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.
PARIS — Et 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.