Other than the fact of it finally being Friday, last Friday was a crappy day. In the first post that I wrote about Brexit I expressed the view that the press did not provide realistic depictions of the lives of British people who live outside the UK, and tried to explain that for the most part “We are … really NOT sunning our leathery beer bellies in Malaga, while refusing to learn a word of Spanish. Our lives -like those of people in the UK – consist of the usual unremarkable elements that form the basis of regular working days in the communities in which we live.” Well, Friday was certainly shaping up to be pretty unremarkable and unglamorous. Having made my way to the station, with my tired four year-old, after work, in the driving rain, to discover that the train back to Antwerp central was cancelled, we walked to the nearest bus stop. The crowded bus was crawling and lurching along the main drag from the north of the city, affording us drizzle-bespattered November views of muddy roadworks, when my grey-faced daughter began to complain that she felt sick. We were both very tired and it was just one of those parenting moments when you have no option but to stay put …. fortunately she decided in favour of dozing off, instead of covering our fellow passengers with vomit.
We finally arrived at the bus station. It was still pouring. Just to add to the expat glamour of our situation, we had to swing by the Lidl, as my eldest child would be home soon, with a friend for dinner, so I needed to get food. We found them waiting damply on the doorstep…
I checked the letter box and there were a couple of envelopes, including one from Stad Antwerpen, which I stuffed into my pocket. The four of us along with our work and school bags and a carrier bag full of shopping crammed ourselves into the lift, keen to get into the apartment and begin the process of getting dry.
So against this backdrop, you can probably imagine how it felt to read the words “on the 17/11/2016 you received Belgian nationality” – or, as it actually appeared: “U hebt op 17/11/2016 de Belgische nationaliteit gekregen”. Wow -I had already been Belgian for a day and not known it! We all had a hug -including our lovely dinner guest, who as the product of a Belgian- British family, was well placed to share the moment. I may have shed a tear…
I’m simply so relieved. My children’s futures as European citizens are assured. They will continue to enjoy The Four Freedoms that being part of the EU provides. As I stated in a previous post, this is of particular importance to my oldest child as she approaches the point where she considers her life beyond school. She will leave school in 2019 -the point at which the Tories and the Leavers hope to have taken Britain out of the EU, and quite probably removed the rights of British kids to live, study and work with ease in the 27 remaining nations.
I am not going to stop engaging with this issue, despite the fact that we have been lucky enough to find a solution for our family. I continue to share the anger at the removal of EU rights and advantages from British citizens -especially the young, and those who, like me, were affected but not permitted to vote. The neologism ‘omnishambles‘ has never been more accurate, as it becomes painfully apparent that there is no plan in place for taking Britain safely out of the EU, and no sign of agreement on what such a plan might look like. Every day, media headlines testify to the clueless incompetence of people like Boris Johnson who -embarrassingly – are charged with negotiating a path forward for Britain.
But this weekend we are enjoying the feeling of having been provided with a solution to a problem that has caused us worry and uncertainty since June. We know are lucky to have this solution. It’s like being asked by a good host to come in from the rain and take a seat.
No, I don’t have an update re: my application for Belgian nationality (despite sending a cheeky tweet asking Guy Verhofstadt to put in a good word for me) just a few more thoughts following my first trip back to the UK, post referendum – a somewhat hasty post (kindly forgive its lack of polish) before I head back to the UK again for a wedding this weekend .
I just spent five days in the heart of London supervising a group of international students on a theatre and visual arts trip, which took us to various galleries and shows. I don’t know what effect Brexit will have on educational trips like this one in the future, but I expect that they are likely to become more costly and complicated to organise for any school on mainland Europe, but maybe that is a post for the later on.
I don’t often think of London to be honest, even though I grew up not far from the city, at the end of the Met line. And when I do, I think of it as a place that would be fantastic to live in but probably completely unaffordable, and a place that is fairly unrepresentative of how most people in Britain experience life. My thoughts about Britain tend to focus more on Scotland, which is where I lived for ten years before I left the UK. This is particularly the case this week with the developments at the SNP conference and the headlines coming from that.
But as soon as I arrive at Kings Cross, I absolutely love it. I love the busy-ness of London, I live the iconic sights. I love watching how London life -as represented by its evolving skyline -negotiates the divide between its past and its shiny, modern present. I feel safe in central London -it canters along at such a pace, but I do not find the atmosphere tense or edgy. And this being a brief update, I do not have the space to wax lyrical about all of the culture on offer there, but we saw some world class exhibitions, including You Say You Want A Revolution at the V&A and Georgia O’ Keeffe at the Tate. Not cheap, but we also sat in Regent’s Park in the early autumn sunshine and enjoyed The Frieze Sculpture Park for free.
