Millions of EU citizens face uncertain futures in post-Brexit U.K.
Paul Workman, CTV News
Published Saturday, March 18, 2017 10:30PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, March 18, 2017 10:31PM EDT
Jeremie Vaislic surely sells the most beautiful, the most delicious; the most expensive eclairs in all of London. Hazelnut and Milk Chocolate Treasure. Tahitian Vanilla and Pecan. Very Dark Multi-Origin Chocolate. If you ask how much you'll lose your appetite. (Let's just say, more than $8 and less than $10.) They come nestled in beautiful wrappers, which are then delicately placed in beautiful boxes and handed over in equally beautiful bags. And gone in three bites.
Jeremie is French and has been living in the U.K. for 15 years. His patisserie is in South Kensington, in a knot of streets known as Little Paris. The French consulate is here, the French lycée, the French Institute. It's a slice of camembert in a land of cheddar; a mark of what membership in the European Union has meant to the United Kingdom. Politicians from both sides of the English Channel like to say that London is the "sixth largest city in France."
And then along came the political hurricane known as Brexit. British Exit from the European Union. It was a vote that rattled every one of the estimated three million Europeans now living in the U.K. What would happen to them? Would they be tossed out of a country many had been living in for years, if not decades? There was no answer. There still is no answer.
(Brexit seems a ridiculous term by the way, which began with Grexit (Greece) and now there's talk of Frexit (France) and Nexit (Netherlands.) Would Germany be Gerexit and Spain Spexit?)
"The day after the Brexit vote, London looked like funeral," says Jeremie. He's 'optimistically worried' as opposed to others who are just plain worried. Poles, for example, and there are 800,000 living in Britain, have been targeted for hate crimes, some physically attacked. A large number have already left. Why stay when you know you're not wanted?
"I can't imagine everyone not being sensible," says Jeremie. He wants to believe the EU and Britain will eventually reach an agreement allowing most Europeans to stay.
"This is not Nazi Germany, so they're not chasing us out of the country."
Prime Minister Theresa May could have offered a goodwill gesture and unilaterally guaranteed the rights of Europeans now living here but she didn't. Absolutely wouldn't, in spite of widespread demands from friends and opponents alike. There would be no freebies, no giveaways she insisted, unless British citizens living in the rest of Europe got exactly the same rights and benefits.
"I think she's definitely using us as bargaining chips," says Patricia Connell, who's been living in the U.K. for three decades, and speaks English with a small residue of her French homeland. She runs a website called "France in London," and is politically engaged in both countries.
"It's ridiculous to think that 3.3 million Europeans living here today would actually have all of their rights thrown away," she says. "It doesn't make sense."
Many are rushing to apply for U.K. residence permits, a long and some say ridiculous process that involves filling out 85 pages of questions. Not only that, but you have to give up your passport and might not get it back for months.
"Some people have arrived with bags and bags of papers that they had to give to the Home Office to be able to get their permanent residence card. Honestly!"
The term for this and perhaps worse to come is "administrative harassment." Piling on bureaucratic hurdles which will make it more difficult for Europeans to stay. It only adds to the prevailing sense of uncertainty.
"I thought I was living in a country where everything was possible, that was open to the world," says Patricia. "And then suddenly I realized that actually, it wasn't the same U.K. that I thought I was living in. And it was a big shock to the system."
There's almost certainly more shock to come. Two years, three years, 10 years. Nobody is sure how long Brexit negotiations will drag on, or what will happen to the British economy, or the pound, or housing prices, or their nannies work visas. Or the market for Salted Butter with Homemade Caramel eclairs.
"Everybody is thinking, what will happen to my kids, what will happen to my family?" says Jeremie. "Everyone is sort of in limbo."