scary headlines. Then came May’s announcements, with hardened red lines. Most of it was still very much “out there” – what was being discussed around the Irish border wasn’t felt to have much of an impact on people’s lives in England. We briefly moved back to France in 2018, but came back.
We attended marches in London, sang Ode to Joy with friends, wore EU flags. This felt friendly and reassuring. Hope remained. But things did not get better.
Johnson arrived. Fast forward to January 31st, 2020, official Brexit date. Living nearby, we attended out of curiosity the celebration in Parliament Square and listened to the cheers of Brexiteers. This was quite a revelation. Men and women clothed in Union Jacks probably made in China shouting about sovereignty and burning EU flags. It hurt.
Are they representative of the country? Most probably not. Many of my British friends are desperate, feel trapped, especially for their children (a lucky few went through procedures to get an Irish passport – something they wouldn’t have done otherwise). Still, those “52%” won. Pardon the reference, but as they say on Survivor (Koh-Lanta for French readers), “the tribe has spoken“.
Now in 2022, how does Brexit impact our day-to-day lives? I can’t say there has been one massive change – we still travel regularly between France and the UK, but it’s the little things that add up and make living in the UK less attractive. I’ll take a few examples, in no particular order:
- driving licences: in March 2021, we discovered that we would not be able to exchange back our UK driving licences if we moved to France, despite having taken our tests a decade earlier in the EU. We would have to retake theory and practical exams, get a provisional licence, pay expensive insurance, be unable to rent certains cars etc. A year later, France and the UK finally signed an agreement – this didn’t happen in Spain, where thousands of British expats (or Spanish nationals returning home) are now unable to drive any car. This caused us a lot of stress…
- importing/exporting: exporting anything (unless done sneakily in a car) now requires customs declaration. This means producing an inventory of everything you are exporting (with weight, content, value and potentially invoices), getting it checked and stamped by customs officers. Items must have been in one’s possession for at least a year and must not be sold for a year after. We can get a tax exemption if moving home permanently, otherwise importing our car to France would cost us 20% VAT + 10% customs charge. Of course, the same is valid for parcels – sending/receiving from family is much more complicated, requiring paperwork and unpredictable costs to bear. Logically, there is less choice available to UK customers: that lovely print from an artist in Estonia? That antique clock from France? That bottle of organic wine from a small finca in Spain? Nope. Not anymore.
- COVID: with the UK being out of the EU, travelling in times of COVID was a nightmare. As a French national, I wasn’t allowed to travel to France for some time (except for critical circumstances such as a dying family member). That took a toll on us (especially looking at friends in EU countries not facing similar blocks) – not to mention the numerous testing requirements and ridiculous costs (only the case in the UK).
- Travel: even ignoring COVID, travelling between France and the UK is now harder. Family that wanted to come and visit us in London is unable to because of the cost of passports (no, most EU citizens never need a passport because they have an ID card). Renting a van or even a car is near impossible – many companies which were fine before are now excluding travel to/from the UK alltogether, or allowing it but at huge costs (one I looked at was £150/day on top of rental cost, with a week’s notice needed to request a travel certificate). Roaming charges are back for phones – how can that be spinned as a positive?
- Food: this is going to sound cliché, but food has always been the weakest point of living in the UK. We love cooking, fresh ingredients, local produce, quality meat – not necessarily hard to find in London but at what cost? This hasn’t gone better, quite the contrary. I’m not talking about price increases, these are everywhere. But availability has declined massively in my view: having to visit three supermarkets to find courgettes in July or skimmed milk? Quality too – small caliber, half-rotten veg, fruit with more pesticides as their import is now allowed. Trying to live sustainably is also harder – why are our local shops now full of kale and parsley grown in Kenya or asparagus from Peru, at peak harvest time in the UK?
- Residency: as EU residents, we’ve had to apply for “settled status”. I only have “pre-settled”, having been unemployed for a month and not able to justify uninterrupted presence in the UK. The process was simple enough, but the consequences aren’t. I was asked to prove my settled status at a border crossing, which required connecting to the government platform and waiting for a text message to get through so I could actually login and show my status for entry. Aside from the inequality (you need a smartphone & mobile), the refusal to provide us European citizens with a simple plastic card is hard to understand.
- the “European feel”: this is possibly the hardest bit to explain. Losing our local Greek coffee shop or Sicilian restaurant has made me somehow feel less at home? The situation might be different, I think, for people living in “concentrated” expat neighbourhoods – for example, French people in Kensington. That wasn’t our choice. We loved living and working outside of the expat bubble, loved going to traditional countryside pubs, but loved being able to connect with other Europeans at the same time. It’s the little things too – I was forbidden to use the word “European” in a publication I was writing. I struggled with that.
You may say: well, expats who move to Canada or Singapore have always faced some of those hurdles. True. But that was precisely the reason why many Europeans moved to the UK! It was “different”, different enough from the continent to be exciting but simple and cheap to move to and from, temporarily or permanently.
