This photo was taken shortly after the 2017 EU referendum when I had returned to the UK having spent 10 months in Spain. I remember watching the flag, which had been proudly standing atop a sandcastle, slowly getting toppled into the sea and pushed by the waves. It seemed to sum up how I felt the UK’s future looked and seeing the flag humbled by the waves was enjoyably cathartic but also sad. 3 years on and I have finished a degree and was hoping to move back to mainland Europe, to an EU state. But now, still in the UK, with limited options to move abroad during a pandemic, I am wholly disheartened by this thing called Brexit.
This summer, 2020, the immigration bill to end free movement was passed through the House of Commons. It was interesting to see the news articles that came out around the time. I distinctly remember considerably more mention of what this means for EU citizens than what it meant for British citizens. They talked about who can come into Britain, when and how they can come to Britain and basically, how inward migration will change. But mention of when and how British citizens can go to nations in the European Union and how outward migration will change was scarce. It’s as if migration to the UK is presented as a one way gate. There is a complete dismissal of the reality that British citizens live as immigrants across the world. Migration is a two way gate.
I’ve been through this two way gate before. I lived and worked in Spain and Germany over a 2 year period. I have since frequently traveled to, and around, Europe on holiday, visiting friends and family friends and even once for a job interview. I’ve traveled spontaneously for a charity challenge and booked a bus across the channel 2 hours before departure. I suppose I took it for granted that I had the right to travel freely across a wealth of beautiful countries just with my passport. A burgundy passport that matched 27 other nationals and was part of something bigger. The blue passport that will now be issued to British nationals is not only a different colour but represents different rights. There will be a limit of 90 days for British nationals to travel in the EU, visas will be required for work and study and from 2022, we will have to apply for travel authorisation through ETIAS, the European Travel Information and Authorisation System. This will cost 7 euros and it is advised you apply 96 hours in advance. Gone will be those spontaneous border crossings or last minute European trips. The two way migration gate means that Brexit affects British citizens’ freedom to travel and migrate too.
Partly out of a purely stubborn emotional response, I was planning to move to an EU state before December 31st. I wanted to keep hold of that right to travel and remain in a foreign country, free of visas and restrictions. I recognise that sounds quite spoilt and I know I am extremely privileged to have a UK passport and citizenship, but I feel as much a European citizen as a British one. Being part of the EU meant more to me than migration, which was a common political frisbee chucked around during the referendum and for the last 3 years. It was a source of exchange for languages and culture, a funding pot for roads that paved my country, a mechanism set up for peace-building. It was membership in a union in an ever fragmenting world. Owing to the pandemic it hasn’t been possible to move abroad but I have accepted that it will still be possible in the future, just different.
However, the difference and uncertainty is unsettling. After 3 years, the uncertainty has still not disappeared. People flocked to the ballot boxes in numbers not seen in elections for years (a turnout of 72.2%) and the result was close. 52% Leave, 48% Remain. Leave and Remain, those two words that have caused tension and changed the course of history. I still slightly kick myself that I wasn’t here to campaign for Remain, perhaps I could have driven a big red bus around that said ‘EU gives Wales £680 million a year’. I suppose, as an emotional response again, I went to London for two of the People’s votes marches. They were amazing and I had tears in my eyes on a few occasions because the passion of over half a million people walking through London was overwhelming. I had a problem with them being called, or treated as, ‘Anti-Brexit’ marches as that twists what many people were there for. Like others, I was not marching for a democratic decision to be reversed. I was marching for another democratic referendum when more information came to light. I was marching because I had friends and relatives who had turned 18 in the last 18 months, who couldn’t vote in 2017 but will be affected by it. I was marching because the most common Google search after the referendum was “What is the EU?”. I was marching because there had been lies and deception in the Leave campaign. (It’s funny that false advertising on products is punishable, but false advertising in politics is acceptable.)
I was marching singing the song “They lied to us, put bullsh*t on a bus, People’s Vote, we want a vote. They lied back then so we must vote again, People’s Vote, we want a vote.” Yet, the bus is merely symbolic of the amount of bullsh*t that’s come out of the mouths of the Bullingdon boy Prime Ministers we have had. (For those of you not familiar, the Bullingdon club is an all-male, elite social club in Oxford which is known for sexism, vandalism, complete entitlement and pig’s heads-you can look that on up yourself, search #piggate. Over the last 10 years, the UK has seen austerity measures increase and funding decrease for healthcare, social care, education, youth work and much more. The Brexit bus gave the impression that Brexit would leave the UK with stacks of cash that could be used for the NHS. As if the UK was cash strapped and that was the reason the NHS was underfunded. Yet, as the NHS continues to be underfunded and face huge challenges through a pandemic, £16.5 billion has been found for defense and military spending. Without discussing whether that is needed or not, the point is there was, and is, money lurking around.
And let’s not ignore the cost of Brexit itself, with Bloomberg Economics estimating it to have an economic cost of £200 billion. But there’s more than economics involved. It’s the feeling of solitude and stupidity on behalf of the UK when I talk to European friends. I was in the Netherlands on 31st January, 2020 when Brexit officially went through and there was absolutely no going back. I was chatting to some (quite drunk) Dutch guys and the one just laughed and said “haha ahh you’re all alone now. No-one cares, you’re all alone”, which was funny but too real. The world doesn’t revolve around the UK (sorry to break that to you BoJo) and other countries will just get on with it and carry on whilst we’re still talking about Brexit for years to come.
Maybe one day I will move on and not talk about it, but for now I am bitter. It has potentially changed the trajectory of the next few years of my life. And whilst this isn’t all about me, I think personal experiences and opinions add a human angle to convoluted politics. The big B will, or won’t, affect people in different ways. But I will always be nostalgic about the times I spent in Europe as a European citizen and years feeling part of something bigger.
(I got carried away and wrote a poem too. Read my poem ‘Remain to Leave’ here)