On the Loss of Citizenship

This is probably my last night here as a citizen. My family’s been coming here since my aunt worked in Italy in the 70s. It’s a modest, friendly ex-mining village in a beautiful corner of the Alps: lovely for walking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. It has a downhill slope too, which is OK but not great. And good mountain-biking, if you like that kind of thing. It’s unpretentious. It’s not expensive, as these things go. Some crazy Brits and others come to risk their lives climbing frozen waterfalls but most the people who come here are Italian. It’s very white and I’d guess a fair few residents voted for the fascists of La Lega. There’s some poverty. People are generally kind, and go out their way to be helpful. There are things that drive me crazy and many things I love, the same as in the UK.

We have long-standing friends here. We always stay in the same apartment. My aunt knows most the village. I haven’t been coming here as long as her but when I go to the shops I meet people I know. My aunt comes here twice a year, and after she retired she spent 11 months here. She sometimes gives free English lessons. And when she’s been ill, or had a problem with the car, or had any other kind of trouble, there’s never been any shortage of help. We’re not locals, but we feel at home here. And of course we share citizenship. You see more regional than national flags here, and you also see plenty of EU ones.

Citizenship, as a concept, is by no means the most important aspect of Brexit. The dark money, the lies, the corruption of democracy, the callous disregard for peace in Ireland, the ripping away of rights from non-British EU citizens living in the UK, the appalling lack of planning and foresight, the cynical stirring up of race-hate, the attacks on our rights and protections, the effective suspension of functional government… all these are much worse. The fact that we are creating a divided, dysfunctional country and picking fights with former allies, instead of uniting to face global ecological catastrophe… that is much worse. But tonight I’m going to allow myself to reflect at a personal level, and tell you that I already grieve for my loss of citizenship.

Look at history and you’ll see that people have gone to war for less. But we’re to have it torn away on the back of one undemocratic, uninformed vote. So what is it, this citizenship that I’m soon to lose?

We Brits are European, geographically and culturally, whether we want to be or not. Some of us may be Bangladeshi-European, or Kenyan-European, or Canadian-European, but if you live in Europe you are part of what defines Europe. That’s what the new wave of European identitarians, like Salvini here in Italy, do and do not understand: they know that it’s the people that define the place, and that a mix of races is slowly and wonderfully redefining Europe as a multicultural continent. They know that all too well, and they fear it. But what they don’t understand is that their last chance for a white Europe was nearly a century ago. And they lost. All they can bring now is division and chaos, along with (intentionally or not) golden opportunities for disaster capitalists and free-market ideologues.

As for the UK, leaving the EU will not change our Europeaness: leaving is simply an act of self-deception. Likewise, the EU’s faults are only reflections of our own European faults. The EU may be too protective against non-European migrants, but that’s because our culture is. The EU may be too wedded to neoliberalism, but that’s because our culture is. In fact, if you look at the Brexit agenda, post-EU Britain is set to become even more racist, and even more tooth-and-nail capitalist than it is now. We’re not going to change those things by walking away; we might be able to change them through solidarity and co-operation.

I’m so sick of all the criticisms made in bad faith: that the EU is less democratic than our own calcified democracy, that the EU is more corrupt than our own stinking system, that the EU is more arrogant than our own pompous political elite. We’re blaming this amazing, flawed, messy optimistic experiment in partnership and peace for our own shortcomings when we could be using it as a first step towards more democracy, more international solidarity and co-operation, and a more equal society. It’s all so stupid. We, the people, have nothing to gain by leaving and so much to lose.

And tonight I specifically mourn for the loss of citizenship because the next time I’m here, short of a miracle, I’ll be a foreigner. I know my loss is nothing compared to what non-British EU citizens living in the UK have to deal with, or those devastated by job losses as firms flee the country, but still I feel a strong sense of injustice. What have I and others like me, who have a simple, honest sense of belonging in Europe, done to have so many rights, freedoms and protections taken away like this?

Actually, I think I know the answer. The elites who stand to gain from escaping EU regulation (which is what, in truth, Brexit was always about, until it was hijacked by its own nationalist propaganda) not only whipped up xenophobia to help their cause, but also fostered a kind of trumped-up class antagonism, underpinned by Gove’s infamous dismissal of expertise. The heart of this resentment is the demonisation of the ‘metropolitan elite’, a phrase that, especially when paired with that other phantom of the far-right imagination, multiculturalism, seems to echo the antisemitic trope of the ‘cosmopolitan elite’.

