“Some of my best friends are British...”
An EU27 immigrant’s view from Brexiting Britain.
Not many people outside my immediate circle of confidants and co-workers know this, because I’m inclined not to broadcast the fact to everyone I meet these days, but I’m an Italian national. I’ve been exercising my EU freedom of movement treaty rights to live quietly in England since the mid 1990s, when things were a bit different. Back then John Major was prime minister, you could smoke in pubs and Wi-Fi hadn’t been invented yet. I can remember what it was like when the IRA used to blow stuff up, a Zone 1-4 travelcard cost just £3.30 and Ken Livingstone could get through a day without name-dropping Hitler eight times before breakfast.
The United Kingdom has been my home for my entire adult life and while it’s had its ups and downs before, right now it’s in a bit of a pickle. As the Article 50 egg timer counts inexorably down to Britain’s exit from the European Union, the unedifying imbroglio in which we’re all ensnared has prompted me to do some long overdue soul-searching. I’ve been reflecting not just on how I came to be here, but also on a more pressing concern: where I may end up when the dust settles. The pressure to apply for citizenship mounts by the day and yet despite having laid down the groundwork, I’m finding myself strangely hesitant to take that final step to cement my status. Mine ought to be an open and shut case, so why do I keep dithering and putting it off?
Where it all began…
To explain why my procrastination is so perplexing, let me provide some context. Long before I moved to the UK, I was intensely Anglophile. My dad used to interpret into English from Italian, French and Dutch for a living and his deep affinity for Britain rubbed off on me at a very early age. Growing up in Belgium in the ‘70s and ‘80s, my formative years were spent immersed in Roald Dahl stories and cackling at bootleg radio recordings of The Goon Show. I’d snatch at any morsels of British culture that floated my way like a drowning castaway might claw at a piece of driftwood. Sometimes I’d even watch a fuzzy BBC test pattern, when our clapped-out telly could pick up the signal. My nurturing parents weaned me on a diet of Python films, The Young Ones and Blackadder, which were dutifully sent over in parcels full of neatly labelled VHS tapes by an obliging aunt based in London.
Our first family holiday to Britain in 1982 coincided with a wild surge in flag-waving national pride, as Royal Navy warships sailed off to retake the Falkland Islands. It was a giddying, vomit-splashed hovercraft jaunt to a fabled land of hope and glory that surpassed all expectations. The capital blew my tiny, impressionable mind. Iconic red phone boxes plastered with smut, sweary black cab drivers, double-decker buses, Camden market bric-a-brac, spiky-haired punks nutting each other in the street…I was enthralled. We’d later return every Easter, sometimes venturing further afield to Cornwall, the Lake District or Scotland.
In my teens I idolised Chris Morris, mainlined Evelyn Waugh novels and took a bit of a shine to The Really Wild Show’s Michaela Strachan. Everyone at school used to roll their eyes at the big-nosed, Withnail-quoting bore who would scratch lines from Philip Larkin poems into the desks, like a proper nobber. Repeated attempts to emulate the drawing styles of Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe met with failure, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Britain’s ludicrous abundance of madcap musical talent, from Kate Bush to Aphex Twin, provided a wellspring for many a costly vinyl-collecting obsession. That I’d one day end up moving to the UK to be closer to my heroes seemed preordained and sure enough, that’s what happened.
About a year after passing my baccalaureate, I left Brussels behind and hopped across the Channel to enrol at a university in West Yorkshire. My classmates and lecturers were fantastic and there’s some jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside up there. Eventually, though, I gave in to the gravitational pull of the capital and sidled down south, where it snowed less often in April and there was a greater variety of gigs to investigate. Being able to speak four European languages opened doors for me and finding employment was not a problem. So, with a bachelor’s degree from a former London polytechnic now under my belt, I ended up settling permanently.
In 22 years of living, loving, studying and working in Britain, it’s probably fair to say I’ve made a concerted effort to integrate. When I open my mouth to speak, what comes out is something that veers between a BBC newsreader’s clipped Estuary accent and Danny Dyer discovering he’s related to King Edward III. I instinctively apologise when someone steps on my foot and will readily drink flat, warm beer without grimacing. Direct eye contact is to be avoided in most close-quarter situations and making a scene is a huge no-no. If queuing patiently were an Olympic sport, I’d just miss out on bronze and shed stoic, silent tears as Clare Balding pointed her microphone at me to ask where it all went wrong.
