‘Europe should be a dream.’
He was a professor at the University of Padua. He had lived all over the world. He brewed his own prosecco, and it tasted delicious. He was Italian. He had the words ‘Will you marry me?’ tattooed onto his chest. That was how he proposed to his now-fiancé.
What I love about Italians is that they say exactly what they mean, they are passionate about what they believe in, and they never skirt around a topic. You can’t get more ‘take it or leave it’ than that.
And of course, as soon as he learned I was from the UK, the conversation inevitably turned to the recent Brexit result. We drank his homemade prosecco and discussed it over the dinner table together; Italian, British, European.
Brexit has been a constant companion on my trip to Italy this summer; like my terrible tan lines, except more annoying and more difficult to get rid of. As soon as I mention that I’m from the UK people immediately say, ‘I’m so sorry about the Brexit situation. What is going on with the UK at the moment?’
That’s the reaction that Brexit is having in Europe and the rest of the world. Pity and bewilderment.
My first week in Italy was tainted by the news that the UK had voted to leave the EU. Tainted because it wasn’t the result I wanted or needed. The confirmation came through one morning of my training week at work.
There was a big group of 60 of us from different corners of the globe, excited to work in Europe for the summer. You could tell who the Brits in the room were because we couldn’t bring ourselves to even muster up a smile. We were distraught. The Scottish talked about independence. The Londoners pondered whether London was really so different from the rest of England and Wales. The Irish and Northern Irish were freaking out about border controls. David Cameron resigned. The pound dropped so low that we were afraid to withdraw money in euros.
The Americans, Canadians, Aussies, South Africans, Dutch and Trinidadians listened with sympathy:
‘Explain it to me,’ they said. ‘What does this mean for you now?’
We didn’t know. And we still don’t.
The next week and the weeks that followed, my Italian host families listened with sympathy:
‘Explain it to me,’ they said. ‘Why did people vote to leave?’
I can only answer that some people voted to leave because they thought it was best. They did their research. Some strongly believe that the EU doesn’t work for the UK. Some believe that the EU is undemocratic. Some believe that the money we put in to the EU could be better used elsewhere. They have their reasons, and although sometimes I don’t agree with them (and also sometimes they make very valid points that I do agree with), I can appreciate and respect their opinions.
However, many of those who voted to leave did not do their research. They didn’t consider the implications and consequences of their votes; the subtle changes as well as the huge changes it would bring; the domino effect of what this meant for the UK as a whole, for Scotland, for Northern Ireland, for those who rely on international business, or who live abroad or… the list is endless because it’s everyone.
The stories that followed the result made me so ashamed to be British. Stories of people yelling in the streets at each other, ‘Leave the country. We don’t want you here!’ Working immigrants being told to, ‘Pack your bags. You’re going home!’
Many interpreted the referendum as a vote about immigration. Those votes weren’t grounded in reason, or research, or thoughts for what was best of the people of the UK. Those votes were grounded in ignorance and hate. And therefore I can’t bring myself to respect those votes, or to respect the Brexit result itself because of them.
The issue of immigration really hits home for me because I am an immigrant. Sometimes people forget that. We like to think of an immigrant in terms of a stereotype that in reality doesn’t exist. In Hong Kong, we like to dress it up and say ‘expat’ because it sounds cooler, but at the end of the day I am an immigrant.
I left the UK in 2011 because I couldn’t get a job – any job, including unpaid internships and part-time work at McDonalds. That’s what migration is. The search for a better opportunity elsewhere. And many people congratulate me for living and working abroad, calling me brave or free-spirited or cultured, all while condemning those who come over to the UK for the same reasons.
Did you know that the UK has the highest number of citizens working abroad of any country in Europe? Therefore, Britain is the biggest producer of immigrants in Europe.
Today, I am an immigrant working in Hong Kong and I’m an immigrant working and travelling in Italy, a country in the EU. Will I still have the same freedom to work visa-free in an EU country in a couple of years’ time? Possibly. But it won’t be as easy. And this limbo period of uncertainty isn’t making it any easier.
I’ve been putting off writing a blog about Brexit partly because I still find it upsetting, partly because there are still no clear answers as to what this means for the UK, and partly because I’m sick of talking about it. But here I am writing about the dreaded B-word because the shadow it has cast on my summer here in Italy has been so vast and so dark that I can’t ignore it. It’s become a big part of my experience here.
And then an Italian man in my first host family this summer managed to sum up all of my feelings in one short sentence:
‘Europe should be a dream.’
Those words were so perfect.
Forget the politics, the backstabbing politicians, the migration issues, the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism, the EU and the bloody money of it all, and consider that statement.
Britain likes to believe it is separate from Europe, like a big castle with a wide moat surrounding it. Britain refers to itself as the UK, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales… and Europe as somewhere else. A completely ‘other’ place. A place different in terms of economy, geography and values, among many other things. The UK is an island unto itself.
Except it isn’t. It’s in Europe.
Whether it’s a part of the EU or not, the UK is still in Europe. We can’t just raise anchor and move out. The British Isles aren’t going anywhere. Europe is not going anywhere.
Europe should be a dream.
It really should. Rather than thinking of Brexit as the problem, I now believe that Brexit may just be one symptom of a much larger problem. For a continent that is in reality so small, and made up of so many tiny jigsaw-piece countries, we focus more on what divides us rather than unites us.
And for a world so small, and made up of so many borders and limitations both visible and invisible, why can’t we at least attempt, hope and dream to come together, EU or no EU, to admit that we are all part of the same? That we have a responsibility to each other. We can’t let our fears of what is ‘different’ or ‘foreign’ get in the way of that.
So despite all the negativity, the uncertainty and the constant questions from others as well as myself as to what the future holds post-Brexit, this is what I’m choosing to focus on. This is what I am going to promote.
The dream of Europe.
A Europe with a proud and unified identity.
Because I am European.