I’m clearly one of those monsters. Oxbridge-educated, middle class and Guardian-reading, I even – gasp – bothered to read as much as I could of what those terrible fear-mongering experts wrote about Brexit. I’m one of the bogeymen that Farage literally incited people to hate. But my mum’s family were all migrants and my dad grew up in poverty. They gave me a middle-class upbringing and I managed to go from a comprehensive school to Oxford. Are these not positive achievements? I’m not asking for sympathy; at least not for me personally. Brexit will create some added hassle for my work and travel but others will suffer far more. I am also fully, indeed painfully, aware of my privilege. My point is that we are not the bad guys in this story. We’re all doing the same really: using our wits to improve our lives and make the most of opportunities that come along, while trying not to harm anyone else, and maybe make things a little better for other people. Except that in the fantasy land created by the propagandists of Brexit, we are the bad guys, and I thoroughly deserve any future impediments to my shockingly cosmopolitan, elitist lifestyle.

Well, if that’s what you think, listen up. My family escaped poverty in England on the one hand and pogroms in Eastern Europe on the other: now we have a decent life. That’s progress. An alliance of European countries, after so many centuries of war and injustice, not only symbolizes that progress but helps guarantee it. Beyond that, the EU is as good or as bad as we make it. But that progress is part of my inheritance, and yours if you’re any kind of European. It’s certainly part of my sense of self. So that’s why I am here, at the kitchen table with my tea, watching the lights of the village across the meadow, and simply being a citizen here while I can.



[Corrected for typos etc 10/02/19 and 11/03/18]

54 thoughts on “On the Loss of Citizenship

      1. I agree – outstanding! (And utterly heartbreaking. We share your predicament and your grief.)

  1. Thank you, this expresses so well for so many of us who are feeling the imminent loss of what has been a great part of our life

  2. Thank you for this! You really summed up how I feel about the loss of my EU citizenship. I live in Germany but I’m from the UK, I’m painfully aware of my privilege having been able to study for an Erasmus masters and enjoy the benefits that EU membership offers. It’s also all I’ve ever known, i was born in 1991 so being a European is such an integral part of my identity. I’m grieving for my loss of rights but more than that for my loss of citizenship which has allowed me to have the life I have and more than that helped me to feel at home all across the continent.

    1. Thanks. I’m so pleased the article resonates for you, although of course I also wish we weren’t having to deal with this absurdity. I just hope that we can continue to feel at home across the continent, and that those of us who feel like citizens can try to rebuild all the connections that are being broken.

    1. Thank you. I partly wrote it in the hope that some of my Leave-voting friends would read it. But I doubt it… it feels as though they’ve retreated to their Brexit castle and pulled up the drawbridge.

  3. Thank you for expressing so beautifully, what I too feel about the futility of the severing of our futures from the peaceful, co-operative and common identity with our near neighbours, in favour of a mindless rush towards a chaotic, retrogressive, xenophobic abyss!

  4. Yup. Perfectly put. From another UK in EU person feeling cut off and confused in the chaos we seem to be creating around ourselves. I work in Berlin and am beyond embarrassed about the view of UK as seen from here.

  5. An over privalidged view of Europe and an assumed connection that doesn’t exist for so many people. I don’t see this as articulate…just a well written whinge. The vote exposed a truth and remainers just want to sweep it under the carpet and reverse a democratic vote just because they lost….now that’s absurd. Don’t belittle those who voted leave, it just gets people’s backs up. There are lots of stupid reason why people voted leave but equally there are those who voted remain for no better reason. Using words like xenophobic and racist to describe good people who don’t share your views is just pathetic name calling. Shame on you and shame on anyone who uses inflamatory nonsense. To say we need a people’s vote is utterly ridiculous…that would make us look weak and create more uncertainty. I await your nasty name calling…..it’s what you are good at.

    1. The vote did not ‘expose a truth’ it was very close, and only so close because if cheating and lying on the leave side enabled by a dishonest press. Ignoring that though, the leave message was hopelessly confused about what was being left just the EU? The customs union? The single market? Just the ECJ? And that means the only just and democratic thing to do is to have a third referendum on membership and all the options before us.

