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Brexit: British expats share their stories

On October 31, the UK is legally due to leave the EU. Prior to that, Prime minister Boris Johnson will go to the EU Council on October 17 where he will try to secure a Brexit deal. In this frantic period marred with uncertainty and complete what-the-fucks, British expats in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, like all across Europe, are counting the days far from “home”, whatever that means.

What does Brexit mean to them? How do they see it affecting their lives as expats? How have they been preparing for it? Visa requirements, medical insurances, non-EU partners, pensions… from Warsaw to Budapest, British expats across Central Europe share their views on Brexit and tell their stories to Kafkadesk.

Adam, 37, HR for an American company in Prague, Czech Republic: “It is unlikely my wife and I would ever be able to return to the UK together.”

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“Work assignments abroad or extended personal travel may result in me losing residency and not being able to return”, says Adam.

“As part of the British in the Czech Republic steering group (local affiliate of British in Europe), I get to hear many concerns on how this impacts people who have chosen to live here. Pensioners and their families with no access to medical insurance, State Pensions (having lost 20% of their value due to currency) are not being increased long term, Brits with non-EU partners here on family visas and those without permanent residence having to plan to return to the UK after 2020 due to visa requirements… these are just some of the big concerns as well as removing the option to ever be able to return to the UK permanently with a Czech partner should we need to.

To be honest, the result of Brexit vote didn’t really surprise me. The actions since the vote and the stage we are at are shocking – part embarrassing and part deeply worrying. I’m fortunate to have Permanent Residency in the Czech Republic so my life here is relatively secure compared to many others. I’m no longer able to consider spending longer periods abroad, for example work assignments abroad or extended personal travel may result in me losing Residency and not being able to return. In addition, it is unlikely my wife, who’s Czech, and I would ever be able to return to the UK together, whether we wanted to do so permanently, or temporary to support family.

The only immediate requirement for me was to change my driving license and have done so. Long term, it does incentivise me to learn Czech better so I can apply for citizenship. As I am aware that many others don’t know all the impacts, nor have time to understand everything we have been trying to support people through the British in the Czech Republic group, as well as working with the Embassy and the Czech Ministry of Interior to make sure all Brits concerns are addressed.”

Laura, 26, veterinary student in Košice, Slovakia: “So much hinges on how the government decides to leave that there isn’t really the ability to put a plan into place.”

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Laura and her dog Astrid. “I have no idea how my Slovak husband may be able to move to England with me, no information as to whether we can still move our dogs”, she says.

“With regards to Brexit, I am extremely uncomfortable with the fact we have had no plan prior to, or even after the vote, which has led to a lot of delusion as to what we think we can receive from the EU in terms of a deal. It’s also been frustrating to receive so much different information from different sources, which is also never confirmed. The fact that we are now on the third prime minister for this is also concerning as no one seems to know how to pull this off.

Currently, Slovakia has stated that any British expat who has a residency card will have that honoured for the remainder of its validity, which fortunately puts me within the 8 years residency to apply to stay permanently. However, there has been no real confirmation on how the movement of people, animals, and degrees will survive Brexit. When I graduate next year, I have no idea how my Slovak husband may be able to move to England with me, no information as to whether we can still move our dogs, and it’s not confirmed as to the validity of our degrees. Whilst there has been optimism from the RCVS in terms of our degrees being valid, there has never been confirmation of this.

Regarding preparation, I don’t feel it’s been something we are able to do. So much hinges on how the government decides to leave that there isn’t really the ability to put a plan into place. For now it has just been improving my language skills so that I can remain here and function fully. My degree will always be valid within the EU, so I have also begun to look at more opportunities within the mainland EU.”

David, 56, retired in Kraków, Poland: “It leaves me angry, sad, and disappointed, but for many it has already destroyed lives and livelihoods, and it hasn’t even started yet!”

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“I am now also starting a new business venture, as a Scot, living in Poland, selling Italian steel to the UK market. A very European setup, and one which has so much uncertainty”, says David.

“I remember waking up to the news the day after the referendum, and being totally gobsmacked. I genuinely do not see what the benefits will be for the UK, it is a crazy act of self inflicted chaos and uncertainty. As a Scot who is passionate about Scottish Independence, I did harbour a small guilty notion that whilst I despise Brexit and all it stands for, that the act and consequences of Brexit would make Scottish Independence more likely. I still believe that this is so, but I cannot accept Brexit. It leaves me angry, sad, and disappointed, but for many it has already destroyed lives and livelihoods, and it hasn’t even started yet!

