Wednesday, 02 October 2019
As of 23 July, Brexit was thrust back into the mindset of the world when the UK’s newly appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged that he intended to make sure the UK leaves the EU by 31 October.
This date – at least at the time this story was filed – remains fixed: another step towards the conclusion of years of debate on how the UK will enact the will of the 51.9% of voters who want to leave.
Estimates put the number of UK nationals living in the EU at somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 million, a figure which varies depending on a host of criteria. Some of these people left the UK long before Brexit became a concrete idea; others moved just before or even during the process.
Political aftermath aside, Brexit will impact relationships with the UK for all UK nationals who no longer live there. That impact can range from altering plans or cementing choices to a complete shift in career goals. For better or worse, Brexit constitutes a potentially life-changing shift in the status quo.
People from all corners of the UK are still coming to terms with their homeland leaving the EU, and with what that exit means to them individually.
Here are just a few of their stories by UK nationals living in Belgium, explaining the impact of their personal Brexit in their own words.
Thomas Fillis: England
Watching Brexit go on back home is hard for many: watching a crisis in your home country, you’ll naturally feel quite detached and frustrated. There’s also a mental health concern. It’s not good for us to be looking at bad news constantly from back home, but I like to be cheery.
The overarching feeling has been that a lot of British people are used to being quite proud of their country, a country that is well received and that is starting to change. When you take something for granted, it’s easy to let it slip through your fingers. The UK being this open “cool Britannia” of the 90s, was something to fight for.
The Union Jack was my flag, and the English flag was one you cracked out at football season. Now a huge issue for England is how Brexit and Englishness have become inseparably intertwined. It makes English people unable to reconcile themselves with any form of Englishness if they still want to be in the EU.
Applying for Belgian citizenship is such a large process. I’ve found a nervousness ‒ you know, you fill the criteria, but getting all the paper together is difficult, and being aware that if you make a mistake you could set yourself back six months is a constant worry.
I feel a strong desire to commit to the country I live in and love, but it is conflicting with the desire to help the UK move towards a better future. I guess it’s not impossible to do both, it’s only a Eurostar away.
England in figures
Population: 55.62 million
Results: 53.4% voted leave to 46.6 % remain.
Victoria Henderson: Scotland
Honestly, I’m so fed up with Brexit, I just want us to be out. That’s what was voted for, whether it was the right decision or not, it’s done. I’m not depressed about it, I’ve been here long enough that I can likely get citizenship if I finally get around to doing it. If I don’t get citizenship, life here becomes a bit more difficult, but still doable.
I’m still very proud of being Scottish, still happy. We mostly voted remain, I think it would have been different if Scotland had voted leave. I have found that I’ve become a lot more likely to call myself Scottish rather than British, which never used to be the case.
I’m starting to feel very “Brussels”. I know what I’m doing here ‒ I can navigate the transport system with my eyes closed, I know the best beer, I know the local postman, the local barman, I speak the language. I feel very integrated here.
After Brexit I do think nationalism is going to grow in Scotland. Scotland’s rivalry with England is all a bit of fun now, but it might become a lot more serious once the ramifications of Brexit are known. An independent Scotland getting back into the EU is very idealistic. It would involve Spain and other countries in similar situations not putting up a fight, which is an unlikely scenario.
Scotland in figures
Population: 5.425 million
Results: 38.0% leave to 62.0% remain.
Gareth Harding: Wales
I was one of the few people who wasn’t mortified by the result. I was disappointed, but I knew my job didn’t depend on the UK voting remain.
When Brexit happened, I had been here over 20 years ‒ I have a business, a house, a family, they weren’t going to chuck me out. Since I wasn’t worried, I didn’t initially rush to get citizenship. I only got around to applying for it this time last year, two years after the result.
I think after 20 odd years here, the bonds are less strong with home. Welsh, British, they’re my identity. I don’t feel massively Belgian, and that didn’t change that much with Brexit.
This vote ‒ aside from being silly, and not in British interest ‒ has made my life and several others incredibly complicated, and then we were forgotten about after the vote: the millions of UK nationals outside of Britain.
However, I felt delighted when the letter arrived saying I was Belgian. It became more than just a bit of paper. I’ve been living in Belgium longer than I was in Britain. It’s been good to me, and when it hasn’t, it’s been my fault.
Wales in figures
Population: 3.125 million
Results: 52.5% leave to 47.5% remain.
Niamh McCourt and Nathan Stewart: Northern Ireland
I’ve never felt more Irish than the morning of the referendum result. A United Kingdom that no longer wanted to be in the EU was no longer one I felt part of. I had no idea how integral the EU was to my identity.
Before moving here, I could never have imagined how significant Northern Ireland would remain in both my personal and professional life. As a proud Belfast girl who often feels guilty for leaving, that’s been strangely comforting.
If Brexit has made me grateful for one thing, it’s that so many more people now appreciate the complexity of where I’m from. In Brussels, I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by the level of solidarity with Northern Ireland. The British government’s neglect for our position is, sadly, not as unexpected.
EU membership gave us freedom from anxiety about visas and citizenship, but it’s important to recognise that this is not normal for people from other countries. We didn’t realise how privileged we’ve been this whole time.
I’ve even found myself tearing up at parties when I think about all of this [Brexit, Northern Ireland]. It’s so frustrating to talk to people who just don’t get it, or who just don’t care. Nowadays it’s more raw, it’s always on the surface.
The Good Friday Agreement gave my generation the freedom to grow up as Irish, British, both, or neither. But Brexit has re-politicised our identities and forces us to choose.
Brexit is about working out who belongs, about where you fit in. In Belgium, you can hold multiple identities at once, and that is what is wonderful about living with people from all over the world here in Brussels. Sometimes I wish I could just disappear into that and be myself, but Brexit calls it all into question again.
Northern Ireland in figures
Population: 1.871 million
Results: 44.2% leave to 55.8% remain
By Jules Johnston