I came home on a beautiful, sunny evening last Thursday, after celebrating my child’s year end school party with families from around the world living here in Paris. It was the same day the crucial Brexit referendum vote was unfolding in my home country, so I switched on the television just to check if there was any news. I felt optimistic the UK would choose to remain within the European Union community. Yes it would be tight, but surely common sense would prevail. I was reassured by what I saw on TV – there were even hints from Nigel Farage, a campaigner to leave the EU, that he thought he would lose the vote. I went to bed relieved and hopeful.
Imagine my horror then, as I woke up Friday morning to see the breaking newsflash on the BBC which predicted a decisive win for the “Leave” campaign. I wondered, if I just kept watching, whether they would apologize and announce a mistake. It didn’t happen. The news just became more and more concrete. Tears of frustration welled. My Facebook feed showed that all my UK friends back home were waking up to the same shock.
I reached out to fellow British expats in France. They too were reeling. At first all of us focused on the immediate shock and anger. How had this happened? Of course, almost everyone in my Paris circle is strongly in favor of the UK remaining a part of the EU. Having forged new lives in a foreign country, they are by nature European – many of them benefiting from the rights that EU membership gives us to live and work in other countries. As the day unraveled, our anger and frustration fizzed and fermented. Why on Earth had a majority voted to leave the EU? A decision that is irreversible.
The Painful Fallout
Analysis emerged about who the ‘Leave’ voters actually were. It turns out that the older population formed a large part of the ‘Leave’ vote and that a majority of younger people wanted to stay. This has caused an understandable anger amongst the young, who are of course the ones who will have to live with the ramifications of this vote in the decades to come. They feel the older, baby boomer generation did not bother to think of the young when voting.
As the day rolled on, we saw further divisions and recriminations. Those who voted to leave actually admitted to news cameras that they had done so just to give a “kick” to the establishment. They had not thought that the UK would actually then have to leave the EU. It also emerged that our nation was very geographically divided, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain, a fact that could cause a further push for Scottish independence and a move for a united Ireland.
When you’re living abroad, it is difficult to look back across the water and see your country so ripped apart and in turmoil.
Of course, this also forced me to come to terms with what my home country is. The UK is not just the educated liberal and tolerant Londoners that make up many of my friends. I have to admit that for quite some time, something unpleasant has been brewing. An anti-immigration sentiment has been growing and was exploited by the ‘Leave’ campaign.
Waking Up to a New Reality
I also feel my identity has been changed, almost stolen from me. On Thursday morning I was a true European, with the ability to live and work anywhere in Europe. Although it will take a couple of years for the practical implications to come into force, I feel as if overnight I became a little islander, a citizen of a country that has become more inward-facing.
I now realize with a wry smile that Paris has essentially become a city of refuge for me. I love this city dearly; but I have been known to occasionally rail against the strikes, recent piles of rubbish and the inflexibility of France. Ironically, my almost five years here are what will allow me to cling to EU citizenship if I decide to take on French nationality. Maybe I won’t be so quick to comment upon the imperfections of France!
An Uncertain Future
As the dust settles, I feel anxious on two fronts. My first anxiety is for my own family and our rights in terms of long-term residency, healthcare and pensions in France. As an EU citizen it was easy for me to access those rights. This will be less clear going forward. Hopefully any worries on that side are easily resolved by my obtaining French citizenship or even just a simple carte de sejour system. Given the large number of French people living in the UK, I feel certain that the two countries will work together to come up with reciprocal arrangements for their expats in each nation.
The much bigger worry is for my country. We saw the pound plummet and the economic implications of this vote are serious. The UK’s standing in the world will also likely diminish. The children of my UK friends will grow up without the same sense of possibility and freedom that allowed me to come over to France and have the life-changing, outlook-changing experience that EU citizenship allowed me.
But I watch my 7-year-old bilingual daughter, with school friends from all over the world, and see her energy and curiosity. I feel confident that she and her generation will work to mend the damage done this past week. My generation will also be striving immediately to try and make the best of this situation for our children, starting today.