New Passport, Old Identity: On Being English and European
December 27, 2020
Last year Claret Press published my memoir Learning German (badly). It tells the tale of my inability to learn the language despite the fact that I live in Berlin, have done so since 2012, and should have it under my belt by now. But I don’t. Have you ever tried to learn German? Isn't it a nightmare? The perfectly ordinary verbs that break up and scatter all
over a sentence like ninjas playing hide and seek… and don’t get me started on the cases.
Anyway, it was a joy that Katie published my book, and I was very happy. It charted my journey towards German citizenship and the delightful if long-winded odyssey of getting to grips with all the German bureaucracy that’s involved in becoming a Deutscher.
Finally, two weeks ago I got a call from the citizenship office here in Berlin telling me my paperwork for naturalisation was (incredibly) in order and asking me to come in to receive a certificate which would form and prove my naturalisation. It was a huge relief to know that everything in the massive wodge of paperwork I'd handed in in September had proved sufficient. The end of the Brexit transition period was about to rob me of my rights as an EU citizen, and with Covid-19 travel restrictions in place, my life had finally become solidly rooted in Berlin.
When my country joined what was then the EEC in 1973, I was twelve and very happy. A pretty new set of stamps was issued to commemorate the historic event. Lots of orange and mauve, plus flags of the nations, that reminded me of what was then my favourite album – a collection of Eurovision Song Contest songs. Its cover: twelve random European flags and a bunch of white doves. If joining the EEC meant getting closer to the countries that got together every spring for the one night of the year when the BBC went multilingual, then it must be a very good thing indeed.
However, for Britain’s Tory party, the country’s entry into what was to become the EU was the trigger for a crisis that has raged ever since – forty-five years and counting. It peaked in 2016 when those who thought the Treaty of Maastricht was a mark of treachery and the Treaty of Lisbon represented an attack on Britain’s sovereignty teamed up with proto-fascists such as Nigel Farage and moral-free opportunists like Boris Johnson to whip up fears about immigrants, and persuade 52% of the British people to vote for Brexit.
Brexit, before it became a personal nightmare for me, was and always has been an internal party matter for the Tories, a far too broad church riven between Atlanticists and pro-Europeans, jingoistic xenophobes and free-trading pragmatists. The rift terminated Thatcher’s prime-ministership and swept aside John Major’s too. Later it would go on to end Cameron’s and May’s. Britain’s other main bloc, the Labour Party, also represents a wide coalition, but apart from its Lexity fringe, it’s never been much bothered about Europe one way or the other – witness their pathetically apathetic fence-sitting during the 2016 referendum campaign.
Unlike both of the main parties, I was 100% in favour of European integration. It gave me a sense of identity that I’d never had before. Even as a child, I never got on with the notion of nationalism. In the UK of the 70s and 80s it seemed triumphalist and regressive. But being European was something I could groove with. When I wanted to travel, study, work, live and love all over the continent, I took for granted the barrier-free freedom that my status as a European citizen gave me. When I met a German I wished to marry and live with in Berlin, the fact that we both held EU passports meant there really were no bureaucratic problems. My European health card gave me free, EU-wide health insurance. A five-minute meeting at a town hall to get registered as resident was no biggy. And that was that.
But of course, it was more than just bureaucracy for me. How can anyone who writes in English believe his language or his culture stops at the English Channel? Nearly all my British heroes are Europeans. Wilde, Beckett, Joyce, Shaw and Stoppard arrived as foreigners and ended up reinventing the language to tell the Brits who they are. In Shakespeare, there’s Plutarch and Petrarch. Linguistically, we’re European mongrels. Culturally, we’re all Made in Greece. For me, this is both undeniable and a source of immense pride. Federation isn’t uniformity. That’s the point. We’re different, but united. Whichever passport I carry, spiritually I’ll always be a European. Or so I thought.
The Tory’s fragile unity exploded in a Leave victory, Teresa May triggered Article 50 and my European citizenship was stolen from me, as it was from tens of millions of others. Who can innumerate the full impact of this Tory civil war on everyone in Britain and indeed many millions more across Europe and the world? For me, the end of free movement meant that I suddenly faced travel problems, a plummeting pound (I spend in euros and earn in sterling), and the termination of free medical cover. I had to commit to being German, or forever be a visa-d Brit in Berlin, a perpetual tourist from a third country with no more rights than someone from Botswana or Belize. I didn’t long to get German citizenship. I don’t want to be specifically German any more than I liked being specifically British. European is what I am.
After months of checking the mailbox every day for news about the progress of my application, I finally get an appointment at the citizenship office across town in a district called Moabit, and suddenly it has to be now or else the lockdown will beat us to it! So I rush over there with my UK passport, and a photo for the new German one, and proof that I've paid the 225 euros registration fee, and my partner. His presence is required because our marriage allows me to apply for citizenship earlier than the normally required eight years of living in the country. Weirdly, the office we must attend is just round the corner from where his mother, my mother-in-law, was born in 1947.
It’s just as well my partner’s here with me. The super-friendly officer lady speaks complicated legalese through a thick mask. Additionally, there's a plastic wall dividing us and, for ventilation, the window’s open and the traffic is occasionally louder than her. I have intermediate German so understand little of what she says. It’s ridiculous! But my partner mumbles a soundtrack in English, and I agree to everything. After standing to declare “dass ich das Grundgesetz und die Gesetze der Bundesrepublik Deutschland achten werde etc etc” (basically, that I’ll obey all the laws of the land), I'm handed a lovely stamped and embossed naturalisation certificate and we troop out to meet the cold sunshine.
There's nowhere to celebrate in locked down Berlin. We cycle to Schloss Bellevue, the gorgeous palace where the President lives, and my husband takes a picture of me with the German and EU flags behind my head. ‘That’ll do for Instagram’, he says. Then he goes back to work and I wend my way through the park, along Yitzhak-Rabin-Straße and the memorials: Russian, Holocaust and gay. History is everywhere, Europe’s and ours. For years, we've biked here to gaze in awe at the rhododendrons in the spring. We’ve walked, run, sunbathed, met with friends and followed the pride parade in this park. Today, I want to see it in a different light. To see it as a German sees it. But it’s just the same as it was before: a welcome source of fresh air and a healthy place to find myself, mid-pandemic, contemplating my happy state of German-ness.
And with it, all the precious rights stolen from me in 2016 have now been restored – and I could not be more grateful.
Tim Luscombe © 2020
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