By Anna Weber
21st June 2021 might be the most anticipated fixture in everyone’s calendar this year. The collective public emotion that is projected onto this date easily overshadows a certain Wednesday the week after: 30th June, the end of the Brexit transition period. For Europeans living in the UK, this is the deadline to apply to the Home Office under the EU Settlement Scheme. Miss it, and you will officially become an illegal immigrant within the UK.
I came to the UK last year on my German passport and duly applied to the Scheme, an achievement which required all my Masters-level problem solving skills. It starts with the deceptively simple instruction to verify your phone number. Ironically, the application portal, exclusively designed for non-UK citizens, doesn’t recognise non-UK phone numbers. After two days of trying in vain, I used my flatmate’s phone. The next challenge is using the official ‘EU Exit Document Check’ app — unless you are happy to send the Home Office your passport in the mail and get by without an identity document for the mere matter of a couple of weeks or months. The app, however, is so woefully dysfunctional that you are left with the impression it was created out of unadulterated malice. That would at least explain why it has never been fixed in the two years since its launch. Reviews range from ‘No stars given,’ and ‘Horrendous!!!!’ to ‘Please fix it before my wife gets thrown out of the country. We don’t even know what the options are if this continues to fail?’
If you manage to lure this resisting enemy into scanning both your passport and your sad face, you then have some faithful waiting to do. As of May 2021, of the 5.42 million applications received, the Home Office is working through a backlog of 30,000 cases. That’s 30,000 people whose legal status after 30th June remains in limbo; technically, until these people receive the confirmation, they are in the UK illegally. One of them is my boyfriend, also German and a student at Cambridge. In my personal ranking of anxiety-inducing deadlines, 30th June therefore holds a particularly special place.
I myself received my status outcome back in January, but am still working on a coherent emotional attitude towards it. I have pre-settled status, which allows me to live and work in the UK until December 2025, around which time I can reapply for Settled Status, or Indefinite Leave to Remain. This sounded all well and good to me, until I realised that I would need five years’ worth of ‘continuous residency’ in the UK to do so, meaning that I cannot leave the country for more than 6 months in any given 12-month period.
The realisation that this was going to affect my life choices pretty seriously was a hard pill to swallow. The original plan for my post-master’s year was to take internships in the Czech Republic and Germany, and stay with my family before returning to the UK for a PhD. This will now not be possible without forfeiting my right to live in the UK after 2025, a prospect which fills me with unease. Sure, I could return on a work visa if I found an employer ready to sponsor me, but, being in the humanities, I’m somewhat less than confident about the probability of that happening. I’m also apprehensive about the thousands of pounds worth of NHS surcharge and visa costs if I were to stay for several years. Non-EU migrants to the UK have been faced with these conditions for years, I learnt. Voilà: my moment of awakening to the world of immigration restrictions.
I slipped in through the UK’s closing door more by accident than through any grand strategic scheming, just two months before 31st December 2020 (the point at which you needed to have entered the UK to apply to the Scheme at all). Like nearly everyone else in Europe, I sleepwalked into Brexit. My optimism as to the irrelevance of the whole project was such that I took up a B.A. in British Studies in Germany in October 2016, the very year of the Brexit vote. Studying English literature and linguistics with British history and culture, I spent my B.A. manifesting a glamorous transnational future for myself, roaming between these sceptred shores, home, and elsewhere. Fast forward to January 2021, and my Brexit hangover is setting in.
It turns out I have just spent five years immersing myself in the culture, literature, and history of a country in which it is increasingly clear I may not actually be welcome. You may think I am exaggerating, but read for yourself accounts of the detaining of EU job seekers in removal facilities throughout the first half of 2021. Some travelled to the UK lawfully to attend a job interview, others came to work as au-pairs, unaware that even unpaid work is illegal for them now. As their status was being clarified or expulsion flights arranged, some were in detention for several days, without access to their phones, baggage, or even medication, and sometimes subject to outbreaks of COVID-19.
Whilst this may have only affected a hundred or so people — the exact numbers are unknown — it does make me wonder what in is store for those of us so keen to stay. We will certainly get our fair share of state surveillance: our landlords, employers, and banks in the UK will be required to check our right to stay in the country every year. The sense that all of this could have been avoided — either through prevention of Brexit, or through my studying of French instead — is a sobering one to come to terms with.
This brings me closer to my real problem, which is not located in the realm of practicalities, but that of affect. I have long considered myself a committed Anglophile. I have watched Dunkirk so many times that I get all misty-eyed when the White Cliffs of Dover come up unexpectedly as my Microsoft screensaver. I have faithfully studied Old English, Middle English, Modern English. And yet England does not want my philia. I’m forced to choose my side of the Channel, but all I want is to admire without surrendering my independence.
Anglophilia as a phenomenon is psychologically real but academically and politically neglected. As a nation-specific affection rather than a form of nationalism, it does not fit into common frameworks of thinking about attitudes towards “the nation”. It also complicates a conservative discourse that imagines migrants as entirely selfish job-stealers who would settle anywhere. Indeed, what most patriotic Brexiteers seem to have failed to realise is that many migrants in the UK are here not just for study and work, but because they are genuinely fond of the country.
One possible reason why there are so many Anglophiles among young EU citizens is that there is no way for us to avoid learning English at school. The UK thus appears more familiar than other countries, and a door to a very deep rabbit-hole of British cultural output is opened. Recently, I have come to realise that this might be crucial to my Anglophilia — that my affection hinges on the fact that the England I know so well is one derived from books and films.
My family has no connection to the UK whatsoever but, like most German children in my generation, I was fed a consistent cultural diet of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and all 21 parts of The Famous Five. I also remember my mum, aunt, and grandma watching live coverage of every single British Royal life event on the TV. After more than two decades of exposure to such content, should I be surprised that I finally wanted to act out my wild Anglophile fantasies as an English student at Oxford? The reassurance you derive from seeing some of your cultural preconceptions confirmed is probably important to any kind of xenophilia. It’s that satisfying shock of recognition when, after watching hours of British cultural output, you watch actual Brits and see them totally live up to it. It’s like slipping into fiction: a world familiar from novels and movies, but one that you can become a part of.
One legacy of Brexit will be a class of disaffected European Anglophiles, deterred from settling in the fair Albion by bureaucratic red tape. Two German friends of mine, who had previously studied in the UK, and whose enthusiasm led one to become fluent in Welsh and the other in Gaelic, are now without any settlement whatsoever. It will be interesting to see whether their affection for the UK will last, or if the Great Disenchantment will set in.
ANNA WEBER read for an MSt in English at St Hilda’s College. She has nothing left to say.
Art by Ellena Murray