Last month, after a decade of living in London, my husband and I packed up the contents of our two-bedroom flat and moved to France with our 15-month-old son. With another baby on the way, we’re renting an apartment in Toulouse while we look for a more permanent setup. Leaving friends and family behind, and getting to grips with a new culture and language, hasn’t been easy. But we have no plans to return to the UK.
What sold us on France? The healthier work-life balance and excellent education system, plus the fact that we’re lucky enough to have jobs that allow us to work remotely. Ultimately, though, there was one factor that cemented our decision to emigrate: Brexit.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that net migration from the EU to Britain has slumped to a six-year low. Numerous sectors of the economy, from science and academia to the NHS, have been hit hard. And it’s not just that EU nationals are turning their backs on the UK – in the year after the referendum, 17,000 Brits sought citizenship of another EU country, according to figures collated from embassies. The Brexodus is fully under way.
A common refrain among the Brexiles I speak to is that they no longer recognise the country they grew up in. Raised in Northern Ireland, I’ve always grappled with my national identity. I was born in west Belfast and have an Irish passport – yet until I moved across the UK border in Ireland to study at university, my cultural references were, by and large, British. I watched Gladiators on television and read The Famous Five. I bought pic’n’mix from Woolworths and wanted to be Anneka Rice. I saw enough of the fallout from the Troubles to realise from an early age the dangers of unchecked patriotism. So when I moved to London, I refused to dwell on historical grievances and embraced everything that was great about the UK. In the 2012 Olympics, I felt a surge of pride for my adopted homeland.
Nearly three years after the EU referendum, I no longer feel the same connection. A French friend, whose children were born in London, moved her family to Dublin last summer. She felt increasingly uncomfortable about the rise in xenophobia (Home Office figures showed that hate crimes rose by a third from 2016-2017) and wanted her daughters to be “raised European”. Many Irish friends have returned home, too, uneasy with “jokes” made by colleagues and acquaintances about the Irish famine, shocked by the ignorance of many of their English peers.
Nationalism isn’t confined to the UK. Nearly half of young French voters backed the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, in the country’s 2017 general election. But aren’t we better off wading through this mess together? When my husband and I lived in London, we became good friends with a neighbour, a retired diplomat in his 80s. He had loved serving his country, including a stint in the USSR during the cold war. These days, he no longer identifies as British, but as a citizen of the world. He saw postwar Europe unite and remembers the devastation that led to the formation of the EU.
In a world of increasing uncertainty, I’ll take a bunch of bureaucrats over going it alone any day – even if that means uprooting. I spoke to four others who feel the same way.
Pip Batty, 40, a communications consultant, originally from Leicester, moved to Georgia in November. She now works in Tbilisi as an English language teacher
I never thought I’d move to Georgia. It was just a place I went to on holiday last year and thought was brilliant. It’s a beautiful country and the people are so welcoming. I’m half Greek, and had been learning Greek for five years with the intention of emigrating there someday. Then Brexit happened. Suddenly, it started to become more challenging: a potential employer in Greece, who had been happy to offer me work, asked, “You have a Greek passport, right?” When I told him I was born in England, he just said, “Oh.”
In a country where the economy isn’t great and you have two people applying for the same job – one from Germany, where there’s freedom of movement and they know what’s going to happen in future, or a British person – you know who they are going to choose.
After the referendum, I thought everyone had lost the plot. There are people I don’t speak to any more because I know how they voted and I’m furious with them. People who were aware of my plan to move to Greece, people whose children are dating foreign nationals, how could they vote for Brexit? They weren’t thinking about any generation apart from their own.
Two years after the referendum, we’re an international laughing stock. It’s humiliating to be British. My students ask why we’ve done this. One Russian student said, “To us, it’s like you voted to make yourselves the Soviet Union. We lived through that. Why would you vote to isolate yourselves from everyone else, when you were the linchpin of this wonderful treaty?”
I’d like to try to get to Greece at some stage, but I’ll have to see what happens. I don’t want to say I’ll never come back to the UK because I will always be British. I’ve been told I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face, but I feel very strongly about this and will do for years to come. We’ve been wronged.
Journalist Alex Rawlings, 27, moved to Barcelona last November. He speaks 15 languages and holds Greek and British passports