Brexit: Feeling ashamed for my country

Die Tageszeitung 

Our British author became German after Brexit. But he can’t shake off what’s happening back home

I feel like I’ve been on a long emotional journey since 24 June last year.

I woke early on that morning after the Brexit vote. Coffee, internet, television in my Berlin living room. Within minutes in was clear that what I had thought impossible had happened. And that I was on the losing side.

To be honest, for me and the friends I’d invited over for what we’d hoped would be a victory breakfast party, the Brexit decision seemed to have an obvious explanation: misinformed people –very different from ourselves - had voted for isolation.

In the days that followed, I felt alienated from a country I no longer understood. I was shocked as reports mounted of racist insults and attacks against foreigners. I supported the petition calling for a second vote. But I was despondent that it would make no difference. The deed had been done.

So I looked for something more positive to focus on.

Fast forward to 8 January, a Sunday evening, and another party in my living room. This time there was a victory, of sorts, to celebrate – me becoming German. Three days after I’d picked up my citizenship certificate at Schoeneberg town hall, friends had brought me Spreewaldgurken and Nurenberger Wurste to mark by Germanness. We played German music, drank German beer and laughed at the types of questions I’d answered in the citizenship test.

The victory was partly about completing the citizenship process within six months and relatively painlessly. The only real problem was a form I was asked to complete about the background of my wife, who is German. Give details of her parents, and grandparents! “Did her father’s father fight in the Wehrmacht?” it asked. He did, but what difference did it make? Would she, or I be less German if he hadn’t fought? We emailed Schoeneberg town hall to complain. The response: the grandfather’s Wehrmacht service “was proof” of my wife’s German nationality. I wonder: why isn’t her birth certificate sufficient?

The victory was also a personal one. Having lived in Germany, with a few breaks since 1992, it took something as major as Brexit to push me to acknowledge, through citizenship, that this country is also my home. My post-Brexit blues made me want to embrace – even celebrate! – my Germanness.

I’m hardly alone. Of my five closest British friends in Berlin, four have applied for German citizenship prompted by Brexit and two already have it. The owner of the English shop in Kreuzberg has posted tips on becoming German near the sales counter. She says nearly all her British customers are applying.

The question I’m asked most frequently about getting German citizenship is whether I’m also still British. The answer is yes, and while the first part of my Brexit journey since June was, in a way, escaping Britain to Germany, now that I’ve the security of being German, I feel drawn back to my original home.  

This starts again with personal things. My family is made up of Europeans with deep ties to Britain: My wife and I fell in love there and our kids have six cousins, six aunts and uncles and a grandfather in England. Yet while our grown-up son has German and UK citizenship, my wife and daughter are ‘just’ German.

Will my daughter be able to go to university in the UK like her brother did? Will my wife and I be able to buy the retirement holiday home in Cornwall we dream about?

The energy Brexit released in me to become German also powered me to start applying for UK citizenship for my daughter. More evenings and weekends with application forms, photos and official translations of her documents.

The feeling of uncertainty around my family’s future in Britain gives me a window into the much deeper sense of insecurity Europeans living in UK are experiencing.  We know many: former colleagues at the Financial Times, academic friends of my wife, the Polish handyman who did home repairs when we lived in London a few years ago.

Prime minister Theresa May has refused to guarantee the residence and rights of such Europeans.

This feels so wrong, to disrupt the lives of millions for the sake of a political chess game. It’s also, evidently, bad for the country. Britain’s beloved National Health Service, which is heavily dependent on skilled EU workers, is already alarmed. Fewer European doctors and nurses are applying for vacancies, and more are leaving the country, unable to live with the uncertainly around Brexit.

British farmers are worried too. Fruit and vegetables will simply “rot in the fields”, they say, unless the government quickly give some job security to hundreds of thousands of EU farm workers who come to Britain every year.

Does anyone recall that pro-Brexit campaigners promised more money and a bright future for the NHS, and that farming areas of England were among the strongest to back Brexit?

Shouting “I told you so” from London Bridge is very tempting, but hardly helps Britain’s uncertain Europeans, so I ring one of them, to understand it from the inside.

“Wolfgang” (he asked me not to use his real name) is a German friend who has lived in London for over a decade. His wife is also European, and they have several children, all London-born “and all really normal British kids”.

“Brexit was a huge emotional hit” says Wolfgang. I’m surprised by how strongly he feels, as I know Wolfgang as a quiet intellectual. He says many Europeans, himself included, have a “real feeling of rejection”.  He says he felt really rooted in Britain, especially through his kids. But the dramatic change of mood – the constant headlines about too many Europeans – is “like a slap in the face”.

He wants at this stage to stay in the UK, but has no immediate plans to join some of his European friends who are going through the stress of trying to gain permanent residency. This involves completing an 85-page questionnaire, providing evidence of time spent in UK dating back many years, and months of waiting.

He has not faced direct abuse, but he’s worried about the increase in racist attacks. Before we end, he exclaims that British people simply don’t understand that they are wounding their European friends and neighbours in this way. I tell him I feel ashamed for my country. It also feels so strange, I say, that it was relatively easy for me to become German, while Europeans in Britain - with comparable experience to mine in Germany - are being so badly treated. 

Nine months on from Brexit, I see my country turning in on itself and turning away from foreigner communities that have made the country stronger. I see the country facing huge challenges in the Brexit negotiations but with no clear roadmap for resolving them. 

Yet compared with my reaction at our victory-breakfast-turned-wake, I now feel less hostility towards those who set us on this path.

One reason may be that Brexit isn’t everything: the terror attack on Westminster on March 22 is a reminder of that. We face many problems that demand political solutions that cut across the Brexit divide. 

Sadly, the Labour Party, which I’ve always supported, seems further than ever from offering such solutions. My 83-year old father, who has been a member of the party for over 55 years, including as an elected Labour politician, tells me the vicious political infighting at a recent Labour Party meeting he attended means he’s vowed to never attend such a meeting again.

Another reason is that the political landscape is clearer now than it was in June. The nativism and populism that led to Brexit and swept Trump to power has established itself as a damaging political force in Europe. We understand better the need to address the reasons why people are drawn to populism’s simplistic solutions, even if finding the right strategies is a huge struggle. 

Tens of thousands of people marched through London’s streets last weekend to make the case for Britain in the EU. I was with them in spirit. One of the speakers said: “Britain can be better than this”. At this latest milestone on my Brexit journey, that’s how I feel. It can – it should! - be better for Brits and for everyone who lives there. 

This original version was edited slightly as published in German