In London, you cannot walk more than a few steps without hearing another language. You will be helped in shops, stations and cafés by people of all different nationalities. You will see the influence of generations of immigration on the city in every part of it. You will look up at glossy buildings and ponder the trade and business which is happening between London and Europe, and the world. You will see groups of tourists from everywhere enjoying all of these things, alongside the traditionally British features of London which seem to be enhanced – not diminished – by the international influences jostling around them. I am not denying that London has any of the problems common to most big cities (it does) or that it is too expensive (it is) or that working towards a harmonious and hugely multi-cultural society does not present challenges (of course it does). But clichéd as it sounds -and I know I speak as a visitor, not as a resident – London has a buzz which to a massive degree is created by its internationalism. It is not possible to imagine a mono-cultural London, and the vision would be a grim and soulless one.
So to pace the streets enjoying art, food, sounds and smells from the city itself and from all over the world, and to simultaneously contemplate that London is -against the will of its people – being taken out of the what is both a part of that internationalism, and a gateway to further internationalism, was also simply very, very sad…
Waking up on the morning of June 24th this year was -I imagine- a pretty grim experience for most British people living on the European mainland, myself included. Not least, because having been away from Britain for over fifteen years, I had not been entitled to vote in the referendum that would affect my status in the place I now consider to be my home.
I understand fully that the consequences for the 1.2 million Britons living outside the UK but within Europe, would most likely have been far from the minds of UK dwelling voters who do not have valued family connections to Europe – although it was pretty painful to learn that rights you had taken for granted had also been voted away even by people you thought of as your nearest and dearest. However, I did wonder what sort of image voters might have of us, were they fleetingly to consider who we might be. It seemed to me that on the few occasions when the media did reflect on this, it frequently involved invoking the stereotype of the retired or bar-owning British expat living it up around a beach in southern Spain, as depicted in pictures used in articles like this one or this one (which uses the same image) or here (there’s that Union Jack bedecked bar yet again!). I’d like to point out that this is far from reality for the vast majority of British people living in EU countries: we are nurses, builders, translators, wait staff, small business owners, teachers, civil servants, receptionists and many more regular jobs besides. We are working parents, stay-at-home-parents, single parents and ‘trailing partners’ (as the re-location literature so flatteringly terms those who accompany their working partners on international moves). We are single people, or couples, or busy families doing school runs, jobs, hoofing it round the supermarket, paying our bills… We are -for the most part- really NOT sunning our leathery beer bellies in Malaga, while refusing to learn a word of Spanish. Our lives -like those of people in the UK – consist of the usual unremarkable elements that form the basis of regular working days in the communities in which we live.
I arrived in Belgium in 2006, from the Netherlands, where I had been working for six years as a teacher. I also took up a teaching post on arrival in Antwerp, and this was the reason for my move here, with my (Dutch) partner, who is also a teacher, and my daughter, who was five at the time. My two youngest children were born subsequently (in 2008 and 2012) here in Antwerp, and attend local schools.
We quickly settled in, and came to appreciate living in Antwerp. What’s not to like? It’s a vibrant city where there is always something going on in the community. Over the ten years that we have lived here, we have enjoyed being part of city life, often through regular community public events laid on by Stad Antwerpen. These have become more familiar to us the longer we stay. Our lives have become punctuated by annual dates on the family calendar: Autovrijdag (car free day), Bollekesfeest (a beer festival), Zomer van Antwerpen (summer events program) and- as temperatures dwindle and the days grow shorter- Winter In A (winter and Christmas events). It’s a lovely city to visit, if you get the chance.
I haven’t lived in England since I was 18, and I left the UK from Scotland in 2000, but I never thought that having a British passport could become an impediment to accessing employment on an equal basis, or would complicate travel around Europe. I never thought that I would be voted into becoming a ‘non-EU citizen’. I suppose I am guilty of taking my European identity -and the belief that it would be reflected in the passport that I hold – completely for granted. Born in 1971, my life so far corresponds almost exactly to the period of UK EU membership.