For me, as a keen traveller, I will miss the freedom of movement most. I recall, after a typical Polish driving holiday to Croatia. Having Breakfast in Zagreb, Croatia, lunch in Budapest, Hungary, dinner in a wee roadside restaurant in the Slovakian mountains, and supper back home in Kraków. A not uncommon European experience, enjoyable and effortless, thanks to freedom of movement. I am now also starting a new business venture, as a Scot, living in Poland, selling Italian steel to the UK market. A very European setup, and one which has so much uncertainty as the Brexit confusion leaves everyone guessing what the future will be in respect of import tariffs or quotas.

I’ve applied to exchange my UK driving licence for a Polish one, the procedure was pretty straightforward, I wrote a step by step guide on how to exchange a UK (or EU) licence for a Polish one on my website, Krakow Expats Directory. My new Polish licence has been waiting to be collected since June, however, I’ve not brought myself to collect it yet! I suppose that a part of me is still hoping that Brexit won’t happen and I’ll hold onto my UK licence, even though that doesn’t really make much sense, as I should exchange my licence anyway as a permanent Polish resident.

Becky, paralegal in Budapest, Hungary: “Things like registering with the authorities and accessing healthcare will not be as straightforward as it once was.”

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“It’s been a worry that we may be discriminated against in job applications or face hurdles regarding the recognition of professional qualifications”, says Becky.

“Brexit has been a total mess from day one without any clear leadership. I think a lot of politicians have been putting their internal party politics and political ambition over the needs of the country. I don’t think Brexit is a good thing for the country, I still struggle to accept it as a “democratic” result because of the way the Leave campaign was conducted and none of the actions taken by the UK government or prominent Leave supporters since the result 3 years ago have improved my opinion on it. I’m worried about the long-term effect of Brexit on the UK as a whole, both in terms of its role on the global stage and the polarisation of politics where it seems impossible for leavers and remainers to agree on anything.

It also seems like my life as an expat is going to become a lot more complicated. Things like registering with the authorities and accessing healthcare will not be as straightforward as it once was. I am worried about being able to move to another EU 27 country (outside of Hungary) and how it won’t be as easy in the future to up and move across Europe quickly without much bureaucracy as I’ve done in the past. I have to travel within Europe for work sometimes and that is likely to increase in the near future, how easy that will be in the future with a British passport is not so clear. Will I face extra costs or complete the ETIAS visa every time I travel? It’s definitely been a worry for me and other British friends living in the EU 27 that we may be discriminated against in job applications or face hurdles regarding the recognition of professional qualifications…

I’ve been attending the town hall meetings held by the UK Ambassador to Hungary, Iain Lindsay, where a lot of valuable information has been provided by both the Embassy and their Hungarian counterparts in the Foreign Ministry. There has been a lot of goodwill on the side of the EU 27 in terms of providing UK citizens with information for the transition period proposed in the withdrawal deal about healthcare rights and how to register with the proper authorities… but I’m sure a lot of that is subject to change depending on whatever Boris Johnson does now. However, my biggest point of preparation has been trying to avail myself of Irish citizenship which I’m entitled to through my grandfather. It would be a huge sigh of relief if I could get that and not have to worry so much about any potential re-registering or limitation of my rights, especially regarding freedom of movement.”

Tom, 30, Postdoctoral researcher at Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic: “My partner is non-EU and so the visa situation may become very complicated. While I hope not, ultimately, I may need to leave.”

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“Brexit could have serious consequences for me given the fact that I only have a British passport”, says Tom, who lived most of his life in Ireland.

“I was doing my PhD in Scotland at the time of the referendum but, given that I was only living there temporarily, didn’t feel it was right to vote. There are definitely issues with the EU as an institution, which need to be addressed, but the type of Brexit which seems likely (isolationist and arrogant, led by privileged millionaire plutocrats from England, who know nothing about the life of normal people) is not going to lead to good things, just more inequality and poverty.

It could have serious consequences for me given the fact that I only have a British passport. Also, my partner is non-EU and so the visa situation may become very complicated. While I hope not, ultimately, I may need to leave. For the last year I have been going through a very long and expensive process of applying for Irish citizenship. It’s unclear whether I’ll get it, despite living there for 25 years, but if I do that passport should help matters.”

Jon, 61, semi-retired in Budapest, Hungary: “Legislation might be revoked which could lead to problems with the relationship I have with my Hungarian girlfriend.”

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“The Pound has taken a massive hit since the referendum and is likely to stay in that position if we do exit the EU… anything I want to transfer here is severely reduced in value”, says Jon.

