What’s it worth to have made another country your own? As Brexit looms, this is the question facing three million EU citizens living and working in Britain. What does it take before you can officially be counted as a person who belongs? Right now, there’s no answer to this conundrum as the UK government made it very clear in the run-up to Article 50: there are no guarantees for the future of Europeans in this country.
That includes Norwegians. While Norway is not a member of the European Union – and therefore can only indirectly influence Brexit negotiations – its citizens in the UK benefit from free movement rules, because Norway is part of the European Economic Area. And there is an extra complication – Norway doesn’t allow its people to take dual citizenship.
Hilde Grønsberg (36) came to England when she was 20 years old and has lived her whole adult life here. She has a British education, a British career, a British husband, and two British-born children – and Norwegian citizenship. Until Brexit, Grønsberg never thought much about her immigrant status. “People would ask me if I wanted to get an English passport and I’d say, why? There’s nothing my Norwegian passport can’t do. I’ve never felt the need to become a British citizen.”
Grønsberg, who lives in Southampton and works in charity, feels overwhelmed by what’s happening. She believes she’d qualify for a UK residency permit, but says she won’t be starting the bureaucratic process unless she’s told she faces deportation: “I don’t think it’s going to come to that. But maybe I’m being overly optimistic?” While the thought of having her life uprooted is frightening, Grønsberg can’t quite picture it happening – England is home. “I’ve started to get a bit rusty when I speak Norwegian. I struggle with the words. It does something to you, living so many years in another country.”
Oddi Aasheim (48), who came to London 29 years ago, has just watched his Hong Kong Chinese-born wife go through the process of becoming British. Aasheim, who’s a co-founder of a consultancy, has two UK-born children who’re Norwegians: “Staying Norwegian always seemed to be the best option, until Brexit.” The uncertainty of the current situation weighs heavily on Aasheim, both personally and professionally. “In the long term I’m not worried, as I believe things will fall into place. But I expect we will go into a period of chaos,” says Aasheim. “Even if they figure it out, it will probably be six months to a year before any paperwork is processed.”
Agnes Bamford (47) was never concerned about her immigrant status before. “I’m worried now. I’m starting a mortgage application, and I just read that some EU citizens aren’t getting approved for mortgages. I feel a bit stateless at the moment.” Bamford, who’s a self-employed consultant, left Norway 22 years ago to join her Irish boyfriend in London. Bamford is now considering applying for permanent residency to ensure the family can stay in Britain, at least until her UK-born kids finish school.
Ideally, Bamford would like to apply for British citizenship, but that would mean relinquishing her Norwegian passport – a tough ask. Similarly to Austria, Norway has strict rules against acquiring a second citizenship, with few exceptions. But this may change: the question of dual citizenship is on the political agenda, says Donna Louise Fox, founder of Ja til Dobbelt Statsborgerskap (Yes to Dual Citizenship), an independent pressure group. A report from Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security is expected after Easter, and the political parties will be determining their positions during the party conference season this spring. “There’s absolutely a possibility there’ll be a majority for dual citizenship in the next parliament,” Fox says in Norwegian. “It’s still uncertain,” she cautions, but dual citizenship for Norwegians could become possible from 2018.
Every year, Norway provides the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree as a thank you for Britain’s support during World War II. For several people I spoke to, this so-called special relationship represents hope that an agreement will be reached. But equally likely is that Norway, as a non-EU country, will be at the back of the negotiation queue.
Jane Nilsen (70) witnessed just how difficult it was for Europeans to gain the right to stay in Britain before the EU. “I married a Norwegian back in 1973. We were working on the car ferries in Southampton at the time.” Then her husband lost his job, and with that, his right to stay. Nilsen had to rush back to work after the birth of her youngest daughter, and her husband was eventually granted the right to stay in Britain: “You’d have thought it’d be automatic [as we were married], but he had to jump through all those hoops.”
Until Brexit negotiations are concluded, the is no way to predict the rules for EU and EEA citizens in Britain. Hanne Christiansen, Culture and Communications Officer at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in London, recommends people start collecting documentation such as utility bills and bank statements in anticipation of future paperwork. “Norwegian citizens living in the UK may [already now] want to apply for an EU registration certificate, which confirms your right to live in the UK,” says Christiansen. The Embassy receives many questions from people who are concerned about their future, says Christiansen, but she has little to offer in terms of reassurance: “[We] recommend that Norwegian citizens follow news from the British government on the negotiation process.”
Every Norwegian I spoke to expressed hope that rationality will win out – a Scandinavian attitude if there ever was one – and no one could bring themselves to truly believe they would be forced to leave Britain. Anita Holme Pearce (40) moved from Norway to Kirkby Fleetham in Yorkshire four years ago, after a decade’s long-distance-relationship with her British husband: ”That was the main reason I moved, so we could be together as a family.” Holme Pearce is currently a student, but like many Europeans she was unaware of obscure rules requiring non-citizens who’re not earning to have private health insurance in order to qualify for residency. Still, Holme Pearce isn’t worried: “I own property here that I’ve paid for, I’m married to an Englishman, our boys have British passports. I can’t see that they will kick me out.”
Bamford, on the other hand, says the situation has made her question if she really wants to live in Britain: “I don’t feel as welcome anymore.” Brexit has also been a wake-up call to the fact that immigrants from Western Europe have had a very easy time in Britain until now: “I do feel more empathetic towards all those people who haven’t had the same rights, and what they have to face,” says Bamford. “It makes you realise how vulnerable [most immigrants] feel.”
The uncertainty over Brexit won’t go away anytime soon, meaning Norwegians and other Europeans in Britain will have to live with this frustration for years. Some are angry, but the prevailing feeling is sadness over the realisation that the country where they’ve built their lives (and paid tax) may not care whether they stay or go. The poor political planning around Brexit exacerbates this feeling, says Grønsberg: “I don’t think they have any idea what they’re doing.” No one is disputing that this country belongs to the British, but the three million Europeans who’ve made it their home can’t help but feel that they deserve better than being left in limbo.