Point of no return

In which former Medway councillor Anne-Claire Howard tells us what leaving the European Union today means to her..

On the 31st of January, I won’t be “celebrating”. There will be no “freedom regained”, no “joy at overthrowing the shackles of Brussels”. Instead there will be sadness and mourning that something unique and promising has been lost. Not just to me (because it hasn’t entirely for me) but for the young generation, for those who didn’t want to leave, for those who will – in time – come to regret leaving.

Since the early morning of the 24th June 2016, I’ve been slowly working my way through the stages of grief. Well no, let’s be honest, I started with denial, then anger, then depression, and anger again. And I honestly think that I will never reach acceptance.

So what does “Brexit” mean for me? Where do I – a French woman who chose for love to live and work in the UK – go from here? How am I impacted? How is my family impacted by a decision in which we had no say since I was not allowed to vote (and neither were hundreds of thousands of Brits who live abroad)?

First of all, I hate this word, this concept of “Brexit”. 51.8% of those who voted in June 2016 voted for the UK to “leave” the European Union. This is not the majority of the British population, only the majority of those who exercised their right to vote. What this leaving meant, what the possible consequences would be, no one knew, articulated or explored. Brexit means a hundred different things and therefore nothing. And if you think it’s “done” you are utterly deluded. Today is only the beginning.

What does today mean for me and my family? I am French. My husband is British. My two wonderful daughters are fortunate enough to hold both a French and a British passport. And yet, everything changes for us today.

I have had to apply for “settled status”. Many Brexiters have already told me this was “nothing”, a “pure formality” and that for “someone like me” (read white, Western European, Christian heritage, in a high-tax bracket) this was really not a burden. They aren’t wrong, the process for me was very simple and straight forward since I have been in full time employment ever since I came to this country. But if I had not, if I had chosen to stop working after having my children, if I had chosen to look after my ageing mother for a few years, if I had been unlucky enough to be made redundant, if I only worked part time or not at all, it would not have been simple and straightforward.

So yes, applying for settled status was simple. And yet I still cried when I got the letter confirming my status. Cried because I had been afraid of not getting it and run the risk of being deported. Cried because it was insulting to have to apply for the right to remain in my home, to remain with my family, to remain in a place where the majority of those who voted have clearly signalled that foreigners like me are a burden to this society. It’s not wonder I have spent the last six months working through severe depression.

I have no certainty on what my rights will be moving forward: will I have to pay additional insurance despite the fact I pay taxes? Will my pension rights accumulated here and in other European countries be applicable? I also have no idea if my husband could move to another European country with me. He chose to leave the fire brigade when we had a child so he could look after our children. With UK nationals now no longer having freedom of movement to work or live in Europe, there is no guarantee he could move anywhere with me, including to my home country.

I travel a lot for work, and as of today, I have no paperwork that proves my right to be here. So what happens next time I leave and want to come back? How will I have the certainty that my right to be in this country will be respected? The government refuses to give us any tangible proof of the right we have to be here.

Beyond this, I am affected by Brexit in exactly the same way as any resident of the UK in all but one way: I won’t need to apply to go to Schengen countries as I can travel on my French passport. But much like everyone else in this country, my EHIC card won’t be valid, I’ll most likely need additional health insurance when I travel, I’ll need a green card to take my car abroad, my dogs’ passport won’t be valid anymore, going abroad will be more expensive if the pound falls..

But unlike many other Europeans who like myself find themselves in limbo, I have one saving grace: my children have dual citizenship. Unlike millions of British children, teenagers, young adults (or older ones) they have not been stripped of their freedom to study, work, live in the rest of the European Union. They will not lose their right to benefit from the Erasmus programme. They will be free to cross borders without wondering if they need additional health insurance, a visa, to fill in paperwork.

So what does Brexit mean to me? It means a country voluntarily taking away the rights of not only their citizens, but also the over 3 million of us who made a home here. It means Brits abroad wondering what their status will be in the places they call home. It means open hatred of foreigners, open racism and xenophobia becoming acceptable. It means people having been convinced that they were somehow captive to the European Union.

But overwhelmingly, it means that I now live every single day somewhere between great sadness at what has been loss, and great anger at this day being viewed as a celebration. I will now wait, like any person living in the UK, to see what deal is made and what this means for my rights and those of my family. But I am lucky, if we want to move as a family, we can still move easily to one of the other EU nations as I still have the right to live and work there.

Anne-Claire Howard has been a Medway resident since 2013, and is a proud European, CEO, mother of 2 who is married to former army officer and fire fighter. She was elected as a Conservative councillor for Twydall in 2015, before going independent in 2018, and standing down last year.

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