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.