Brexit, Identity, and the Value of EU Citizenship: the Insider-Outsider Perspective

Stijn Smismans*

Identity: (strongest first) European, Flemish (culturally rather than politically),[1] Belgian (that is what is on my passport), Dendermondenaar (town of birth), Italian (decade there left strong imprint), British (through professional environment more than a decade of residence, and passport of son), Spanish (passport of wife and son), French (four years of residence), Torinese and Bristolian (two cities I have lived in more than the passing-by couple of years I spent in many other places).

Writing about Brexit is a challenge. As the daily reality changes at high speed, ex post analysis looks out-dated, while predictions of the future are really not the preferred domain of academic writing (even for a lawyer). In this context, I welcomed Christian Joerges’ invitation to contribute to this paper by writing about Brexit from a personal perspective. The idea is an interesting one; in the flood of daily information, the personal perspective sheds light on the living experience of the Brexit reality.

There are several personal Brexit stories to tell. The first one is that of the EU citizen who is an academic in the UK. As a professor of EU law, for instance, I am pretty sure my undergraduate EU law course will no longer be compulsory, but this probably only means that I will have less, but more interested, students on it. More problematically, Brexit may well undermine our two post-graduate EU focused programmes in the likely event of the fees become prohibitive for European students. But most problematical is the loss of European funding. Given how the EU dealt with Switzerland once it intended to limit the free movement of persons, it is highly unlikely that the UK is still going to receive EU research money. And, given the way EU research money has allowed me to do what I like doing most in this job, i.e., research, the absence of any replacement UK funding may well be a sufficient key driver to make me move somewhere else. This little story tells something about the fate of EU studies and, more broadly, the future of academia in this country. The UK, for instance, is the biggest receiver of grants from the European Research Council, and many of those grants are awarded to non-British citizens. Without EU funding, and strong uncertainty as to whether there will be any compensating UK funding, the UK will become a far less attractive place for research. The pestering of EU citizens and the dilution of their rights that Brexit may entail (see below) is not going to help, either. All this adds to other factors that have been undermining the attractiveness of British universities for some time, such as the ever increasing bureaucratisation, the managerialism and workload pressure, and the introduction of a national teaching-quality assessment (similar to the research assessment, but raising (even) far more problematical questions in terms of measuring such quality by criteria such as student satisfaction) in an attempt to justify the extraordinarily high tuition fees.

But it is not my aim here to tell the little story of how academia in the UK will be affected by Brexit. The personal story that I want to tell is another one. It is the personal story of the insider-outsider, and this has to be told in a double way. As an EU citizen living in this country, one is an insider who has to live through Brexit in a very personal and direct way, while, at the same time, being stigmatised as the outsider. Narrating this personal story tells us something more broadly about the value of European citizenship. At the same time, the insider-outsider perspective allows us to shed a different light on the developments in this country. EU citizens who have resided in more than one country, facilitated by EU citizenship, have a different story to tell. Relying on their lived experience in different countries, they can provide an insider-outsider perspective that both the insiders and the outsiders lack.

Having resided nearly a decade in the UK, my insider-outsider perspective during the referendum campaign became quickly clear when discussing the topic with colleagues and friends. I soon got the impression that most of my British colleagues were much less worried about the outcome of the referendum than I was. To be honest, while I had had a lingering worry from the moment the referendum idea was launched, it was only during the campaign that I really started thinking through all the potential consequences of Brexit and the massive costs that it would have. Chatting about the topic in the corridors of our daily academic routine, many British colleagues appeared convinced that there would never be a majority for Brexit; as some said, this was because “we British are pragmatists”. Pragmatists? Over the last decades, whenever, on “the continent”, a political party on the right tried to carve out a space for itself on ideological grounds, out of the muddled ground of Christian democratic and social democratic centrist politics, it would look to the British Conservatives. Equally so, on the left of the political spectrum, where the only ideological debate appeared to be set by the British “third way”. More recently, the new identitarian politics in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a more radical post-crisis ideology on the left may have changed the picture, but, for decades, it looked as though, if one wanted to be ideological, one had to go British. So much for British pragmatism. As a Belgian, who has also lived a decade in Italy, my idea of political pragmatism is clearly different from that of my British colleagues!

