Stereotypes of “Brits abroad” usually centre on retirees sat in pubs draped in the Union Jack flag. Britons living overseas are well aware of these, and for the most part, they’re keen to avoid being seen to live in a “little Britain”.
In contrast to the staunch attachment to Britain and Britishness implied by this stereotype, my research of 909 pro-Remain Britons living in other EU countries, found a more ambivalent relationship to their nationality and home country one year after the June 2016 referendum.
People took part in the online survey from 20 countries across the EU in June 2017. The largest share of respondents (48%) lived in France, followed by Spain (34%). Respondents were predominantly recruited via advocacy groups for citizens’ rights set up in the wake of the referendum, such as British in Europe. This meant that the survey was far more likely to engage with those who were against the result of the referendum, who made up 97% of respondents.
The responses to the survey expressed a wide register of emotions at the EU referendum result, from anger, through hope, to indifference. But two emotions were especially prominent: shame and loss.
Respondents were asked about their national identities, plans for the future and reflections on the EU referendum. Many of the Remain supporters described a common shift from a feeling of pride in their nationality to one of shame. Following the EU referendum, they felt that the UK was characterised by increasing xenophobia and insularity. One British woman in her 50s, who’d been living in Greece for 11 years, said:
“I’m ashamed of being British given the xenophobia and racism that has been unleashed by the referendum. This is not who ‘I’ am.”
Many respondents used dramatic language to convey a visceral sense of loss. There appeared to be a rupture between what respondents thought the UK was and what it had become. A man in his 20s who had been living in Spain for less than a year said:
“I feel like the country I belong to has gone. Call me dramatic but the referendum vote was a real kick in the gut, I feel as though mean-spirited people have robbed me of my country and my future. England isn’t the country I always thought it was.”
Another woman in her 30s who had been living in Belgium for nine years said she used to feel a very close link to the UK, until the referendum vote:
“After I felt like this link had been broken – I did not understand the reasons behind the Leave vote and felt like the outcome, as well as its subsequent implementation in policy, did not reflect my understanding of the UK. I no longer felt British, if this is what being British meant. This actually caused me to have a strong identity crisis.”
Many respondents also grieved the potential loss of their European citizenship and identity. A small minority told of having their European registered cars keyed when they travelled back to the UK or feeling uneasy about speaking another European language in public. This group felt that being perceived as continental Europeans was met with hostility in the UK. In contrast, most reported that neighbours and colleagues in the other EU countries where they lived were overwhelmingly supportive, bar a few jokes along the lines of: “I suppose you’ll have to leave now?”
A small number voiced a new sense of humility about their previous understandings of social divisions in Britain. There was some empathy for compatriots who had voted Leave because they felt excluded or marginalised. One woman in her sixties who’d been living in France for 15 years, but who’d lived in areas of the UK where a majority voted to leave the EU, said she didn’t “condemn those whose lives were badly affected by austerity”. She added:
“Some of my feelings of being born into a reasonably fair-minded, tolerant and charitable society have been rocked: perhaps those feelings were based on myths and the truth is that UK society is no better than many others and it is necessary to understand each others’ positions, to listen with some humility and to work and fight for the future of the young of the UK and EU and the rest of the world.Renegotiating national identity and belonging.”
On the face of it, expressions of shame and loss in relation to their national identity distanced the survey respondents from the UK. But, conversely, I think the intensity of their responses showed their ongoing investment in the country. There was a deep and ongoing concern about the UK and its affairs among Britons who had emigrated to live elsewhere in the EU.
Expressions of shame and loss among those surveyed are perhaps a way of reorganising their attachment to the UK in the face of a political landscape they are uncomfortable with – something that has also been tracked among Britons in the UK. In this way, the findings highlighted some of the adjustments and accommodations around national identity and belonging that Remain supporters went through in the year following the EU referendum.