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British, but also European: Brexit strains a newborn identity

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Despite the UK decision to leave the EU, many Britons still feel a sense of connection to the continent.

For those like college student and Alex Agnew campaigning, being in the EU meant being part of a shared cultural identity that really worked to break down barriers to artificial travel and work. And anti-Brexit journalist Sam Bright says a European identity has helped him feel part of the struggle to defend and expand liberal democracy, social equality, opportunities and shared well-being.

But with Brexit now under way, European-minded Britons have yet to find a new way to express their identity. For some, this has meant trying to create a new, pro-European media to counter the big Brexit-leaning current. Others are trying to lay the groundwork for a British return to the bloc in some form.

Mike Buckley, director of the Working Group on Europe, believes that young Britons who increase their sense of belonging to a pro-European movement will inevitably lead to the return of countries to the EU. If you think gay marriage is good when you are 20, you do not hate it when you are 50. I think pro-European youth will stick around as they get older and are more likely to vote.

London

By her own admission, Jane Riekemann left politics for most of her life. Everything changed when Brexit happened, and her German husband had to obtain dual British citizenship to stay in the country.

With the decision of Britains to leave the European Union, Mrs. Riekemann says he felt a new sense of a European identity even if it is born of loss.

Being part of a wider community where I could once live and work freely was very important to me countries without borders, she says from her home in the historic English town of Bath, a place she describes as a political donut an enclave of those who voted for remain in Europe surrounded by Brexiteers.

I feel very much the loss of my legal EU identity, she says. The people I campaigned with have similar feelings and still consider themselves European.

Mrs. Riekemann is part of a significant number of Britons who consider themselves not only British but also European. Despite Britains’ decision to leave the EU, a sense of connection to the continent has emerged more and more since the 2016 referendum. But with Brexit now under way, European-minded Britons have remained to find a new way to express themselves. their identity. For some, this has meant trying to create a new, pro-European media to counter the big Brexit-leaning current. Others are trying to lay the groundwork for a British return to the bloc in some form.

Although a Europeanist path for the British is vague, if it exists at all, they like Mrs. Riekemann are firm in their faith. I have never wavered in my faith in Europe, she says. In almost five years since the referendum, I have become stronger in my conviction that leaving Europe is a big mistake. But where do we go now?

Feel European after Brexit

For Britons like Alex Agnew, a university student and activist, being in the EU meant being part of a shared cultural identity that really worked to break down barriers to artificial travel and work. And anti-Brexit journalist Sam Bright says a European identity has helped him feel part of the struggle to defend and expand liberal democracy, social equality, opportunities and shared well-being.

Have a general sense of cooperation and treat asylum seekers and migrants fairly; having a fairer and fairer economic system, he says. This may not be as radical as people might think, but being European means upholding these core values. The rise of populism, he argues, only serves to increase people’s desire to identify as Europeans in Britain.

Mrs. Riekemann has expressed herself by creating grassroots protest groups and publicly displaying her love for all things European. A statue of the yellow owl named Libby (named after the Liberal Democrats, the British pro-EU political party) stands proudly placed by Mrs.’s window. Riekemanns. Her anti-Brexit campaign group Bath For Europe created handmade EU-themed berets that quickly became iconic symbols of British Europeanism for the protests that drew one million people to the streets of London in 2018. Her anti-Brexit group designed counterfeit banknotes against Brexit with Boris Johnson, now preserved in the British Museum.

Courtesy of Jane Riekemann

Bath’s anti-Brexit campaigns for Europe created and disseminated fake bank notes satirizing prominent Brexiteers Jacob-Rees Mogg, Member of Parliament for the constituency around Bath, and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Mike Buckley, director of the Working Group on Europe, says more and more Britons will miss the chance encounters with European migrants that enrich their daily lives. Over 700,000 migrant workers left Britain in 2020, the vast majority of whom returned to Eastern Europe. Weve all been accustomed to finding Europeans behind the counter at Starbucks. … [Now] you will suddenly get the British accents talking to you. Think about it, what happened to London?

Small-scale pro-European media, which have emerged rapidly since Brexit, are helping to create a community for Britons to maintain a pro-European identity, despite the UK split from Brussels. Mr Bright, who has worked for pro-European British publications Scram News and Byline Times, says pro-European Britons have created a boost for new media publications by using the desire to keep European Britain in sight. And in that pursuit, pro-Europeans have caused a reorganization of the media space dominated by conservative heritage publications in favor of Brexit.

A way back to Europe?

As Brexit fades from public discussion this year, pro-European Britons continue to pour their energy into campaigning for a political and cultural union to return. The Stay European campaign group gained more than 162,000 members in 2020 with its vision for Britain to apply for associate membership, the closest relationship a country can have with the bloc while staying outside the EU.

Mr Agnew, who was too young to vote in 2016, says that while exciting arguments have been lost for Britain to return to European countries, change requires baby steps, such as trying to extract facts in a non-partisan way, and informing the public about how boring politics affects people’s daily lives.

Mr Buckley says he firmly believes that young Britons who increase their sense of belonging to a pro-European movement will inevitably lead to the country returning to the EU. If you think gay marriage is good when you are 20, you do not hate it when you are 50. I think pro-European youth will stick around as they get older and are more likely to vote.

Like many others, however, he fears that there are few, if any, policy promoters who support British champions who feel connected to Europe.

Still, across the English Channel, Liesje Schreinemacher, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, says the centuries-old exchange of people and ideas between the UK and its native Netherlands is an example of a deeply rooted Europeanness that will never be broken.

There will always be cultural ties between the EU and the UK, I think we will keep that bond strong, she says. Speaking like a Dutch woman, they [Britons] are our neighbors; many of our citizens have connections to the UK through family or study or work.

I believe it would be good for the UK to return to the EU. There is a new word: Breturn!

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