A relationship beyond borders: The emotional impact of Brexit
Visibly French, invisible mixed feelings. Courtesy of the author.
On a hot summer day in June last year, I left the train station having said goodbye to my fiancé and partner of seven years as he left to deploy with the British Army to the Middle East.
It had been 36 months since the Brexit referendum and there were still debates on whether it was really going to happen – Theresa May had just stepped down as Prime Minister, the European Parliament elections had just been held and I, like many EU citizens, was sad, confused and mostly lost. I had spent the last nine months panicking, trying not to spiral, after my fiancé, an Army officer, announced on a Wednesday evening that he would be deploying to Iraq.
We had met in Birmingham, where I, as a French national, had been sent for a year as part of my degree through the Erasmus programme. After a few years of a long-distance relationship, I decided to move back to the UK, which was rather easy. I gained a job, a ferry ticket, showed my ID at the border and moved in. I felt welcomed. I started drinking tea with milk, ate mince pies, built friendships with Brits and discovered the Army life as my boyfriend went through Sandhurst. Then on June 23, 2016 the Brexit referendum happened.
The result made me feel unwelcome, panicked and angry.
As outlined in the Survey Report the3million released in January 2020: ‘while for many British citizens the possibility of Brexit has been a moveable date in the future until very recently, for EU/EEA and Swiss citizens it has effectively been happening every day of their lives since 24 June 2016 .’ Brexit, at least to me, has never been an abstract concept; from the day of the vote itself, I have been left with an insidious and underlying fear. It wouldn’t, couldn’t go away. Expression of similar feelings had been reported in the press by The Independent and The Guardian. A 40-year-old Italian national summarised the situation on behalf of all EU nationals: ‘We all feel so lonely in this situation and what really hurts the most is the apathy among people who are not affected and seem not to care enough to raise their voices. They keep telling us that we’ll be fine. We are already not fine.’
I was not fine.
As the Brexit deadline, combined with my partner’s leaving date, approached, I became obsessed with putting down roots. I needed us to get married. I needed us to find a place. I needed to ensure my life had ties to the place I now called home. I was often told not to catastrophise, even by my partner, with many I knew and loved saying things like: ‘It may be years before Brexit happens’, which blended heavenly with, ‘He will be back before you know it’ and ‘They won’t deport European citizens, you know’.
But they didn’t know, and neither did I.
The lack of certainty, more than anything, was the constant burden, unavoidable and inescapable. Was I catastrophising or was my reaction proportional? How would anyone react to the prospect of being rejected, potentially having to leave the country they had chosen to make their home and be on their own, without the person for whom they had moved, and to be in that situation whilst your partner is serving that same country?
Being exhausted was my initial feeling.
This prolonged experience of questioning and worries made me feel disconnected from people around me, my home country and Britain. Interestingly, the3million report highlighted a feeling resonating with my experience named ‘un-belonging’. They define it as ‘the feeling of people who thought they were well integrated, become disintegrated almost overnight.’ My experience has been difficult to share reliably with my British partner, his family, my friends and colleagues. How do you explain that when the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson vows an end to migrants ‘treating Britain as their own’ you feel dejected, even betrayed by the system that you contribute to and believe in? It left me wondering whether I was still part of the public debate. If nobody around me could understand my view point, or even hear it, did I still belong to that community? In a similar way, France felt far and my worries were not understood that side of the channel either.
The more I tried to figure out why I felt like spiralling, the more the actual parameters of abandonment appeared. It felt as if the country that rejected me was also taking the person who made me feel most at home. And it’s not a temporary affliction, it's the way things are for the Army partners who happen to be EU citizens. This may on reflection be a harsh observation on the country that provided so much for me, but the blow of personal separation only served to make the potential future division we faced even more real. That experience has made me realise that the challenges faced by European citizens aren’t transient but systemic.
So what now?
As a 90s baby born and raised in France, I can’t remember life before the Schengen Agreement. I grew up in Lille, in the North of France, and as a child, I would pop over an invisible border with my parents to buy plants for the garden and beers for the table. Later, as a student in Strasbourg, I could cross the border with Germany anytime, mainly for a cheeky burger at the 24/7 fast food. Despite the fact that the French/UK border was not fluid, it has been easy to pop over to visit my family. Today, my family and friends are worried about attending our wedding later this year as it will take place in England.
My love for both my partner and my adopted country, which was formed across borders, remains strong and proof in my own mind that any type of Brexit could never erode this completely. I will still vote in the next council elections, I will still get involved in my community and I will still be honoured should I be granted British citizenship. So it combines the love of a person, a place and culture, all testing the emotional range one is capable of.
Toni Morrison said it first: ‘Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool.’
Camille is an editor, multimedia journalist and communications specialist who has worked with organisations like European Youth Press, The National Student and the Council of Europe. She has a Masters in Corporate Strategy and Finance from Sciences Po Strasbourg as well as a Master's level Diploma in law, economics, history, sociology and political science. She is passionate about women's issues, representation, education and all things equal-opportunity related.