Being a French national in the UK in 2017


I’m a French citizen, an EU citizen, and soon to be a really shitty bargaining chip and statistic in the Brexit negotiations, my entire life, relationships and work activity reduced to a label, supposedly so that UK citizens can get a better deal in what must be the most staggeringly fast descent into drunken decision-making by a supposedly sober UK government. Cheers for that, makes me feel really welcome.

Brexit taking its toll

The whole of last year has been met with increasing disbelief, anxiety and anger in our house, and I don’t suppose it is going to get any easier. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ll remember this last year as ‘the easy one’ compared to what’s about to go down for UK citizens, British citizens abroad and EU citizens (and their often British families) in the UK. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong but I suspect otherwise, as I don’t live in La La Land.

But honestly, I feel slightly ill, like, all the time now. I had a whole period last month of complete indigestion and feeling awful that was entirely related to stress. I’ve never been ill with stress and anxiety before but it wasn’t difficult to identify the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and the constant tiredness. It’s not a mental state you have any control over, and I was almost bed-ridden with it. My husband noted I behaved really out of character and withdrew completely, and he was right. The feelings of alienation, dismay, anxiety, and just, utter sadness over what could happen to this country I love and to us EU citizens, are overwhelming.  The sheer paucity of experience that is looming for future UK generations, is just staggering to me.

It’s all been said before, and I’m no political expert but no one cares about experts anymore, and no one’s listening to us anyway, so I’ll add my voice to the silent millions. I can’t get over the government’s rhetoric on Brexit, the sheer deluded optimism, the hypocrisy, the willingness to throw themselves under the (red) bus with a half-assed plan because ‘the people said so’, and the willingness to leave millions of British families in limbo across Europe and the UK without guarantees in order to, what, achieve ‘as good a deal’ as if the UK was still in the EU. You don’t need much expertise or common sense to know how unlikely that scenario is, I mean, come on! As good a deal? Why on earth would the EU do that? I suspect that the UK’s posturing is going to cause the good will of the EU countries to disappear all the quicker. More recently I can’t help but wonder at the amount of cognitive dissonance the government must go through to be using the exact same Remain arguments to keep Scotland in the Union whilst pursuing the hardest Brexit imaginable. How do you do that? The sheer hypocrisy is just staggering, and again, MPS are not batting an eyelid at this and dissenting voices are few (but much appreciated, special mentions should go to Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, John Major and the LibDems).

Living in the UK before Brexit

I came to the UK in 1998. I was 18, and the first thing I did was to register for National Insurance, so that I could pay my taxes in the UK, and after my first month adjusting to people’s accents, I started work. Apart from a couple of months of unemployment in early 1999, I have worked consistently in the UK ever since. I took a career break in 2012 to look after the kids, and rejoined the workforce in 2015.

In all of this time, the UK government has shown no interest in my status as an EU citizen. There was no ‘welcome to the UK’ paperwork to be filled so they would have a record of who I was, no checking that I still lived here over the years, no telling me of any special requirements to get insurance if I stopped work. Nothing. People complain about EU citizens coming into the UK to steal jobs, but your government doesn’t even keep a record of who comes in, which they are within their right to do under EU Law, they just chose not to. Now I am applying for Permanent Residency (PR) to secure my acquired rights of residence ‘just in case’, but because I was on break with the kids in the last 5 years and I didn’t have Comprehensive Sickness Insurance (because the government didn’t tell anyone about it), I can’t use the last 5 years to apply but must go back to 2007 and prove not only work activities for 2007-2012 but proof of residence and absences from the country for the whole period up to now. Do you remember when you went on that weekend break to Bruges back in 2009? Do you still have your council tax letter from 2007? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

I guess I’m just grieving at the moment. Being part of the EU has added so much to my life. I have visited places I never would have done otherwise, simply because I could and it was convenient and fun, without having to jump through the hurdles of Visa applications. I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be a part of an organisation that, for all its faults, and they are many, enables you to travel, live, study and work in 27 other countries freely, no questions asked. I’m not a big globetrotter and if the EU hadn’t opened the doors for me, I likely would never have come to England, made my life here, met my British husband and had my British children. I would have just gone down the traditional French route of local university and work without second thoughts. Instead, I asked ‘why not England?’ and gave it a try.

I have never worked in France. I don’t have a French social security number or a Carte Vitale. I have never paid taxes in France or lived there as an adult; I don’t know the first thing about working or living in France. I love living in England; it is, quite simply, home. I love speaking English and engaging with the culture and I have worked hard to assimilate because I loved it. I always thought Britain was particularly special and wonderful for its multiculturalism, liberal values and openness to the world. That changed last year, which was a terrible shock made worst for these views being embedded by the government with little challenge and causing all EU citizens to feel unwelcome and second-rate at best, and unsafe at worst.

