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On becoming Belgian after Brexit

Having settled in Brussels after three decades reporting about the broader Middle East, Hugh Pope is preparing for publication “The Keys to Democracy,” a book written by his late father and classicist Maurice Pope.

In April, the postman pushed a letter through my door in Brussels, creasing it from the strong spring behind the old brass letter flap. It still didn’t spoil the clear and formal message. 

“A change of nationality has been written into the registers of the state,” the stamped and signed letter informed me. “Please make an appointment with the commune to pick up your Belgian identity card.” 

I felt a surge of relief, a sense of safe haven in my current home. And just as importantly, I felt I could now be British and European again. 

On June 24, 2016, I had woken up a citizen of the United Kingdom, entitled to live and work in Belgium and 26 other European Union countries. But when I switched on the television, BBC presenters were stumbling over the news that more than half of Britons had voted for Brexit. For years after, people in my position could never be quite sure what rights the bruising negotiations would leave us with. What would happen if we lost our jobs? 

I had arrived in Belgium just a year earlier in 2015 and had been overjoyed when my Brussels commune quickly, and automatically, gave me a five-year work and residence permit. It felt like my British identity had at last given me full membership to a real international club. 

Living and working in Turkey and several Middle Eastern countries during the three previous decades, I had struggled to win or renew my residence papers, which could sometimes be valid for as little as three months. A treasured Syrian permit took me a year to get, by which time it had nearly expired. And Britain’s imperial forays in the region meant officials’ reactions to my passport ranged from skeptical to downright hostile.  

By comparison, Belgium just wanted me to be patient. It has no U.K.-style citizenship test on medieval battle dates, prime ministers’ names or 200-year-old poems. I didn’t have to dig up a list of English relatives who had fought on Belgium’s side in European wars to boost my case. All I had to do was work for five straight years, pay my taxes, supply a birth certificate, state that I wanted citizenship and pledge to submit to the Belgian constitution, the country’s laws and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  

I still wanted to do something to backfill a sense of belonging, though, so I started tuning into an amateur podcast called the Random History of Belgium. Host Manuel van den Eynde explained how the field of battle in many European wars turned Belgium into Europe’s crossroads, why Brussels ended up as Europe’s capital and how one third of the population of the city was born in another country, like me. 

Individualistic Belgians have been inventive, he related: think Bakelite, electric trams, speech recognition, the beauties of art nouveau, and some of the world’s most uncompromising modern buildings. He urged me on through the nearly 140 episodes with gently ironic humor, sips from a parade of powerful Belgian beers and the catchphrase: “Keep eating the waffles!” 

All this is helping me construct a new kind of plural identity. It’s quite different from being a full European just because I was British.

It had grated at me that ahead of Britain actually leaving the EU at the end of 2021, podcasts and websites began to include sophisticated ads from the British government, cleverly targeted at people like me, telling me what I had to do next. The intention behind them was good, but it felt off-key. Hundreds of thousands of U.K. citizens living in Europe hadn’t been offered a say in the — as it seemed to us — deeply flawed referendum that had cost us so much. So why the sudden concern? We knew, in fact, that we were on our own. 

Real decisions have real consequences. The brand value of being British has tanked, and high-flying British friends in Brussels report that headhunters no longer call. The public lies and insults of the Brexit campaign broke the magic spell of association with what had been seen as an example of stylish cool, democratic depth and prestigious world power. The shame of salary-drawing British members of the European Parliament standing with their backs to their colleagues while the EU anthem played still stings.

British citizens who were working in the official European circuit at the time were damned whether they jumped ship or not. High-ranking British officials had to choose between leaving, angling for passports from other EU countries, suffering long furloughs or losing access to posts with operational meaning. Some who went back to London said they found themselves working for ideologues, strictly instructing them to act nasty when negotiating future relationships with their former EU colleagues and friends — the Europeans began responding in kind. “My counterparts tell me that I can travel to Brussels if I like, but that they won’t be able to see me,” one British official lamented. 

In 2021, at a reception run with the engaging professionalism of U.K. diplomats in a colonnaded room of the British ambassador’s residence in Brussels, the British almost outnumbered the guests, even as the pandemic kept numbers down. U.K. representatives have little realistic chance of influencing much European policy anymore. And in the world of Europe-based policy organizations, London offices have thinned out and visits to Britain have shrunk in frequency and importance.  

Many little things have changed too. I’ve stopped ordering anything from U.K. online shops. Posting or receiving anything to the U.K. that remotely resembles a package now faces an automatic €23 charge — and that’s before the cost of postage or new customs levies. And even before the pandemic hit Brussels-London traffic on the Eurostar, boarding had started to involve passport and luggage checks worthy of an airport compared to the no-hassle, direct access to platforms for trains bound for France, Germany or the Netherlands.  

The web of connections will only continue to turn threadbare. U.K. students can no longer join Erasmus exchanges with European universities; U.K. job seekers usually can’t get entry-level jobs, and the new barriers will make them even less competitive. 

English does remain an official EU language — with Ireland and Malta as members — and it’s still the most prominent medium of communication in the EU bubble. Generations of Europeans grew up under American dominance, and French or German are not natural second languages for the Eastern European countries that joined the bloc two decades ago. But French is making a comeback, and German-born officials are feeling a wind in their sails. “Our reaction to the Ukraine war made us realize how everything feels different. We now feel really empowered as Europeans,” a German Eurocrat told me. 

“It’s not just the policy change in Berlin,” he added. “It’s the absence of the U.K., which used to trip us up every time we wanted to do something together.”

Old-school British policy supposedly feels safer when Europeans are divided. And NATO membership or not, all the signs point to the fact that the U.K.’s lack of EU membership undermines its leverage, whether London wants to sow division or build unity.

But be that as it may, the part of Brexit I never understood is the idea of “just wanting to get Britain out of Europe.” To me, that sounds like asking water not to feel wet.

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