“I would have voted remain in the referendum had my local authority in the UK not corrupted my overseas address so badly on their database that the ballot papers never got to me. What is Brexit to me? It seems to be a project from the high-profile proponents to make as much money as possible due to their involvement in hedge funds and ‘tax consultancies’. If we remained in the EU, these same people could be subject to the new EU laws on tax avoidance.  It cannot be seen as being to the benefit of the country as a whole.

On the face of it, due to the Hungarian government enacting legislation earlier this year, I should be able to stay. However, like other EU governments, they require reciprocity from the UK. With stories already coming out about EU citizens being granted only limited stays, I worry that legislation might be revoked which could lead to problems with the relationship I have with my Hungarian girlfriend. A further downside is that the Pound has taken a massive hit since the referendum and is likely to stay in that position if we do exit the EU. This means anything I want to transfer here is severely reduced in value.

The only preparations that can be done for Brexit here is to ensure paperwork is correct and that I have a Hungarian driving licence, both of which were already in place before the referendum.”

Michael, 32, English teacher in Warsaw, Poland: “The uncertainty of the situation is having a detrimental effect on my health as a whole.”

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“I don’t want Brexit to happen and I am prepared to go to great lengths to see that it does not destroy the country I love”, says Michael.

“The people should have never been given the vote in the first place. I believe that the vote wasn’t ever about the EU. It was about saying F-you to the Tory party who for nearly a decade has imposed cruel and unnecessary austerity upon the poorest classes. It was a poorly thought out protest vote that has gone way too far now. I believe the Brexit vote has given the racists, xenophobes, fascist and other fringe groups the perfect opportunity they need to peddle their vile propaganda in mainstream and alternative media. British people are in my opinion ignorant of the facts about the EU and how it actually functions and the benefits it brings to Britain as a whole. It WILL damage our economy. It WILL lead to shortages of all kinds. It HAS damaged our standing in the world.

So far it has affected me fairly minimally. I will lose my NHS health cover and I have had my right to freedom of movement stolen from me. I feel betrayed by my fellow countrymen and I no longer feel I want to be British, or at least I don’t want to live there anymore. It has also affected my mental health. As I suffer from depression and anxiety, the uncertainty of the situation is having a detrimental effect on my health as a whole. I have been closely following the news and frequently check the UK Gov website for news and updates regarding Brexit, finding out what paper work I will need and any other forms I might need to complete. Arranging private health insurance, finding out my rights as a foreign person living in Warsaw…

I don’t want Brexit to happen and I am prepared to go to great lengths to see that it does not destroy the country I love.  My generation has enjoyed a long-lasting peace. We have never known war on a large scale and for that I am eternally grateful. The EU helped make this a possibility. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with my European brothers and sisters. To be part of something greater than myself or my homeland. I want to help build a brighter future for all. Being part of the EU, I believe, is our best bet to accomplish this goal.”

Lynda, 60, English teacher and artist in Budapest, Hungary: “How can so many British people have been so keen to lose their rights to travel and settle in 27 other countries?”

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“I now have a Hungarian ID card I can use to travel within Europe and hopefully in time get a passport too”, says Lynda.

“I dreaded the referendum because I had a bad feeling about it. I visited the UK just before the referendum.  I could not vote because of the 15-year rule. So I never even had a say in it. I think Brexit is a disaster, an abscess of fomented right-wing popularist hate that has been brewing up for years. If life in Hungary has, at times, been really tough, when I read about Cameron’s austerity programme, I do feel vindicated in having left.

I had no say in this and did not care to be treated like a bargaining chip. I handed in my claim for Hungarian citizenship as soon as I hit 60, as then you don’t have to take the exam in dates and history, and so on. I did have to get various certificates and write out an account of my life. But I was called in at the end if August and told I had been accepted for citizenship and took the oath on the 3 September. I now have a Hungarian ID card I can use to travel within Europe and hopefully in time get a passport too.

I am dual nationality now, but had I been living in Amsterdam, for example, I would have rescinded British citizenship. However, in time things might change in the UK and the current Tory rule challenged, though their stronghold seems rooted. I hope there will be no Huxit, we live in hope there. How can so many British people have been so keen to lose their rights to travel and settle in 27 other countries?”

A political science graduate from the University of Nottingham, Tom Eisenchteter lived in South Africa, Thailand and Malaysia before returning to his native France where he worked in the media department of the French Ministry of Defense. He is a regular contributor to the publications of French media Asialyst and of the Paris-based think-tank Asia Centre. In 2018, he founds Kafkadesk Media with his brother in Prague.

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