Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Last month I took the Life in the UK test as part of my application for British citizenship. Throughout the process, I felt acutely aware of the irony and bittersweet nature of my situation.
When I first moved to London from France as an Erasmus exchange student in 2007, I didn’t think I was moving to stay. Even after I decided to return permanently a couple of years later, I never dreamt of acquiring British citizenship. For a long time, as an EU citizen living in an EU country, there was no reason for me to do that.
The Brexit vote — the UK’s June 2016 referendum on whether to leave the EU — made me reconsider a few things. First, like many of my fellow EU expats in the UK, I applied for indefinite right to remain (or permanent residence) by compiling a dossier showing evidence of my address and professional activity for the past five years, as well as listing the dates and reasons for trips out of the country during this time.
Holding permanent residence for at least a year is a prerequisite for applying for a UK passport, but even after the referendum I found myself in no particular hurry. Then suddenly, following the publication in June 2017 of UK prime minister Theresa May’s proposal to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK, the Home Office website posted an amendment to the Permanent Residence page stating: “Your residence card won’t be valid after the UK leaves the EU.” That was when I started thinking, “OK, no one actually knows what is going on.”
At the moment — even though I have felt happy living in the UK’s cosmopolitan, Euro-friendly capital for more than 10 years — it is hard for me to desire citizenship of a country that is treating its international residents in such a flawed and careless way. Yet, despite my growing reservations, I’ve decided to get on with it.
The morning after the referendum, I was seized by genuine doubts as to whether I would be allowed to even stay in this country. And that was a problem, because London is home. I spoke to my family back in France who urged me to apply for citizenship immediately if I wanted to stay.
My father, who is roughly the same age as the European Economic Community, which was founded in 1957, said it was always going to happen with the UK. Charles de Gaulle had seen it coming, when Winston Churchill had said to him, on the eve of the Normandy landings in 1944, that between Europe and the open sea, the Brits would always choose the US.
Aside from my indefinite right to remain being up in the air, there is one sensible reason for me to go through the long, tedious process of applying for citizenship today. The permanent residence card which I currently hold, regardless of what will happen to it after March 2019, is a document that becomes invalid should the holder leave the UK for two years or more. This means that for me to always be able to come home to the UK, I may have to give up on work opportunities overseas.
Ironically, it is precisely because I would like to have this freedom that it makes sense for me to apply for citizenship: my acquisition of the English language was always meant to open doors and allow free movement, but I do not want my attachment to the UK to feel like a trap.
Anyway, I passed the test, so I’m officially almost British.
Photographs: Charlie Bibby; Alamy; Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images