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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Brexit forces many into life-changing decisions

"The whole Brexit thing has put me off. It kind of made me feel that my country is not what I thought it was," says British expat

Pro EU protesters outside Downing Street in London. The EU divorce is making many people, British and foreign, in the UK and abroad, reassess their long-term personal outlooks. Andy Rain/EPA
Pro EU protesters outside Downing Street in London. The EU divorce is making many people, British and foreign, in the UK and abroad, reassess their long-term personal outlooks. Andy Rain/EPA

Frustrated by Brexit negotiations, angry at Brussels or simply afraid of the future, ordinary Britons and other Europeans are already taking life-changing decisions a year before Britain leaves the EU.

Office workers, farmers and radio hosts are taking on new nationalities, relocating their businesses or looking forward to lucrative alternative trade deals, as politicians struggle to come up with a plan.

"Other people my age, they are starting settling down, they make more long-term plans with their lives," says 32-year-old Matt Davies, a British expat in Madrid.

"It's very difficult for me to plan anything beyond March 2019 because you just have no idea what is going to happen," the call centre worker says.

British and EU diplomats resumed negotiations in Brussels in February and are hoping to agree this month on a post-Brexit transition period.

But the shape of future relations between Britain and the EU is far from certain and the British government is deeply divided over how to proceed.

That uncertainty is even more pressing for the three million EU nationals living in the UK, many of whom are now questioning their future there.

Brexit affects "every part of our lives", says radio presenter Gosia Prochal, one of nearly a million Polish citizens living in Britain.

The 25-year-old is based in Peterborough, a city in eastern England that has seen a sharp rise in immigration in recent years and voted 61 per cent in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum.

AFP spoke to five EU nationals and five Britons in the UK, as well as five British citizens living in continental Europe about their hopes and fears ahead of the expected Brexit date of March 29, 2019.

William Lynch, from Northern Ireland, farms oysters in Lough Foyle, says he faces having to move his business two kilometres downstream to the Republic of Ireland - across a currently invisible boundary - if customs tariffs come in after Brexit.

"I can't really leave it till the last minute to do that," the 63-year-old ex-fireman says.

The oysters he lays down this year, largely for export to France, will not be harvested until after the UK has left the EU.

"I can't work with uncertainty," he says.

Brexit-backing sheep farmer Pip Simpson says he felt Brussels was making the negotiations "as awkward as possible" to deter other countries from leaving the bloc.

The 51-year-old voted to leave the European Union in the June 2016 referendum but now faces the prospect of losing the EU subsidies his farm relies on.

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Polls in recent months have shown a slight increase in the number of people who, in hindsight, think Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU, but experts say the difference from the referendum is negligible.

"The country was divided down the middle 18 months ago and not a great deal has changed," political scientist John Curtice told a conference this month.

The discord has left some Britons living in the EU feeling alienated.

Business intelligence consultant Andrew Ketley, 41, who moved to Munich in February last year, is putting down roots.

"We don't want to live in a country which is tearing itself apart," he says.

Barnaby Harward, 44, an editor who has lived in Warsaw with his Polish wife since 2005, is applying for Polish citizenship and ending thoughts of moving back home.

"The whole Brexit thing has put me off. It kind of made me feel that my country is not what I thought it was," he says.

EU citizens in Britain are taking similar decisions.

Gabriela Szomoru, 32, a Romanian who has lived all her adult life in Kent, south-east England, is now applying for British nationality, as well as UK accountancy qualifications.

"England is my home now," the salad-farm bookkeeper says.

For people in business, clarity cannot come soon enough.

Richard Stone, 44, the chief executive of London retail stockbrokers Share, wants Britain to sign trade agreements with the growth markets of China and India.

"It is important that we do a deal, and relatively quickly in terms of clarifying and giving business certainty," says the Leave voter, speaking in a personal capacity.

"I am reasonably optimistic we will get there, but it will be a painful process."

Since the Brexit vote, Mr Stone's business, all done in sterling, has been unruffled.

But French wine importer Laurent Faure, 50, who owns Le Vieux Comptoir bistrot in central London, says the plunge of the pound due to the Brexit vote has wiped out his profit margin.

"You have to envisage doing something else - if necessary, leaving England," the former lawyer says.

"It would be the last resort."

Dimitri Scarlato, 40, an Italian composer who lectures at the Royal College of Music in London, says Brexit has changed his perception of Britain - and of himself.

"The only positive outcome of Brexit - that made me feel really European. I really gained my sense of being European."

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