Wherever I end up, I will always hold on to a deep sense of European identity
– Sophie in Brussels
My name is Sophie and I’m a 21-year-old Masters student. I was born in the UK but my family moved to Brussels when I was 3 years old as my dad had taken a job in the European Commission. Although in many ways we fit the stereotypical image of British ‘expats’ living abroad, one aspect has made my experience of growing up in Belgium relatively unique: my education.
From the ages of 6 to 18 I attended one of the EU’s European Schools, which are a network of schools across Europe established since the 1950s with the aim of providing a mother-tongue education for the children of EU institution employees. The Schools are divided into ‘language sections’ which deliver lessons in an official EU language, and place a strong emphasis on language learning from a young age. The Schools aim to foster a sense of European identity among pupils which is achieved both through incorporating a European dimension into the syllabus and encouraging pupils to socialise across linguistic, national and cultural divides.
This meant that I spent my childhood and adolescence growing up alongside a diverse group of fellow pupils, learning about European history and geography, and being taught about the origins and evolution of the European Union itself. It was totally normal to walk down a corridor and hear six or seven languages being spoken, to see the European flag flying on school grounds, to celebrate Europe Day on 9th May and to sing the European anthem before our annual school festival. It was only when I left school and went to university that it really hit me how different this experience is to national and even international education systems, as it had been so normalised at the time.
The practical consequences of the Leave vote are unlikely to be insignificant, but for me it has been the symbolic implications that have hit the hardest. Having grown up in a highly concentrated European context believing wholeheartedly in the European project and its associated values, to learn that the UK would be divorcing itself from that project was a real shock on a very personal level. I had been taught from a young age how to be a ‘good European citizen’, but now I have to reconcile the fact that my national and European identities may no longer be wholly compatible.
Brexit has made me re-evaluate my relationship with my British identity, which has undergone several shifts in the last few years. Spending so much time around children of other nationalities growing up, I was always highly conscious of my British identity as nationality was an important way in which we defined ourselves. Although I had no memory of living there, I always saw the UK as my ‘homeland’ and place of origin. On moving ‘back’ to the UK for university, however, I became aware of my ‘foreignness’ and that I was somewhat distanced from a full, authentic sense of Britishness. Before I had a chance to truly (re)integrate myself the referendum shook things up again and I began to feel dislocated from a British identity in new ways.
I always had vague intentions to return to Belgium or another European country to start my career, especially as my degree lends itself to an international context. In a sense this coming year represents something of a critical juncture for me as I need to balance practical decisions about where I want to settle and find a job with what is actually possible in terms of the rights that British people in the EU27 will have after Brexit goes through. One thing I do know is that wherever I end up, I will always hold on to a deep sense of European identity and an openness towards other languages and cultures.