Having lived in the Belgian, French and Italian welfare state, I also appeared to have a different perception on the huge social cleavages that fracture the UK. I soon suspected the referendum would become the occasion to throw that reality in the face of “the élite”. Moreover, even for somebody who has lived a decade in Italy under the Berlusconi “regime”, the polarized and poor quality of the media in the UK has never stopped surprising me. All this made me much more pessimistic about the referendum outcome than most of my colleagues.

In what follows, I will link my personal experience as an insider-outsider during the referendum and post-referendum debate with two broader questions: 1) the role of the media and participation in modern democracy; and 2) identity and the value of European citizenship.

Traditional and Social Media and Exclusionary Politics

During the referendum campaign, my university was approached under the Transparency Act to disclose the EU funding that the Cardiff Centre for European Law and Governance had obtained through its recognition as a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence. The request came from UKIP. We had no problem in disclosing the information as both our EU budget as well as all the funded activities were already clearly listed on our website, including a long list of seminars organised over the last years, which have often been very critical on the state of affairs in the EU.

During the same period, I received an email from somebody claiming to be interested in doing a Ph.D in Cardiff but asking for clarification as to whether we would have a problem with him being very critical of the EU and wanting the UK to be out of it. The nature of the email and proposed topic (which would not have fitted our expertise) put some doubt on whether the person had any real intention of doing a Ph.D with us. When I also found out the person was very closely related to UKIP, I started wondering whether it was just an attempt to make us state that we only accept pro-EU research and subsequently depict us as the EU’s Trojan horse in the country. Attempts like this, to silence voices that might say something pro-European, are not entirely new in this country (and I can tell other stories in the context of previous EP elections, for instance), but they were strongly intensified during the referendum campaign.

UKIP engaging in disclosure requests on EU funding was just a minor institutional expression of attempts to silence informed voices on the EU. During the referendum campaign, the battle became much more intense on a personal level. The few (British) colleagues who took up the challenge to bring some element of expertise into a campaign that was characterised by ignorance and disinformation were marginalised in the traditional media and were viciously attacked on the social media, death threats included.

In this context, I made a difficult personal decision: I decided to refrain from actively contributing to the referendum debate. This was, above all, a strategic decision. In a context in which expert opinion in general was looked at with derision, the voice of the “enemy expert” would have even less of a chance of being heard. As the debate became ever more polarized, to the point of inciting feelings of hatred, my expert opinion would immediately have been put down as being obviously biased because it was expressed by the “damned foreigner” wanting to stay here. There are enough rational and informed people around, particularly in my direct environment, who would not take such a simplistic opinion; and I eagerly exchanged my views on Brexit with them in an informal way. But these were generally not the people to be convinced of a Remain vote. The debate had to be held outside the ivory tower of academia. However, whenever there was space for an EU expert on the media or on public debate events, I believed my British colleagues would have a higher chance of convincing an anti-EU crowd, particularly as this crowd had increasingly become an anti-immigrant crowd; and I am especially grateful to some of my direct colleagues for taking on this role.

