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Why Brexit still feels like a personal loss

A shepherd herds a flock of sheep in the Cevennes mountain range - Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty

It might have had five years to sink in, but for those with deep roots on the continent, the pain of Brexit still feels raw – particularly at this time of year

Before the apocalypse, this was the time of year when thoughts turned to the great migration from northern Europe south for the summer. A feeling of lightness relieved the weariness of another year at the grindstone.

I would hallucinate by the office water cooler: warm baguettes; a pastis, a croque monsieur and the Midi Libre newspaper; the smell of wild thyme and the deafening midday sound of cicadas in the arid causses of the high Languedoc.

Buoyed by the anticipation of the long road trip to my dad’s house in the Cévènnes, we’d pack the motor to within an ounce of its take-off weight, lash the offspring in the back, and set off, Toad of Toad Hall-like (Poop Poop!), thumbing through last year’s Guide Michelin for a decent pit-stop on the way. No iPads to buy silence.

The long, grinding tailback at the port of Dover was the gate to freedom.

Decanted on the other side it was familiar, effortless… provided you remembered to roulez à droite. Welcome to France, no questions asked.

Young or old, well-off or not, there was this feeling that you could just pack up and go – anywhere in Europe, at any time and for as little or long you wanted to. If you met the love of your life fine. If you experienced the joy of small things fine too.

Then came Brexit.

Now I’m braced for: “Where do you plan to travel and stay monsieur? How long you do you intend to remain in the EU? How will you fund your stay?”

What are you? My mother?

We are now officially a ‘third country’ and boy does it feel like that. We’re on probation, under scrutiny, sent to the back of the queue.

I do not mean to belittle the catastrophe that is Covid. The pandemic is of course the main obstacle to a carefree summer this year: 3.5 million deaths worldwide and counting.

But the pandemic will pass. This year, next year, sometime. Brexit however we are stuck with for a generation – maybe forever.

We have persuaded ourselves that being out of the most richly textured, civilised and sumptuous collection of nations on the planet is better than being in.

The truth is that people like me were asleep at the wheel while we were being hoodwinked, robbed of part of our identity in pursuit of an illusory place that exists only in someone else’s head: actually 15 million heads to be fair.

Like depression, the sense of loss of my European citizenship and my freedom to roam – a freedom which my children believed was a birth right before it was taken away – gnaws at me, defying reason and, until now, remedy.

It’s like going back to a relative’s house drenched in happy memories only to find that the locks have been changed and you now have to be prove it’s really you to be allowed in.

I confess. I can’t get over it. I’m not sure I want to. It’s not all right, thank you very much Boris Johnson, not all right at all.

Call me a privileged remoaner. But until and unless someone can show me that what we’ve ended up with is better than what we had, I plead guilty as charged.

Which, in a sense, is absurd, some might say, petulant.

France, after all, hasn’t changed. Europe hasn’t changed. We can still go there. Moroever, Leavers insist, we are still European. What’s the phrase: ‘Our friends in Europe’?

Tell that to EU nationals now detained without cause at Heathrow because someone on Priti Patel’s Border Force thinks they’re lying about coming back to a new job or to see a relative. Or perhaps it’s just a slow day.

But we’re sovereign. And we’ve discovered this boundless new world at the back of the magic wardrobe. We’re global. It’s cobblers of course. But it’s a narrative that enough people buy into to keep the cart from overturning.

The harsh reality is that a long and acrimonious divorce has left us estranged from those friends, partners and neighbours. The decree absolute has been sealed. But the marriage has ended badly. We are still accusing each other of bad faith. Visiting rights are strictly limited.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Something fundamental has changed, a precious connection, an invisible thread, has been severed.

Infidelity shatters the trust that binds a marriage. However hard you try to make a go of it, things are never quite the same again. Turning our back on the idea of Europe is having the same, corrosive effect.

I can’t help feeling anxious about what a return will feel like when we next drive south. Who, after all, wants to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you? It’s silly but there you are.

Perhaps someone sells stickers in French, German, Italian and Spanish that say: “Don’t blame me. I voted Remain”.

To be clear: I pass the Theresa May test. I am emphatically a citizen of somewhere but that somewhere, like a sub-atomic particle, happens to be in two places although not necessarily at the same time. I am bilingual which helps. But it goes way deeper.

To understand why I and, I suspect many like me, feel so aggrieved a little personal history is in order. We are not expatriates. We have not turned our backs on Britain.

But we have over the years, decades, put down roots – in France in my case, for others in Tuscany, in Andalucía and elsewhere. These roots are perennial, in a manner of speaking, but they are roots nevertheless and they run deep.

My love affair with France and the Languedoc in particular began in my teens. It was, as the French say, un coup de foudre, love at first sight.

Like the swallows that travel 8,000 miles each spring from southern Africa to roost in the exact same rafters in our Chilterns barn, returning to the same place year after year instils in you a sense of place, of belonging. It seeps into the very marrow of your bones.

My father was a (naturalised) French citizen. He bought a stone pile in the Cévènnes back in the 1960s, then the last great wilderness in western Europe bounded by the Lozère to the north and the Mediterranean to the south.

The house overlooked a small, limpid river in the Gard, cradled in a steep valley amid wild fig trees and a few terraced vines. Very occasionally you saw a crayfish or the flash of a speckled trout.

The house was built with locally quarried stone, roughly hewn and fashioned into a mini-fortress impregnable to the elements that hammer in from the Mont Lozère to the north.

In between my late teens and when the house was sold after my father died, I explored every inch of this heart-stirring land. I came to know every ravine, every abandoned hamlet, every cave, every ruined silk factory once the mainstay of the economy, every shepherd’s hut in a 5km radius of the house.

I had my first car accident in the Cévènnes. The medic who treated me became a lifelong friend. I poached my first (and last) rabbit with M. Maillet, the peg-legged local braconnier (poacher). He taught me how to build a still to make illicit eau de vie from our three pear trees.

I proposed to my wife by an abandoned 18th century mill built in a perfect arc over the maw of a thundering torrent emerging from the mountain halfway down a goat track on the high causses.

I became part of the landscape: flat, bone-dry plateaus, tumbling rivers, vast chestnut forests and, of course the people, the Cévènolles with their clunky Languedoc intonations, reserved to start with, but faithful to a fault once they knew you were a stayer.

Brexit, first and foremost, is a political folly. Economically it is quite simply a mistake, a huge error of judgement.

But it is also, at a human level, a great and deeply personal loss. It is the fault line that now cuts deep across Britain dividing communities, families, people, including mine.

Half my countrymen have said to me: “You are not who you think you are. You are who we say you are.”

That is well out of order and my response is: “In your dreams.”


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