Paris Calling

To Be Young, British And Living In Paris As Brexit Looms

How the current Brexit debacle looks (and feels) from a member of what may be Britain's last generation of the EU's Erasmus student exchange program.

Keep Calm
Ayaz Ali

PARISEt alors, le Brexit?

As an Englishman in France, it's a question you've come to expect. With every new person you meet, it seems to linger, just out of view, ready to spring once the time is right. And at this point — at least when it's being posed from within the EU — it's not really a question at all. It's more like a subtly camouflaged way of saying: "So, you're fucked, aren't you?"

What else can you possibly say? You perfunctorily dismiss the entire affair, as well as politicians, and modern society as a whole. It is, after all, the expected response. You continue your complaints, finish with a smile, and try to quickly change the subject.

In France, it's difficult not to feel the presence and power of European Union membership. A huge host of cultural and historical European touchstones, from museums to monuments, permeate through the nation. But it's clearly more than that. The accessibility to these national treasures belies the sense of cultural community the EU grants. Brexit, as a result, is a symbol, a joke, an insult and a tragedy at the same time, a brazen rejection of friendship and community, like a primary-school student abandoning his friends in search of a more "popular" group. It's invoked constantly in conversation, and its perpetual complications keep it fresh as a goldmine for comment and critique.

You continue your complaints, finish with a smile, and try to quickly change the subject.

Like many, I've spent the vast majority of my time at university ambling and directionless. For many students in the UK, opportunities are limited. Industries are concentrated almost entirely around London, and require the maneuvering of intense competition to arrive at a seemingly endless series of demoralizing, exploitative, unpaid or underpaid internships.

Not living in London, unable to afford temporary accommodation, and even less able to work for free, my chosen field seemed all but closed. With British higher education suffering its own problems resulting from commercialization and commodification, it can be a depressing state of affairs, to say the least.


In the shadow of the White Cliffs of Dover— Photo: Immanuel Giel

Seeking both an escape and a brand new learning opportunity, I signed up to the Erasmus+ program, an EU-funded scheme to send students abroad for a year. With subsidized tuition fees and a grant to offset living costs, I was able to move at very short notice to Sciences Po, one of France's most prestigious and competitive universities.

Despite enjoying my time and thriving there, I was on a campus situated in the tiny town of Reims, in the Champagne region, and began to feel unstimulated. So after a semester, armed with the few connections I'd made, I decided to move to Paris in search of work and my first experience living in a big city. A quick correspondence with my home university in the UK secured additional funding to support me, and meant I could leave Sciences Po with very little trouble.

Within weeks I had a job, here in Paris. Modestly paid, but Erasmus+ meant I didn't need huge loans or to break the Bank of Mum and Dad. I had the chance to not just meet and network with people, but to work part-time while freelancing on the side, which proved an incredibly valuable experience. And in discovering Paris as I explored and wrote about it, it was almost impossible not to fall in love. I'd found the chance to develop my French, discover a new city, and work in a field that had felt restricted from me for so long.

How sad that the emergent youth of both Britain and Europe will be so limited.

And as I remain here, and my experience grows, as I meet new people, and freelance for new publications — as I sell pieces for the first time, and get new, challenging opportunities — it's also impossible not to escape the feelings of sadness. Now, each time I consider staying, finding an internship, and building a real portfolio of work in France, I see yet another news piece reminding me why I can't.

Brexit means that if I really want to pursue work in this field, I have to either face the restricted opportunities of the UK, or pay for an extended visa to stay here and work. And with Brexit negotiations further into the thick of uncertainty than ever, the future of schemes like the Erasmus+ program remain one giant question mark among many others. Agreements protect students in the scheme for a maximum of 12 months after Brexit, but what happens after that is anyone's guess.

With continued parliamentary deadlocks, it seems not unlikely that many of these EU-funded, free-movement based schemes will come to a sudden and untimely end. How sad that the emergent youth of both Britain and Europe will be so limited.

For Europeans seeking careers in London's finance or tech sectors, young British artists looking to the continent for cultural inspiration, hopeful journalists dreaming of being foreign correspondents and anyone on either side of the Channel producing something worth exporting, the brutal truth is that opportunities will dwindle in coming years. The forever-pending Brexit, no matter our professional ambitions, is a slammed door in the face of young people.

With the limits of their horizons about to be constrained by new borders and visa fees, British youths looking to discover the world must face a cold reality: The island we come from is far smaller than it thinks it is.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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