Last week, I packed my books, my clothes and my teapot, boarded the Eurostar, and left the UK. It wasn’t technically difficult, but mentally it was, because I doubt I will ever move back.
My impending departure was met with disbelief among my friends and relatives. For years before I moved here from France, London had been the ultimate goal: a lot of work went into mastering the basics of British life and politics, sounding British and ensuring my CV would be acceptable in the UK. When we discussed our futures at university, a friend once told me: “You will be in London anyway”.
The two and a half years since the EU referendum have felt like exile by a thousand pushes. On 24 June 2016, EU citizens living in the UK lost the ease of invisibility, of not standing out in the crowd. Suddenly, there was a seemingly never ending number of tiny worries – what if people on the bus hear my accent and say something, what if I get questioned at customs – that separated “us” from the rest. Newspaper headlines, talk of “bargaining chips”, and general uncertainty around the legal status of European nationals after March 2019: as badly as I had wanted to fit in, I became part of a group that was undeniably “other”.
Many EU citizens have already experienced Brexit-related incidents that shouldn’t have happened – there are job ads that demand a British passport now, and landlords less likely to rent to Europeans. The UK hasn’t left the EU yet, but the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit deal has been just as trying (and, frankly, hurtful) for EU citizens.
I still love London and the UK. I did not want to leave. But what I thought would be, at least, a starting point – the referendum result leading to a public debate on the EU and the UK’s future relationship – turned into a competition over who would laugh it all off the loudest while saying absolutely nothing of substance. It took more than 500 days for the British government to guarantee some kind of rights to EU citizen. Europeans started leaving in droves while fewer are coming in.
With every day that brought a lack of progress, whether regarding EU citizens’ rights or, you know, the possibility of not crashing out of the European Union, I got angrier. I felt gaslit and bullied by the country I had chosen to live in. And so I had to leave.
Today’s UK is no longer the country I worked so hard to move to. It’s more divided by the day, and 29 March 2019 will not magically mend the country’s profound political anxieties. And I wonder: Who would want to remain in – let alone move to – a country engulfed in a political crisis so deep it has no end, or solution, in sight? A Western, developed country that spent the summer discussing whether stockpiling food was necessary, to the point that its government declared that “there would be no need for the army to be involved”? How did it come to this moment, when the unbelievably complex technicalities of Brexit, including unresolvable questions like the Irish border, are only discussed when time has almost run out?
I didn’t leave because I had to. I still have the right to live in the UK. I left because I’d had enough – of the Brexiteers’ total ignorance and rancid rivalities, of the jolly spirit in which one assumes all will be right while the UK is led to the brink of collapse, and of being called an “EU citizen” like it’s some kind of insult. It’s not. See you when you remember that, Britain.