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. As she discusses in this post, their thoughts about also bring to light where they feel they belong, and how they feel about being British and European.
Talking about the EU, Europe, and European Citizenship
Europe, the European Union and European citizenship were closely allied in the way that people spoke about Brexit. For several of them, Britain’s membership had meant that they had been able to go and live and work in other member states; these opportunities were remembered as formative experiences that had changed the way they looked at the world and that they worried that future generations would not have. As they stressed, they felt European. Such statements were further clarified as signalling openness to other cultures, ability to live with difference, a curiosity about the world beyond Britain. Further, these were located within the broader context of their lives in France, of their desire to be part of the community, to be involved in the life of the places that they lived. Being European was a future that was, they keenly felt, being denied to their children and grandchildren.
Our discussions about the European Union took into account what Europe meant to them and for their lives. It is significant that, whatever their own opinions about the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, there was unanimous agreement among those I spoke to that the European Union was in need of reform. The question, as for the British population at large, lay in whether people felt that this was best done with Britain in or out. Cutting across the sentiments to leave or remain, people were passionate about the referendum and its outcome.
A few among these Britons in the Lot stressed that they had been uneasy about what they understood as the transformation from a trade bloc, to a supra-national structure, the latter believed to present a challenge to the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. As Jack described, he had been happy when things were just about money, but less so as things became political. With withdrawal, he argued, Britain would exit the EU but it would still be in Europe. The EU, which had been in need for reform for a long time, would need to find its way without Britain, who had tried time and again to bring about such reform. His arguments were finely honed, the consequence, he stressed, of standing his ground in conversation with other Britons—remainers—living in the area. In contrast, others were hopeful about the future of the European Union. They were positive about the outcome of the recent French election; they emphasised their trust in Macron to bring about these changes.
Talking about Britain and being British
In light of the referendum, my conversations with Britons living in the Lot about Europe and being European were often paired with talk about Britain and being British. For them, their current feelings about Britain were a product of Brexit, rather than being a reason for leaving Britain in the first place. In many cases, they took care to stress they had moved to the Lot because of what it offered them rather, and they did not associate with the ‘bad Britain’ discourse. It was clear that how they felt about Britain had become more complicated in light of Brexit, than it had been when they had chosen their current lifestyles.
Brexit was a transformational moment in the way that they thought of Britain. For those in favour of Britain’s exit from the European Union, the sense of confidence in Britain’s future, its ability to manage its own affairs going forward were passionately conveyed. It was a moment of excitement where the perceived ills wrought on Britain—immigration paramount within this—by its membership could be reversed. But for those who had come out strongly against Brexit, Britain was presented as insular, not the country they had left, as intolerant and xenophobic. Many of those I spoke to described how they did not recognise Britain any longer, and felt ashamed to call themselves British, drawing instead on regional and local identities (e.g. Scottish, Welsh, Lancastrian, from Yorkshire).
Such evaluations were drawn up both through their observations of Britain’s mass media, but also through experiences back in Britain and their discussions with friends and family around the entire process of the referendum. People described having to explain to family members what leaving the European Union might mean for themselves, and even trying to talk people out of voting to leave. Others talked about the way that the British populations living elsewhere in the European Union had been described in the media as traitors—for leaving Britain in the first place—and as unpatriotic, and how this had fed through into the way that some of their friends and families had talked to them about Brexit. They had often experienced this as hurtful, and presented it as evidence that their lives in France were misunderstood. Val described a conversation she had had with a close friend back in the UK:
I just don’t mention Brexit any more because she voted out and she’s very, gets very angry over it and early days we were discussing it but it got to the point where it was putting a strain on our friendship. I said something at one point and she said ‘oh well it’s nothing to do with you anyway you’re sitting out there in the sunshine while we’re all working here in the UK and why should you have any input into our decisions’ and things like that. So I said ‘I’ll accept that, fair enough if we don’t have to pay our taxes, because we’re still paying taxes into the UK’, I don’t think she realised that but I said ‘if we’re going to be completely cut off then fair enough but let us choose to pay our tax in the country where we live’.
What becomes clear is that Brexit marks a moment where British populations living elsewhere in the European Union are re-evaluating their relationship with Britain, and with Europe, but also considering what this means for how they understand who they are and their relationships with friends and family.
Some closing thoughts
In their discussions, many of these Britons described how it had changed the way they thought about Britain, about being British. But they also revealed complex thoughts about the European Union and being European. This is the landscape, paired with a deep sense of being part of the local community, through which these migrants expressed their sense of where they belong in the world.
This series of posts has now been published as a research summary and can be downloaded here. 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.