I had a dream of Europe. Brexit wrecked it. Boris Johnson and his ultra-nationalist cabal of English exceptionalists stole my dream and snuffed it out.
From the age of 14, when I first went to Pierrefitte, then a village to the north of Paris, on an exchange with Claude, a young French guy of my age, I have felt profoundly European. This sense of belonging intensified when, at 16, I made my first trip to Germany on another exchange, this time with an Abitur student in North-Rhine Westphalia called Gerd.
My parents felt it vital that my generation reach out to our fellow Europeans, help create peace and understanding and prevent any repeat of the necessary but utterly destructive war against fascism they had both fought in. I agreed and began a voyage of discovery of European culture and politics that has enriched my life and thinking ever since.
Richard Cobb, a great historian of the French Revolution, wrote of his “second identity” in France but, in truth, living and working in several continental countries has given me a European identity. It’s being part of a society of almost half a billion that, for all its fault lines of inequality, and they are deep, is republican, lay, socially horizontal compared with the vertical, monarchist, socially riven UK. (Let’s put Scotland to one side for now…).
This experience cemented my wish to be treated as a European citizen wherever I go. and to “live the dream.” My dream, after 50 years as a journalist reporting on Europe and the EU, was to live (at least some of the year) in mainland Europe. Freedom of movement had enabled me to work in Germany, France and Belgium as well as report on events from Moscow and Minsk to Marseille and Madrid. Now it would allow me to live, travel and (occasionally) work in semi-retirement as a fully fledged European.
After leaving Brussels and then selling up in London, my wife and I opted to split our time between Edinburgh, my birthplace, and Aumelas, a small village in the Hérault about half an hour from Montpellier. For almost 15 years we have been there as holidaymakers, tenants and, for the past eight years, owners. On September 10 we signed l’acte final by proxy and handed the property over definitively to its new French owners.
Our French friends and neighbours regret our departure (“Vous étiez nos amis et voisins écossais, vous devriez rester parmi nous,” the ex-mayor told us at a street party on the eve of our flight to Edinburgh). Frankly, they would not have felt the same had we been English; the contempt for Johnson and Brexiteers even in la France profonde is palpable.
But this is not a racist point; plenty of English folk are sitting bitterly in the same boat. Covid has made it impossible to visit your second home as seamlessly as before but it’s Brexit that’s been the killer: imposing time limits and bureaucratic hurdles/restrictions, making it hard to talk digitally to the authorities, creating tax issues that didn’t exist inside the customs union and single market.
Johnson’s (and Farage’s) freedom is for me and my fellow pro-European Brits imprisonment. Confinement in a second-tier power that deludes itself in thinking it has “global reach”. (With a foreign secretary who can’t be bothered to answer his phone…). An entity that matters not a jot to its supposed special friend, the US, but goes out of its way to antagonise its closest neighbours and natural allies in mainland Europe.
Sixty years after that first trip to Germany, towards the end of my European voyage of (self-) discovery, I feel robbed and cheated. And, yes, I’m extremely angry. Furious. Enraged. And determined to do all I can do (with others) to get out of Fortress Brexitland and campaign to get Scotland back into the EU. Regain my European citizenship and identity. This is not a dream; it’s a plan.
Image of the medieval Chateau d’Aumelas by the author