Disappointed, but confident – #britsinBerlin after Brexit

Brexshit_Photo
Image copyright of jungeblodt.com

In the first of our guest blogs, Melanie Neumann, a PhD candidate in the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt reports from her research with Brits living in Berlin and their complex attitudes towards Brexit, feeling British and their futures in Germany. 

A fortnight before the referendum I had a sense of inner calm, because I came to the point of view – realising – as a British person in Berlin, if the Brits did vote for Brexit I’d be better here than I would be there … therefore when it actually came to pass I suppose I’d to a certain extent prepared myself somehow for maybe what was going to happen […] I look back at the UK now with a kind of sense of sadness, almost a kind of sense of pity about what has happened there, but to a large extent of how it applies to me personally, I’ve through a large extent been able to separate that out: Berlin is home, Berlin will stay home regardless of Brexit, it’s probably even decreased my likelihood of going back to live in the UK at any point in the future.

–Jon, 37, communications consultant and blogger (Jon blogs here)

A few weeks ago, I hosted a public roundtable on Brits after Brexit in Berlin as part of the Centre for British Studies’ contribution to Berlin’s „Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften” (Long Night of the Sciences) at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. This brought together and into conversation five Britons resident in Berlin to talk about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the possible impacts on their lives, and how they were planning to navigate such impacts.

Jon’s1 quote above, given in the context of the roundtable reflects common themes that have emerged in my conversations with the Britons in Berlin in the year since Brexit. Upset, disappointment and outrage translate into how many of them describe and understand Britain now. And yet, the majority remain confident that, in terms of their own lives in Berlin, not much will change. Or rather, they are making moves, finding ways to protect themselves from Brexit’s possible negative outcomes on their lives, for example applying for German citizenship.

Indeed, in an online survey (October 2016) I conducted for my PhD research,  of the 81 British citizens living in Berlin who took part, 24.7% stated that they want to apply for German citizenship, a further 18.5% are eligible for Irish citizenship, 18.5% were very confident that nothing would change for them after Brexit, while 29.6% were worried and did not know what to do and a mere 2.5% wanted to leave Berlin soon anyway. This illustrates the range of different ways Brexit interplays (or not) with their decisions about their future in Berlin.

Graph 1

Those who have already applied for German citizenship have praised Berlin’s authorities for the swiftness and uncomplicated manner of the process. Citizenship applications from British citizens do appear to have been fast-tracked, at least in Berlin. I can only speculate as to the reasons for this; perhaps to entice them to the German Capital and/or to set an example for British authorities, hoping that they would apply the same to Germans in the UK? At an information evening on German citizenship organized by British in Berlin, for example, some people stated that their application had been processed within eight weeks, instead of six months, which is the norm.

However, being able to continue to live and work in Berlin as before is one thing; another more private and psychological issue is a widespread sense of having been betrayed and abandoned by one’s country.

As Josie—who also blogs here—evocatively explained when asked if she is afraid of being used as bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations,

[I]n order for us to be used as bargaining chips, Theresa May would have to actually put some value on us. I’m not convinced that she really does.

Strikingly, the British in Berlin feel that the German government and the EU do represent them and their concerns far better in the negotiations than Britain does,

[I] also spoke to the Auswärtiges Amt (German Foreign Office) about this; I as a British citizen in Germany feel immensely better defended by the German government than I am currently defended by the British government (Josh).

In response to this, in relation to the growing xenophobia in Britain and many other social issues that have come to the fore since Brexit, many respondents have talked about now having difficulties identifying as British. Adam, for example, stated that Brexit made him think about his Britishness a lot, “but in a quite rejectory way” and Josie talked about kind of swapping identities,

[B]rexit and before that have just really changed how I kind of see my national identity and how I can really imagine these things. I don’t think-, I think I may have been a bit hesitant before calling myself European and now that seems much more obvious an identity to me and much less so to say British. I think, the same way with Americans after Trump, this is a milestone of an identity shock, really.

Suki’s image of Britain has been shattered by the vote,

I was always very proud of being British, I have an Indian father and an English mother and I grew up in a wonderful multicultural Britain and I was very proud of it, which is kind of being challenged in recent times.

Has Brexit led to a revitalisation of the discourse on Britishness (in Europe)? What does this mean for the UK, the British abroad and migrants in Britain? Has identifying oneself as European gained new momentum through these recent developments? These are all questions worthy of further investigation.

While Brexit has thus led to a rethinking and redefining of Britishness and how the British abroad see themselves, it has also given rise to political mobilisation. The British in Berlin, who number close to 15,000 at present, are campaigning and lobbying for their rights through several grassroots organisations, like British in Berlin, the affiliated Berlin group of Open Britain, and British in Germany, part of the Europe-wide coalition British in Europe.

Since before the Brexit vote, British in Berlin have coordinated and organised information events for the British of Berlin, for example on applying for German citizenship. Within this, they also enjoy the German Capital and contribute to its nightlife, on the first anniversary of the referendum holding a night of British music released during the UK’s EU membership, entitled FUXIT. Applying the famous British humour, a sign above the bar encouraged guests to “spend the £350 million we send to the EU on beer and wine instead”, the toilets labelled “Brexshit”. Nevertheless, it is clear that through Brexit the British community in Berlin has become far more visible and politically involved.

Notes

[1] Some of those participating in the roundtable permitted me to use their real names in this blogpost, while other requested pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. The quotations have been taken from the above mentioned roundtable as well as from interviews conducted for my PhD.

[2] The “Other” option in the survey included answers like being eligible for French citizenship and wanting to apply for it.

Melanie Neumann is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Her PhD research focuses on Irish and British migration to Berlin from 2006 and 2016.

Jon Worth and Josie Thaddeus-Johns who took part in the roundtable are both active writers and bloggers. Jon blogs about EU politics, Brexit, German politics here. While Josie blogs about art, culture, music & tech here.

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