Does Brexit mean an identity crisis for young Britons?

June 2017

One year. One year and few days for being more precise. Still questions arose after that fateful 23rd of June 2016 are still the same?

What Brexit will mean in concrete? How much Britons will be affected by the referendum? What will be the real consequences of their decision?

One year later, it seems even more complicated to answer to these questions. The sudden whirl that shook up British political scene have mould an atmosphere of uncertainty even deeper than those days ahead the Referendum result. At least, as soon as Theresa May took the charge of Prime Minister, we didn’t have any doubts on what was the British government position. Hard Brexitbring May to hold the reins of government, causing her to clash against a fearful Parliament, worried to not have a say on the negotiation oversee. Strong of a certain and stable majority, Theresa May failed to control her own hubris.

Seeking to obtain a full and clear mandate to handle despotically the upcoming consultations on European base, she called for elections and she received back an “hung Parliament” and the fall of all her dreams of Hard Brexit supporter. Nowadays, with a majority who has not a real majority and an opposition still unsure on which side of the electorate it must adulate the most, the Leave side or the Remains one, English position over Brexit is unpredictable and therefore the outcome too.

This foggy panorama is not affecting only UK’s economy. UK people themselves are seeing their future suddenly at stake. What about the 1.2 million of UK citizens living in another EU country? Do all the Britons retired be allowed to stay in Spain? But mostly what will be the future of all younger generation, who never lived without Europe and who enjoyed all the benefits from the European citizenship? Will Brexit affect their identity?

United Kingdom has been the second European country for number of students, education personals and teachers who spent time abroad thanks to the Erasmus+ program, with an overall amount of 38 666 mobilities (2013 data). Student participation only has risen to 115% from 2007. European Union has been a reality lived in first person by a great number of young Britons generation. Live into another country, learn other languages and get their prejudice being slammed down by the encounter with the other, all these experiences leave a mark.  But even for who did not enjoy these experiences, still Europe has been a reality. Have the right to cross borders as they are just imaginary lines marking another region of our own state, or have the chance to move into another country seeking jobs or following aspirations, are nevertheless considered as fundamental rights not so different from right of speech or to vote, even if not used. Young generation born and lived inside the benefit of the European Union and now they regard them as normal, owed and granted. Brexit put in danger what young Britons think they have the right to do. Indeed, the 75% of the people aged between 18 and 24 voted for Remain. However, the turnout of the young generation wasn’t high enough and it had been drowned by the bulk of white, working-class and old people who formed the Leave side.

The generational clash was one of the saddest aspects of the Referendum. Middle aged and old people voted mostly for Leave as a signal of their disappointment toward the government and the political elite. With the aim to punish politicians, they voted for express their disaffection toward the new system, so different from their time system made of secure and full-time job. That flexibility, claimed to be the only solution to catch up with a swirling globalization, brought few shared wealth and a lot of uncertainty in the daily life. They wanted to gain back control, first over immigration and sovereignty, blaming the European Union to deprive them of it.  Leave side voted for what has come before. Young Britons, at the contrary, voted for what has to come next.  European Union is part of their identity. The normality with which young Millennials move to France or Germany to study, share flats with different nationality and ethnicity people, come back for Christmas Holidays with a cheap flight, consider where in Europe is better start working or doing traineeships, with 28 possible countries to choose, that means having a European identity. Their vote was an affirmation of their identity and an attempt to protect it.

However, too few youngsters actually used their right to vote (only an estimated 36%), and wasn’t enough to let their voices prevail. The reasons why young people didn’t cast the ballot are several and vary from the characteristic of the Referendum Campaign itself and the fact that young people are less used that the older generation to fight for their rights. The huge amount of false or imprecise statements, facts and data spread during the campaign by both sides, give the impression to be inside just another politicized crusade between Tories and Labour. The populist rhetoric didn’t help Millennials to recognize that voting wasn’t just supporting one party respect another, was about supporting those rights they consider so embodied in their lives that none could switch them down. The result is known by everyone. But how Brexit decision will affect the European identity of the young Millennials depends on the outcome of the negotiations. Will they be allowed to travel and participate to Erasmus project? Which kind of legal and bureaucratic impediment will have to overcome for having back their European life? Will UK citizens be allowed to keep their European citizenship?

On this last point, the decision could not be up to the member’s negotiations. In fact, as soon as the Referendum result came out, a group of four plaintiffs joined the forces in seeking a ruling from the European Court of Justice. The case brought by the Good Law Project in front of the Court was an attempt to make Brexit and therefore art. 50 reversible, but it also asking that Britons will keep their European citizenship after Brexit. The argument is based on the art. 20 of the Treaty of Lisbon which states that EU citizenship is separate and additional to the national citizenship. Even if the Court of Justice will rule in favour of the autonomy of European citizenship, still UK could refuse the ECJ jurisdiction after the exit of the country form the Union.

Among this entire looming unsettled situation there are yet some points that let us hope on a Brexit limited impact over the young Britons lives. First, European Union would be ready to take back UK no matter what. For the other Member States would be a victory and would undermine other countries attempt to do the same as UK. Therefore, is improbable that the Union would try to punish England somehow: the smallest effect Brexit will have, greatest will be the Union success, showing to the world that none could turn his back to its institutions.

Moreover, this European identity is life-blood for the Union. Grew up generations of European citizens has been the goal of Europe since the Founding Treaties. Now that this young global and cosmopolitan Europeans are starting to fully live what the Union could offer them, there are no chances that European chiefs would act against or undermine this process.

However, the Union is only one side of the bargaining. UK Government, even if weak and without majority, based and it is still basing its mandate over Hard Brexit. The Referendum result, even if contradicted by the next elections, could still have some influence over the UK requests and its negotiations line. Nevertheless, however the outcome of Brexit will be, harsh or smooth, concrete or just formal, there are no doubts that young UK Britons will continue to keep their European identities. All the experience they have made about Europe cannot be eradicated by a political Referendum. With or without European citizenship written in their ID, they will never stop to be European. Luckily, identity is not a mere fact of laws.