• Zuzanna Fiminska

Meaning of Brexit on non-Brexit Eve

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This piece first appeared in August 2017 with Mslexia. See below for other Brexit-related pieces with Project Neighbours as we wait to see.

The conversation around Brexit has been so focused on the economy that, when disaster didn’t strike despite prediction, we quickly forgot the real meaning of Britain’s departure from the EU. The tragedy of making any one country 'great' isn’t about money. It’s about the loss of a distinct identity that collaborative Europe gave my generation.

My great-grandfather was born a citizen of a country that didn't exist, spoke a language that was illegal and fought against the German Empire in 1918. Twenty-five years later, during a different war, his son, my grandfather, was forced to work in Germany and was only allowed to come home after the war had ended. The home he longed for, which his family had defended for generations, Poland’s Western allies had given to the Soviets.

My parents grew up in communist Poland some twenty-five years later, where getting a passport required being incredibly lucky or selling out. My parents didn’t know a world not approved by the party. The 'West', seen through underground press and forbidden broadcasts, was an aspiration, not a destination.

Another twenty years later, I was born. Poland held its first free elections. Then the Berlin Wall fell. At five, I got a passport. When I traveled with my family, crossing over to Germany took hours of queuing. Hours that would lead to us crossing; hours that my parents taught me to appreciate.

In my lifetime, borders disappeared. I learnt to speak three languages and earned university degrees in two European countries foreign to my passport, while people of over twenty nationalities became some of my closest friends. Polish culture is important to me and I have a relationship to the language that I can't replicate with English or French. I was born and raised in Poland yet, right now, I could not live there. I’m not sufficiently Polish.

I live in England, but I’m not English. I speak very good English, but I haven't adopted any English customs with any consistency. In fact, I celebrate Thanksgiving, All Saints' Day, Christmas, St Patrick's Day, St Martin's Day and a few other days whose origin I don’t know.

I see myself as European because the EU has given me freedom; freedom to travel and collaborate, make friends and fall in love with people from different communities, who have different perspectives and speak different languages. Freedom to move away when I choose to and then return in my own time to a home that’s going to be there.

The tone of political debate about Europe makes me fear for that freedom. To me, the EU is a frame of reference; a source of identity. It's an identity that no one 'country', no matter how 'great', can accommodate. Those of us who share this identity and who choose to stay after Britain separates from the EU will have to face a situation uncannily similar to what my great-grandfather faced during partitions a hundred years ago. It’s a loss that can’t be monetized.

More on Brexit from Project Neighbours:

Long-term, Brexit won't matter, but for now the Tories are executing a decision they made on my behalf. It's not a decision I would have made, with Pete Hardy.

After Bradford had voted to exit, about four-hundred people turned up, everyone saying, Bradford says everyone stays, with Javaad Alipoor.

Zuzanna Fiminska is a writer and creator of Project Neighbours.