So once the shock had dissipated a little, I began to think about what to do next. My eldest is going to be finishing her secondary education in a few years and may wish to apply for further education. That might be in Britain, but equally it might not; she might prefer to apply for a local course, or one in another EU country. It seems absurd that -as someone who has never actually lived in Britain, nor outside the EU -she was at risk of becoming a non- EU citizen. Maybe everything would be OK, but as the terms of Brexit seem so utterly confused and unclear (despite the recent -largely unsurprising- statement that the end of March 2017 will be the deadline for triggering article 50), I quickly felt inclined to start looking into gaining Belgian nationality so that future options remained as broad as ever they had been for myself and my family. If I had citizenship, it would automatically be passed on to my children. I would not need to give up my UK nationality, but it would not be recognised by Belgium. So I decided to request Belgian nationality, and what follows is what I discovered. Belgium’s regulations regarding citizenship are more lenient than many countries and a bit of Googling revealed that I was eligible to apply. Belgium requires that you have lived here, and that you provide evidence of ‘economic participation’ (i.e. earning and paying tax) over an unbroken five- year period. You can apply for citizenship if you have not been paying tax, but would need to have been resident for ten years in such a case. To apply, you need to demonstrate your period of residency, your employment status, that you have paid tax, that you speak at least one of the three languages of Belgium and that you are integrated.
Firstly, I needed to go to a legal translator to get a translation of my British birth certificate. This cost about 70 euros and took a few working days. I also had to get a letter from my employer, confirming that I have a permanent contract and stating the date when the employment began. I then set the printer to work, printing out all the tax documents which showed my ‘economic participation’ over the past five years, and salary slips for the current tax year, up to the time I began my application. Armed with all this, I went to the Districtshuis, where all of the documents were scanned and kept. The woman who assisted me was professional, efficient and helpful. She told me that I did not need to do an integration course or language test, as this is assumed, given the length of time I have been holding down a job here (I hope she is right, as I have a friend who has been told differently!). She then directed me to the Federal Fiscaal Overheidsdienst to get one more document that would cost 150 euros. I have subsequently come to understand that this is basically a fee for the creation of the dossier, but as you can see from the picture below… I was not clear about its purpose at the time…
[This needed to be stamped of course. Anyone who has lived in Belgium for any length of time, will know that stamping things is Very Important Indeed, and that even in the digital age, there are few things that Belgian bureaucracy enjoys more than a bit of ‘stempelen’ on hard copies of … pretty much everything.]
So I dutifully got those things and headed back to the Districtshuis. I saw the same efficient and helpful lady who was, once again, efficient and helpful. She chatted in a friendly way and did some more scanning.
And then she had me copy out this statement in my very best handwriting:
“Ik verklaar Belgisch staatsburger te willen worden en de Grondwet, de wetten van het Belgische volk en het Verdrag tot bescherming van de rechten van de mens en de fundamentele vrijheden te zullen naleven.”
(I declare that I wish to become a Belgian citizen, and to comply with the Constitution, the laws of the Belgian people and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms)
And I think it was at that point that something changed. I realised that I actively DID want those things. I wanted to be Belgian. Not in a fervent, flag-wavy way. Not in a national anthem, or a marchy boots way. Nor can I claim an exhaustive knowledge of Belgian art, history or politics. I simply like our life here, in Antwerp, Belgium, the EU, and I think that Human Rights are important. I had started the application as a bureaucratic, practical procedure -a rubber-stamping, as it were – to retain rights and freedoms for practical purposes, living in an EU country. But somehow copying out the words and signing them did cause a small sea change. I was reminded that I do indeed believe in those EU values. I find I am less attached to a specifically British identity than I thought I was. And Belgium has been good to us… this small, imperfect, often divided country, frequently maligned by stand-up comedians who probably haven’t been here (or who are short on material perhaps) as being … BORING (yep, you’ve heard the jokes, right?).
Well, whatevs, as they say. Needless to say, that is not a view of Belgium that I share. I’ve had confirmation that my dossier has been received and I am waiting for the decision – which is meant to take 4 months from that point. That would be the 22nd December -my Dad’s birthday. I am proud that he campaigned energetically for the Remain side, and we commiserate together frequently. It would be a good to be able to offer him the consolation that three of his grandchildren will retain -and no doubt benefit from retaining – their EU status. So not a day goes by when I don’t at some point think about my application, and that thought is always accompanied by a heartfelt hope that my it will be granted.
… But if you are interested to hear what happens next- stay tuned, and I’ll let you know as soon as I hear.