Looking in from the Outside: Brexit for Expats

16 August 2016


I flew to Manchester last weekend for a friend’s tenth wedding anniversary. It was the first time I’d been back since the referendum. The grey-haired Englishwoman sitting next to me on the plane looked at me slightly askance when I said I’d voted for Britain to stay in the EU. ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Well’, I said, ‘I live in Amsterdam. It’s a no-brainer for me. The fact I can live and work there is thanks to the EU. And there are great advantages to living in Holland. The society is less hierarchical and class-driven than the UK. There’s much less of a gap between rich and poor. And it’s the best place in the world to bring up kids. Actually, that’s why I’ve stayed – to put my kids through the Dutch state school system in a place where being happy is more important than being successful,’ I explained.

It had never occurred to her that the EU was a two-way street. Like millions of others, she’d been force-fed a terrifying polemic. Five million Poles, just waiting to get in and plunder the NHS! But the EU isn’t all about foreigners taking advantage of the British welfare state. The 1.2 million British expats living in the EU got something in return. I was taking advantage of the Dutch healthcare and education system. I’ve long benefited from the EU. I spent my gap year working in France. I learnt more than just the language. The French taught me how to dress, what to eat, how to behave in society. They turned me into a European. Three years after that, I returned to France, at Lyon university, thanks to the Erasmus exchange programme which paid for my study costs. And now I’m living in the Netherlands bringing up my happy children. It’s no utopia but the big ideas are in place.

I’ve been putting off writing about Brexit for weeks. The main reason is politics. I’m too much of a pragmatist to enjoy politics. There’s a glaring gap between big ideas and the administration of real-life politics which results in endless bureaucracy and nothing really getting done. Charles Dickens’ Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit always comes to mind. And yes, that is one of the problems with the European Union – it requires administration. But administration and its accompanying ludicracy is a necessary evil. It’s something separate from the big idea that led to the creation of the European Union in the first place. The EU was created essentially to keep the peace in the wake of the second world war. In this, it has been largely successful. It has also been important in fostering a European identity, in creating unity (albeit flawed).

“We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides,” writes Tobias Stone in his thoughtful essay ‘History tells us what will happen  next with Brexit and TrumpI’d thought Britain was becoming more receptive to foreign ideas and cultures: Scandi-crime box sets, French parenting, Danish hygge, translated literature. But the liberal intellectuals who buy into these things are still a minority. How do you reach those people that (international) culture doesn’t reach? I’m afraid the answer is to be found in politics. Britain needs to take a leaf out of the Dutch book and figure out how to reduce social inequality. One key factor in this might be to create a more egalitarian school system. Prioritise the teaching of foreign languages. Cultivate dialogue and exchange. Value happiness above success. Big ideas, which will require administration.