Although my decision to refrain from active involvement in the referendum debate was mainly a strategic one, it also had a psychological dimension. Why would I volunteer to face all the insults and aggression if my action might even prove to be counter-productive? Moreover, at a personal level, I knew that facing such levels of aggression would make me feel myself to be an outsider. The most vile remarks or racist abuse might not be representative of the majority of this country, but if you are a direct victim of it such rationality may not counterweigh the creeping feeling that you had better re-consider whether this is the right place to live. However, avoiding masochistic sessions of being publicly insulted did not save me from feeling an outsider. It suddenly hit me that, without a voice, I was a complete outsider. I had no right to vote in the referendum, and despite being most directly concerned by the outcome and despite being an expert on the EU, raising my voice seemed both impossible and useless. This was the first time in more than two decades of “living abroad” that I really felt like an outsider. The referendum outcome only strengthened this feeling. The problem was not just that I could not identify with what appears to be the political and cultural opinion of the majority of this country. In a way, I had lived this experience already when living in Italy under the Berlusconi governments. There was a huge gap between my beliefs and values and what the majority of Italians were happy to vote for. At the same time, I felt part of the very large majority of the country who strongly opposed the government, and, although I had no right to vote, I felt in a position to be an active participating citizen able to voice his discontent. The difference between my Italian and my British experience is that only in the latter have I become the explicitly targeted outsider. The Berlusconi government held an anti-immigration discourse and policy but it was targeted at the “extracomunitari” (non-EU citizens). This left me in the fortunate position of being somebody who could strongly oppose these views, but could still feel part of the community, linking in with the large minority. It is only today that I realise how strongly the stigmatisation as an outsider affects even your ability to speak up. I have great empathy for the 48 per cent of British who voted Remain, and even for some who voted Brexit, but are shocked about the turn that politics has taken, to the extent that they say “I do not recognise my country anymore”. However, they still have voice, and the alienation that they feel is not the same as that of the targeted outsider.

That one could feel suddenly so estranged had much to do with the incredibly poor level of the public debate on Brexit. The abominable “quality” of the British tabloids is world famous, as well as their visceral hatred for the EU. One of the most shocking experiences during the referendum, though, was the very poor journalism of the BBC. A study by my colleagues in the School of Journalism at Cardiff University showed that, already, way before the referendum, the BBC’s coverage of EU issues was primarily concerned with representing Euro-sceptic voices and focusing on party-political conflict instead of substantive discussion.[2] During the referendum campaign, this only got worse. The BBC strongly reminded me of what happened with the Italian public TV RAI under the Berlusconi government. Journalists who are poorly informed about the EU considered that the neutrality of the broadcasting was ensured simply by applying a formalistic parity, the famous “par condicio”, between “pro” and “contra” speakers, most of whom were politicians rather than experts. Speakers could make whatever claims they liked, with journalists failing to ensure any quality control. The debate has also been incredibly inward looking. While the issue was about the UK’s relationship with the EU, the debate was entirely focused on internal political arguments, as if the UK-EU relationship could be redrafted by the UK alone. Moreover, the debate was entirely set by one side of the political spectrum; namely, UKIP and the Conservatives, with the latter providing a key voice for Leave and the main voice for Remain at the same time. Labour did not develop a clear vision or voice on the referendum, while both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were marginalised in the media, silenced with the excuse that they were not representative enough in Parliament (a reasoning clearly not applied to UKIP). In the hands of the Conservatives, the Remain campaign could not provide any other discourse than future-predicting scaremongering about what would happen in the event of Brexit, as they found themselves unable to bring any positive message about European integration after decades of rubbishing it.

If the traditional media failed dramatically in ensuring an informed debate, the new social media raised even more problematical questions. Whoever believed the Internet would provide us with an easy tool to ensure democratic debate should think twice. Lies and half-truths were multiplied and multiplied with every click of the mouse and tap on the screen, without any intermediary aiming at fact-finding and quality control. On top of this, any comment section and forum would immediately turn into personal insults, and regularly racist abuse.

There was, mainly by the end of the campaign, some valuable information on the Internet, which was not easily available in the standard media, but, in all probability, it only reached a very limited audience. In a way, the Internet simply amplifies the trends in the traditional media. Brexit raises profound questions about democracy in times of the Internet, and, in particular, about the use of referenda.

