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On becoming Belgian after Brexit

As a person of English culture and British nationality but living in Brussels and feeling European (with South African and Turkish elements too), I struggled to express what it felt like when Britain withdrew from the European Union.

After the Brexit vote on 23 June 2015, I sometimes wondered if I was on board the Titanic or whether I was on one of the lifeboats. Or I felt like I was a child again on one of the ocean liners at the moment it set sail from Cape Town and Europe in the 1960s (the normal way to travel then). One by one, the streamers held by passengers at one end and their friends and family on the quayside would snap until the separation was complete.

Politico gave me a chance to write up my feelings ahead of the sixth anniversary of this messy British-EU divorce. Luckily, for me at least, they have now begun to heal thanks to the blessing of a grant of Belgian nationality.


On becoming Belgian after Brexit

BY HUGH POPE May 22, 2022

In April, the postman pushed a letter through my door in Brussels, creasing it from the strong spring behind the old brass letter flap. It still didn’t spoil the clear and formal message. 

“A change of nationality has been written into the registers of the state,” the stamped and signed letter informed me. “Please make an appointment with the commune to pick up your Belgian identity card.” 

I felt a surge of relief, a sense of safe haven in my current home. And just as importantly, I felt I could now be British and European again. 

On June 24, 2016, I had woken up a citizen of the United Kingdom, entitled to live and work in Belgium and 26 other European Union countries. But when I switched on the television, BBC presenters were stumbling over the news that more than half of Britons had voted for Brexit. For years after, people in my position could never be quite sure what rights the bruising negotiations would leave us with. What would happen if we lost our jobs? 

I had arrived in Belgium just a year earlier in 2015 and had been overjoyed when my Brussels commune quickly, and automatically, gave me a five-year work and residence permit. It felt like my British identity had at last given me full membership to a real international club. 

Living and working in Turkey and several Middle Eastern countries during the three previous decades, I had struggled to win or renew my residence papers, which could sometimes be valid for as little as three months. A treasured Syrian permit took me a year to get, by which time it had nearly expired. And Britain’s imperial forays in the region meant officials’ reactions to my passport ranged from skeptical to downright hostile.  

By comparison, Belgium just wanted me to be patient. It has no U.K.-style citizenship test on medieval battle dates, prime ministers’ names or 200-year-old poems. I didn’t have to dig up a list of English relatives who had fought on Belgium’s side in European wars to boost my case. All I had to do was work for five straight years, pay my taxes, supply a birth certificate, state that I wanted citizenship and pledge to submit to the Belgian constitution, the country’s laws and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms…

For the full article in Politico.EU, please follow the link here.

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