When Alex Skinner, 29, tells you his life story, it sounds, in large part, like that of a typical Belgian man.
He was born at Etterbeek Hospital, in Brussels, and grew up in Tervuren, Flemish-Brabant. He went to school in Ixelles, and now lives with his wife in Schaerbeek. As a child, he played football for the Flemish teams FC Moorsel and VJT Tervuren. He speaks Dutch and French. His sister and parents are all Belgian. He eats stoemp and drinks Kasteel Rouge. He even supports the Belgian national football team.
But Alex is not a Belgian citizen. He is a Brit.
Why – and how – did this happen?
The short answer is that it is because he is the son of British immigrants to Belgium, both of whom decided to acquire Belgian citizenship in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum. This option, however, wasn’t open to Alex, who never acquired Belgian citizenship as a child, and who had been living in the UK in the years immediately preceding the vote.
“Prior to the Brexit vote, a British passport was just as good as a Belgian one,” he explained to me the other day. “My sister, who’s a year younger than me, got Belgian citizenship right before she left for university in the UK, but I just thought, ‘Why bother with the paperwork?’”
Alex’s full life story is certainly an interesting one. He left Belgium at 18 to study at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. For a few years after that he travelled and worked in several different places around the world, spending significant time in Italy and – of all places – the Sudan, before returning to London to work at an after-school centre for underprivileged children. But after tiring of – and never really feeling at home in – the UK, Alex decided to return to the country of his birth. He moved back 3 years ago, in early 2016, and is now working as a freelance journalist.
I caught up with Alex the other day at his apartment in Schaerbeek to ask him some questions about his present situation, as well as some more general questions about culture, identity, and of course the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.
Thomas Möller-Nielsen: Are you presently trying to acquire Belgian citizenship?
Alex Skinner: I’ve been trying for five years! For the two years prior to moving back to Belgium I tried repeatedly to get citizenship, but I was told I was ineligible because I didn’t have a job in Belgium – which was true, as I was working in London at the time. I also couldn’t get an ID card then because my father – who worked for the European Commission – had retired, rendering me ineligible for the ‘special ID’ that children of EU officials receive. Since moving back three years ago I’ve tried many times to get it, but now I’m told that I’ve been away from Belgium for too long. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the passport in a couple of years. But I don’t know for certain.
TMN: Do you harbour any regrets about not getting Belgian citizenship earlier, as a child?
AS: Possibly. But, to be honest, there’s no way that I could have predicted that Brexit was going to happen back then. My parents certainly didn’t predict it. And the feeling of being Belgian trumps, I think, whatever passport you might happen to have.
TMN: When people ask you where you are from, what do you say?
AS: I say I’m from Belgium.
TMN: Do you feel Belgian?
AS: I feel more Belgian than anything else, for sure. I certainly love living here, and I loved growing up here. I also love the people, the culture, the beer. But in a way I also feel sort of identity-less. It’s hard to explain. I feel semi-rootless, but that whatever roots I have are in Belgium.
TMN: Do you feel British?
AS: No. Definitely not.
TMN: How did you feel about moving to England for university?
AS: It had a big effect on me. I basically realised that I wasn’t English. The culture – especially the drinking culture – is totally different there: they “binge drink” a lot. And the people I met in England definitely viewed me as a foreigner.
TMN: Why did you move back to Belgium?
AS: Because I love Flanders, and I really love Brussels. I love its multiculturalism. I love the fact that there are so many different languages spoken around the city. In London, things are a bit different. I mean, yes, it’s a multicultural city, and people speak different languages, but the lingua franca among people there is invariably English. That’s not true here. You can be speaking Dutch one minute, French the next, and English the next.
TMN: Did you vote in the Brexit referendum?
TMN: Why not?
AS: Because I’m not sure if I was eligible – I wasn’t living in England at the time. And even if I was eligible, I don’t think I would have bothered to vote.
TMN: You weren’t bothered enough to vote?!
AS: Let me put it like this. If a similar vote was happening in a different country – Portugal, say – I would probably have cared about it just as much. In other words, for me, the Brexit vote was a bit like a vote happening in a foreign country. Obviously, I do care about the outcome to some extent – I’ve lived in England, I have family there, and the vote might even affect me personally – but I really just don’t feel British. Britain isn’t my home. It feels very distant to me.
TMN: How would you have voted, though, assuming that you were sufficiently bothered and/or felt sufficiently British?
AS: I would probably have voted Remain.
AS: Because I like the idea of Europe. It’s a pretty cool idea – an amazing one, actually. The EU has been great at unifying people and mixing people from different cultures. It’s also been a moral force in the world, taking the lead on issues such as climate change. Don’t get me wrong, I think the EU is far from perfect. It’s not really very democratic. It’s also quite opaque in some respects. But the idea is fundamentally a great one.
TMN: What was your immediate reaction to the result of the referendum?
AS: I was in Brussels at the time. I remember the feeling here was one almost of mourning. My dad was very upset. He’s a really committed Europhile, who has spent his life working for the EU. He felt that, in a way, his life’s work had been for nothing.
TMN: Were you surprised at the result?
AS: No, I wasn’t. In fact, I was almost sure people would vote to leave. A lot of the media in the UK – especially the tabloids, like the Sun and the Daily Mail – have been vehemently anti-EU for years, blaming the EU and Eastern European immigrants for pretty much all of the country’s problems.
TMN: Were you, or are you, angry about the referendum’s outcome?
AS: No, not really. It’s interesting: since the referendum I’ve joined a Facebook group called ‘The 48%’ – it’s a pro-Remain group. But the way in which some people in that group talk about Leave voters – the things they say about them – it really disgusts me. Sometimes it’s really vicious. Calling them “stupid” and “racist”, things like that.
Look, of course some of the people who voted to leave were probably motivated by racism. But people’s lives had also been getting worse across the UK for quite a while. The financial crisis and austerity have really harmed large segments of the population. I think the vote was mainly a vote for change. Against the status quo.
TMN: So you’re not angry with Leavers?
AS: No. If anything, I’m more upset by the EU’s reaction to the vote. In general, I just don’t think there’s been much soul-searching on the part of the EU to try to explain what happened, to try to understand why Britain left. There’s been no self-criticism. The EU project clearly hasn’t been working for many people. The EU needs to try to understand why.
TMN: Are you worried about the potential impact Brexit will have on you?
AS: Yes and no. I mean, it might be slightly harder for Brits to move to Continental Europe now, and vice versa. But we should realise how privileged we are, in the grand scheme of things. I mean, passports are almost useless items for a lot of people. For instance, my Sudanese friends are effectively trapped in Sudan with their passports – even if they have enough money for a plane ticket it’s really difficult, if not impossible, for them to go anywhere. Brexit is obviously an important issue and it will have a big impact on the world, but if you compare it to other issues – like world hunger, or climate change, or what’s happening in Yemen right now, for instance – it just pales in comparison.
I also think it’s worth adding that things are still going to be much better than they used to be, whatever happens. For instance, my dad lived in Italy in the 1970s, and he had to sign in with the Italian police each and every week. That’s not going to happen with the Brits living in Belgium, I’m sure of it.
TMN: Are you in favour of a second referendum?
AS: I mean, I haven’t signed the online ‘People’s Vote’ petition, if that’s what you mean. But, broadly speaking, I believe that the government should deliver the will of the people.
TMN: And what if the will of the people is to have a second referendum?
AS: Then the government should do that. But either way – whatever happens – Britain is going to be a deeply divided country.
TMN: Would you ever move back to the UK?
AS: Not willingly.