British Citizenship then? Why not?

I understand when people ask me why I have not taken up British Citizenship before. Aside from the fact that I am not so well off that I have £1.5k lying about for such a purpose, the whole point is that I’ve never needed to. In my earlier years, I wouldn’t have done it because I didn’t feel British, I didn’t have the money -and I didn’t need to-, and later on, when I felt more settled, and I guess, more British, yes I can’t vote, which has been frustrating but not a game changer for me personally, but I still didn’t have the money, AND I DIDN’T NEED TO. That is the beauty of being an EU citizen, the flexibility, experience, opportunity and rights that it affords, not just to members of other European countries but to Brits too. As an EU citizen, aside from voting, there is no added benefit to having a British passport, and once we leaves the EU, there will be even less so. I can’t help but feel that my EU citizenship is ingrained in my identity, a fact I didn’t know until it was threatened.

There is no doubt in my mind that this path that the UK is on, is one that is making the country smaller, not bigger. So I am not rejoicing in any feeling of superiority for believing I am on the right side of the argument; I don’t wish to tell Cornwall and Wales to ‘suck it up’ and I won’t be laughing when their funding disappears and poverty rises (the least surprising outcome of this whole debacle as far as I can see, and again, those who are surprised/shocked/disappointed, what on earth were you expecting?).

We are ALL going to lose and suffer from this outcome. I am grieving the fact that so many on this island feels so insecure in its identity that they would rather blame others for their problems than take a good look at themselves (and I mean ‘they’ the government primarily, for failing to address the issues emphasised by Brexit).

Britain is not going to be Great Again. It was already Great, and it doesn’t even know it, because it thinks that being the top dog is what being Great is about. I still think that the vote was in part dictated by misplaced nostalgia about the olden days of its Empire, and just yesterday I saw an interview with Indian politician and historian Shashi Tharoor highlighting the problems of Empire thinking and not learning from the past. There is no Empire without crushing the little people, and there lies the path to protectionism, alienation, isolation, racism and war. When your foreigners and your poor are the first to suffer, you should know you are on a dangerous path. There has been little talk about the fact that since the birth of the EU, European countries have been at peace with each other, and that is the European Union’s greatest achievement. That we know so little of our history, to take this for granted, and could squander it away on the hope of a stronger economy that the government had every power to work on whilst in the EU but did not out of self-interest, is frightening indeed.

The media has gone quiet and is offering little in way of challenge. Objections to Brexit are being described as unpatriotic and grieving Remainers told to ‘shut up and put up’. Remainers love their country as passionately as their Leave counterparts, and yet are vilified for expressing dissent, or simple concern over the process. Without criticism, there is no real democracy and shutting down dialogue is destructive. I am convinced that many Leave voters are also concerned about the path the government is taking, but where are their voices? You are allowed to want to be measured, you are allowed to hold more than one opinion on the subject; you are entitled to disagree with the government whilst still believing in the reason you voted Leave. The world is not black and white, and this is too complex an issue to be reduced to Deal or No Deal slogans and jumping off the cliff without a net. How confident are you in your government?

That’s probably enough from me. I suspect that in the end, EU citizens already in the UK will be allowed to stay. The public outcry and practicalities of trying to expel 3 million people and break up British families, make it nearly unthinkable. Not impossible, mind you. After last year, anything is possible. But will we want to stay? In this climate where we are being blamed for the state of the UK, when racism and abuse are on the rise, our fears are very real. The government refuses to extend the hand of friendship to us, as would be the decent moral thing to do, and instead dangles us in front of the EU for a reciprocal agreement, which the EU would have no reason to reject, but cannot confirm until Britain starts the Article 50 process. The ball is in Britain’s court but it is behaving as if it expects the EU to treat people badly, which says more about the UK than it does about the EU. It makes me mad, and sad, and uncertain about the future.


Brexit Post-Mortem

I don’t even know what to say anymore! I’m laughing right now at how ludicrous the political shenanigans are becoming, but I suspect I will wake up with the doom and gloom again tomorrow, and I despair of ever feeling confident in the British government again. Never mind the Leave voters, who were the cause of my anguish earlier in the week; I think we’ve got bigger fish to fry when the entire political establishment is in combustion in a public spectacle of self-immolation amidst backstabbing, posturing, and the worst display of ‘non-leadership’ I’ve ever seen. It’s like Game of Thrones, British style. All in the interests of the British public of course. Of course.