  6. Nice read. We lost the vote and what will be will be. We can not go back. Your just moaning. The solution is simple. Move into back into the EU.

    1. Thanks, but I’m not leaving my own country.

      What’s your problem with freedom of speech and difference of opinion? They’re an essential part of a healthy democracy. And, as it happens, so is being able to change one’s mind when new facts emerge.

  7. Your words about the EU being an ” amazing, flawed, messy experiment in partnership and peace” touched me and made me even sadder than I am now. We’ve lived full time inn Andalucia for 17 years now , and have a very uncertain future.

  8. Thanks for this well-written piece. We’re on the other end of the stick – with an EU kid who studied in and fell in love with the UK. She’s been living and working there now, all her friends are there, and it would be heartbreaking for her to have to leave. She warned us on the eve of the 2016 vote result that she thought it was going to be a Leave victory – so many of her friends’ parents were voting Leave, and not many of her college-age friends had taken the referendum seriously enough to vote at all. When she told Leave voters that they were voting for her to have to leave as well, she always got the response, “Oh, we don’t mean YOU! People like you will get to stay.” One set of parents later told me they’d voted Leave because “Obama went on TV and said we shouldn’t, and who is he to tell us what to do.” Great. They deeply regret voting Leave, but it’s done.

    The response above by ‘nigel’ sums up so much of this: “Don’t belittle those who voted leave, it just gets peoples’ backs up.” Because for most voters, this was all about misplaced pride and the sense that the EU is somehow acting superior. I’ve had Leave voters tell me how they thwarted Merkel’s plans to take over the UK – when I told them Germany was no longer fighting WWII and that the UK had actually been on the winning side, it was always this sense of inferiority and being belittled that came up, again and again. Very strange. Of course, for the architects of this debacle, it’s really just about the money. As for the rest, sorry – the belittling is all in your own heads, and until you get over it, we will all be paying the price.

    1. Thank you.

      So sad. I really hope she finds a way to stay. Citizens from other EU countries are part of the fabric of the UK now (and on a personal level, are many of my friends of colleagues). It’ll be devastating to lose them: culturally as well economically. And of course personally.

      That ‘not people like you’ response really exposes the stupidity – or at least a choice not to think – at the heart of most casual racism. It’s so frustrating.

      And yes, I couldn’t agree more with what you say about the psychology behind Leave-voting…

  9. This us a beautiful and thoughtful piece. It captures how I feel too. I first came to Switzerland in 1994 during the first round of anti-EU feeling, a chance came and I thought — why not go and work on the continent? Find out what it is actually like instead of listening to journalists who never get out of their Fleet Street pubs.

    And I found a wonderful, civilized, place to live, and stayed.

  10. Spare a thought for the families like mine – my wife is Italian, I am British. We currently live in the UK. For the last 35 years the difference has been irrelevant to our everyday life. Our children have dual nationality but neither of us bothered to apply for British or Italian citizenship because it didn’t seem to matter, was a bit of a hassle, and in the case of British citizenship, outrageously expensive. Our kids are safely established as Italian citizens in Germany, but their British friends and colleagues are not so fortunate. We too have heard “We don’t mean YOU” from Leave voters – not to mention equally offensive and completely irrelevant comments about Muslims/black people. Meanwhile, we and many of our friends have no clear idea of our future status in this country.

  11. Brilliant article, well done! I am an EU citizen and have lived in the UK for over 40 years. I arrived as a child and am now retired after teaching in British state schools for 36 years. I love the UK, just as I love the other European countries I have lived in: the Netherlands, Belgium and France. I hope that the future for us all will be brighter than it appears at the moment. Meanwhile, we have to stay strong and positive, and believe in the human kindness displayed by others, like you, who feel we are stronger together and will continue to believe in international cooperation and understanding. More power to your elbow!

  12. I’m not convinced your self-pity is justified. After Britain leaves the UK you’ll still be as much a European as you currently are and there will be nothing to prevent you travelling to and enjoying European countries.

