As I’m writing this, it looks as if Britain has voted to leave the EU.
It’s hitting me like a ton of EU-approved bricks, because this decision just simply doesn’t make sense. Part of me — a very big part, I hasten to add — strongly believes in democracy, and if this really is what the demos want, then so be it. The people have spoken.
I just don’t understand how we got here. How this was even sort of remotely possible. To understand why I’m so upset, I’ll have to share a story with you.
It’s all over
I always describe myself as a post-nationalist. The question “Where are you from” causes me great anxiety, because it isn’t a place-name. It isn’t even an anecdote. I have a Dutch passport, but I left when I was 5. Well; I guess no 5-year-old leaves their country of birth. My parents did, and hauled me along with them.
I grew up in Norway, before going to university in the U.K., and staying in the U.K. for a very long time indeed. In fact, the U.K. is where I’ve spent more years of my life than any other country. Being in the U.K. was easy; with a Dutch passport, and with the U.K. being part of the EU, there was never any question about whether it was OK for me to be there. A shrug and a raised eyebrow, accompanied with a gruff “welcome home” was as much as I could expect at the U.K. border.
And, damn it, that’s the way it should be. Europe is too small to worry about borders internally. The economies in question are too small and too insignificant to have an impact each to their own. The free-trade agreements baked into the core of the EU is what makes all of this possible; staying competitive in a rapidly growing, fiercely international world.
Flirting with British citizenship
As an EU citizen in the U.K., I wondered whether I ought to become a U.K. citizen. The only reason to do so would be so I could vote in the general elections. And after one of those elections a few years ago, I was angry enough about the result to actually pull the trigger. I went through the courses, I did all the training, I sat an English language test (you’ll be surprised to learn that even though English is my third language, I passed) and the naturalization test. I passed. But in the end, I elected not to take my British nationality. Why? Because the Netherlands were being a-holes and wouldn’t let me keep my Dutch citizenship.
No biggie, I thought at the time. One EU citizenship is as good as any other. But the thing that gave me pause at the time was that a) getting a British passport would be expensive. By the time you’ve totted up all the fees, tests, etc., I reckoned it would cost me £1,500 (around $2,000 at the time) to get my first British passport. Add that to the fact that I would have to give up my Dutch passport, which would have been fine (I am about as Dutch as a load of English fools on a stag do smoking weed and shagging prostitutes in Amsterdam) — if it hadn’t been for the fact that this would be problematic in case I would ever need to be at the receiving end of an inheritance from my parents. Tax laws being what they are, being a Dutch citizen, I was advised, would be a huge benefit.
So I did the math: Taking a British passport just to be able to vote in a handful of general elections would cost me around $500 per election. In other words, it just wouldn’t be worth it. So I abandoned my plans to take a new passport, and kept my Dutch one. That may, in retrospect, prove to have been a very poor decision.
EU nationality for the win
The only reason I was able to spend 14 years in the U.K. was my Dutch (EU) nationality. The only reason I was able to bring my beautiful (American) wife back with me after we lived in Argentina for a year was that, at that point, she was married to an EU citizen.
These days, I live in the U.S., and I like it here. California is fantastic. Beautiful, downtown Oakland, California is lovely. But — as anyone who knows my wife and I can attest, even having a green card in this fair country doesn’t mean that anything is “forever.”
And now, with the U.K. potentially leaving the EU, I’m properly, comprehensively and scarily boned.
You see, the “remain” camp had it comparatively easy; they were simply arguing for the status quo. Perhaps they were going to argue to try to work on the EU from within, but that isn’t the point. Not the point at all. Because it looks like this referendum has triggered something far more sinister: A plunge into the unknown.
The “leave” camp has been playing up some serious rhetoric — some of it fair, some of it utter bollocks. But the one thing it hasn’t offered is a real indication of what would happen should they actually win the election.
And that is really, really scary.
Because right now, nobody knows what’s next.
A plunge into the unknown
As it stands, it looks as if they won. And as an EU citizen living abroad, but having lived most of my adult life in the U.K., I am scared. Really, really scared.
My wife and I bought our first flat together in London a few years ago. It’s a tiny little thing; a one-bedroom hole in the wall. It’s not fancy. But it’s ours. We planned to live there for a long time. But then, as it is wont to do, life caught up with us and, for various reasons, we had to move to be closer to her family in California.
And now we’re in a really weird situation. I don’t know whether I will be able to go back to the U.K. I don’t know if I can come back to help run the company I founded five years ago, which at some point employed 12 staff members (it’s fewer now, but I’d like to think that at some point I was personally responsible for 12 jobs and 12 people paying taxes in Britain).
Right now, I don’t know if I’d be eligible to take a job in the U.K. I don’t know if I could found another company. Hell, I am not even completely sure they wouldn’t take one look at my passport and tell me to go do one. Visiting as a tourist? Sure, why not. Anything else? Who knows.
I don’t even know if I can go back to the U.K. to live in the flat my wife and I bought in London.
Can you imagine being in a situation where you’re not able to move back into your own home, because a referendum went a way you didn’t expect?
Can you imagine not being able to travel to work at a company you founded, because of a vote that caught you with your trousers around your ankles?
Can you imagine the incredible anxiety caused by simply not knowing?
A lot can be said about the financial impact of all of this — and I’m sure that will come, both on TechCrunch and elsewhere — but the main thing that’s sinking in for me right now is that nobody knows anything.
Nobody knows what happens next
The really petrifying thing we — everyone who are in situations similar to mine — are facing right now is that we have no idea what is going to happen next. None. The people advocating for the exit don’t have a plan. They have no specifics. Nobody knows what the policies, politics and laws will pan out to be for the next decade.
I am not even talking about the next two years, when the country will have to keep its mind straight not to rip itself apart trying to find out what to do about all of this. Especially, come to think of it, exactly how it will negotiate its way out of the EU. I’m talking about what happens after that. The truly bleak and unknowable future.
Don’t get me wrong. A tiny part of me is curious. The Economist-reading, political scientist part of me wants to know how Britain will negotiate an exit. How it would structure its laws, immigration politics, trade policies, and how it plans to extract itself from the rules and regulations it currently adheres to. That part would be fascinating to observe, and I genuinely look forward to that. It’s completely uncharted territory, and an academic’s wet dream. No country in the world has gone through it before. For a policy and politics buff like myself, the next 24 months are going to be a buffet of intrigue. But only if we can trust the current set of politicians to be even vaguely competent. And on that front, I have some reservations.
Having said all of that, I would have to admit that the same part that is curious about the political ramifications of a Brexit is the same part of me that wonders how much I would bleed if I were to take a shotgun and put a hole in my foot. Yes, undeniably, the empiricist in me is curious. I love an X-ray and some emergency surgery as much as the next man. It would be fascinating.
But nobody in their right mind would shoot their foot off with a shotgun. Much like nobody who knows what the implications are would have voted to leave the EU.
As much as I would love to place my faith 100 percent in democracy, I simply cannot understand what just happened to the U.K. For Britain, it is going to be difficult. Scary. A path fraught with dangers, traps and tigers hiding behind the no-longer-EU-approved forest.
And for me personally, this is an absolute tragedy. And I don’t know what to say about it. So without actually leaving you with a conclusion (sorry), I’ll leave you with the same words with which I started this piece…
What the actual hell, Britain?