Once UK's conduit to Europe, Brits in Brussels find themselves 'stateless'

After years of work representing Britain in the heart of the EU government, British bureaucrats feel alienated from their own country and the principles they had been working with.

Yves Herman/Reuters
A view of the United Kingdom's seat at a meeting room in Europa, the new European Council building in Brussels last week.

Jonathan Cooper and Ola Dykes have nearly emptied their apartment in the center of Brussels, in preparation to return home to England.

Two years ago Ms. Dykes, who is Polish, gave birth to twins, and took an extended leave from her Manchester-based job managing the European Union funds allocated to Britain. She joined her partner in the Belgian capital, where he’d been working for four years.

They expected that their stay in Brussels would be temporary, only a chapter in a life lived in England. But after the Brexit vote in June – and the increasingly hostile rhetoric against migrants and British government's hard line that have followed – their decision to return might itself be temporary.

“It’s not the country I thought I knew. I feel I’m stateless now,” says Mr. Cooper, who manages projects for an internet agency funded by the European Commission. "The country that welcomed [Dykes] has suddenly changed."

Cooper and Dykes are not alone. The June Brexit vote shocked many British expats living in Brussels and working with the EU. Their lives and their jobs have revolved around the EU and Britain’s role in it, and most in time came to define themselves as Europeans, enjoying the options of studying abroad and moving easily between countries. Some are married to citizens of other member states and have dual-nationality children.

But in the wake of the June vote, these Brits say they don’t quite know where they fit in – showing just how quickly Brexit and the sentiments it has stirred are fraying Britain's connection with greater Europe.

“Up to the referendum, this kind of people didn’t feel there was a contradiction between feeling European and feeling British," says Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre. "It’s not just the act of leaving the European Union, but the fact that Britain is moving toward a more closed society, one that’s more xenophobic and that’s treating EU citizens in Britain differently. A lot of British people in Brussels feel this doesn’t represent them at all, and worry about the question of how they are going to be seen if they go back to Britain.”

'This isn't my country'

Britain was already underrepresented in the European institutions. Even though the British population comprised 13 percent of the EU total, only 3.5 percent of the European Commission jobs belong to Britons. Some 1,000 citizens of the UK hold permanent Commission positions. And that number might decrease sharply now that British Eurocrats are submitting new passports and higher-level officials announce retirements, according to Mr. Zuleeg.

“This will be the last generation. They will carry an historical legacy,” says Mr. Zuleeg. “I would also think that even those who stay within the institutions carrying British passports will feel little allegiance to the British political system.”

Certainly, it has rubbed many long-time British Eurocrats the wrong way.

“Those people feel like they’re being cut off from something, they feel that the wrong people are defining what it means to be a member of your nation," says Steven Fielding, an academic in the School of Politics at the University of Nottingham. "They don’t identify with this imperial, paternalistic, vaguely racist – and rather ridiculous in some people’s eyes – stereotype of being British, and they feel: ‘This isn’t my country.’”

A few miles away from Theresa May today met fellow attendees of the year's last EU summit, a group of renewable energy lobbyists met recently for a drink. Mark Johnston, a British expert on EU energy issues, and Tim Robinson, a British lobbyist, traded jokes about Brexit making things easier for clean energies in the EU. Mr. Robinson sounds upset about the referendum – he couldn’t vote because of a law that denies British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years the right to vote.

“Brits are the wreckers of anything in this town. We screw everything up for the other 27 countries,” Robinson says, calling Brexit “the most astounding act of self-harm.”

“They’re nuts. And that’s a carefully chosen word,” says Mr. Johnston.

Both men had moved to Brussels – the “biggest pressure core outside of Washington,” according to Mr. Robinson – more than a decade ago to work with the EU, and neither of them is keen on going back to Britain. Robinson married a French woman and their children hold French passports. 

Johnston discovered a few years ago, right around the time of the Brexit referendum, that his father was born in Northern Ireland. He plans to apply for an Irish passport to maintain European Union citizenship. Since the referendum result was announced, more than 37,000 people in the UK and Northern Ireland have applied for Irish passports. Thousands of Brits have been rushing for other EU passports after the vote.

“Many will qualify for Irish passports and a lot of them might qualify for Belgium citizenship if they’ve lived here for at least five years and paid taxes here. Most Brits in Brussels have a plan of some kind,” Johnston says.

As British citizens in general run for EU passports, so do many EU staffers looking to shore up their future. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that the “door” of that institution “is not closing now” – British Eurocrats are “Union officials” who left their “national ‘hats’ at the door.”

But whether they pick back up their "British 'hats'" is uncertain. Some are opting for a new chapeau.

"I'm a European at heart. I'm also married to a Belgian with two Belgian children,” says Greta Hopkins, a British EU official at the European Commission who’s applying for a Belgian passport. “My home is here in Belgium now,” she says.

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