A generous offer or more smoke and mirrors? Brexit one year on

I really do not a want to write or think about Brexit again and again and again. But of course that will not be possible for a while to come. So a year ago today, I reflected on the ‘day of the shock’ as it appeared to me then. A lot has happened since, and like many of my colleagues and friends I have come to terms with the new reality, carefully considering my options.

copyright: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

I reflected on Brexit again this February, after the triggering of article 50, from a personal perspective as a European academic working in the UK – reflections that chime with what others from within academia have written on the subject. Only today a new blog in The Conversation had at its theme how academics are feeling about life in post-Brexit Britain. I fully agree with its nuanced analysis but in all this, one group that I happen to belong to and that I know a lot of others in as well, is missing: those of us who work in the UK, are residents here for tax purposes, as the jargon goes, but have their main residence or emotional life centre outside in a European country – and within academia in particualr, this groups is comparatively large.

The whole debate about the rights of EU citizens in the UK is strangely focused in terms of nation state dynamcis: you are either in or out. The supposedly ‘fair and serious’ offer of ‘settled status’ is promised to give those EU citizens who qualify the same rights as British citizens, at least in some respect. Thus it is an offer to come in. And in that it reflects the whole logic of UK policy and attitudes towards the EU, and the faulty language that has always been used: In the migration figures peddled by consecutive government, so-called ‘economic migrants’ from the EU were always included – but that is not what we are, in fact: We are EU citizens making use of our right of the free movement of labour, and have very complex identities and emotional and material attachments that transcend often multiple national boundaries. We do not want to be forced back into a straightjacket of allegiance to a narrowly conceived version of citizenship by a politician who believes that being a citizen of the world means being a citizen of nowhere, thus somebody unable or unwilling to comprehend the ways in which lives often unfold in the 21st century.

But once the logic of either in or out takes hold, a dangerous game of qualifications starts that in fact strips many of us of all our rights. Looking at the PM’s initial offer to reassure EU citizens’ future after Brexit in the UK, should set many alarm bells ringing: Firstly, it includes the phrase that the offer is valid for those who have been lawfully in the UK at the yet to be specified cut-off date. That sounds maybe reasonable on paper. But once you know, like I do, people who had to proof (and initially failed) that their now adult son, born and having lived on the UK all his life, was in fact not here lawfully because his mother could not prove with bank statements going back 20 years that she was lawfully here then, it does not sound so generous at all. The second contentious point is how can one claim those rights, if an incompetent or wilfully mean bureaucrat somewhere decides that one does not actually qualify to have them? There might be means to fight for one’s rights in a British court system, but that in itself is not very reassuring in an increasingly anti-foreigner climate where sovereignty partly seems to mean to be as nasty as possible to non-British citizens. Probably one of the saddest consequences of Brexit and the way it has come about has been a loss of trust in some of the institutions of the British state, thus having to rely on those is less than reassuring. There are many other uncertainties about what the PM’s proposal may actually mean on the ground that need to be studied carefully, and they can surely not be more than a vague starting point that in fact obscures more than it reveals – a game of smoke and mirrors.

Thus for now, it is wait and see what the small print actually says. There is probably little hope that the debate will change from being in or out, being granted ‘settled status’ or asked to leave, towards retaining the right to be a European in-between citizen – even if ‘settled status’ might mean one can (continue to) live the lifestyle now available to EU citizens (even though key questions about e.g. the right to social services in all EU countries remain open even then).

Looking at my own life trajectory, Brexit still leaves me sad rather than anything else. I first came to the UK as a mature PhD student, as somebody who had a successful previous career but now wanted to return to further studies and a different analytical understanding of the world. The UK then, in the late 1990s, was a perfect and inspiring place to do so, much more so than many other EU countries. Post-PhD, and after a couple of year at a university on the European continent, I returned to work at an academic institution here – and to a department full of international staff from the EU and beyond. On the way I have met many fellow travellers with similar trajectories, and most of us are keenly aware that such biographies will in all likelihood not be possible in the future. A colleague summed it up like this recently when saying: ‘this used to be a great country with some crap people, now it is a crap country with some great people’. Ditto – but let’s see what may lie behind the smoke and mirrors.

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