Brexit and the curse of having a UK passport

Natasha Linhart, a 19-year-old UK student who has studied in France, England and the Netherlands, has a problem. Her passport no longer gives her the freedom she grew up with - and getting a French one is not as easy as it seems

18 January 2021
By Natasha Linhart

As a European resident born in France to British parents, I never used to consider my nationality a disadvantage.

Besides its association with poor food and worse weather (at least as far as my French friends were concerned), my status as a Briton had its benefits. For years I was able to enjoy the climate and cuisine of the south of France while also being able to appreciate the British sense of humour, crackers at Christmas and the occasional baked bean.

I really must take my hat off to Brexit. It has had the revolutionary effect of transforming our best of both worlds into the best of no worlds. Brexit has stripped us of the right to vote.

Voting is a fundamental right which allows us to shape and influence the laws which govern our livelihood. If I want to enjoy free healthcare, I vote for a party which promises a national health service. If I want to create a more sustainable planet for future generations, I vote for a party in favour of strict environmental reforms. In modern European democracies we are lucky enough to enjoy this right. Or so I thought…

Shortly after the UK joined the then-EEC in 1972 my grandparents wanted to embrace opportunities open to them. Just as many more would go on to do after them, they decided to permanently relocate to continental Europe.

My father and his brother still live in France and my three aunts have lived in Italy for more than 50 years. I have cousins in Spain and Germany, but no relatives in the UK. My sister and I were both born in France and attended local schools. We were members of various local associations such as dance, swimming and tennis clubs. We were versed in Jean de La Fontaine, never phased by regular strikes and considered no good meal complete without a cheese course.

When I was 13, my parents sent me to school in the UK. There I discovered that it was not unusual to play sport in the rain, that there was more to modern history than the French Revolution, and that British food was not nearly as bad as I had been led to believe.

At this time I started to struggle when asked where I came from. When I was younger it had been easy: I would tell French people I was British and British people I was French. At least that made me sound interesting.

Soon the novelty wore off and I started to reflect when I was asked this question. Where did I come from? My home was in France. And yet my passport told me I was British.

I was able to come up with a solution to this existential dilemma. When people asked me where I came from I would (and still do) respond: “I am European”.

In line with this European spirit, I decided to continue my studies at the University of Amsterdam, where I was delighted to discover that identifying as ‘European’ – as opposed to any single nationality – was the norm.

You can imagine my dismay in discovering that I was to be denied this identity. I had always been proud of my burgundy British passport, but the day that I received my renewed passport was as dark as its new blue colour.

Every bone of my body feels European and yet international law now tells me I am not, and that I have no claim to be. The worst part? I never had any say in this decision in the first place.

This is the truth of the matter: many of those who were to be most affected by the outcome of the 2016 referendum had no possibility to influence it. Although this is true of those under 18 who could not vote, I am referring in particular to UK citizens resident in Europe.

UK law dictates that only citizens who have been resident in the UK in the last 15 years are eligible to register to vote. This meant thousands of Britons resident in the EU were silenced at a time when they would have liked to shout the loudest and must now live out the consequences of decisions made by others.

Since then, these same Britons have been dealt a further blow: they no longer have the right to influence the future of the European countries they call home.

While only nationals may claim the right to vote in the national elections of most European countries, all citizens of EU member states have the right to vote in European Parliament elections, as well as in local elections in the country in which they reside. For example, Germans living in France can vote in local municipal elections, and French living in Germany can vote in local communal elections.

More important than the right to vote in local elections, however, is the right to vote in European Parliament elections. The future of Europe is determined at European Parliament elections. For many individuals embracing the European ideal of professional, educational or cultural mobility across European member states, their right to vote in EU elections is one of the most important rights which they can claim.

There is a solution: apply for nationality from an EU member state. This, however, is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Citizenship of an EU member state is a prerequisite for being considered an EU citizen. However, embracing the principles and objectives promoted by the European Union is not always compatible with gaining citizenship to a member state.

The mission of the European Union is to “ensure the free mobility of people, goods, services and capital within the Union”, with its key objectives being a common European area without borders which respects all languages and cultures.

But it was because I followed these European ideals that I am currently finding it hard to get French nationality.

For the purposes of obtaining nationality, the French define a child’s country of residence as the country in which they are schooled. The UK, on the other hand, defines a child’s country of residence as the country in which their parents pay tax.

I was born in France, educated in France, and my parents have paid tax in France for more than 20 years. I now work and pay tax in France. And yet, my five years of schooling in the UK preclude my right to French nationality by birth.

I have chosen to live my life in a way which would be most favourable to entering a career in EU law, politics or business. I believed that studying in France, the UK, the Netherlands and potentially Spain, would be more conducive to this career path than a purely French education.

It would appear that these decisions now prevent me from entering such a career at all. When I explained to the lady in charge of my French nationality application (now submitted over four years ago) that I hoped to pursue a career in politics, and that this would be impossible in France or the EU without a French nationality, she smugly replied that “the UK needs some good politicians”.

Despite the truth in her words, I was essentially being told by the French administration to go back to where I came from. The irony is that as far as the UK administration is concerned, I never came from there in the first place.

Britons in Europe, like me, have been doubly disenfranchised by the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. We have been twice failed by the democratic ideals to which both the UK and the EU pledge themselves.

Despite our nationality, we were excluded from its democratic voting process. Despite our commitment to the values and principles embodied by the European Union, we have now been excluded from it too. What amazes me the most? Nobody seems to care or be doing anything about it.

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