Since the 23rd of June 2016, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after more than 40 years of membership, I have been watching the drama that is Brexit unfold with both interest and incredulity.
In the UK things appear to be happening both incredibly quickly and incredibly slowly. Every day brings a new crisis with apparently no agreeable or discernible solution. Westminster is in utter chaos, differences appear to be irreconcilable, and the future is looking increasingly uncertain. So much has changed and yet it would seem that we are no further forward than the day after the referendum.
Much has been said and written regarding the impact this political crisis is having on the British economy, the healthcare system and the movement of people, but the impact of Brexit is much wider than this. According to a survey by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) around one in three Brits believes that Brexit has had a negative impact on their mental health. Many describe themselves as struggling with the uncertainty, hopelessness, and a lack of control. Others speak of feeling anxious and stressed, whilst others still worry about the impact that Brexit will have on their finances and careers.
Even less however has been said about the three quarters of a million British Citizens that no longer reside in the UK but have chosen to live and work abroad. They are truly the forgotten casualties of Brexit. 700,000 British nationals living outside of the UK were unable to vote in the 2016 EU referendum. Yet the impact of Brexit is likely to be very significant for them both psychologically and economically, particularly if Brexit ends in no deal.
The experience of the Brexit referendum from an expatriate’s point of view has been, for many of us, one of embarrassment and shame. As a Brit in Norway I have a personal stake in this topic and find myself embarrassed by the spectacle of the country I once proudly referred to as “home”. Admired by the Nordic people for our politeness, our culture and our history, I find myself deeply ashamed when asked to explain the way politicians talk to, and treat one another, in parliament. Although shocked at the drama that is Brexit I find that the Nordic people are perhaps not altogether surprised given the British penchant for satire, and our diet of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. Watching a commons debate these days can be just as entertaining as any of the familiar old British TV series!
It is not just with the eyes of an expat that I view the social and psychological experiment that is Brexit. As Clinical Psychologist it is with deep concern that I have begun to wonder what toll this political crisis is having on the wellbeing of those British citizens that live in out with the UK. In terms of mental health those factors which we know to be extremely important and conducive to psychological wellbeing include a sense of connection and belonging. When I left the UK in 2012 to come to Norway it was not an act of rejection. In fact the feeling of belonging, and my sense of Britishness, intensified if anything. I began to truly recognise and realise what it was to be British. Whether it is family, friends, a religion, a country, or something else entirely, people tend to have an inherent desire to belong. To be part of something greater than themselves. In the aftermath of the referendum however, as the community we remember with fonddness rapidly unravels, British expatriates are forced to reconsider their sense of identity and belonging. Prior to Brexit we likely broadly agreed on what it meant to be “British”. Brexit however has challenged us all to reflect on this and ask the question of who belongs to British society. And of course who does not.
Many British nationals, myself very much included, have created physical and material homes in other European countries but continue to have a home, in a psychological sense, in the UK. This is perhaps where they feel most ‘at home', where they grew up and locate many of their memories and emotions, where they feel most easily understood and perhaps even accepted. Our social and cultural identities therefore may not fall easily into one category and we can think of ourselves as being both ‘ British’ and ‘other than British’ in the same breath. In the era of Brexit however, Britishness as an identity has become much more tightly defined, as has the range of people who are viewed as belonging to that in-group. Moreover the idea that such national identities would diminish in importance and people might see themselves as European citizens first and foremost, and as British, Norwegian and so fourth second, has all but been dissolved by Brexit. Perhaps the idea that a sense of identity could stretch across borders and unite different groups of people was overly simplistic and naive dream to begin with, but it was one I aspired to and was inspired by nevertheless. What I have sadly come to realise however is that how we see ourselves and how other people see us has changed and is changing. As a British expat living abroad we are being forced to reappraise our sense of identity both in terms of our British and European citizenship. Perhaps leading us to experience a sense of psychological homelessness, belonging and identifying with no where.
In one way or another the spectre of Brexit is affecting us all, whether we live in the UK or not.
We are all expats. We all have British passports. We all have unsettled status.