Brexit Effect

The Lost Europeans

How many of these protestors might consider leaving Britain to protect their European identity?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A segment of the British population has lost its European identity, and may choose to leave the country to regain it.

  • Facts


    • Britain voted 52 percent to 48 percent last Thursday to leave the European Union.
    • About two thirds of E.U. citizens consider themselves European. About 56 percent of British citizens feel the same way.
    • A petition in Britain demanding the European Union provide them with E.U. passports has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
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There are actually quite a few of us: Citizens who have a passport from one country, but who would gladly swap it for a European passport if the option were ever put on the table.

I am lucky enough to have been born with two passports: One from Austria and one from the United States. When I meet new people and the inevitable question comes – “If you had to pick one country that you come from, which would it be?” – I always give the same answer. If I have to pick a country, I choose the United States. But if I could pick a continent, I’d say I’m European.

That’s because I don’t really identify with one European country over another. My father is from Austria, but I only lived there when I was young. I went to high school in Brussels, but I’d hardly consider myself Belgian. I studied for five years in Britain.

For all of the divisions on this continent, there is something that ties us all together as Europeans.

Sometimes it takes leaving to realize it. I worked for six years in the United States before discovering a yearning to return to Europe. I didn’t particularly care which country. I’ve now worked as a reporter for more than four years in Germany.

There is a shared European culture, values and outlook on life and politics. Conservative Republicans in the United States can see it and are horrified by it: Europeans tend to favor a larger safety net than Americans; a concern for the environment; greater protections for workers; a work-life balance that favors the life side of the equation.

I’m surely not the only one who sees it and feels it. My background may not be the norm, but it’s hardly exceptional these days. The European Union has allowed millions like me to live and work throughout the continent.

I worked for six years in the United States before discovering a yearning to return to Europe. I didn’t particularly care which country.

About two thirds of people across the continent now consider themselves citizens of the European Union, according to a survey by the European Commission last spring. It marked the highest level since the survey began in 2010. Even in the United Kingdom, that figure stood at 56 percent. In Germany, it stood at 81 percent.

Those of us who consider ourselves European first are admittedly smaller. About 8 percent across the 28-nation bloc consider themselves either wholly European, or put their European identity ahead of their national one, according to the survey. Still, that’s nearly 1 in 10 of the European Union’s population – nearly 50 million people  – that puts continent before country.

When thinking about last week’s U.K. referendum, you should spare a thought for those British citizens who would consider themselves European first, and British second. It’s a community that was devastated like no other by their country’s decision to leave the European Union. It’s a community that, until last Thursday, was steadily growing in numbers.

I’m proud to count many of them as friends. Growing up in Brussels, I went to a European school. It’s a collection of 14 international schools spread across Europe, made up of individual language sections for each language of the European Union. I was admitted to the school as an Austrian but joined the English-speaking section, made up primarily of British and Irish children, their parents in most cases the vilified bureaucrats who work for E.U. institutions.


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These friends and others like them have shed many a tear over the past few days. Many remain in a state of shock and disbelief. They’ve been stripped of their identity as Europeans.

Some of them have signed an online petition demanding the E.U. offer a version of European citizenship. The petition has so far garnered more than 100,000 signatures. Others might be looking through their family history in the hopes of finding some Irish heritage. Others might consider leaving Britain altogether.

I don’t expect to have to suffer the same shock as they did. I remain firmly convinced the rest of the European Union will carry on. My identity as a European remains intact. But if Brexit does go forward, spare a thought for those who have lost theirs, and for the young British citizens who may never get the chance to feel the same way.


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