31st January 2020

Is it a day we expected or pretended wouldn’t happen?

The EU Referendum changed everything in 2016. But what if I said Brexit changed my life for the better? 

The news coverage of the final day of UK MEPs sitting in the European Parliament in Brussels was a strange culmination of the past 4 years of angry politics. There was dignity and fond farewells with our friends in Europe, the singing of Auld Lang Syne. Yet, there stood a man who had dedicated 27 years of his life pushing an agenda of division that he wants to claim as his own victory – I found myself having pity for tyrants. Especially when they are waving tiny Union Jack flags and being cut off from speaking. Pitiful. Couple that with watching a confused Anne Widdecombe not knowing when to stand and what to wave and when to shut up. This was the embarrassing worst of ‘Great’ Britain.  

In 2016 waking up to the sly resignation of Cameron as he stood at No.10 was a shock. We spent the day at a friend’s wedding, me trying to not stare everyone down silently accusing them of being leave voters. This was then just the start of the worst human aspect the campaign and future elections fed on: division. Us and them, leavers and remainers, Britain and the EU, racial, cultural and religious divides were back out in the open. Despite suspecting that they had never really gone away, it was suddenly here in media fury, debated on street corners, in the bile pit of twitter, commented on loudly in pubs and on every kitchen table in the land families were divided (my own included). Families divided not only by opinion but in the scariest way; by questioning their very future in a country they had called home and as of June 23rd 2016 no longer felt welcome in.   

Who knows what forces shift a change in circumstances – sometimes it is a series of things; building up to create momentum and for me the EU referendum came as a warning saying don’t wait. The sudden notion that I would not get to live in Europe was like a midnight lantern flickering, a beacon that went off and for me lit up some dark corners that I’d disregarded in favour of safer options.  The reasons stacked up and making it happen, even temporarily was quite honestly about asking and being brave. We were fed up of the commuter life in London, the endless churn of material goals, steadily filling up a house with things that did not bring us joy or even felt like a reward. What if we couldn’t retire to Europe when we were 65 (or 70?!) anymore, what would we do?  What was it all for? Before the UK left the EU we promised to at least try and after many years of holidaying in Greece it seemed like the right place to start. 

We have zipped between the UK and Greece since 2017, a divided life, the best of both. But always a happy, fulfilled, if sometimes complicated life.  When people ask how we live they are always intrigued. One woman I met on a plane exclaimed to me. “Blimey you’re not daft, that’s the best way to live!” Every day I have been an EU Citizen I am humble and thankful for what it allowed me to explore and experience. I have met wonderful strangers, many that became friends. Some are now grappling with residency, insurance and future red-tape they didn’t foresee after years of just being accepted. Imagine if we didn’t go to explore Greece, that we hadn’t just turned up there to see what happened. That we hadn’t had the freedom as EU Citizens to try a new life – explore new countries, to wander without restriction. That is what future generations will not know – the freedom to try lives and ways of living out. 

Now on the 31st January it is really here. The day the UK leaves the EU – I think it’s sad, emotional, disappointing. Others will pop champagne and sing songs that remind them of a land that never was. We are obsessed with the idea of the UK’s glory. Yet this is such a false romanticism – I cannot celebrate how sh*t Britain was for the generations before me. I am four generations from a poorhouse – three short lines away from a widow sifting tobacco in the docks in Tyneside, three long blood lines away from a family of Irish potato pickers who too poor for the ship fare to the New World came to Scotland in the famine, spreading out across the North East wherever there was work; coal miners, smelt workers, joining a family of itinerant cloth makers all the way from Norfolk, lasses sent ‘in-service’ and lads learning trade in the forge, heavy industry, driving busses. No-one in my family left the country before WW2 – they only ever travelled the across the Channel wearing uniforms and staying alive long enough to see snippits of the world from the bars of a window in a prison of war camp. Oh they were the days, Nigel. Glory days.  

Are the things that matter where you are from or where you are headed to?Migration is happening on global scales previously unknown from one place to the next, whether circumstances are forced, war, famine, persecution or for an opportunity for employment or are tempted by the whimsy and freedom to retire or start over again. These are different parts of the complex debate. At a very human level citizenship and identity are about otherness and belonging – us and them, and complications of offering and being granted freedom – with terms. When you close freedom down, like everything, it is a prison which impacts the poorest in society.

Of course I keep having the same conversation recently and people reassure me I can still move to (insert exotic EU city here) you could get a job there, so why are you worried? Nothing is going to change. But that isn’t what FoM really is about – freedom is a way of crossing borders without question, following opportunity, an idea, a love, a promise of a job, seeing the life offered in other lands, trying them out – seeing what fits. Who all of this affects most are the ones freedom could offer most to. Rich lives don’t have borders like the rest of us. A golden visa in Greece costs nothing; someone said this to me with a flick of the wrist as if £250K was the price of a coffee. True story.

The wealthier you are the more worlds can be opened easily. It is a closing down , a new boundary approach – and it’s scary. Nobody is saying you can’t move here or there – they are saying if you do you must be able, qualified and soluble, able to assimilate. Wealthy, wanted. Like us.

Even a few weeks ago we took the ferry from Dover to Calais – a trip I know now is my last as a proper EU citizen. It was so simple – lunch in Calais and back in time for dinner. We had it so good and never realised. Only history will be able to tell how this one ends. 

I imagine an alternative universe where there is another me walking a different corridor, in another job and in realising tomorrow the UK will have officially left the EU and I never spent that time there, now it’s all too late, I’d probably slyly scan my phone for price alerts for flights to Greece. Wishing, waiting, wanting…

Like I said Brexit might have been the best thing to happen to me.