    The EU is an anti-democratic political construct imposed on the nation states of Europe – nothing more. The “alliance” you hang your argument on is nothing other than a collusion between Europe’s political elites – with the sole purpose of stripping power from the ballot boxes of each country and handing it to an unelected clique in Brussels. You may romanticise the benefits to yourself of this theft, but the populations of Europe are rejecting it in ever-increasing numbers and voting to reinstate democratically chosen and accountable governments as their only legislators. Yes, many of these voters are aware there will likely be some drawbacks at this stage in resetting Europe’s political map… but they recognise the gains from doing so are infinitely preferable to the powerlessness which the EU elite – with each new treaty – intends for them.

    Are the world’s national democracies perfect? Of course not… each is a work in progress towards fairer and more accountable systems of government – a goal which is patently at the opposite end of the spectrum to the one which drives the EU. Is an alliance of European nations desirable?.. absolutely – on condition that each nation state retains and cherishes its mechanisms for self governance in building mutual partnerships with its neighbours. It’s a pity this ideal so frustrates your own wishes… but then, the very essence of democracy is surrendering to the will of the majority – a position which so clearly troubles you.

    1. I’m not at all convinced by your arguments, but I appreciate the fact you’ve bothered to write a reasoned response, whereas most responses I’ve had online from those who disagree with me have been, shall we politely say, not very pleasant. So thanks. And it’s good to have an alternative view among all the comments here. Even if I think you’re wrong!

      One thing I can’t just let pass, however, is the pretty wild accusation that I am not prepared to accept the will of the majority. If you can prove to me that the majority of voters in the UK are united behind one, clear plan for our future in Europe, and that the 2016 referendum was free from cheating or disinformation, I will fully accept that we must leave. In the meantime, as a passionate democrat, and in what seems to me to be a context of great political uncertainty, I will continue to make the case for what I think is best for our country.

      1. as chuchill said “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.
        we will still be european this is a matter of geography so you will be a citizen of Europe. The EU is a political experiment which you are entitled to join on an indidual basis if democracy doesnt suit you.

      2. lol sorry i forgot the bit about one clear vision etc even you know thats bs. In any election whether you vote green lab con or lib each person has an individual idea of the path forward. tell me labour are united , conference voting for a second referendum mPs vote against etc etc. Every election has been won with spin, lies deceit etc( look at Blair the consumate sophist) you would never be satisfied with any result as none wouldnt and couldnt meet your criteria

      3. So how would I join the EU on an individual basis?

        And how would that replace the huge political influence (and everything else) we lose by leaving as a country?

        And how is being European by geography the same as citizenship? Not everyone living on the island of Britain has British citizenship.

        As for a clear vision, with a normal election you’re voting for representatives to decide on your behalf. Of course many of them are terrible at their jobs and elections are riddled with spin and deceit. I agree. It’s a problem. But it’s a different problem. A referendum is a decision on a single issue and so should be clear. If it isn’t, you end up with the current omnishambles. So many pro-Brexit politicians claim to know what the will of the people is when they blatantly don’t. Setting aside legal issues for now, does a vote to leave really give a mandate for everything from crashing out without a deal to staying in the single market and the customs union? It’s nuts. You can’t ‘just leave’ as some childishly demand we do; it’s really not that simple. We have to grow up and decide exactly what relationship we want with out powerful neighbour.

        That’s why a second vote could be great, not just to see if people still want to leave, but also, if they do, to find out how exactly they want to achieve it. That would seem to me to be an example of healthy democracy.

        If think perhaps it’s you that democracy doesn’t suit! Cos if you think that you have a monopoly on democracy then you don’t really understand what it is.

  13. Thank you for taking the time to write such a good, articulate post. My UK friends share your opinion. By the way I found your post because the integral translation into Italian was read at Radio popolare by Marina Petrillo in her excellent ”Hong Kong Bar”, where every Saturday she quotes far-reaching articles from the international press. Your Italian friends can hear it here: https://pod.radiopopolare.it/hongkongbar_1_23_02_2019.mp3

  14. Thank you for this. It strikes many sad chords with me.

    I have grown up feeling part of Europe, identifying as European as well as feeling privileged to be English, and I feel a terrible sense of loss. Our identity feels uncertain. In addition, my daughter is studying in Germany,has lived in Spain, and is in a loving relationship with an Italian man. Her future is in jeopardy, socially, educationally and in the world of work her opportunities is diminished. I am so sad for us all. It feels like a state of grieving. I hope we can find some peace together, both at home and in the wider world, and that we do not lose all that was so good and generous about being together.

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