Let’s go back to 2012. At that point, I had been unemployed for a year and half, unable to find a job in Brussels where I lived. Part of it was the usual “chicken and egg” of graduate students (“not enough experience”). Part of it was my lack of Dutch/Flemish skills (having studied in France, and then in French at uni, my language skills were limited to buying a coffee). When we decided to move to the UK, I had six job interviews in a month. This felt like heaven. It was Olympic time too, a time of joy and celebration and enthusiasm. A time where the UK was shining bright internationally.
I was no stranger to the land. With my mother being an English teacher, I knew the UK better than most parts of France. My holiday memories were quaint farm cottages in Wales, flower-filled conservatories in Dorset and fish and chips in pub beer gardens. I loved the openness of the UK, whether in a small town or central London. Elderly women walking around theatres, dressed in flamboyant velvet dresses. Punk boys watching sunset on the Thames. Knobbly countryside pubs nestled among green hills hosting knitting clubs – true social spaces.
This was the UK I moved to. Friendly, buzzing, charming. After the vote though, reports of racism towards Europeans started to increase, particularly towards Eastern Europeans – graffitis, insults. Many left. But as once told by a British lady I worked with, I was “different” (ie a Western European?) – did that mean I was “safe” from racism? Then came reports in newspapers of the “hostile environment“, with EU citizens being detained at borders, questioned, sent back etc. I honestly thought that was exaggerated. Surely they had done something seriously bad, their passport was expired, they had had legal issues in the UK? How wrong I was.
Earlier this year, I was coming back home to our flat in London, from France, via the port of Dover. Upon exiting the ferry, I was humiliated, questioned, strip-searched, my phone taken, my car fully emptied on the floor of the hangar (and more which I’m not ready to discuss). I rang my partner in tears, from a lay-by on the A20 and said: “I can’t stay here“.
A few weeks ago, having contractors in our home, my partner and I were attacked by an English builder on our European origin, yelled at, mocked for having too large a flat (it’s 50 sqm) and called bloody foreigners.
While these were two incidents, the general climate has not felt friendlier. Both myself and my partner, upon returning to the UK over the past year, alone or together, by car or plane, have faced questioning at the border. The questioning has been detailed on the way back too, upon leaving the UK. I have faced all these: “why are you leaving”, “where are you going to”, “what are you going to be doing in France”, “why are you visiting family” (an odd question to ask anyone), “do you work”, “what do you do”, “how long will you be gone”, “how long do you intend to stay in the UK after coming back”. I genuinely don’t see the point, particularly when exiting the country? I also keep wondering what the right answer is to each question (should I say this to appear less suspicious?) All I know is that I no longer feel serene upon leaving or returning to the UK.
I was told on social media (by white Brits) that I could now understand the issues faced by ethnic minority people. Yes, and it feels horrible. Does that mean I should put up with it because I’m white? Having discussed this with a few black people, their overwhelming feeling was a no. If we, Europeans, start tolerating that, where will it end? Sadly, we now have a taste of the answer: with Priti Patel’s plan to send people entering the UK to Rwanda.
I’m not known to be a particularly sensitive person. Yet the Brexit situation has really affected me. Perhaps this is also involuntarily linked to my roots? Being born near the strangely famous village of Schengen, “Europe” has a very strong meaning to me. Not just Europe, but the European Union as an entity too. Where many Brits see loss of sovereignty, I see shared values. Where they see danger with open borders, I see opportunities for collaboration. Where they see national pride, I see strength in difference.
I know that many European citizens still love living in the UK and haven’t felt much change. I totally respect that: everyone’s experience, encounters and perception is different. I suppose the situation might also be slightly different for people who have close family in the UK – a partner, in-laws, children, or a highly involved job. I guess Scotland will also feel vastly different from England on this matter.
What I feel right know is a sentiment of grief. How did a government manage to win with so many lies? What has become of the progressive country I moved to in 2012? One which is now choosing profit over people, borders over cooperation, sovereignty over common sense?
So, why “Goodbye means goodbye?”. Granted, you may see this as a tasteless pun on the government’s stance, “Brexit means Brexit”. But this has a deeper, sadder meaning. Once I leave the UK, I will never be able to come back except as a tourist. I don’t earn enough, my job in ecology is not part of occupations on the shortage list. It feels like end of an era. A welcome fresh start of course: spending time with family, new job opportunities, cheaper living, easier travelling. But a choice that was made through pain, stress and frustration.
To my fellow Europeans happily living in the UK, I salute you. Please continue to bring diverse experiences and enrich the UK with your work, your talent and your lives.
To Brits, whether you voted Leave or Remain, I hope you can understand why many Europeans are leaving or no longer coming to the UK. It isn’t the lack of economic pull, it isn’t the bad weather, it isn’t the strange food customs. It’s the feeling of no longer being welcome. And whatever happens politically or in society, that, unfortunately, will probably take decades to clear.