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Europe: The Final Countdown

How It Feels to Be a Brit Living in Germany After the Brexit

I'm based in Berlin, with my Italian wife and our seven-month-old kid, and it already feels as though something in the air has changed since the referendum result.

by Tom Littlewood
Jun 27 2016, 12:00am

Photo by Gergana Petrova

On Friday my colleagues in the UK asked me to write about how it feels to be a Brit based in the EU, post-Brexit. The short version: not great. I've been living in Berlin since my life as a student ended and have grown more estranged from the country that formed much of who I am. After ten years as a more or less functioning member of German society, I float in a sort of grey nationless state, somewhere between the Queen's royal waves and Angela Merkel's diamond-hand gesture, the Bermuda-Raute—and it's nice here.

When I first moved to Germany in 2005, being British was considered charming, world-savvy, cool. It was easy to get the impression that people appreciated you. Now, just says into a new dawn, it feels like the vibe has changed. How violently depends on the people in your social media feeds—but in a non-representative breakdown, the immediate reaction in Germany to Britain's decision to leave the EU can be generally split into three sentiments:

"Oh no! That's such a shame, we loved you guys being around."

or

"You idiots. How could you actually decide to do this?"

and

"You fucking idiots. How could you actually decide to do this to yourselves? But also to us? We've been working on building a strong and united Europe for 70 years. And now this?

(Pause, before muttering in German):

Nein, aber wirklich, wie konnten die nur?"

As an expat you get constantly asked, "Will you ever go back?" Knowing that there's still a great deal of uncertainty about how shit it's really going to get, Britain might not be a desirable place to move back to anymore. That thought alone makes me feel like an asshole, a deserter—and that is hard to swallow.

Growing up in the rural backlands of the East Midlands—between economic decline and endless fields of tulips—I've always been drawn elsewhere. Which is why, not knowing what to study at college, I chose languages. I felt I owed it to myself to take advantage of the possibilities that being in the EU had given me, and there was something romantic about the boy from the fens setting out into big old world to find his fortune. So I left.

In the years that followed, South Lincolnshire suffered dramatically as the agriculture industry, which had provided a comfortable way of life for locals for many years, began to shrivel. Europe offered a possible fix: an injection of cheap labor from places like Romania, Poland, and the Baltic states. It was precisely this wave of immigration that allowed local businesses to survive. But it was never going to be able to re-invigorate the local economy. It is heartbreaking, if not surprising, that on June 23, Boston, England—the town in which I was born—had the highest rate of Leave voters in the entire country: 75.6 percent.

Since that day, I've considered how much of my decision to leave the UK was down to me being pushed, or wanting to jump. Europe, and particularly Germany, have been good to me: welcoming, accommodating, and, in many ways, exotic. Living in a country that is not your own gives you a sense of detachment. That can be hard to deal with at the beginning, but it also extends you an emotional distance to the people around you. Something I never had when dealing with the shame of overhearing conversations about the "fucking Pakis" in my hometown pub.

That feeling of being an outsider in my place of birth was only strengthened each time I returned. Standing outside that same pub, five years later, I was approached by three guys, not yet 16. They saw I had a six pack of beer, and while one goaded me to "give us one, mate," another, who had walked round behind me, ripped a bottle out of my hands. They ran off down the street celebrating, leaving me standing in broken glass with beer-stained sneakers.

Faced with that question of going back, British expats have to consider the possibility of returning to a country that's become an outcast.

At the same time, Germany, and Berlin in particular, feels like home—from the acidic smell of the underground to the Prussian faith in bureaucratic rationality. And living in this society for some time has impacted the way I see the world, as well as my emotional attachment to certain parts of it.

It's interesting that terms like "doing your bit" and "digging in" hark back to the process of rebuilding nations broken by the Second World War—the lasting moment when Europe united against the threat of fascism, something indelibly connected to what's known in Germany as "Nationalstolz." The idea of patriotism was a key selling point for the Leave campaign, but is actually still somewhat taboo in Germany. For example, some Germans felt pangs of guilt as they put seven goals past Brazil in the World Cup (in their own country) and recently a group of anti-fascist lads in Leipzig held a competition to steal as much German fan merchandise as possible, during the current European Championship. The group ended up burning a pile of nylon flags after midnight in a park. After living in a country like that for over a decade, you start to think differently about national pride.

Faced with that question of going back, British expats have to consider the possibility of returning to a country that's become a failed outcast, no longer part of a strong economic union that also grapples with the ambitious concept of working together to make a decent life for the people in that union, with the world at large. As a British expat in the EU it doesn't feel great, knowing that we're the ones who made that dream for Europe look like a naive ideal.

Living in Berlin with my Italian wife and our seven-month-old, I'm starting to think very differently about national pride and the meaning of Europe. I don't feel a duty to Britain, despite feeling terrible about the vote. Instead I feel a duty to foster a much broader sense of belonging in future generations, rather than leave them with a legacy of exclusion.

Follow Tom Littlewood on Twitter.