It’s 11 a.m., late June 2016. I’m half asleep in my tent at Glastonbury Festival, pondering the possibility of getting out my sleeping bag, when I hear the crunch of feet outside and a loud zipping noise. My friend Jim pokes his head through the tent flap, squinting in the darkness. “Alice? Alice! Wake up! Wake up!”
What is it? I groan. What could possibly deserve this level of urgency on the first morning of Glastonbury?
“You’re not going to believe this… We’re leaving the EU.”
The atmosphere was strange that day — the air heavy with defeat and disbelief. A large proportion of the left-wing population of the UK was attending the 200,000-capacity festival and very few people there had voted to leave the EU. I was a jumble of emotions: In just two weeks I’d be starting a new job and life in Berlin.
I consoled myself by focusing on how I still had two years until the deadline to enjoy freedom of movement in Europe. Or that’s what I hoped. However, when I moved to Berlin in July 2016, Brexit was immediately part of my daily life. Friends and family back home would ask, “What will happen to you after Brexit?” Friends and colleagues in Germany would also ask, “What will happen to you after Brexit?”
Over three years later and I’m still giving the same answer: I don’t have a clue.
Others don’t share my positive, head-in-the-sand attitude. Tom has lived in Berlin for four years and this period of uncertainty has dramatically affected his personal decisions and day-to-day life in Berlin. “I had this plan to start a business but Brexit is one of the big factors why I’ve decided not to take that risk,” he says. “I don’t want to be unemployed when Brexit happens and applying for residence as an unemployed person if the business fails.”
Brexit’s got in the way of other plans too as anyone can get residency in Germany if they’ve lived here for over seven years. “One vision I had when I first moved to Berlin was to move around every few years and discover new European capitals. Instead, I should just stay here and try and get citizenship. The possibility of hopping around different countries has been put on hold completely.”
Tom is also concerned about the possibility of having to give up his UK citizenship in order to get German citizenship. “Normally, if you get German citizenship, the German government wants you to give up previous citizenship. They make an exception for EU nationals and for the UK during the transition phase, but that’s likely to end before I’m eligible for German citizenship.”
Tom has the added stress of his partner living in the UK. “Travel arrangements will be a problem. Just getting through the borders will be a lot more difficult and the idea of waiting in a non-EU queue a few times a month doesn’t sound great.”
The last two years have been exhausting. “It’s just been such a stressful time,” Tom says. “So many hours wasted desperately trying to get more information or news. It’s emotionally shaking — and it’s disproportionate to the practical effects. There’s just such a high degree of uncertainty. And what’s it all for? I just don’t understand.”
Kate And Joe’s Story
Kate and her partner Joe have been on an emotional rollercoaster since they moved from London to Berlin two years ago, but their decision to stay was swayed by two furry friends. “Brexit almost made us leave,” Kate says. “We’re both freelancers. We were subletting and paying UK tax, so we were just using our right as EU citizens to live where we wanted.” They knew how hard it would be to organize moving their small businesses to Germany, so they thought very seriously about giving up and moving back to the UK.
“We thought, let’s just go home. It’s too much hard work. And then we thought, ‘What about the cats?’ We also realized there are too many fun things going on here.”
So Kate and Joe decided to commit to their lives in Berlin. They got a contract for an apartment and went through the process of registering their businesses in Germany. While they previously split their time between the UK and Germany, now they feel more grounded in Berlin. “I feel happier and more secure that we’re in the system,” Kate says. “I feel really positive, but there is a worry at the back of my head that they’ll say we have to go home. If I’m going to leave, I want to leave on my own terms — I don’t want to be kicked out.”
Jacob is a business owner. He’s lived in Berlin for over 10 years but isn’t able to get permanent residence because he can’t pass B1 German. “I’m a language dunce,” he laughs, although Jacob’s main concern has nothing to do with language.
“Both my parents live in Germany, and if we have a No Deal Brexit, both of them will lose their health care. They’re both pensioners, so their healthcare is paid for by the NHS. If it’s a No Deal Brexit, they’ll lose it the next day.”
On top of that, Jacob has to deal with uncertainty over the fate of his business. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to run a company from this country anymore,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue to employ my British employees because they’re not eligible for permanent residence yet. I don’t know if there’ll be tariffs between the company and our customers. I don’t know if my company will be viable after Brexit.”
Despite the uncertainty, Jacob feels positive. “I’ve got a feeling that Germany will welcome tech entrepreneurs with open arms. It doesn’t get me upset, but that’s probably because I’m optimistic. I still hope it fizzles out and doesn’t happen.”
Unsurprisingly, “I don’t know” seems to be a thread of continuity in this article, too. But one thing’s for certain: Brits in Berlin are not big fans of Brexit.