A diaspora is waking up with a fright to a life without rightsby Giles Tremlett / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
The police rang our doorbell at 3am on the hottest night of the summer, while Madrileños were being gently oven-roasted at a still and steady 30 degrees centigrade. I opened the door, semi-naked, to find two municipal police officers staring at me. The fan in a guest’s room was keeping the downstairs neighbour awake, so could we turn it off? I wish it had stayed that polite, but they wanted to play games, making me march dozily around the apartment doing pointless tests with the fans. When we got fed up and asked them to leave, tempers frayed on both sides, a policeman’s boot was wedged against our door, passports were demanded and they eventually stomped off, promising to “file a report” on us. One officer’s eyes burned with hatred. For the past 25 years my encounters with Madrid’s police have been respectful, easygoing affairs and, for a day or two, I was convinced that only my new status as a future non-citizen of the European Union could explain the change.
This is classic Brexpat paranoia: a common, exaggerated and understandable malaise among the 1.2m fearful Britons living in the EU. We are the reverse side of the coin that bears the Polish plumber’s face on its front. Logic dictates that everything that happens to him in the future must also happen to us, and if the British are already showing hatred towards European immigrants, it is easy to imagine that others might hate us in return.
For a country obsessed with immigration, it is remarkable how little the UK bothers to think about emigration. Academic research is sparse, and political interest is nil. The Office for National Statistics does not collate exact numbers, which must be guessed at from elsewhere. Some 5m Britons—equivalent to 8 per cent of the UK population—live abroad, spread over several continents. That makes us the world’s eighth biggest exporter of migrants, and the EU’s largest. It compares to, say, the 3 per cent of Spaniards or Pakistanis who live outside their countries. The net outflow of British nationals—700,000 people in the past decade—has been continuous for all but one year over the past half century. Official lack of interest helps explain why David Cameron ignored his election pledge to scrap a rule preventing expats from voting in the UK after 15 years abroad, thereby robbing himself of hundreds of thousands of secure Remain votes (numbers can only be guessed at, but a referendum-clinching 1.3m is also possible).
“Children have been born and raised, businesses founded and careers launched on the basis that Britain would remain inside the EU”
If we all moved home and lived in one place, Brexpats would make up the UK’s second biggest city. The popular view is that we are mostly sun-tanned, gin-and-tonic-swigging retirees, but that picture is false. The vast majority are workers—mostly well-qualified business people, academics, teachers and engineers, but also plumbers, hairdressers and barmen. All have followed the logic of EU citizenship. Life plans have been made, children born and raised (like the Boris Johnson brood in Brussels), businesses founded, property bought and careers launched on the basis that Britain would always remain inside the EU. We were wrong. The impact is shattering, not just in terms of identity—and that hurts mightily too—but in a very immediate practical sense, since we can no longer plan effectively for the future.
Perhaps the diaspora must blame itself for never bothering to organise. Brexit has sparked the rumblings of a rebellion as, on Facebook and elsewhere, disparate groups and individuals in Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Belgium begin to talk. I am among them. Rights that cover work contracts, residency, pensions, healthcare and the status of offspring, marriages, elderly relatives must all be dealt with.
If the government thinks we must have rights reduced so that it can do the same to Poles already in Britain, it should state so clearly. The rush by expat Britons to adopt new nationalities would be instant (Germany is keen to mop up young British talent). If Theresa May thinks otherwise, she must take bold steps to prove it. First are the rights that we stand to lose. Some Brexpat campaigners are coalescing around the moral (rather than legal) concept of “legitimate expectation,” meaning that UK residents in the EU (and vice versa) who made plans in good faith, should be allowed to live by the terms under which they made them. Will politicians on both sides of the Brexit negotiating table publicly embrace that principle?
The debate should be wider, and should recognise that the British diaspora brings huge benefits to the UK but receives little in return. Theresa May must deliver on the Tory pledge to scrap the 15-year voting ban, and then go further. France, Italy and three other European nations give their diasporas political representation, via overseas constituencies and MPs. France has six European constituencies. By the time of the next UK general election, Britain should have at least that many. Otherwise, who will represent the 1.2m Britons most directly affected by Brexit when divorce terms are debated in Westminster? Nobody. That is yet another reason for losing sleep on hot Madrid nights.