Talking Brexit with the British in Toulouse: diverse lives, different stakes

In October, Michaela returned to France to continue her research about what Brexit means for UK citizens who have made their homes and lives on the other side of the Channel. After a couple of weeks in the Lot, she relocated to Toulouse to focus UK citizens living in La Ville Rose and what they think Brexit will mean for their lives and futures. In her second blogpost for our 12 days of Brexit Brits Abroad feature, she reflects on this research to consider the differential stakes of Brexit for Britons who have made their lives in the city.

Summary

In what follows, Michaela highlights:

  • what this can reveal about the likely differentiated personal outcomes of Brexit for this diverse population; and
  • how what’s at stake for these populations is about more than rights and entitlements, concerning also questions of identity, home and belonging.
What’s at stake with Brexit (for Brits living in Toulouse)?

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Working with Britons who have made Toulouse and its environs their home brought to the fore that the stakes were differentiated depending on personal circumstance, employment terms and conditions.

Emily, a 30-year old postdoctoral researcher who had been living in Toulouse for just over two years, described in detail what Brexit might mean for her. She had moved to the city for a 3-year contract, taking a position at a specialist research laboratory in one of the city’s university. In this time, she had met her partner—who was a third country national—and they had decided that they would like to stay in France. This would most likely mean moving from the university sector into private industry; with this in mind, she had been training up for the move but was worried that Brexit might make this plan more difficult to achieve. She was particularly worried that being British might disadvantage her in this competitive job market. But it was also clear that the terms of her current employment (fixed-term contract) and the length of her stay (under 5 years) would not qualify her for permanent residence in France.

In this respect, her case draws attention to how the terms and conditions on which some UK citizens are currently employed might not fulfil the terms required to guarantee continued residence post-Brexit. She further worried that if she was required to return to the UK, that her partner might be prevented from joining her given that he was a third country national. She stressed that they would probably be fine, but there was considerable uncertainty about their futures. This uncertainty—shared by many in our research as Karen discusses here—about what Brexit would mean on an individual level was echoed by some of those who were self-employed.

In Toulouse, I also came across those who were less worried that it would have an impact on their lives. This is not to say that they supported Brexit but rather how the terms on which they were resident and working in France might insulate them from the impact of changes to citizens’ rights. This was particularly marked in the case of people working in Toulouse because of their connections to the aerospace industry. As a contact at one of the bilingual schools highlighted in our conversation, she was not picking up any anxiety over the future from British families. She highlighted that a lot of the families who came through the school were only temporarily in Toulouse; they did not have plans to be resident long-term.

In my own conversations with the families employed in this sector, a sense emerged rather of the idea that the sector would look after them—it was a sector that employed people from around the world after all and was the largest contributor to the local economy. Notably, this is in stark contrast to the question of who is looking out for the interests of UK citizens living in the EU27 that is coming through in a lot of our interviews for the project.

Several of them had started their lives in Toulouse on expatriate packages; the benefits of these might include covering school fees for their children to attend a local bilingual school, and contributions towards their rent. But it was also the case that for those working in this sector, they were likely to have permanent employment contracts. To be clear, those I spoke with were in no way complacent about this, but the signals they had received from their employer—who had made clear their opposition to Brexit during the referendum, and who employed people from all over the world—made them feel that they had less to worry about in respect to what Brexit might mean for their lives on a personal level.

The contrast in the responses above highlights the very different stakes in Brexit for UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU27. Just as those many of those working the aerospace industry, Emily is highly skilled; but the difference lies in the fact that her contract is fixed-term—emblematic of the wider conditions of employment in higher education worldwide—and how seeking a new job in the private sector as a British national might be impacted by Brexit, in turn shaping her access to continued residence in Toulouse. In the worst case scenario, without a job, she would not have sufficient resources or fulfil any of the other criteria of residence such as having a family member who is an EU national that might otherwise safeguard her residence.

This focus on Britons living in Toulouse then illustrates further the diversity of the British population living in France, a statement that can be extended into broader discussions of the British living in the EU27. Their status as employed or self-employed workers articulates with their sense of what the future might hold for them. Those on temporary contracts coming to an end and the self-employed have greater uncertainty about their futures and more questions about what Brexit will mean for their lives.

And while the recent consensus over citizens’ rights might offer some consolation and reassurance, it remains to be seen how less-than-straightforward cases that do not conform to the normative expectations of what constitutes lawful residence will be dealt with by individual nation-states.

‘They voted against everything we are!’

This research in Toulouse also brought into sharp focus what might be at stake in Brexit beyond the question of rights and entitlements, for example in respect to these Britons’ understandings of themselves and their place in the world—namely, questions of home, identity and belonging. This was particularly clear in the case of dual national families.

Kate was married to Jean, a French national. They had met in London but moved to Toulouse 15 years ago, giving up their jobs in the UK to explore what else might be on offer to them. They had three children who had both French and British passports. She described how numb Jean had been after the vote, how they had both taken the outcome very personally.

I remember him saying they have just voted against everything that we are, I was like, pretty much … but took it very personally, and just watching a country just disappear really, the country that I thought it was … We are the original EU family, he was there [in London] because the EU made it possible for him to study electronic engineering in London, that’s why he was in England, if it wasn’t freedom of movement we would never have met, we wouldn’t exist … So all our values, this is the thing, because I couldn’t work out why do I have such a powerful emotional reaction to this, isn’t this just politics? I spent a long time trying to evaluate that and I realised well good because that’s it, it’s values, this is not politics, this is all about values. This is about what’s important to you …

Free movement within the European Union had made their relationship possible, a relationship they felt as the embodiment of European integration. There is no doubt in my mind that their response to the outcome of the referendum was profound and deeply connected to their sense of who they were and their place in the world. In this case, what is at stake for these families is the sense of themselves as European; as Brexit unravels Britain’s and Britons’ relationship to Europe, what of the identity of these European families?

What her testimony and that of others like her highlight is the extent to which European citizenship was more than just a passport to live and work in another European Union member state; it was a central element of her identity, an identity around which she had organised her life. And acquiring French citizenship—which as the spouse of a French citizen would be relatively straightforward and unproblematic for Kate (that is, relative to becoming a naturalised French citizen through other routes)—would in itself not get to the heart of this upset.

For some within this population of Britons living in Toulouse then what’s at stake is about more than the rights and entitlements they have access to in consequence of being European Citizens; their reactions and responses to Brexit illustrate how this political transformation is experienced as calling into question their sense of identity and belonging, the grounds on which they have built their homes and lives in France.

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Closing thoughts

As the research progresses, our understanding of what Brexit means for UK citizens living in the EU27 deepens. The brief reflections on talking Brexit with Britons living in Toulouse draw attention to how the right to live and work in another EU nation-state, and the legal affordances related to this, concealed from view the diverse terms and conditions under which UK citizens had been able to make their homes and lives in the EU27 until now. Moving towards withdrawal, these diverse conditions will come into plain view; the divergent outcomes of Brexit for individuals laying these bare.

But as I stressed above, this is about more than rights and entitlements. Concerns over legal status should also be understood as questions about identity, home and belonging; and as the privileges that underpinned British migration to the EU27 are withdrawn, so too people question who they are and their place in the world.

To read more of Michaela’s reflections about talking Brexit with the British in Toulouse, check out her first post. You can also listen to her talking about this research here.

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