Brexit showed a mixture of a failure of the traditional media to ensure quality control and fact-finding beyond political statements, combined with a very unbalanced political debate, as much of the opposition failed to develop an alternative narrative. Under these conditions, the Internet only exemplified the weaknesses of the political and traditional media debate.

Belonging, Identity and the Value of European Citizenship

As hinted at above, being an EU citizen in the UK during the referendum campaign was a weird and rather unpleasant experience. “EU bashing” has been a national discipline in this country for decades (and, honestly, in teaching EU law, going against the current has sometimes been tiring), but suddenly the issue became personal. The country I had known for a decade as relatively open to foreigners turned its blaming strategy no longer simply to the EU as institution, but to EU citizens directly. As the referendum date came closer the atmosphere became grimmer (/let us not forget the murder of Jo Cox, a Labour MP, and an active pro-Remain campaigner); and “get my country back” became increasingly “stop immigration”. If the pre-referendum atmosphere was unpleasant, the post-referendum was a shock. Racist abuse and attacks spiked, as those with such radical views thought their actions were legitimised by the referendum. In two separate incidents, a Polish and a Czech man were killed, while a woman lost her unborn child after being racially abused and kicked. Shockingly enough, these deaths were only marginally covered in the media, and did not inspire the political class (with some exceptions) to take the issue more seriously and change the rhetoric over immigration. If David Cameron has any decency, now he has stepped down as PM and MP and has nothing to do with his life, he should devote himself to fighting the racist turn his little referendum gamble (and his party) has taken.

As a Belgian who is as white as the majority of British, and not part of the larger EU immigration communities such as the Poles, I am definitely not the first one in line to be at risk of racial abuse, and I am most probably even less at risk than many British who don’t tick the box of “British white” on administrative papers. The rise in racist (as well as homophobic) abuse post-referendum has, indeed, often been against British citizens. However, everybody speaking a “funny language”, or with a foreign accent is now at risk. Although I live in one of the few British cities that clearly voted Remain and in a neighbourhood that voted 70 per cent in favour of staying in the EU, a Polish man got attacked by children in our local park this week, while Spanish friends were recently told to go back to Spain. It is a rather striking feeling, as a privileged white EU citizen, suddenly to have to consider whether it is wise to speak your own mother tongue in a public park.

The risk of direct racism is only one element that makes you consider whether this is still the place to call home. The institutionalist rhetoric depicting (EU) immigration as the source of all the bad in this society is another reason which makes you feel like an outsider. That the polarised referendum debate would lead to increased racism on the street was as I had expected. However, I thought that the political élite would turn down the volume of identitarian rhetoric once they had won the referendum. Instead, the new Tory government has turned the volume up further and has made identitarian politics and anti-immigration policy the key strategy to keep Labour out of power, clearly with the blatant support of the tabloids of this country. Last week, some newspapers claimed that “the high number of staff with EU citizenship in the health service puts the lives of people at risk” claiming that they are insufficiently trained or not skilled enough in English. At the same time, several statements by Ministers made it clear that EU citizens in the UK are considered a bargaining-chip in the forthcoming negotiations with the EU. Some days ago, the government announced it will require companies to provide a list of foreigners working for them. And today it was communicated that non-British academics would not be allowed to advise the government on any topics related to Brexit. If I felt silenced during the referendum campaign, the new government has made it clear that my voice (and expertise on the EU) is of zero value to them.

It is clear the new government is going to use every occasion to make EU citizens feel that they are no longer welcome. Once the UK is out of the EU, one can expect a limitation of rights for everybody residing in this country who does not have British identity, whether it will be through bureaucratic requirements for residence, or limitations such as having to pay a high fee to get access to the health service, and exclusion from social benefits.

