Brexit: ‘My English-Spanish children will have a very different experience from the one I’ve had’

Alberto Letona, a Basque writer who spent decades living amongst the British and eventually married one, reflects with sadness on Britain's exit from the European Union.

Brexit: 'My English-Spanish children will have a very different experience from the one I've had'
Photo: AFP

The exit of the UK from the European Union is a charge against its young people who feel comfortable and at ease with their European partners and neighbours. It has been the vote of older people which has driven the Isles and the continent apart. My English-Spanish children will have a very different experience from the one I have had.

The summer of 1974 was rather wet, but sunny. It was that kind of pleasant English weather that people very often confess to like before going on holiday to Spain. I visited the country for the first time. London would be my home for the next two months. Enough time to gain some basic English, or so I thought.

I was a young student of 19 and the country and its capital, London, very soon struck me as a wonderful place. I almost immediately took to its people, to the atmosphere, to the parks, and above all to the culture: history, music, literature and sport. That summer in 1974 I breathed something that I had not experienced in the whole of my life up till then: freedom. I was amazed that policemen didn’t carry weapons.

This was a civilized country, I thought to myself. I was even more convinced when I discovered so many public libraries with all sorts of books. Books were scarce in Spain, and many were forbidden by the regime. Reading could be a dangerous occupation at that time.

I had left behind a country where the bloody dictatorship of Generalisimo Franco was still intact.

In London, as in Paris, there were many Spanish refugees who had fled the country after a ruthless civil war, and had established a new life in the UK.

I also got to know some English people and other Europeans from different countries and backgrounds through playing football. It was a truly good experience. My world was changed and so was my vision of it.  After the summer, I came back to my city, Bilbao, to resume my studies at university. Soon the old dictator died and the future of my country improved, although not without difficulties.

Ever since that short period in the UK, I have always considered myself an anglophile, though the term does not do justice to the different nations of the UK, which I equally love.

Sometime after finishing my studies I had the opportunity to go to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland as a Basque language reader. I spent two years there and met my wife, Kate. Scotland, in some ways very different from England, was a magnificent place where I enjoyed both the academic and the day-to-day life. 

This stay would not be our last time in the UK. Some years later in 1992 we went back to London for me to complete an M.A at City University. 

All through these years we have kept returning to Devon with our two children, who enjoy two different cultures.

I have learnt to understand the UK and take an interest in its history. It is the story of sea-faring people, explorers and inventors, who were happy to take other people on board, despite their differences.

The UK thrived when it had an outward vision, not an inward one. The same has happened in Spain. Now a new reactionary party wants to convince us that the influence of Arabs and Jews was a tragic disgrace in our history, when it was precisely the reverse. 

I respect the decision taken by a narrow majority of the British people to come out of the EU. I want to believe that they have their reasons, but I can’t help feeling that the UK is a smaller place now, more inward-looking and less tolerant than the country I admired in 1974 and thought of as a great place for the future of young generations. 

Alberto Letona is a Basque journalist living in Bilbao. He is the author of Hijos e Hijas de la Gran Bretaña – Sons and Daughters of Great Britain – in which he delves into the psyche of the British in an attempt to explain them to his own countrymen. 


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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.