I read the following speech at the #BrexitWake in Berlin, the night that the UK had long been scheduled to leave the EU.
The strange thing about the UK leaving the EU is that a few years ago I left the UK, a place I called home, but now it feels like that old home is leaving me too.
Make no mistake, Germany is where I live now – not Berlin, but Germany; in its own way, I love Hamburg just as much as this city, with honourable mentions for Bremen and Dusseldorf. But when it comes to the heart, Britain is hard to quit. The UK is an ex-partner on whom I check up from time to time. We have long since parted ways, but I still care about them. Recently, though, I have seen them fall in with a bad crowd, and I am not sure that I recognise them anymore.
When the UK’s Prime Minister referred to people like me as “citizens of nowhere”, she meant to represent me as an outsider, as someone who roamed the vast global nowhere in search of their identity. The irony is that she is helping to make her own people citizens of nowhere. She has done her very best to ensure that they will be scornful outsiders, peering in from the edges of the world. Britain will still welcome investment from all over the planet, but its hospitality towards actual people has been questioned like never before. Though my Prime Minister has not been alone in her efforts, it is rare that a major politician has made politics feel so personal.
Part of me, a very small, quietly spiteful part, feels that perhaps Britain deserves to be an outsider. During its centuries as an insider, it did many things that shaped the world for the worse, and so maybe it will be less dangerous on the fringe. But there is is another far larger part of me, which remembers a more modern Britain which was better than that. That is the Britain I thought I knew, the Britain of my favourite teachers Janet Fallows and Andrew Robinson and Mark Freedland, who encouraged me to think critically and kindly at all times. That is the Britain of innovation in science and medicine and music, the Britain of compassionate legislation and the fierce defender of human rights, the Britain of my friends Justin in Norfolk and Tessa in Brussels and Jonny in Haiti. Recently, these better Britains have felt like a distant dream.
I have no gently poetic words to describe how I feel about the UK leaving the EU. Yes, the EU has its flaws. Look at the hard borders against Africa, the treatment of Greece. Yet it is still an institution that has protected us from the worst of what could have been, and could yet protect us from the worst of what is to come. If we judge the EU by those who would happily see it destroyed, then the UK’s decision to leave looks all the more worrying still. But we all know all this, that is largely why we are here.
I am very angry tonight. This is a time in history where we have never needed greater unity of purpose, and we are in an era where division grows by the day. And I do not mean political division between left and right. I mean division between people who want to have a plan about the planet we still seek to inhabit a generation from now, and people who don’t. I am disgusted by how climate change has become just another issue in the culture war. I am appalled by how ignorance has become a badge of honour. If recent years have reminded us of anything, it is that “No” is not only an emotion, it is a political position. But “No” is very rarely a helpful solution.
In the UK we are faced, as is the rest of the world, with the prospect of catastrophic climate change within the course of our lifetime. We are fortunate because we are in a position to sit at a table and help to drive forward policies for progress. Yet we are walking away from that table, and in the process leaving our nation in disarray. Because this is not a dignified retreat from Europe – a bold stand taken by the brave British underdog. This is a daylight heist, which I believe will thrust my country’s politicians towards the arms of the rising far-right.
My country. Maybe I need to stop saying that. Maybe I need to stop reading so much UK news, and instead concentrate on what is happening here, in my slowly-improving German. I am no longer living in the UK, I am no longer paid in anything other than euros and dollars. Despite the very many challenges I have faced since arriving in Germany almost five years ago, I have found so much here that is truly special. It is not only my taxes that are here: my closest friends are here, Josh is here, Jennifer is here, Krisz is here. I hope that my future love is here. I have much that I adore in the UK, not least my beloved Manchester United, but recently I even have a new football team to support, the women’s team of Wolfsburg. (This week, we lost the Champions League quarter-final to Lyon – but we nearly beat them, and I can promise you we will be back. Next year, Lyon, we are coming for you. Next year.)
The British Prime Minister – not my Prime Minister, not anymore – was wrong about me. When she says I am a citizen of nowhere, I can reply, no, I am a citizen of everywhere. I belong everywhere all at once. I may not fit into many people’s traditional vision of someone from their hometown. Yet whether I do, or do not, I do not care. I am here to live, to love, to contribute to something much bigger and hopefully much, much better than myself. And, for as long as I am here in Germany, I always will.