To say my roots have grown deep would be an understatement even by British standards. The interwoven ties that bind me to the UK continue to multiply so rapidly in every direction, listing them all would be a Sisyphean task. Almost everyone I hold dear lives nearby. My elder sister was born here and is a fully fledged, passport-carrying Briton, as are her kids. My English partner and I have been together for 9 years and own a small flat in Zone 4. Her close-knit family are my extended family now, and vice versa. Mums, dads, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings: most are less than an hour away, so we spend a lot of time in each other’s company.
For almost two decades I felt right at home in the UK and just slotted in to get on with life as a quasi Brit. I’ve never made a nuisance of myself, never claimed benefits and never had an overnight stay in an NHS hospital. I’m crap at maths, but a quick back-of-the-beermat calculation suggests I’ve contributed something approaching a six figure sum in tax and national insurance during my time here. All this led me to assume on an almost unconscious level that I belonged, that the country had indifferently accepted me as one of its own. It seemed like a reasonable expectation that people wouldn’t care where I was from, as long as I pulled my weight and didn’t make trouble.
Then the mood began to noticeably sour.
A few years ago, the most widely read conservative newspapers began to ratchet up a long-running demonisation campaign against all things of EU origin. It gradually escalated to a level where it was no longer easily ignored background sniping. An unrelenting barrage of anti-European, anti-immigrant rhetoric was churned out, calibrated to drive a permanent wedge between foreign-born residents and the people of our adoptive home. It felt like a noxious barrier of accusatory newsprint was being erected to keep us at arm’s length; a firewall of block capital spite and suspicion.
The onslaught of shrill headlines came thick and fast, reaching fever pitch as a pernicious narrative took hold. SOVEREIGNTY-ROBBING EUROPARASITES WRAPPED IN RED TAPE STAMPEDE THROUGH OUR OPEN BORDERS, one might shriek. HORDES of EU MIGRANTS are coming to MOLEST our women, STEAL your job, SPONGE off the state and SWAMP the NHS, the next inflammatory story would fret, clutching its pearls. On the daily commute, alarmist front pages held up to our faces in cramped train carriages served as constant snide reminders that we will always remain interlopers and potential fifth columnists — “them” as opposed to “us” — in many people’s eyes. No matter how hard we work to fit in, we won’t be allowed to forget that we’re different. As far as those who consider themselves King Arthur’s descendants are concerned, these are local islands, for local people.
All this polarising anti-immigrant carping achieved critical mass in 2014, threatening to engulf the political agenda. By then it was really gnawing away at me — so much so that I joined the Greens (aka The Nice Party) in an impotent gesture of meek defiance. UKIP appeared to be in the ascendency and its steady rise was dominating the news cycle to a disquieting degree. Vladimir Putin’s favourite dog-whistling sower of discord, Nigel “Breaking Point” Farage was a regular fixture on Question Time.
The priapic faux populist — a self-anointed willy of the people, if you like — scented blood. Emboldened, he seized his tumescent moment and initiated offensive manoeuvres. Before long, a charmless cohort of repeatedly unelected UKIP candidates rode the wave of misdirected fury to siphon millions of votes away from a spooked David Cameron and his post-Bullingdon cabinet of minted austerity administrators. I watched glumly as mainstream political discourse lurched ever further rightwards. Rather than pursue billionaire tax dodgers or castigate reckless profiteers in the City who’ve played the biggest role in bringing the country to its knees, ministers instead blamed all of society’s ills on mythical freeloading foreigners and unspecified diktats from Brussels impinging on British sovereignty. I’d phone my local surgery to make an appointment with a GP and the leery receptionist would first probe me about my European-sounding name. Even Ed Miliband’s Labour Party began flogging coffee mugs bearing anti-immigration slogans.
Fast forward a little and things go pear-shaped very quickly. A kind-hearted young MP is shot and brutally stabbed to death in the street for trying to help child refugees. 37% of the electorate swallows a pack of egregious porkies and votes for a monumental act of socioeconomic self harm. People are assaulted for speaking Polish in public, while seething keyboard warriors incite violence against concerned citizens simply for respecting due process and trying to uphold the rule of law.
Now, everything’s a mess. The rug may soon be pulled out from under some of us and—not to put too fine a point on it — we’re not very impressed. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the likes of Dacre and Murdoch don’t speak for everyone and I fully appreciate most of the country is perfectly lovely and welcoming. It’s comforting to remember that roughly 63% of eligible voters — some 29 million people — chose not to vote for Brexit in last year’s EU referendum. Sadly, as exit talks finally begin, that doesn’t make the realisation that when the bargaining chips are down I’m not really considered just one of the family sting any less. Evidently, the fact that Britain has been my home since before many people who voted Leave were even born doesn’t count for much. As a no-deal hard Brexit looms over the horizon, erstwhile ’moderates’ who once made emollient noises and blithely assured us nothing would change are now pivoting querulously to “you must have known this was a possibility when you moved here.”