I dare say this is the biggest problem we have got on our hands right now. Not the EU, although it could do with being reformed from the bottom up, and I’ll go to my grave wishing Britain had led the way rather than left it to the other 27 countries to do so. Not even the awful rise of racism and xenophobia expression that we’ve all liked to pretend wasn’t so widespread before the Brexit vote threw that can of worms wide open. No, we’ve got to live with the fact that all of us on both sides are completely screwed because the whole debacle is being led by a bunch of egomaniacs who construed the entire thing as a means to push their own self-interests, their career goals and their sense of self-importance, and never worked in the interest of the people for a single minute. And really, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Gosh, I had a whole other post on Brexit I was working on, a disjointed tumble of thoughts about my feelings, which is a bit embarrassing and I don’t even know if it’s worth talking about anymore considering the circus happening out there as we speak. Ah, darn it, I’ll share it anyway. I really really want the Leave camp to come up with a plan. Anything, ANYTHING, that will give any semblance that someone, somewhere, is capable of leading us out of this mud pit and to set aside their own agenda, build a bloody coalition and proper proportional representation and away we go. But anyway, here’s how I was feeling before today, and I will probably feel it again tomorrow, once I’ve recovered from the loss of Boris Johnson (the horror!) and the terrifying prospect of a May/Gove contest. Oh, and Labour free falling. Bring it on, how much worse can it get?

after Brexit post-mortem

It will come as no surprise after my last post on Brexit that when the news broke that the Leave campaign had won, I felt shock and horror in equal measure. And disbelief. Heartbreak. Grief. Fear. And after a day or two, anger.

The enormity of what has happened is still sinking in. And now to start processing, reflecting, responding, honouring, denouncing, and over all, supporting each other, casting aside our preferences and leanings and together limp towards the future (well, if I’m allowed anyway, who knows?), over the next turbulent months and years.

Doctor, I need to talk about my Brexit feelings

All the stages of grief can be experienced in one moment, did you know that? It takes quite a while to sift through what you’re experiencing, and to unpick what is valid and what is, well, your personal demons reacting to the news in their own individual ways. So I have a lot of personal vulnerabilities coming to the surface. Like the feeling of rejection, alienation and ‘otherness’ that tried to choke me last Friday as I digested the news. That the last 18 years of growing, learning, paying my taxes, participating in British life, had been for nothing, can be discarded and negated in a moment; that the shaping of my adult life had been dismissed as of no importance by many people I used to know and call friends. My logical mind tells me that my heart is spouting utter rubbish right now and that you can’t erase the past, but you sure can erase other people’s future, and my unskilled 18 year old self would not have been given a chance in a Britain without the free movement of people; I would never had met my husband, never had my children, never had the work opportunities I have had, or the life experience. So I’m grieving this, in an irrational bit of psychological anguish.

I saw messages as early as the day after the vote calling for everyone to get along and for people to ‘move on and accept what’s happened’, as if it was the same as coping with the rise of Freddo frog chocolate prices. Should we really all pretend it’s just another day at the office and switch off our emotions for the sake of, what, making everybody else feel better? I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t grated to see people so easily dismiss the genuine grief of 48% of the population over what we see as the devastation of our economy and of Europe, the destruction of 43 years of hard work after 6 weeks of a shambolic campaign of self-serving lies on both sides. We will learn to accept it, but please, give us some time.

And then of course, there’s the anger that the whole thing shouldn’t have happened in the first place, at least not in the way that it did, led by self-serving politicians who fed us half-truths and forgot to mention a whole load of other things (hello, Northern Ireland and your peace process that is entirely reliant on being part of the EU and the free movement of people) for their own ends.

There’s anger towards the Remain campaign, for failing to make a compelling case for the EU, despite having quite a lot of positive facts at their disposal.

There’s anger, in some of us, towards the Leave campaign, who manipulated people’s emotions and blatantly lied and goaded them to gain levity, whilst utterly failing to prepare a forward plan of action. There’s anger, also, towards the small proportion of Leave voters who used their vote to protest against the establishment, to spite them without regard for the consequences. Why mistrust everything that comes out from politicians’ mouths, apart from on this issue?

I am angry towards past and present governments, Tory and Labour, who so utterly failed to show people, over years, all the good that the EU did for their communities. That the benefits were at least worth some of the cost. Governments who never celebrated the great opportunities afforded Britain by EU funding, choosing instead to communicate their petty disagreements and focusing on the precious precious preciousssss things they lost.

Follow the man with the Brexit plan! Oh, hang on….

