Eight months ago, on 9 October 2018, I called it quits with the UK. I had moved to London almost three years earlier, in January 2016, a time now best described as pre-referendum bliss. I had lived through the most divisive political campaign in modern British history and the chaos that ensued, including a messy leadership contest, an even messier snap election, three Brexit secretaries, and countless contradictory declarations about whether European citizens, myself included, would be granted the right to stay after the UK exited the EU.
As a journalist, following the daily political grind and attempting to make sense of the enormity of Brexit was endlessly fascinating. As an EU national, it was one of the most uncertain and therefore stressful periods of my life. Three years is a very long time to wait when everything about your life – your rights to live and work, as well as your ability to travel abroad freely or to get a loan, a lease, a new job – is no longer guaranteed, and within a timeframe you can’t control.
And it wasn’t just me: on 24 June 2016, around 3.7 million people woke up in a similarly nightmarish situation. Thousands of EU citizens have since left the UK, but not everyone can escape Brexit as easily as I did: many EU citizens have non-transferable jobs, kids at school, a spouse who doesn’t speak another European language, a business or a house to sell, and can’t immediately pack up and go.
When Boris Johnson enters 10 Downing Street as the new British prime minister tomorrow, most EU citizens will watch with apprehension. Had I stayed in the UK, I would be overcome with stress: Johnson’s premiership threatens the little certainty EU citizens have managed to retain over the last three years. He openly boasts about leading the country towards a no-deal Brexit. For EU citizens, no deal means no legal guarantee that their rights, currently protected under the “settled status” programme that was negotiated as part of Theresa May’s doomed deal, will be respected.
When I boarded the Eurostar for Brussels last year, 29 March 2019 was set in stone as the date Brexit would be delivered. Since I left, a deal with the EU has been struck and subsequently buried three times; new deadlines have been set – 12 April, then 31 October; May has resigned, and the six-months extension, precious time that the EU Council president Donald Tusk had begged the UK “not to waste”, has been wasted fighting over who gets to be new Tory leader. As Johnson takes office, the only certainty EU citizens can hold onto is how uncertain their future is.
During his leadership campaign, Boris Johnson sought to reassure EU citizens in the UK, saying: “I think what we should do is take the provisions on citizenship, take the offer that we make to the 3.2 million EU citizens in our country [in May’s Brexit deal], and pass it through parliament”.
In effect, this would codify the settled status programme in UK law. It would not, however, confront the worries of EU citizens. Incidences of discrimination against EU citizens, with or without settled status, are already soaring in the country. A no-deal Brexit, which Johnson hasn’t ruled out, would make those who don’t yet have settled status (and they are many) outright illegal, and complicate travel for those who do.
Crucially, Boris Johnson is not known for honouring his word, nor is he known for the accuracy with which he discusses EU rules, as the recent kipper story illustrated. Nor is he especially polite with fellow Europeans (he has described the French as “turds”, for instance).
When I left, I chose Brussels as a new home, because it made sense professionally – I could keep following the Brexit negotiations – and personally (I am French, and Belgium is close to home). Brussels was the most symbolically Remain destination I could find – a fitting revenge on the Britain I stormed out of.
But when people ask why I left, it’s not the destination I cite but simply the need to live somewhere where I can retain my rights. Settling in a place where I knew I would be de facto and permanently considered a legal citizen was immensely soothing. Since then, I have befriended Brits who live in the EU, a reverse nightmare situation I understand only too well. British in the EU or European in the UK, the toll on one’s mental health is much the same.
The EU now estimates that Johnson’s promise to deliver Brexit on 31 October, “do or die”, has an 80 per cent chance of leading to no deal (they don’t care much for his blackmail, either). Not all Europeans can leave the UK before this happens – or when it gets worse. I feel very lucky to have done so when I did. When speaking about my decision to move to Brussels, I don’t say I left the UK – I say that I escaped.