The surreal Jekyll & Hyde antics that are convulsing the UK as it vacillates over what it wants from Brexit are by turns hurtful, pitiable and bewildering. It feels like an urbane role model I once looked up to cordially invited us to dinner, only to guzzle down the bottles of wine we brought and turn into a mean drunk. Our swaying host, speech slurred, is now sardonically hinting halfway through the second course that we may have outstayed our welcome and should probably start thinking about calling a taxi. Unless, of course, we want to grab an apron and make a start on the washing up before we go. The Marigolds are in the cupboard under the sink.
…Won’t somebody please think of the children?
For the past year, roughly 5 million people for whom Britain’s potential disorderly exit from the European Union would have the most immediate and disruptive impact have been left to watch haplessly from the sidelines while British and EU27 politicians lock horns to argue about our fate. They’re discussing what should become of us over our heads like acrimoniously divorcing parents. Only one party has our best interests at heart. The other cynically describes us as “negotiating capital” and behaves as if we can’t hear what’s being said, or wouldn’t understand the complexities of the situation. “The grownups are talking. Go and play in your room, everything will be fine.”
Frustrating doesn’t even begin to cover how it feels to be treated in such a patronising, offhand manner. Anyone who speaks up to lament the predictable consequences of our protracted limbo status is dismissed as a drama queen. Dare to point out the paucity of Theresa May’s grudging offer to extend some of our rights beyond March 2019 while removing the rest and you can expect to be lambasted by the pro-Leave faithful. “If you like it here so much and want to stay, how come you’ve not bothered to make a proper commitment and become British?” they ask, accusingly.
On the fence…
So why haven’t we all applied for citizenship? I sat down to write this overlong screed in an effort to better understand my own hesitation. Over the last six months, after much form-filling, cursing and scraping together of tattered gas bills and P60s covering a 20-year period, I’ve secured the coveted (and soon to be all but worthless) EEA Permanent Residency card to prove my immigration status. I’ve also passed the Life in the UK test with flying colours. Now, though, I’m dragging my feet and I’ve stopped short of initiating the final step. How come? After all, I’m in the fortunate subgroup who wouldn’t be required to give up current citizenship(s).
Leave aside the fact that at an approximate £1,500 total cost, naturalisation doesn’t come cheap. Forget also that it’s an onerously bureaucratic procedure, seemingly designed to dissuade many candidates and catch others out with petty technicalities. Ultimately, what’s giving me pause is that the UK is presently at a major crossroads and it’s still far from clear which way it will go.
To be blunt, this doesn’t feel like the courteous, endearingly self-effacing country I moved to. It’s sliding gradually towards something more closely resembling Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Just a couple of short months ago the government’s supporters in the press were flirting dangerously with outright fascism, declaring judges to be enemies of the people and calling for “saboteurs” to be crushed. Upsetting rhetoric being bandied about by influential public figures chillingly echoes the mood of 1930s Germany. In April, senior MPs threatened war with Spain. We have a machine-like prime minister evidently devoid of empathy who, having finally pushed the Orwellian Investigatory Powers Act onto the statute books, announces her determination to tear up human rights and expects everyone to clap. Next, having bribed a small band of creationist homophobes with £1.5 billion of taxpayers' money to cling on to office, she plans to use ‘Henry VIII powers' to pass sweeping legislation without parliamentary scrutiny. The path Britain chooses in the coming months could warp its character and fundamentally reshape its guiding principles for generations — perhaps even permanently.
Watching events unfold through the cracks in my fingers, the outlook appears bleak. I’m discomfited by the thought of how I might be expected to comport myself as a freshly inducted Brit should the reactionary, chest-beating Empire 2.0 advocates win the bitter tug of war for the nation’s soul. Just as Brexit secretary David Davis disingenuously claimed 80% of the electorate voted to leave the single market at the recent general election, there are those who would smugly misconstrue my signing on the dotted line as a tacit acceptance of the current direction of travel of the UK. Or worse still, as an endorsement signalling that I’m now fully on board the red, white and blue Brexit bus and ready to link arms with team May’s 65 million cheerleaders. Weirdly, though, spectacles like the giant effigy of the PM sticking two fingers up to Europe that was erected atop the white cliffs of Dover don’t instil in me a dewy-eyed yearning for a new blue passport.
