To my enormous shame, I didn't know that the June 2016 UK referendum to leave the EU was happening, I had vaguely heard some news of it but had no idea when it was. I was travelling again, based on and off in Australia, and was in the middle of a trip to Mongolia. I had been out in one of the national parks out there with a small group of mostly Australian tourists staying with traditional Mongolian families in their Ger's with no internet or phone signal. Upon returning to the capitol Ulan Batar and reaching Wi-Fi I learnt that the referendum had taken place. There was minimal news coverage of it in Australia or at least none that reached my attention and there was nothing in my social media news feeds, mostly due to my removing anyone even slightly racist or bigoted so it came as a horrible shock to me that I had been so stupid and out of touch as to have missed it completely. It will always haunt me that I was one of the 27.79% of UK citizens that did not vote in the referendum and that by doing nothing I contributed to the leave vote. Would my vote have made a difference?
The result was 51.89% leave and 48.11% remain, however only 72.21% of the population voted, 27.79%, roughly a third of the population did not vote (myself included). It threw the country into turmoil and raised many questions about the mechanics of the political system and power dynamics at play. About how such decisions can be made when there is not a clear majority, what number constitutes a majority, whether voting should be mandatory and the legality of the referendum itself. The “leave campaign”, in my opinion, was driven entirely by big business and the rich trying to evade the incoming EU taxation laws. It was sold to the British public, through the national media and through data collection and manipulation on social media, as a way to divert money back into the NHS, the housing crisis and the education System. Shouldn’t the government have been looking after these things correctly to start with?
Multiple politicians including the then Prime Minister David Cameron have since admitted the referendum was called, in an attempt to relieve pressure from back benchers and they did not believe the vote would be in favour of leaving, a result which prompted Cameron to resign in July 2016. Theresa May then took over but failed to unify parliament and pass her withdrawal agreement and subsequently had to step down. It was only the Conservative party victory in the general election of December 2019 called by Boris Johnson that put the possibility of reversing the vote with another referendum to bed and the stark reality of Brexit became a certainty. After 4 years of messing around and extension after extension due to MP’s squabbling amongst themselves and getting no-where, the UK finally left the EU on January 31st, 2020, and the transition period was set to end on December 31st, 2020. Was 11 months really enough time to negotiate a proper deal with the EU?
This period from June 2016 onwards was incredibly unsettling and the country was either split and arguing or apathetic to the whole thing. It felt like the country was adrift without capable and trustworthy leadership. Bigots crawled out of the woodwork spewing their repulsive bile about immigration and created division and hatred amongst people. It was devastating at the time, not only for UK citizens but for the 3.7 million EU citizens living in the UK, many of whom were subjected to racist abuse in the wake of the vote and consequently returned to their countries of birth. Many of my friends experienced the sentiments that they should “go home now” from people they worked with or knew socially. One friend described the palpable difference in atmosphere towards her in the office the day after the referendum and how upsetting it was to her. Why was our once great multi-cultural society now deemed to be a bad thing?
I knew I didn’t want to live in the UK and decided to move back to Europe and obtain EU citizenship again as soon as possible so that my freedom of movement would be restored to me. A four-month stint at a shop in Antwerp in Belgium in the end of 2017 led me back to The Netherlands in January 2018, where I had lived 20 years earlier. As I already had my Dutch tax number and was in their systems, knew some people and had a basic grasp of the language, the move back was very easy for me. However, the approaching deadline for the Brexit transition period meant that I had to consider carefully where in Europe I wanted to be permanently based. Once that deadline came around my freedom of movement would be stripped from me, and I would be stuck with whatever choice I had made. It’s hard to describe how the pressure of this felt, panicky, claustrophobic, it did drive me a bit crazy trying to figure out what would be my best course of action. I was not yet of retirement age and would still need to earn an income, yet my work options had also just been reduced from 27 countries to just 2, the UK and whichever country I was resident in. Was The Netherlands really the best option for me?
I’ve always had a disillusionment with the structures of government and the powers that rule over us. The last 20 years of globalization and illegal wars have eroded democracy to the point of it now being non-existent. We are living inside a corrupted system that profits a very small percentage of wealthy individuals, at the expense of the rest of the world population and the detriment of the environment. My increasing dissatisfaction with our consumer driven capitalist societies was pushing me to seek out a more simpler life away from the polluted and overcrowded cities that I had always lived in. A strong desire to escape this merry-go-round carnival of lost souls, fuelled by my anger at Brexit, was rising inside me. Who decides how I live my life?
At this point I’m sure I was pretty much boring everyone stupid about buying some land, escaping into the wild, living off grid and becoming self-sufficient. I’m sure a good few of my mates and work colleagues where silently in their heads thinking “Oh no, not this again “ Some of them thought it was a really cool idea and said they would love to do something similar but their partners would never go for it and some folk just could not for the life of them comprehend how I would want to turn my back on my well paid job and disappear into uncertainty in a country whose minimum wage is around 700 Euros a month. A couple of folks said they would buy land with me, and we even got as far as making some plans together but ultimately, they all fell by the wayside and I began to realise that it would be me alone that would have to make this happen. So, in January 2020 I went to Portugal to start the process, I visited different friends already living there and obtained my NIF as a non-resident. Whilst I was there, I watched with concern the increasing number of the then new Corona virus cases being reported on the news. By the time I flew back to The Netherlands in February it was 24/7 on all the news channels. Was this the end of the world as we knew it?
I didn’t intend to cover the B word so much but as I started write about what brought me to The Alcateia Do Lobo, it became apparent how significant it was in my journey. Five years on and I have processed the grief caused by the referendum, but the rabbit hole is deep and there will be questions that remain unanswered for a long time. Brexit is not the sole reason I moved to Portugal and had it not happened I may well have ended up here anyway, but it certainly speeded everything up and forced me to make the move. Together with the Corona virus it forced me to follow my heart and trust my instincts, it pressured me to reject the given narrative and shape my own reality and where it stripped my rights from me it caused me to revolt and seek out and create a new system where we do not simply just exist, but we connect and thrive.