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Viewpoint / Viewpoint: ‘The tragedy of Brexit’

Jane Mack.

TEN YEARS ago John and Jane Coutts, and their son Frank (now 21), moved from Fetlar to live in rural Spain.
Here, Jane responds to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech from earlier this week and describes how her family’s life has been hanging in the balance ever since a 52 per cent majority voted in favour of leaving the European Union.

We have been living and working in Spain since 2007, paying into the country’s social security system and hopefully contributing economically and socially to the village where we live.

Our son Frank speaks and writes Spanish as proficiently as English. All his friends are Spanish and he travels around the country with little restriction beyond finding the money for the bus fare. He recently enjoyed six months’ paid work experience for a local charity, redesigning their website and social media strategy. He has a Spanish dog.

Theresa May’s speech was the first stage in depriving Frank of all these choices, along with tens of thousands of young people like him. In a short while, if negotiations go badly, Frank will have to give up his British passport and apply for Spanish citizenship if he wants to remain here as he is now. Dual nationality is not currently open to British citizens in Spain.

As his parents, we will face the same choice, but the young people will suffer most. Young British people – whether in Britain or abroad – will see their peers enjoying all the rights of study and free movement they themselves will not have. This – not some ill-defined effects on the economy – will be the real tragedy of Brexit; a generation that grows up with restrictions instead of opportunities.

The content of Theresa May’s speech was not altogether unexpected, but its sheer arrogance was. A few years ago, Italian friends were constantly apologising to me for the embarrassing behaviour of Berlusconi on the international stage. Now it is our turn to apologise.

My immediate reaction is that the EU countries, which have welcomed me since I was a languages student in the 70s and 80s, do not deserve to be insulted by the likes of Boris Johnson. Thankfully, European politicians have generally responded with diplomacy and dignity to what sounded like a declaration of war from Theresa May. With this attitude, she will never be able to negotiate any concessions for those of us living in other EU countries.

Since Brexit, our life here has been hanging daily in the balance, and even if we wanted to go back to the UK, we would lose everything. Not just bricks and mortar, but my work and all the intangible aspects of the life we have sweated to build here for ten years.

It is disturbing to see again and again the stereotypical image that all British people living in Spain are retired and spend their days drinking sangría. It’s time the British press grew out of this. Around two-thirds of us came here to work and to live normal lives in Spanish communities.

John works hard with his own business, even though he reached retirement age a year ago, and I am employed as a translator and teacher. I also retain a link with Scotland as an Affiliate Researcher at the University of Glasgow and help with projects in Tanzania on a voluntary basis. I have no idea how this type of cross-border collaboration might be restricted in future. Research and universities will almost certainly suffer.

In our village, I give English classes four evenings a week to children and young adults who would otherwise have to travel 20 miles to the town or remain severely disadvantaged in their education. In other words, most weekdays I work around 12 hours. I’m also a founder member of a reading group in our village, where I’ve been introduced to a wealth of Spanish literature – and they to some Spanish translations of English writing.

Last year, I was asked to deliver the speech from Romeo and Juliet in English from a very realistic-looking Shakespearean balcony on a fine summer evening. My very poor rendition nevertheless drew great applause from the audience who, for the most part, spoke no English, but were delighted to hear it all the same. Some were over 80. I cannot help but contrast this with some of the xenophobic messages we are hearing from Britain.

We live in a remote region where the Spanish Civil War took a tremendous toll in the 1930s. The war is still a living memory, and civil wars are particularly nasty. People find themselves fighting against members of their own family, and it takes centuries to restore trust. In their own struggle to come to terms with it, perhaps this is why people here are so astounded to see Britain sinking from what appeared to be a respected, functioning society into a dangerous mix of xenophobia, chaos and name-calling.

When politicians join in and start insulting their counterparts in EU countries with throwaway comments such as the ones made by Boris Johnson, our neighbours are simply left without words. We are particularly grateful that Scottish politicians tend to respond with more dignity and are not tempted to join the fray.

We are under no illusion. Negotiations will take a long time. Uncertainty, and an inability to make plans or informed choices is now a way of life for us for the foreseeable future. Sadly, unless Theresa May climbs down from her pedestal and negotiates with EU countries in a more respectful and diplomatic way, it could become a long-term way of life.