Earlier this summer, Michaela spent three weeks in the Lot—the site of her doctoral research, conducted in 2003-4—to talk Brexit with the British Citizens who had made this corner of rural France their home. Her visit coincided with the anniversary of Britain’s referendum on its continued membership of the EU and the first round of talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union since Article 50 was triggered. In the second of her posts, she focuses on how they feel about Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Uncertainties and anxieties
Just as has been widely reported in the case of EU nationals currently living and working in the UK, many of those who took part in the research described the uncertainty that Brexit had brought in respect to their continued rights to live in France and the social entitlements—for example, access to healthcare—currently ensured through European Union legislation on acquired rights. The negotiations, ongoing at the time of the research, further exacerbated this uncertainty. Indeed, it was precisely such uncertainty that lay in the indignation, for some, that a decision that might so fundamentally change the conditions under which they lived was taken on the basis of a referendum, and in a situation where many of them—because of the loss of overseas voting rights after 15 years—did not have a say.
Common concerns were about future access to healthcare, the exchange rate, pensions, but also concerns over whether they would still be allowed to own property in France, their rights to work, whether they would still be allowed to live and under what conditions, once the negotiations were completed and the United Kingdom left the European Union. To be clear, the legal basis of their migration and settlement was, and is, all up in the air.
Undoubtedly, this uncertainty had a more profound impact for some than for others. Those who suffered from long-term chronic illness were understandably worried about how the costs of their treatment—currently covered 100% in line with French healthcare legislation—would be covered post-Brexit. In one case, the stress of this uncertainty had further exacerbated a chronic condition; I also heard of others who had not slept since the referendum, worries about their futures keeping them awake long into the night. And there were no answers, at least, not yet. Similarly, there were those who had very small incomes from their British pensions, which currently stretched to support their day-to-day living expenses in France, for whom exchange rate fluctuations were already having an impact.
Disenfranchisement and shifting political allegiances
While the Conservative government had proposed to extend the vote for life, by the time of the referendum, this had only been presented as a white paper. Eligibility to vote in the referendum was on the same terms as national elections; Britons living overseas only eligible to vote it they had been registered to vote at a UK address in the last fifteen years.
What became clear in my conversations was the indignation of those who had lost their right to vote, who felt that with an extraordinary event such as a referendum, the ordinary rules could have been suspended. They felt strongly that they should have had the right to have their say, given that its outcome was likely to have a substantial impact on their lives. Justine—who had lived outside of the UK for over forty years and was now aged in her early 70s—captured the strong feelings that many of those who took part in the research emphasised, describing how she felt betrayed and alienated by the outcome of the referendum and its continuing negotiations.
In response to those who might ask why should Britons resident overseas have the right to vote, they stressed that although they had stopped living in the UK they still cared about what happened there: they had paid into the UK economy—and in some cases continued to do so—through taxation and they had friends and family for whom this vote would also have an impact, and whose futures they cared about.
Some had chosen not to exercise their right to vote in Britain since they had left, with others questioning whether they should have that right.
We’ve lived here for twelve years and we have chosen, until the referendum, not to vote here, not to exercise our right to vote, not to vote in the UK so we’ve chosen not to exercise our right — because we believe that we’ve moved here, we’ve made a conscious choice, this is our home and we shouldn’t interfere in things there despite the fact that because of the nature of our pensions … we have to pay tax in the UK. (Carol)
But the referendum vote was seen as a case apart to some extent, precisely because of its potential to impact on the legal structures that supported their lives, their identities and futures in France. In part, it seemed to mark a moment of political awakening among some of those I spoke to, with people questioning the political allegiances they had formerly held—in some cases, unquestioningly until now. As Tom described, he had followed in his father’s footsteps, reading the Times, voting Conservative. He had lived outside the UK since he had been in his late 20s and had lost the right to vote, but after the referendum and watching the negotiations unfold he found himself questioning whether his ‘natural’ party, was really reflective of his politics and whether they supported his interests. He has since joined the Liberal Democrats, supporting them in the 2017 General Election. Far from idiosyncratic, this theme of shifting allegiances—albeit not necessarily from Conservative to Liberal Democrats—came to light in a number of the interviews.
What became clear through these conversations is the extent to which Britons living abroad feel abandoned and disenfranchised. The consequences of these can be seen in their political mobilisation.
Some closing thoughts
Although the United Kingdom is still in the European Union and the withdrawal process has not yet commenced, the uncertainties and anxieties briefly stated here make clear that Brexit is having a tangible impact on the lives of some Britons living elsewhere in the European Union. And I show in the final post in this series, in various ways, they counter this uncertainty through various actions aimed at securing their futures.
Keep posted for Michaela’s future posts on her conversations with the British in the Lot. You can also listen to her talking about this research in Episode 6 of our podcast series, and in her appearance on the Brexit podcast.