The UK is confronted with confusing times at the moment. The political direction, opinions of millions of people in the country and the economic consequences of Brexit have thrown us into a void that is filled with protests, disorientation and frustration.
But when I say ‘us’ I actually mean ‘you’. Considering I am only staying in London for a few weeks, the ‘us’ is only temporary, but I do feel the changes in the atmosphere here and I, as a young person born and living in Germany, have some thoughts on Brexit.
When the Brexit referendum took place back in 2016, I first had to look up what it meant. While doing so I was confronted with a massive barricade of information, debates, fear and overall chaos. What does it all mean? Why is it happening? How will it affect us? — were just some of the question that came to mind when being confronted with this barricade. It was like someone had dumped a lot of trouble over me all at once; as if someone had entangled me in an argument that wasn’t mine. And as a matter of fact, not only I felt that way.
After it became apparent that the UK would actually leave the EU, my parents and I realized that Brexit would take place exactly when I would be staying in London. ‘What if they don’t let you come back to Germany? or ‘What if they don’t let you enter the country in the first place?’, we joked. But behind all the banter was actual concern: What will change for me, as a German, coming to the UK?
With my precautionary passport in my bag, I travelled to London. At the airport I encountered two signs: ‘UK and EU citizens’ and ‘Non-EU citizens’ they said. I asked myself if they would need to be changed after Brexit takes effect. I think nobody had an answer. This example might seem negligible, but it is the sum of minor problems that make up the whole lot of confusion that was dumped on us, Europeans. An infinite amount of questions, with only some answered.
When I was a little girl, Britain always fascinated me. I loved London and the south of England, the language, the people. I had a great-uncle who was a British officer in the Rhine army and stayed in Germany after the war. He brought his Britishness with him and soon my family saw themselves adapting his British humour and requesting plum pudding at Christmas. So when I expressed my wish to possibly live and work in Britain in the future, my parents always encouraged this idea. ‘You certainly can’, they said, pointing at the freedom to stay and be employed wherever I want inside the European Union. I admired the British culture and especially the Brits’ ability to combine their values and tradition with the modern and globalized spirit of the EU. Nonetheless, I also saw the differences between Britain and my own EU country. I experienced border control when entering the UK and I had to change my money due to the currency difference. I was of course aware of these small discomforts, which have been accepted across all European states, but before the referendum took place I still felt free to visit my adored country.
By 2016 however, I felt like that freedom was stolen from me all at once. I listened to the arguments of the Brexiteers and watched different people defend their decision to leave. With all that in mind, I could not help but feel rejected and excluded by the British. The times were characterized by an overwhelming feeling of confusion which made me feel reluctant when someone asked: ‘Where do you want to live when you’re older?’
When I finally visited London again a week ago, something about the atmosphere had changed. The tension could be felt and seen all around, and it was certainly not limited to one part of the city or to specific people. It was pervasive and impossible to ignore. On the day the Brexit deal got rejected for the third time, the normally relaxed atmosphere in London changed too. Friends and family in Germany frantically messaged me and told me to watch out for the angry protesters: ‘Don´t act too European; don’t show them that you’re German’ they said. Too European? What does that even mean?
In Germany, I go to a ‘European School’, meaning that we focus on European relations in politics class and that I study the English and Spanish language with dedication. To think in a European context is significant for me, as is to be able to understand the benefits and the complexities of the European Union. Day-to-day I am immersed in the European spirit. And the Brexit decision, to an extent, feels like a slap in the face with the message: ‘We do not want your European spirit’.
In light of Brexit, I had to write many essays and debate the topic in my classes. We tried to look at the affair from different perspectives, naturally also focusing on the arguments of the Brexit supporters. But it was always difficult for us to fully understand the majority’s vote, especially because my generation grew up with a globalized mindset and values that exemplified diversity rather than isolation. In Germany, the developments in Britain inspired similar tendencies, giving the right-wing EU-opposers the affirmation they needed to gain power — just the idea of Brexit had caused serious disruption.
On my way to the hotel, a businessman sat in front of me on the tube. With a disapproving look on his face, he casually read the newspaper. ‘Antidepressant prescriptions increased, Brexit could be a factor’, it said. I was alarmed. Brexit had suddenly become a state of normality, infiltrating every part of people’s lives.
But I also knew that London alone had actually voted to remain, and I could see why. The progress, multiculturalism and diversity were still there, still potent for a greater good. They had only been covered by a big dusty blanket of isolationist attitudes and suffocating conservatism.
On Trafalgar Square, people laid coins on top of the colourful flags that were drawn on the ground. Almost every country was represented, and the people gathered around talking to each other in ten different languages. It was an encouraging scene, celebrating our differences while also being proud of our distinct nationalities. Brexit had not been able to change that.
But one thing did change: my mindset regarding the benefits of being an EU member-state. My time in London has heavily influenced my viewpoint and I now value my country’s membership even more, appreciating all the perks the EU gives me. I have also come to firmly believe that overcoming the global issues we are confronted with daily can only be achieved by working cooperatively rather than alone.
Even now, I still love the UK and Brexit will not be able to change that.