Nabeelah Shabbir: ‘I will always be a European – a privilege we Brits have learnt to lose’

I have never applied for the right to live, work or study in a European country before. I’ve visited almost every European Member State. I learnt German, Spanish, and a bit of French. I have spent months, years, studying or working in Cologne, Brussels, Paris and now Amsterdam. It’s a privilege we Brits have learnt to lose. My two year old nephew has just got his first passport: it’s not the burgundy that I will be able to hold on to for a few more years, but a less valuable blue.

 Photo: Yara van der Velden/ The Correspondent

The adage for those of us who represent some of the 49% who wanted to stay in the European Union remains rather sickly sweet. In six weeks time, while I will no longer be a citizen of an EU Member State, I will always be a European. 

The immigration process has not treated me as roughly as some others. The wait for an appointment to register with my local town hall in Amsterdam took around two months. This was the same time it took to find an adequate flat in the city. I knocked bike handles with quite a few other ‘Brits burgers’, British citizens, along the way. A new Dutch colleague told me that I, and those who had left the UK along with employees of companies such as Panasonic and Sony, could afford the steep rents, anyway, because of a tax rebate that was available to attract foreigners to the country. 

It was a matter of waiting my turn to become a temporary resident of an EU country. I got my first letter from immigration, informing me there were many of us who would be applying because of Brexit. Somehow, the ‘transition period’ felt more tangible in my life, even as it unofficially translates to a standstill in politics. I had a time limit in which to apply for the residency, a matter of weeks.

It was relatively easy to apply to live in an EU Member State, with the privilege that having housing and job contracts afforded me. At the town hall, I showed my birth certificate, passport, and housing contract to get my unique tax number, or the BSN. I emailed off my application along with a 60 euro fee. Back home, just under three million EU citizens applied to ‘stay’ as a part of the UK settlement scheme, which required a proof of address. 

I was not in Amsterdam when I got the reply. My friend and neighbour sent me a picture of the letter, adding:

‘You can stay! :)’

I zoomed in on the picture of the letter on my phone. I had passed Dutch language level one with a 96% score (marked as ‘goed’ – good). My German degree had come back to manifest itself for basic Dutch, but I still wasn’t sure what the letter said. I sent the picture to a different colleague.

‘You just received your five year residency!’ came the confirmation. ‘So you can stay for the next five years.’  🙌, 🥳, 🥂.

And so I became one of the 1.2 million Brits living abroad, almost 1/3 of EU citizens in the UK (3.5 million EU citizens live in the UK).

The last five years have started to reveal what matters for our leaders. Corruption and cronyism comes first. It’s a factor that Britain’s handling of Covid-19 shows only too well.

Those of us who were the 49% who voted to stay in the European Union have long since accepted the result. In a country of 66 million, more than one million of us could only but peacefully march against a Brexit vote in London. The sections of the marches that I joined from Hyde Park down to Westminster or Covent Garden over to Trafalgar Square were rarely very musical, or joyous, or wild. We were just present. 

Nor did I get an overwhelming feeling that students or young people were out on the streets to fight for our Member State status. They will be more affected by climate change, or systemic racism. I only started to know who I am, as a European, because of the Erasmus student exchange programme. My identity as a European was not formed whilst I was busy perfecting the trifecta of being British, English, or Pakistani. 

And thanks to British multicultural society, I have never had to explain I was of Pakistani origins to other people in the UK the same way that I had to in Germany, Belgium or France. When Brexit happened, I was living in east London, in a neighbourhood which had 149 nationalities, but which had the lowest voter turnout in all of London boroughs.

In any case, according to the British press – the same one which accused High Court judges of being ‘enemies of the people’ – I was a remoaner now. Those who could were applying for Irish citizenship, or Iberian citizenship through their Sephardic roots. We were becoming tiered even as we carried on with our lives throughout the last five years, and it made me even more of a daughter of Commonwealth migrants.

In a recent poll, Britons said they trusted nurses, doctors or engineers more than they trusted politicians, landlords and the media. And it’s no surprise. The last five years have started to reveal what matters for our leaders. Corruption and cronyism comes first. It’s a factor that Britain’s handling of Covid-19 shows only too well. That same poll reveals that we trust bankers, landlords, journalists and politicians the least. As I understand it, it’s because they uphold their bottom line. They have never helped me understand some very clear questions that I have had about this democractic decision to leave the European Union:

🚶🏽‍♀Why do we want to so proudly limit freedom of movement in 2020?

⛓ Why do we accept that our richest public figures, who campaigned strongly for the Leave vote, have then ensured they applied for European citizenship or moved their companies abroad?

👨‍🌾 While these figures vote *in* their own interests, why did so many, in Cornwall or Wales, vote against their interests?

🤷🏽‍♀️ Why did our last three Conservative prime ministers start their Brexit careers as Remainers (and our then-opposition leader stay silent throughout the campaign, as a Leaver)?

💷 Why did the Vote Leave campaign break the law?

🇬🇧 Why don’t we as a country of four nations know more about each other?

I remember, when I met my first Irish colleagues abroad, one telling me: ‘You don’t realise why we don’t like English people, do you?’. 

If Brexit was a racist vote, it makes sense. We have never really understood who we are in relation to the Scots, the Northern Irish or the Welsh. Do we now get a hard border in Ireland between north and south? Does the Conservative government break international law by rewriting the treaty which keeps Northern Ireland inside the single market? Do the Scots vote for independence, with the margin swinging the other way this time? 

I am not rueing the decision to leave and work abroad. The story of Brexit will take years to play out, and for us to understand the real consequences of it all. 

The ‘take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’ slogans feel risible when I consider I grew up alongside pleasant people in a country who love to watch Strictly Come Dancing or the Great British Bake Off on the television. An MP was killed. My friend, from an Eastern European country, was asked the next morning after the referendum: ‘You packed your bags yet, mate?’ The hostile environment was already here.

Recent research shows evidence of a brain drain, but also evidence of a new ‘British Europeanism’ which can thrive outside of the UK. I remember a colleague complaining in 2015: ‘now we’ll only be talking about Brexit for the next few years, and it is so boring’. Another reminded the newsroom in a morning conference that Britain only joined the EU when it needed it from an economic perspective. Our job here was done. No place for solidarity.

Stories about Britain

I am someone who has lived on the European continent, working within the context of the European institutions, and I might be reading more news than others in my community or wider region, who tend to usually vote on single issues. There is an entire literacy to this political story which many people cannot easily claim. Plus, there are entire stories about Britain that we’re not seeing. The geographer Danny Dorling has written about the rise in mortality rates. The journalist George Monbiot has investigated impending food shortages (and he emphasises how important it is for journalists to stay away from the millstone which keeps them from covering the true stories). 

Meanwhile the Brexiteers who run Britain will try to take centre-stage with the COP 26 climate talks, to take place in Glasgow in December 2021. As co-hosts on the fifth anniversary of the global climate accords, they will need to be credible as they reposition themselves as a global influence, by showing their own commitment to cutting emissions.

When the clock strikes midnight in Britain on New Year’s Eve, the UK will leave the European single market and the customs union. It will be 1am in Amsterdam. It’s not where I thought I’d be, but I am not rueing the decision to leave and work abroad. The story of Brexit will take years to play out, and for us to understand the real consequences of it all. 

Ready also ‘Brexit and Covid-19 left me feeling trapped on this island’ by the pro-European activist and British performer Madeleina Kay



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