Europe

In post-Brexit UK, some Britons still embrace a European identity

By her own admission, Jane Riekemann steered clear of politics for much of her life. That all changed when Brexit happened, and her German husband had to take dual British citizenship to stay in the country.

With Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Ms. Riekemann says she felt a new sense of a European identity – even if it is one born out of loss.

“Being part of a wider community where once I could live and work freely was very important to me – countries without borders,” she says from her home in the historic English city of Bath, a place she describes as politically “donut” – an enclave of those who voted to remain in Europe surrounded by Brexiteers.

“I feel the loss of my legal EU identity keenly,” she says. “The people I’ve campaigned with have similar feelings and still consider themselves European.”

Ms. Riekemann is part of a significant number of Britons who regard themselves not only as British, but as European. Despite Britain’s decision to leave the EU, a sense of interconnectedness with the continent has manifested itself increasingly since the 2016 referendum. But with Brexit now realized, European-minded Britons are left to find a new way to express their identity. For some, that has meant trying to create a new, pro-Europe media to counter the largely Brexit-leaning mainstream. Others are attempting to set the stage for a British return to the bloc in some form.

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Though a Europeanist path for Britons is foggy, if it exists at all, those like Ms. Riekemann are staunch in their faith. “I have never wavered in my belief in Europe,” she says. “In the almost five years since the referendum, I have become stronger in my conviction that leaving Europe is a huge mistake. But where do we go now?”

Feeling European after Brexit

For Britons like Alex Agnew, a university student and campaigner, being in the EU meant being part of a “shared cultural identity” that “genuinely worked to bring down artificial travel and work barriers.” And anti-Brexit journalist Sam Bright says a European identity has helped him to feel a “part of the struggle to protect and extend liberal democracy, social equality, opportunity, and common welfare.”

“Having a general sense of cooperation and treating asylum seekers and immigrants with fairness; having a fairer and more just economic system,” he says. “That’s perhaps not quite as radical as people may think, but being European meant supporting these core values.” The rise of populism, he argues, only serves to “increase people’s desire to identify as European in Britain.”

Ms. Riekemann has expressed herself by establishing grassroots protest groups and publicly displaying her affection for all things Europe. A yellow-painted owl statue by the name of ‘Libby’ (named after the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s pro-EU political party) sits perched proudly by Ms. Riekemann’s window. Her anti-Brexit campaign group Bath For Europe created handmade EU-themed berets that quickly became iconic symbols of British Europeanism for protests that attracted a million people into London’s streets in 2018. Her anti-Brexit group designed fake anti-Brexit banknotes featuring Boris Johnson, now stored in the British Museum.

Mike Buckley, director of the Labour for Europe group, says Britons will increasingly miss out on chance encounters with European migrants that enrich daily lives. Over 700,000 migrant workers left Britain in 2020, a vast majority of them returning back to Eastern Europe. “We’ve all been used to finding Europeans behind the counter at Starbucks. … [Now] suddenly you’ll get British accents talking at you. We’ll think, ‘What’s happened to London?’”

The pro-European, small-scale media that have rapidly emerged since Brexit are helping to create a community for Britons to maintain a pro-European identity despite the U.K’s rupture from Brussels. Mr. Bright, who has worked for pro-European British publications Scram News and Byline Times, says pro-European Britons have created an “impetus for new media publications tapping into a desire” to keep Britain European in vision. And in that pursuit, pro-Europeans have caused a “realignment of the media space” dominated by conservative-leaning legacy publications in favor of Brexit.

A path back to Europe?

While Brexit has faded from public discussion this year, pro-European Britons continue to pour their energy into campaigns for a political, and cultural, union to return. Campaign group Stay European gained more than 162,000 members in 2020 with its vision for Britain to apply for associate membership, the closest relationship a country can have to the bloc while remaining outside the EU.

Mr. Agnew, who was too young to vote in 2016, says that while “the emotive arguments have been lost” for Britain returning to the European fold, change requires “baby steps, such as trying to get facts out in a nonpartisan way” and informing the public about how “boring policy” hits people’s daily lives.

Mr. Buckley says he staunchly believes that young Britons’ growing sense of belonging to a pro-European movement will “inevitably” lead to the country returning to the EU. “If you think gay marriage is fine when you’re 20, you don’t hate it when you’re 50. I think young people’s pro-Europeanism will stick around as they get older and are more likely to vote.”

Like many others though, he fears there are few, if any, political cheerleaders championing Britons who feel aligned with Europe.

Still, across the English Channel, Liesje Schreinemacher, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, says the centuries old exchange of people and ideas between the U.K. and her native Netherlands is an example of a deep-rooted Europeanness that will never be broken.

“There will always be cultural ties between the EU and the U.K. I think we will keep that bond strong,” she says. “Speaking as a Dutch woman, they [Britons] are our neighbors; many of our citizens have connections with the U.K. through family or study or work.

“I believe it will be good for the U.K. to return to the EU. There’s a new word: the Breturn!”

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