By Angelos Anastasiou
AS EUROPE battles yet another existential crisis threatening to unseam the very fabric that has facilitated the longest peacetime streak in its history, a public divided on the issue of continued EU membership in the United Kingdom means next year’s ‘Brexit’ referendum could go either way.
Recent press reports in the Isles suggest the prospect of Britain exiting the union has triggered uncertainty among expats in Europe and Europeans in the UK alike, who have gone as far as applying for dual citizenship as insurance against the challenges it might bring.
Fuzzy memories of long queues at passport control, higher taxes, healthcare arrangements mired in red tape, more regulation and tighter restrictions, appear to be resurfacing.
In truth, no one knows what Brexit might look like in practice. Much like its distant cousin – the dreaded Grexit – the real concern lies not for some cataclysmic, wrath-of-God moment in time when it actually takes place, but the proverbial everyman’s adjustment to the unknown, yet inevitable, complications it will generate in its aftermath – if only because adjusting to unknown consequences is all but impossible.
But if one considers it a reasonable assumption that concern of that magnitude is real, to the extent that UK expatriates in EU member states flock to national migration departments to ensure their status as EU citizens is not interrupted, the numbers in Cyprus paint a counterintuitive picture: it’s not, and so they don’t. Despite the relatively sizeable population of British residents in Cyprus, figures from the last five years show no discernible rush for a Cypriot passport. During this time, 2011 was the peak year in terms of citizenship applications – 13, of whom four were approved. In 2012, applications were down to four, and only half of that the next year. Over the last two years, ten UK nationals applied for Cypriot citizenship, five apiece.
Such low interest could be a sign of exaggerated reporting – not a wildly preposterous proposition.
“British expats in Cyprus generally do not seem to be too concerned about a Brexit,” said Penelope Heams of the CyprusExpat online community.
“There is no mad rush for a second passport. They feel there is a scaremongering campaign going on.”
More likely, the lack of a mad rush is an indicator of, well, no real concern. Though well aware that a post-Brexit environment is as yet unknowable, British expats in Cyprus seem to know perfectly well where they are. A former Crown colony for nearly a century, Cyprus gained independence in 1960, but burned no bridges with its former masters, with whom it shares Commonwealth membership.
Britain’s cultural footprint appears to be omnipresent on the island, ties of every kind between the two countries show no signs of coming loose, and – crucially – Britain maintains military bases in Cyprus since 1960, meaning it has had every reason to want to see relations with the host country flourish. In terms of conditions on the ground, the two countries might as well have formed a mini-union between them, even before Cyprus was welcomed into the expanding European family in 2004.
“I and many other expats believe that, should the UK leave the EU, special agreements will be drawn up between the UK and Cyprus,” Heams said.
“These will be much in line as before Cyprus joined the EU.”
Nigel Howarth, a retiree expat, has a similar take.
“If there is a Brexit, I hope that the UK government will be able to come to an arrangement with Europe, as Switzerland has done,” he said.
“Although Switzerland is not a member of the European Union or the European Economic Area, it has many bilateral agreements with the EU. One of these allows Swiss nationals to choose where to live and work within the EU, and EU citizens are entitled to do the same in Switzerland.”
Most expats appear cautiously optimistic that a Brexit will not leave them struggling with insurmountable obstacles, but often signed off their remarks with some expression of reservation or other.
“I am waiting to see how things progress before making any decisions,” Heams said.
“I have arranged my affairs to be very flexible where I live.”
But there are also voices arguing that to give in to the fear and panic peddled by those opposing Brexit would be to abandon common sense. The reason, they say, lies mainly in the fact that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, the factors that have produced European integration and the many benefits it has incurred, will not simply go away just because the UK has opted out.
“The UK is the EU’s largest customer and has an annual trade deficit with the EU running into many, many billions,” said expat retiree Brian Lait.
“Both parties need to be rather nice to each other, and wild speculation regarding the future relationships should be tempered by a good dose of common sense.”
Plus, Lait pointed out, despite changes in the travelling rules EU citizens enjoy, people from other countries used to visit, work, and live in the UK before it, or the countries they came from, were part of the EU.
“After a Brexit, I see no reason why well-qualified people cannot go to the UK, as they have always done,” he said.
“Besides, I seem to recall seeing that Switzerland is not an EU member, but can use the [EU-only] line at airports. So why would it not stay for the UK?”
Consensus seems to be that a world where the UK is no longer an EU member is nothing to worry about, and that the “widespread concern” reported on by the media is simply a textbook case of playing on people’s fears.
But, returning to the distant cousin – Grexit – once again, perhaps to focus on the immediate aftermath of a British exit on those immediately impacted would be to miss the forest for the tree. Perhaps the real stakes are not just how the country would cope on its own, but whether unraveling decades-worth of European integration would be confined to a one-off departure.
The panic over Grexit was that as Greece goes, so goes the Eurozone. Likewise, the pervasive sense of doom over a possible Brexit could be rooted in the beginning of the end for that old chestnut – the European Dream. While a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the question seems to be whether a chain that allows one of its links to leave is even a chain at all.
Well, Lait seems to suggest, it might not be a chain per se, but it will work like a chain, so the matter is only of academic interest. Trade, the driving force behind what we know as united Europe, will still be there, and it will work like it always has.
“I think people have a mental image of a Berlin-type of wall suddenly appearing in the middle of the English channel,” he said.
“No more wine from France, Italy, Spain, or Portugal. No more Mercedes or BMW from Germany. Then, of course, there would be no more wings or landing gears for the Airbuses that are manufactured in the UK and shipped to Toulouse.”
“On the other hand, if it meant the abolishment of the wretched pizza in the UK…”