This is the day that will change everything, even though there are many who still believe that nothing will change at all.
On the surface, 31 January 2020, the official date that the UK will leave the EU, is just a date. After all, it will be followed by a transition period, citizens will still be able to move between countries and trade deals will be struck. Yet, for the hundreds of thousands of Britons like me living in Europe and the many millions more who have European connections – not to mention EU citizens living in the UK – this day means so much more.
For me, it means feelings of loss, confusion, anger and sadness linger beneath an undeniable desire to scream from the top of my lungs. It just isn’t fair. Perhaps I’m overreacting – there are obviously more important problems in the world. So why does this bother me so much? Here’s why.
In my heart I will always be a part of the EU – I never thought I would have to forcibly leave my European family...
I grew up in Plymouth, studied European languages at university, spent my Erasmus year in France and became an English teacher in Spain. I’ve lived in Soria in northern Spain for eleven years, and emphatically declare that I am European. In some ways, I am every European country I’ve ever lived in or visited. I feel British, French, Spanish, but German, Hungarian, Swedish and Portuguese too. I feel like a part of the family of languages and cultures and peoples that have opened their borders and welcomed me with open arms for the past 33 years of my life.
As a secondary school languages teacher, I’ve always taught my students about the importance of the European Union. It allows trading of goods and free movement across borders, creates a secure network of neighbouring countries and respects human rights. Just as importantly, the EU enables a cultural exchange unlike any other in human history, thanks to programmes like Erasmus, Comenius and the Schengen space. I have ex-students from Spain studying in London at UCL, King’s College and Imperial College. We’ve been on school trips to Strasbourg for the Euroscola event at the European Parliament and we’ve participated in the European Youth Parliament, bringing together young people from all over Europe. “United in diversity”, the motto of the EU, makes clear we stand stronger together than apart.
In my heart I will always be a part of the EU – I never thought I would have to forcibly leave my European family. Yet I’ve been persistently haunted by the spectre of Brexit for the past four years. I spent the week of the referendum in June 2016 on a language holiday with my students, and can still remember waking up the morning after the vote to the celebratory cheers of my host family. This was a couple who made their living hosting foreign teachers and students in their home, and they had voted for Brexit. They claimed it was a great day for Britain. I felt sick.
In truth, some of us didn’t believe the date would actually come. But now, on the eve of Brexit, I’m still reflecting on my options. The Withdrawal Agreement protects the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and Brits living in Europe, and we will be able to continue living and working in our current ‘home’ country with just a small technical change in our political status. This, however, does not mean that we will retain free movement within Europe, nor will we be classed as EU citizens any longer. That depends on the agreements signed with each country as time goes on.
It’s frustrating not knowing what the future will hold, and at the same time feeling so misunderstood. Many people tell me that I should be happy, that Brexit won’t affect me really because I’ll still be able to continue living and working in Spain. Why, then, do I feel like I’m about to become a second-class citizen?
The thought of having to exchange my beautiful green ‘Citizen of the European Union’ residence card for a cold blue ‘Foreigners’ card is eating me up inside. I used to joke with my American colleagues in Spain when they’d ask me if I could help them with their visa process. I’d tell them sorry, I have no idea, I’m European. You could say that’s come back to bite me. Every time I’m about to fly back to England, one of my colleagues at school jokingly asks if I’m sure they’re going to let me back in. It’s all in good humour and I laugh about it too, but it’s perhaps a little too close to home. After all, I’ve had actual nightmares about being unable to reach my family or being prevented from returning to Spain, and they certainly don’t leave me feeling warm and fuzzy inside because my rights are supposedly being protected by the decisions of a bunch of politicians that I don’t know or trust.
Nobody calling the shots around Brexit seems to understand how much it hurts to have such a big part of my identity dragged away from me...
On a political note, another issue revolves around voting rights. As a British and EU citizen, I can currently vote in UK and European elections. After Brexit, I will no longer be able to vote in EU elections. Somewhat disturbingly, my right to vote in Britain will also expire in 2023 after having lived outside of the UK for 15 years. In this case, I will become politically voiceless. Although, to be honest, I’ve felt voiceless for so long that I’m not sure officially losing suffrage will make a difference. Rights that I’ve had for my whole life are being taken away from me in an instant, and it’s not my fault – I voted remain, and I didn’t make this decision.
Some people, of course, are able to obtain dual nationality from another European Union country. That would be the ideal solution. But in my case, Spain does not recognise dual nationality with Britain. That means that if you are granted Spanish nationality, which you are able to apply for after ten years living in the country, you are legally required to renounce your British nationality. Therefore, I could become Spanish, and European, but I would have to, literally, reject my British identity. Or, I can remain British, retain my right to live and work in Spain, but I would no longer be a citizen of the European Union.
I’ve agonised over this decision for so long and even have all the papers ready to apply for Spanish nationality. I love Spain, a big part of my life is here, and I feel as Spanish as I do British. Nevertheless, my innate sense of Britishness and a deep-seated worry that becoming Spanish might somehow affect my contact with my family in the UK in the future, is still making me unable to take that final step.
Travelling back from England after Christmas, I had a melancholic moment on arrival at Madrid airport when choosing the lane to follow at passport control. It was a sudden realisation that when I travel in the future, I’ll no longer be in the ‘EU’ lane but will be relegated to the category of ‘all other passports’. How can I become both a ‘foreigner’ and an ‘other’ in my own home, overnight?
But of course it’s not overnight – in fact, the Brexit process has dragged on for so long. For me, it’s meant four years of heart-wrenching emotions. From the sheer disbelief of the referendum result, to the worry of what was to come, the hope that maybe it would never happen, and the unfathomable sense of sorrow that it’s finally here. And above all that, the undeniable feeling that I’m just a little bit alone in all this, because nobody calling the shots around Brexit seems to understand how much it hurts to have such a big part of my identity dragged away from me, while all I can do is sit there, take a deep breath, and wait for it to happen.
Candy Scobling is a secondary school languages teacher in Soria, Spain
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