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Meet the Remainers scrambling to keep their EU citizenship

By hook, crook or marriage, they are determined to avoid a personal Brexit

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

June the 24th was a grim morning for Remain voters, and we’ve been working through the seven stages of grief ever since. Given that nobody has the faintest idea when, how or even if the UK will actually leave, acceptance is still some way off. But Remainers are a pragmatic bunch and many have now worked out that their own personal Brexit can be deftly avoided by taking another EU nationality. Likewise, UK citizens living in the EU, who have found to their horror that they are pawns in a very complex game of migrant chess between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, are concluding that now is a wise moment to complete the paperwork for residency or citizenship.

So which variety of passport would we most like? Controversially, Belgium is the top of many Remainers’ wish lists. ‘Since the Brexit decision we’ve been inundated with requests,’ a spokeswoman at the Belgian embassy confirms. One very appealing factor about becoming Belgian is that it doesn’t mean renouncing being British; since 2008 it’s been fine to have dual nationality. Also, what could be a more personal way to maintain links with Brussels than swearing allegiance to the land of beer, fries and the Diables Rouges? But then if you’re a Remainer seeking a nationality that entitles you to a better class of football team, you could go for German, Portuguese, French, Italian or Spanish. (Or even Welsh, except that wouldn’t help on the EU front.)

Demand for Irish passports is so strong that the General Register Office in Northern Ireland has halted research work: too many people were requesting the ancestral birth certificates needed to apply. The situation at the German embassy in London has calmed down to a mere 50 citizenship information requests a day, two-and-a-half times the pre-Brexit standard. Just after the referendum, it was 200 a day.

Up and down the country, those with parents, grandparents or any other relative that might entitle them to a variety of EU passport are preparing to exploit their family tree — for the sake of their children. ‘What most concerns me is how much it might affect my three kids,’ says Heidi Scrimgeour, who lives in Northern Ireland and has an Irish mother. ‘We went on a family holiday to Brussels just a few weeks before the result and had spent a lot of time talking to the kids about Brexit — under the naive assumption that it wouldn’t happen.’ Now, concerned about the future of the peace agreement and her children’s right to live, work and study abroad, she’s applying for Irish passports for the whole family.


Others are more ambivalent. ‘I’m blatantly English, though I feel I carry some Irish cultural heritage through my family,’ says Johanna Derry, a journalist. ‘I discussed it with an Irish friend… she didn’t want me to do what some Irish-Americans do and adopt a faux concept of what being Irish is.’ But come the morning of the 24th, another seismic shift occurred. ‘She was one of the first people to text me on the morning of the result, saying “GET THAT IRISH PASSPORT SORTED”.’

Diligently filing paperwork is one way to secure a foreign passport — but it won’t make your heart beat any faster. There is, though, a far more exciting alternative for the most ardent Remainers. ‘I’m about to marry a dual French-Lebanese citizen, and I’ll definitely take French citizenship when I can,’ says Rosie Paterson, a women’s business mentor who works on lifestyle websites. ‘We run an online business together and want to be globally mobile… Getting stuck without EU access is my worst nightmare!’

There’s even a new dating site set up specifically for single Remain voters looking to meet the EU national of their dreams. Shocked by the referendum outcome, Brixton students Katy Edelsten and Chloe Cordon set up Idbenothingwithouteu.co.uk. ‘We thought, let’s solve it by throwing loads of love at all of the hate,’ they explain. They stress that theirs is a romantic vision of Europe, not about arranged marriages but a very real hope that love will prevail. ‘It would be an absolute dream if we could plan a mass wedding! We’d be the happiest people ever.’

That leaves those British citizens living in the rest of the EU — around 1.3 million of them — who face enormous uncertainty about the future, and who aren’t best pleased at being held hostage by our new Prime Minister. Brits who retired to sunnier climes have already seen Brexit’s impact on currency markets cut the value of their British pensions, and they are deeply worried about what comes next.

Some, such as Linda Geller, feel particularly aggrieved because they weren’t allowed a vote in the referendum. Now retired, Ms Geller used to work for the British embassy in Brussels; she was thanked by Margaret Thatcher for her work manning the telephones after the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster in 1987, and spent years helping British companies win EU funding. But since she’d been living abroad for more than 15 years she couldn’t back Remain. ‘What should I, a 70-year-old widow, living here in a “foreign” country, do now?’ she asks. ‘Leave my home and family and move back to the UK — assuming it still exists — or toddle down to the town hall and apply to become Belgian? No contest!’

For many Remain voters, both in the UK and abroad, the choice is also an ideological one. As with the thousands who marched against the decision, singing pro-EU songs and hashtagging themselves as the #48percent, getting an EU member-state nationality is a way to show allegiance to the wider project. Two friends of mine who retired to Burgundy are in the process of applying for both permanent residency and French nationality. ‘For us it goes much deeper,’ they explain. ‘We feel we are European by culture and political persuasion. To be a citizen of a country which is no longer in Europe would feel like a betrayal of our basic instincts.’

For most British people, the summer passport scramble is usually about trying to locate it the night before their holiday flight departs. On this level, as on so many others, 2016 is proving rather different.


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