23 June 2016 will forever go down in my personal memoires (if anyone should ever read them) as ‘The Night Everything Got F*cked Up’.
I was living in Amsterdam at the time. I had a full-time office job at an international company. I had been working there for almost a year. The previous summer, in 2015, I had completed my MA in European Studies. Living, working and studying in the Netherlands had felt no more complicated than doing so in the UK. These were rights to which I felt entitled, and which I’d never questioned. I had taken it for granted that these rights would always exist.
Then Brexit happened.
The run-up to the referendum
I hadn’t been too worried during the run-up. In the office, people had occasionally asked me about Brexit. Did I think it would happen? What would I do if the UK voted to leave?
It was moot, I said. It would not happen. The consequences would be too disastrous. Only oddballs and xenophobes supported Brexit. (The people David Cameron once dismissed as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’. Oh, the hubris!) Most of the UK wasn’t like that. Nobody I knew was going to vote Brexit. Sense would prevail.
And yet, the result was rather different. So why did it take me so much by surprise?
I wonder now, in hindsight, if perhaps my understanding of the UK was ‘trapped’ in the politics that were current when I left. It had been four and a half years since I left the UK. It had never occurred to me that within a few years we would be out of the EU. Surely things couldn’t have changed that much in so short a time? Surely my grasp of UK politics wasn’t so tenuous?
Surely politics couldn’t have shifted so swiftly and drastically to the right without me noticing? But things had shifted.
I felt the first inklings of doubt back in May. It started when I watched the Question Time referendum debate. The panellists for Remain were Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Frances O’Grady. The Brexiteers were represented by Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom. In front of a packed Wembley Arena, populated by equal numbers of Remain and Leave voters, I watched Boris Johnson blurt out one jingoistic soundbite after another, while Gisela Stuart robotically repeated the phrase ‘Take Back Control’. But what chilled me was the response that these empty words received. At the sound of each signal-word, whether ‘Sovereignty’, ‘Democracy’, or ‘Control’, a great roar would rise up from the Leave voters in the audience. As the Leave panellists derided the Remainers for their lack of ‘patriotism’, the baying of the crowd became frightening. What scared me was the vehemence with which those audience members supported Brexit. My God, this might actually happen, I thought.
I consoled myself, though: there was a precedent. In the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, there had been a point when one poll had put Yes ahead of No. And that had worked out all right in the end.
I was against Scottish independence at the time. I worried that it would leave Scotland isolated and outside the EU. Now, thanks to Brexit, Scotland is about to be dragged into isolation outside the EU anyway – how times have changed. (But more on that in another article.) In short, although my confidence stumbled, it quickly recovered
The fateful night
On 23 June, I wasn’t worried. I had arranged to vote by proxy. Remain had it in the bag. In the evening I went home and settled down to watch the results come in on the BBC. (In Amsterdam you get BBC1 and BBC2 on TV, as well as some fun German channels.) It wasn’t until after 2am that the first results started to come in. The exit polls suggested that Remain had narrowly won it. Nigel F*rage had conceded defeat. David Dimbleby was saying that Remain wasn’t winning by as much as it needed to in the results that had already come in. But it was all going well enough. ‘I’ll stay up until I know it’s safe,’ I said to myself.
But the long horror had only just begun.
I don’t remember exactly when Leave started to overtake Remain in the results. But it was after 4am before I decided to take myself off to bed. There was a cold, hard feeling inside me. I think I knew, as I drifted off to sleep that night, that Remain had lost.
The morning after
My radio alarm woke me at 7:30am on Friday 24 June. The Dutch news blared out. I could hear something about Brexit. Groot-Britannië heeft gekozen voor een vertrek uit de Europese Unie. A clip of David Dimbleby’s voice was saying: ‘That’s it. We’re out.’
I looked at my phone. It was full of messages from fellow Brits in despair, and from non-Brits expressing shock and sympathy. I was so angry that I will admit I teared up.
I was numb as I got ready for work. I switched on the TV to see what the BBC were saying. My Danish flatmate appeared from her room. ‘Cameron is about to resign,’ she said. I didn’t stay to watch. I was already late for work.
On the tram to work I read the news on my phone. I watched the video of David Cameron resigning. And I remember it was then that it hit me. Cameron was gone. Brexit was not just an idea; something concrete had happened because of it. Should I even be going to work today? Did I still have a job or was I suddenly an illegal immigrant? Why had none of the Leave figureheads thought about this?
When I got to work I didn’t speak to anybody for a while. A fellow Brit had kindly left a Cadbury’s chocolate bar on my desk, in commiseration.
Eventually though, life intervened, and a semblance of normality descended. The jokes began. Colleagues from Egypt and Turkey offered to give advice about visa applications for non-EU citizens. It helped. We laughed. It was funny. But at the same time, it was very much not funny.
My last resort was to telephone the Austrian embassy in The Hague. My grandmother is from Austria. I asked the embassy’s citizenship department whether I was eligible for a passport. No, they said. I was not. This was the final nail in the coffin. And with it, I realised that my future living in Europe was now very much in question.
But life is not without its little coincidences. Two days later I received an email from the European Commission. My application for a traineeship had been successful.
My first day of work in Brussels would be 3 October 2016. It wasn’t over yet!
So here I am sitting in Brussels, at the heart of the European Commission, with a front row seat to watch the UK navigate the quickest route up its own derriere. Stick around to see what happens. Let the tragicomedy commence!
Brussels, October 2016