At the Conservative Party conference last October, Theresa May had just emerged as the survivor of the post-Brexit referendum political bloodbath. In her new role as Prime Minister she stood in front of a podium decorated in Tory blue and proclaimed that she had a vision for Britain after Brexit. Time has shown that implementing that or any vision is beyond her political powers, but addressing a blue-bedecked and baying crowd, May gave an address that was nationalistic, unionist and established a very particular idea of citizenship — one that relied on allegiance to a British Britain and “the people down the road” over “the international elites”.
“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” May said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
The tone from Number 10 has since softened dramatically, but the offer made to the EU in July on the status of EU citizens living in the UK eroded existing rights in a way that seems both draconian and careless. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, told the Sunday Times that “unregulated free movement” of people between the UK and EU after Brexit would not keep faith with the electorate’s decision in the EU referendum, and Downing Street confirmed that it was committed to a hard Brexit, including ending free movement of EU citizens.
Meanwhile, EU citizens living in the UK are left in a state of limbo. It looks like prior rights of residence could be lost, including the rights to be accompanied by family, and the right to remain. Alongside the rush of British citizens applying for Irish passports, many EU citizens have made applications for permanent residence documents that may be useless. Any practical guidance from the government is utterly lacking, and as EU citizens potentially lose any of the key rights of citizenship, like right to return and right to vote in local elections, it is not only these EU citizens living in the UK who will become citizens of nowhere, but UK citizens in the EU bloc as well.
London voted 60/40 to stay in the EU, and — apart from citizens of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus — EU citizens living in London could not vote. Instead, they were bystanders to a referendum in which they had little voice and through which their rights to live and work were challenged and probably changed.
Over a year later, it feels as though little has changed. Even though official negotiations between the UK and EU are underway, the sideshow of chaos and political intrigue surrounding May in the higher echelons of power often distracts to the extent of dominating discussion. In a speech last month, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said Britain has not “faced the facts” and strongly suggested in parts that the UK is being delusional when it comes to expectations around Brexit. Perhaps London is a little delusional too, because as this immense wave of change swells underneath us, London in August holds its steady, quiet buzz.
There are certain coffee shops across London that could be anywhere. Their twin sisters sit in neighborhoods in Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Berlin. The furniture, the coffees, the clothes and hairstyles of the baristas, and the languages and accents filling the rooms and tables are not rooted in any one country. People sitting on antique or Scandinavian style seats share experiences, and likely views and opinions, across countries, cities and neighborhoods that morph together. The foreign coffee shop is no longer a haven for British expats or for an Irish writer experiencing real Paris. Instead, they reflect a sort of new, niche globalization among those still happy to be citizens of everywhere, anywhere, somewhere else, or nowhere.
Citizens of this international metropolis slip in and out of their favorite coffee shops, bars, neighborhoods, and train stations and airports. A state of limbo can be borrowed time to simply go to work, plan trips, drink coffee and get comfort from surroundings that are familiarly a-national, or nationally agnostic. The multilingual buzz reflects a trend of European and British citizens in London feeling part of new groupings based on different ideas of identity, and passport is just one piece. In London (capital of a country of bad coffee), coffee shops especially play host to these interactions; the doors and walls form their own mini borders, inside of which different rules of citizenship apply.