I’m also maybe less angry than dumbfounded that, despite the fact that the referendum in itself should be seen as advisory rather than legally binding, people seem to be in a hurry to rush towards the breakdown of everything we have ever known, when what’s become clear out of all of this is that neither side have a single clue how to handle the fallout, neither side have a plan of action. And yet, we’re told we should be excited about this adventure in uncharted territory, as if history doesn’t teach us that going into uncharted territory without a plan, paddle and provisions usually leads to being mauled by a bear or dying of frostbite in the North Pole.

I’ve been struck by the lack of leadership we’ve seen over the last few days from our party leaders and their governments (bar that of Nicola Sturgeon, shame I can’t vote for her and that she’s really backed into a corner she is going to struggle to get out of). To me, this is the key issue in the next few weeks and months. I’m a realist. It does look like we’re going to leave the EU, and I need to make my peace with it (I will still think it’s stupid but I will actively work at embracing the present). But I’m also a logical person, so someone give me logic. In this vacuum, I am looking for someone on the Leave side to give me figures and a realistic view of the future, and I haven’t seen one yet. This is the bit that scares me most of all.

I am astonished (and maybe a bit jealous) at seeing the optimism, the faith, that the Leave voters put in the British government through their vote. Do people really think that, if given more sovereign power, our government will use it more ably and successfully to tackle the issues the country faces than it has had until now whilst attached to the EU? I personally think it is a misplaced faith, and that both parties have a lot to answer for in the wake of this debacle, in how they have successfully ignored the gradual disenfranchisement and increasing poverty of the North and West of England that has always been in their power to address, EU notwithstanding, and created much of the issues being debated today.

I know I need to acknowledge my own privilege as well. I do live in the South East after all and it will do no one any good to pretend that the Leave side in general didn’t have any good reason to vote as they did, against the perceived threat of the EU, and out of a place of deep anger themselves, against poverty, against a lack of job opportunities and a ridiculous housing market, and they were given an excellent scapegoat in the EU. Which is a shame, when I think it should mostly be directed towards the current and past UK governments, who are not, in fact, so shackled by Brussels that they’ve not had plenty of opportunities to care for the most disadvantaged places in the UK, like, say, Cornwall, who voted leave and is now hoping that the UK will somehow be able to dig £500 million out of a magician’s hat to replace EU subsidies without a cost to the country and themselves, like, I don’t know, higher taxes. Yeah, I know, I’m repeating myself a bit. I do wonder how it will pan out though, once we can make a decent comparison from a cost/benefit point of view before and after the EU. I want the facts.

And another thing: every time I hear someone talk about ‘sovereignty’, I literally want to stab my ears with sharp sticks. It’s the most elusive, mythical bollocks to think that more control will mean more money and more compassion for the fringes from politicians whose nearest experience of the fringes is their fortnightly barber appointment. As I said before, they’ve had plenty of time to give it a try before and it’s never materialised. And now everybody’s double backing and Farage is let loose in the EU chambers like a jack-in-the-box (ironically, it’s called a ‘diable en boite’, a boxed devil in French) popping out with a maniacal laugh, sticking his middle finger out to 27 other nations and caring not a jot about the British people who will need every single one of those nations feeling pity enough for us to get even a modicum of a decent trade deal after the dust has settled.

When people go on about ‘making Britain great again’ and that Britain was so much better before the EU, I think they forgot the two World Wars caused by the demands alliances between sovereign states placed on them in the first place. What a dream to want to go back to.

Anyways… I digress, because really, I have no power over any of these things. What I do have, is control over my actions, and I cannot let them be dictated by the feelings Brexit has engendered in me. There is no getting rid of the feelings, and I’m gonna be honest, I suspect it will be a daily fight for me to challenge the contempt, disgust and anger I feel about what’s just happened. But I can’t let it be directed at people. I know I’m fairly protected, living where I do. We’re not well-off, we live on a month-to-month basis and haven’t saved a penny in five years but we’re not poor and we’ve got a house we partly own. We may have to start eating more plain pasta but even as an EU national, it might be years before my status changes in any significant way. I need to be able to put myself in the shoes of the Leave voters, not those who protest-voted, not the racist ones, not the ‘make Britain Great again’ ones, not them. But those British people who have no jobs and no prospects, who have suffered immensely under the austerity measures the government has put in place, who haven’t seen the EU money make much of a difference, I know I can’t blame them for voting the way they did, instead, I need to do what I can to help.

No doubt the EU is in dire need of reform, and I don’t think anyone who supported Remain feels any different from me in this regard, and I sorely wish the UK had been involved in leading the process. But that would have required the setting aside of personal motives for the sake of the good of the many, which is not a quality the British government has displayed at any point in recent years.

In the meantime, the pound is worth nothing and our first visit to my French parents in two years is going to make us dig into our meager savings, so onwards!