Perhaps the root cause of my reluctance to apply for citizenship at this juncture is an unshakeable feeling that doing so right now would be a capitulation of sorts; a surrender of dignity and an implicit renunciation of my European upbringing. Prostrating myself before the imperious Rule Britannia mob and genuflecting to kiss Farage’s ring is not an appealing prospect. Who wants to become a Brit under duress, while goading bullies wrapped in the flag of St. George insist it’s the only way to avoid being stripped of rights and treated as a disposable second class citizen? If and when I do apply, I’d prefer it to be because I don’t have to. In my mind, it’s a little more than just paperwork or a formality. A decision of such significance should be taken entirely voluntarily on my own terms, out of a continued feeling of deep kinship with the UK and a firm conviction that it will ultimately do the right thing to protect everyone’s wellbeing — not just my own. That Theresa May has effectively asked the EU to water down the rights it has proposed to maintain for British citizens living in EU countries post-Brexit is disheartening and reveals much about her priorities.
Tolerance, compassion, integrity and humility are the British values I most admire and aspire to uphold. While the Home Office’s Life in the UK handbook pays plenty of lip service to these supposedly defining traits of the national character, they’re conspicuously absent at some of the highest levels of power. If you’re British and reading this, here’s a thought experiment: put yourself in an immigrant’s shoes for a moment. Would you leap to pledge unswerving loyalty to another country while it appears to be governed by a nationalist cabal of squabbling incompetents? Allow yourself to be cowed into saluting the flag of a kingdom whose most senior diplomat exudes casual xenophobia, unwarranted blind optimism and a pathological sense of lazy entitlement? How quickly would you stand up to be counted as a citizen of an island whose paranoid leadership insults its neighbours and obsequiously aligns itself with the likes of an allegedly Kremlin-installed, white supremacist трамп regime in Washington? No need to answer right away, feel free to sleep on it.
Long story short…
OK, this has dragged on a bit. Sorry. I’m a laconic sod in the flesh, honest, but every time I sit down to write, my fingers take on a life of their own and start frantically trying to peck out the next Moby Dick. Time to wrest back control and draw things to a close.
What does this interminable waffle amount to, then? To summarize, I moved to the UK in good faith and invested heavily in this country because I’ve been a passionate aficionado of British art, music, literature and comedy since I was in short trousers. My arrival on these shores wasn’t part of a nefarious scheme to undercut people’s wages or leech off the welfare state and funnel benefits to dependents overseas. The same can probably be said of the vast majority of the other three million individuals in my situation. The bitter disharmony that has riven the country as a result of our presence is deeply saddening.
I’d be up for becoming a bona fide Brit, but not right now. Not like this. In the current climate I feel alienated and disinclined to dance to the Brexiteers' tune. Having spent decades building a life in the UK, it’s galling to be regarded as little more than an expendable tenant by politicos who see things in unrealistically black and white, purely transactional terms. It’s not much of a stretch to understand why others who’ve been here for a long time might feel conflicted about staying. By all accounts, thousands have left or are considering leaving. Certainly, I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind during a recent trip to sunny Italy to visit my ailing nonna.
As things stand, there are few plausible Brexit outcomes I can envision in which I might cheerfully sign up for naturalisation. Rumblings from the French, Italian, German, Greek, Bulgarian and Polish friends I’ve shared office space and broken bread with over the years suggest they’re equally circumspect. Perhaps the most auspicious development we can hope for is a scenario in which cooler heads prevail and a rainbow progressive alliance is propelled to Downing Street on a “Let’s Rethink This” platform. I’m ambivalent about Jeremy Corbyn — he’s let us down so far — but he has more rational and pragmatic advisors than the delusional shower currently driving us off a cliff. Should the Opposition leader win an early election, take on board the concerns of Scotland and Northern Ireland and deploy Keir Starmer to smoothe things over with the EU, that could be a game changer.
If the UK’s cavalier, confused and needlessly confrontational Brexit stance thus far is revised in favour of amicable compromise, it’s possible more of us who’ve made Great Britain our home may be inspired to take the plunge and officially swear allegiance. That eventuality still looks to be remote, though, so for now I’ll stay in my holding pattern and continue to follow the news with my face buried in my hands. Indigenous peoples of the UK: I wish you well as you chart a course to leave the European Union. If it’s not too much to ask, please don’t let the door hit me in the arse on your way out.