Citizens of the world, unite! Why I care so much about brexit

As the UK triggers Article 50 today and starts to leave the EU, a phrase I thought I had left behind popped into my mind: ‘third culture kid’. It describes those who moved between cultures when growing up. Usually, the first culture refers to the culture of the country from which their parents originated, the second refers to the culture in which the family currently lives and the third refers to the amalgamation of both cultures. I’ve never been completely comfortable with the phrase, but I was undoubtedly a third culture kid myself.

against brexit northern ireland border communities

‘Border communities against brexit‘ sign spotted on a recent drive in Northern Ireland

I have an Irish passport, I grew up in Luxembourg and I studied in the UK where I met my now-fiancée. My Irish parents live in Luxembourg, my brothers are now all in different countries and my friends are scattered across the world. It’s great! But it didn’t always seem that way.

Brexit speaks to the worst part of my so-called ‘third’ identity when growing up: not knowing where I belonged. A sense of rootlessness and dislocation that was at times overwhelming. When my family moved back to Luxembourg from Ireland, I still remember crying in the car as a young child leaving his friends behind. Eventually, I discovered I was able to identify as European – and move beyond the ‘third culture kid’ label.

That is, until today. UK Prime Minister Theresa May made the case for brexit by claiming: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” And that feeling of third culture kid dislocation hit me again.

Careless words for a Prime Minister to utter. And wrong! It’s absurd to have to say it, but it IS possible to be from more than one place, to feel at home almost anywhere, and to identify with values that transcend borders. Like many other third culture kids, I had gradually developed a wider sense of belonging than mere national patriotism. People have far more in common than they have differences and it’s this that unites us. To coin a phrase, we’re all citizens of the world.

People have far more in common than they have differences.

Whether people have gained this perceived global citizenship by living in different countries, spending time in online communities, or just meeting people from outside their neighborhood – it doesn’t matter. Their shared sense of identity is real, and it crosses borders.

I have a strong sense of European identity. The EU may have its flaws, but so does every system of government. You work on those, you fight for reform. It’s the EU’s vision of democracy, peace and cross-border collaboration that fits so well with my values and my life. It just makes sense for countries to work together when people have so much in common. Easy travel, the internet, climate change, tax-dodging corporations, human rights…friendships, romances, families. All these now transcend borders. We should be fighting to tear down barriers, not putting more up.

We should be fighting to tear down barriers, not putting more up

Growing up in Luxembourg, I also saw the European institutions every day on my way to school. Not as closed off, bureaucratic ivory towers, but as working office buildings with the flags of European countries proudly on display outside. I made friends with people from almost every EU country. Many of my closest friends and past teachers are from the UK, where I also went to university. My heart now breaks at the thought of Britain leaving.

I will be losing a part of my culture, even though the UK isn’t planning to go anywhere physically. When I was born, the UK had been part of the European Community for almost two decades. Winston Churchill is one of the EU’s founding fathers. Much of the EU was shaped and developed by the UK, no matter what the eurosceptic press would have you believe.

One thought gives me comfort: the UK’s destiny will remain bound up with Europe, by simple history and geography. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a third culture kid, it’s that you can’t deny your roots or your geography. You can take the UK out of Europe, but you won’t be able to take Europe out of the UK’s future. Just ask any citizen of the world.

brexit march for europe westminster flags european

On a march for Europe at the UK Parliament in Westminster, London