Why I’d rather be European than British.
Over Christmas I was sat with my two best friends discussing all manner of things as we usually do. We stumbled across a particular hypothetical:
“As we’re all so royally cheesed off about Brexit, if such thing as a generic European (EU) passport existed, with all the benefits that go with it, such as the ability to move freely around the EU, would you give up your British passport for it?”
I didn’t even think twice.
I am a 26 year old university educated, multilingual, left-leaning, Remain-voting, middle class white man who lives in the Czech Republic. I have been lucky to have the opportunity to travel and live abroad, something not all people can do. This has clearly shaped my view. This post is a not an academic article with references and facts and figures, but merely a musing on my own changing sense of identity which may or may not be shared by others. I do not hate my country, nor am I vilifying Leave voters or any other particular groups.
The self-absorbed, incoherent ramblings:
I wasn’t even surprised my own response.
I suppose it should be a source of some surprise or at least responsible concern that I’d be willing to forgo the national identity I’ve had my entire life in return for a generic passport, void of any particular country, nation or culture. But there wasn’t. To momentarily borrow an Americanism, (I’m European, not a heathen) it was a no-brainer.
Of course this was a hypothetical choice and a completely arbitrary one at that. There is no such thing as a European passport, even if Guy Verhofstadt gets his way in creating European citizenship it won’t be necessary to give up one’s existing nationality to obtain it.
But more than this, it was an arbitrary choice because no identity is singular. National identity is intrinsically and fundamentally plural. In fact, the lack of nuance on this particular issue is one of the most tragic things about the Brexit debate. For example:
“Take our country back”, they cried.
Which one? Which bit? From who? And why?
The Brexit debate simplistically narrowed the idea of national identity into an imaginary piece of nostalgia filled nonsense. A Britain that never existed. To undermine the true complexity of identity in this way is not just unhelpful, it’s dangerous.
My own identity is simultaneously that of Lincoln, Sheffield, England, Britain, Europe, The Left, Tea Drinkers, Morning People, People Who Don’t Mind Saying They Like Justin Bieber’s Last Album and a million other things. I should be able to be British and European. Those things don’t have to be at odds. But Brexit made us choose.
And I choose Europe.
“How on earth can you feel European?,” cries a befuddled Daily Express reader.
To me, feeling European is mixture of practical common sense and a deeper, more emotional (and less rational) state of mind based on my experiences and relationships.
The practical side:
Clearly, for someone living and working in an EU country (and everyone at home), the potential hurdles Brexit will throw up are unavoidable. Being European (hypothetically), as opposed to British, would allow me to continue living the life I do and give me the piece of mind of knowing that in the future if I want to move to Berlin, Madrid or Brussels, then I’ll be able to.
As a post-Brexit Brits, our horizons are significantly reduced, our freedoms restricted and our lives (in my opinion) much diminished. We face uncertainty and obscurity, potential economic ruin and rampant jingoism.
Doesn’t exactly make you want to belt out another verse of ‘Jerusalem’, does it?
I have also benefited in the past from the rights and freedoms being an EU citizen affords when I studied and worked in France and Spain. The experiences I gained there and the relationships I forged have made me the person I am today. They are a massive part of my identity. How can I toss them aside?
The emotional side:
This leads me on to the emotional side of the argument. (By the way, the practical side is probably enough for me to chuck that red passport out the window as it is, but let’s go on).
I don’t want people to think I hate Britain. Of course I don’t, I love it. Or rather I love parts of it and the people in it. I love cricket and tea and Sandi Toksvig. Ah shit, she’s half Danish..
But I don’t blindly love the island itself, that’s ridiculous.
And I do feel British. But I feel like my Britishness manifests itself in a superficial way. I make jokes about queuing, about putting milk in tea. I quote Shaun of the Dead and I don’t like conflict or expressing my emotions. I moan about the weather and I always bring sandwiches to work for my lunch. My British identity, especially living abroad, is an icebreaker. It’s a point of interest, a conversation starter and a source of material for jokes in pubs.
But it’s not something I cling to and it doesn’t define me.
The truth is that I’ve felt less British since Brexit, but didn’t start there. I just don’t understand how you can be ‘British and Proud’. What is so special about Britain? Our values, our oft-proclaimed tolerance and generosity are not uniquely British. They are universally decent values present in most countries around the world. They play cricket in Namibia, they drink tea in Spain and Sandi Toksv- oh I already did that bit…
One thing I did think Britain was supposed to be was outward looking, but when we voted to turn our back and close our doors I think even that was lost.
My European identity is perhaps more abstract, but I believe more important. It’s a belief in collectivism (something my generation seem to share with our grandparents, but not our parents. Thanks a bunch Thatcher.) and in collaboration. It’s the idea that much more unites us than divides us.
It’s sitting on buses and seeing French girls with Spanish boyfriends, it’s sitting round a table with people from 6 separate countries but all speaking Czech to one another. It’s the friends I’ve made here and the friends I have back home that happen to have been born elsewhere. It’s mixed nationality couples and their bilingual children. It’s Erasmus, Schengen and the feeling that the world is your oyster and no land border, sea or mountain range can hold you back.
In short, it’s living, vibrant and undeniable proof that identity is a thing of plurality and peculiarity, of contradictions and of conflict.
It is not something than can be reduced to single political slogan.
Of course, it’s slightly ridiculous to value any one identity over another. I am also a citizen of the world (not of nowhere, Theresa). It’s wrong to say being European is better than being British. To do so would be to fall into same trap populist nationalists do. Europe isn’t perfect, it’s flawed and complicated.
But to me at least, it’s representative of something bigger than the sum of its parts. In a scary time of increasing right wing nationalism, I think the least we can do is think more carefully about the nuances of national identity and try to avoid falling into the trap of oversimplification.
Let me know your thoughts.