The bureaucratic pestering has, in fact, already started. Faced with uncertainty about their future resident status and rights, many EU citizens are considering asking for permanent residence status or British citizenship. However, the requirements for the first (which is a condition for the second) were strengthened in March 2016. In order to obtain a “residence certificate”, one needs to provide all of the following documents as proof; all in originals, and to cover a period of 5 years:

  • Application form – 85 pages!!;
  • Passport (current and any previous passports held);
  • Payslips;
  • P60s (pay and deduction statement);
  • Employment contracts;
  • Letters from employers confirming dates and wage;
  • If self-employed at any point bank statements;
  • Proof of address – *at least* 2 documents for each year evenly spread throughout the year;
  • Child benefit letters;
  • Tax credit letters;
  • Evidence of every trip abroad;
  • Marriage certificate;
  • Photos;
  • Special delivery signed for self-addressed envelope (if you want to ensure you get all this stuff back).

The fact is that all this effort may well be useless as the “residence certificate” status is far from set in stone. Once the UK is out of the EU, it can delete and amend rights related to residence as it likes. The only way for an EU citizen to have some guarantee of retaining the same rights that he or she has today is by applying for British citizenship. And that is the only reason why it is worth all the effort to get the “residence certificate” because it is the first requirement to obtain British citizenship. For the latter, though, you need also the following:

  • Do the “Life in the UK” test, a citizenship test on which most British would fail – £50 + book £10;
  • Apply for naturalisation – £1,236;
  • Attend the citizenship ceremony – £80;
  • Apply for a passport – £82.25;

All this to be guaranteed the same rights that we now possess thanks to European citizenship (with the only added bonus of a voting right in national elections).

All this is not simply a question of facility and avoiding bureaucracy, but also a state of mind, a question of how you perceive yourself in a society and how that society perceives you. I think we have been undervaluing European citizenship, which in introductory textbooks to the EU looks like a simple list of a handful of rights. In reality, European citizenship is a comprehensive set of rights that allows you to move in the EU and settle with so few obstacles that you don’t feel a second-class citizen. European citizenship is also a state of mind. Although the considerable high number of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe in the UK has sometimes led to racist abuse, often immigrants would not report these events as they would not perceive themselves as immigrants. The facility with which one can reside and obtain nearly exactly the same rights as national citizens is not only important for the rights, as such, but also for the way in which it facilitates integration and belonging, since one’s self-perception of being an insider or an outsider is key to such integration.

The experience of being deprived of your EU citizenship is a surprisingly shocking one for the EU citizens in Brexiting UK. It makes us suddenly aware of how much it means. European citizenship is not just about moving labour forces in function of a more productive common market. It is also about the life and future of human beings who have chosen to “live the European dream” (forced, or not, by less convenient working conditions “at home”), and one hopes that all the Member States, including the defecting UK, respect the life choices that they have encouraged, and will not turn human beings in a bargaining-chip as some UK Ministers have suggested. At the same time, while the UK becomes more inward-looking, the rest of Europe should cherish European citizenship as not simply a market-facilitating mechanism, but also as a cultural value that allows “the outsider” to be turned into an “insider-outsider” who enriches society both economically and culturally.

[1]     Normatively and politically, I have always claimed and still claim a stronger belonging to Belgium than to Flanders, but, in terms of cultural identity, I have to admit it is first Flemish and then Belgian.

[2]     Wahl-Jorgensen K, Sambrook R, Berry M, et al. (2013) BBC breadth of opinion review content analysis. Final report on content analysis for the breadth of opinion review, 4 July. Available at:   analysis.pdf.

* This essay is from a Working Paper of the European University Institute, Department of Law, entitled “Brexit and Academic Citizenship” (LAW 2016.20, San Domenico di Fiesole 2016, available here. The paper, edited by Christian Joerges, collects a series of personal reflections on the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The essays do not engage with the legal and constitutional issues that arise from this event – these aspects have received comment elsewhere. Rather, the editor has solicited personal reflections from a group whose scholarly journey included the European University Institute, a hub for transforming, and integrating Europe. Aware of this privileged position, the authors shed light on how the result of the referendum and its aftermath may impact on the UK and the European Union.

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