Brexit, blue passports and the declining value of Britishness


I moved to Paris in 2002 with a very British sense of entitlement. Like most British migrants through the ages, I didn’t think of myself as a migrant. I took it for granted that I could move wherever I wanted.

But after Brexit happens on January 31, I’ll cease to be European. My long journey sorting out my legal status has shown me the declining value of Britishness.

There are 784,900 Britons living in the EU (excluding Ireland), according to the government’s figures. But the real number “could be 1 million to 2.2 million”, says Michaela Benson, a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Many of these people (like me) never bothered to register with their host countries’ authorities — an EU passport was enough. The estimate also omits dual nationals, snowbirds and those living abroad for under a year, such as exchange students and contract workers.

Most Britons in Europe aren’t sunburnt pensioners drinking in pubs on the Costa del Sol. That cohort dominates media reports only because it’s the easiest one to find. “British citizens in the EU27 are one of the success stories of European integration,” says Benson. “They work in local labour markets, have binational relationships and dual-national children.”

Many have, in effect, become invisible Britons. We were locals and Europeans, until Brexit happened.

Contrary to Brexiter promises, Brexit has engulfed our lives in red tape. That was part of the point. Populism is less about improving things than about punishing “elites” and immigrants. Britons working in Europe get lumped into both categories.

Along with the red tape has come uncertainty. Especially while a no-deal Brexit threatened, I didn’t know whether I could keep living in my flat with my French-nationality wife and kids. So I set about becoming French.

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I never saw this as an agonising issue of identity. For nativists, identity is binary: you’re either us or them. I’m with the philosopher Amartya Sen, who says we all have multiple identities.

I’m British, Parisian, a Londoner, a notorious cosmopolitan, Ugandan-born, a Dutch football fan, etc. I would be honoured to add French, especially as (according to Kälin and Kochenov’s Quality of Nationality Index) it’s the world’s most valuable passport.

But to satisfy France’s fetish for paperwork, I’ve had to collect endless documents documenting my life. One day, I went to the Ugandan embassy in Paris to get my birth certificate stamped.

“Brexit, right?” asked the diplomat at reception.

“Sorry?” I said.

“Since Brexit, this place has been full of Britons born in Uganda trying to become French.”

It took me about three years of my spare time, but I finally submitted my dossier for citizenship. Then, while waiting to attain Frenchness (the secular equivalent of the Buddhist state of bodhi, or “enlightenment”), I went to Paris’s prefecture of police to request a residence permit.

The prefecture towers metaphorically over the city like Kafka’s castle. The wing for foreigners has various rooms depending on your country’s status: a long queue for people from the former Yugoslavia and other disrespected places; an entire room marked “Algerian students”; and the one where Britons are being sent, “Asia-Oceania”.

Asia-Oceania is high status: the room was almost empty. Seconds after I walked in, my number was called and a bureaucrat began performing the French bureaucratic ritual of tut-tutting over my documents.

I was missing some key ones, mostly because the prefecture, cunningly, hadn’t put them on its list. But she consulted her boss, then instantly granted me a five-year permit. Because I hadn’t brought my wife’s passport, I’ll be officially classed as single — or, in the deflating French word, célibataire.

My case was easy: I’m an employed white man, who, like all Britons living in the EU before Brexit, is guaranteed continued residence by the Withdrawal Agreement. As long as I live in France, I’ll be a relic of the era when British passports were golden rather than merely blue.

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The problem is for Britons wanting to move after Brexit. Boris Johnson complains that EU citizens “treat the UK as though it’s part of their own country”. He’ll presumably curtail their rights, and European countries will retaliate.

Future Britons might not be allowed to move to Europe, let alone with guaranteed healthcare, portable pensions and recognition of their qualifications. Some might have to immigrate illegally. British students risk being excluded from Europe’s Erasmus scheme.

Moving inside the Commonwealth will be tricky too: Australia’s trade minister Simon Birmingham says he “can’t imagine” negotiations with the UK about “unfettered free movement”. Australia isn’t keen on low-skilled Brits.

Today’s young Britons, who are overwhelmingly Europhile and globally minded, won’t have the luxury of taking migration for granted. They won’t have our life choices — unless they are rich. Benson predicts that Britons with jobs and healthy bank accounts will find themselves well-equipped to keep moving internationally.

Johnson himself (raised in Brussels, adventured in Australia), his adviser Dominic Cummings (created a failed airline in Russia), the Brexiters Iain Duncan Smith (studied in Perugia) and Nigel Farage (two of whose children are German citizens) know what a privilege that is.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon or email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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