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Evolving Europe

Belonging and Relationship in the 21st Century

New year, new European country

The turn of the year has brought me something I never envisaged at the beginning of 2020: residency in Portugal. The certificate available to British citizens who arrived before the end of the transition period on December 31st gives me the right to spend five years in the country, at which point I can renew it or apply for Portuguese citizenship.

While I’ve made no firm decisions about where I’m going to be in the long term, for a time at least I’m joining what Samantha North calls ‘digital émigrés‘ – a growing group of international professionals who, being able to work remotely, up sticks and go abroad because they find their home country no longer suits them. They’re a more settled variant of the digital nomads which Lisbon has increasingly been attracting: cosmopolitan, welcoming to foreigners and – apart from the cost of accommodation – inexpensive, the Portuguese capital has sun, sea and co-working spaces.

Some of the more recent arrivals may be part of the Brexodus trend which has led British citizens to secure their right to live in another European country before the UK’s departure from the European Union. ‘Brexiles’ sometimes attribute their decision to a change in perception of the UK, their faith in a tolerant, cosmopolitan society replaced by a view of an insular country wary of foreigners.

In reality, of course, each person’s decision to uproot and go elsewhere is made up of myriad factors and feelings, not least their particular circumstances at the time. Life in a foreign country carries irremediable challenges: no matter how well you integrate, master the language or love your adopted country, you are always an incomer. That’s why, having been tempted by several other countries, I’ve always decided, in the end, that home was home. Living in Britain assured me the comfort of communicating in my native language and being surrounded by familiar cultural references. I also had the profound sense of safety that comes from the conviction that your society is liberal, humane and stable.

So it’s a surprise to find myself contemplating life in another country for the first time. My last minute dash for Portuguese residency, just three weeks before the Brexit deadline, wasn’t just because I’d lost my face-to-face work during the pandemic and, like many others, the ability to do things important to me. It was also due to what the UK’s Covid response revealed about the country’s priorities and values. Theatres and performance venues have been shut down without the compensation that would ensure their survival, and millions of freelance, creative people have been excluded from the generous financial support offered to the majority. Cafes, restaurants and pubs have been subject to so many restrictions and on-off closures that it’s likely that many will never re-open. It all adds up to a society which places little value on the kinds of shared experience and communal life that only take place in public space. And because of the long-term implications of these measures, I could see Britain, in the medium term at least, becoming a greyer, more privatised and monocultural place.

In contrast, European countries that I’ve been following throughout the pandemic seem committed to preserving their way of life, demonstrating how each country’s response is a distinctive reflection of its politics and culture. Visiting friends in Paris in the summer, I was impressed by how readily the French had recovered their savoir-vivre and were – while angry debates about holidays were raging in Britain – happily resuming their summer trips to other regions and continental countries.

Here in Portugal, bars and cafes – seen by George Steiner as a defining feature of European life – remain open, albeit with some restrictions. The calmness I recognise from my first visit to Lisbon some twenty years ago prevails, along with a sense that life goes on. Shops are open, and it’s still possible to visit a museum or attend a performance. On the streets and in homes, the sociability characteristic of southern Europe is visible and audible. ‘The Portuguese don’t want to give up their culture,’ a local told me. Hearing about how government decisions are being made in the UK, she laughed loudly and told me that the constitution formed after the dictatorship would prevent such a situation in Portugal.

At Christmas the authorities published advice with a focus on enabling the elderly to have dinner with their families and to see their grandchildren. I’ve been amused by an article about Portuguese police visiting those who live alone – a refreshing contrast to the many reports of the enforced isolation of the elderly in the England of 2020, when even those suffering from dementia or the last weeks of their lives have been forbidden contact with their loved ones.

All of which has brought the questions with which I began my research into European cities into sharp focus: what does it mean to ‘belong’ to Europe? What are European values? And how do I do maintain my European values in a country that seems ever-further removed from them. Unexpectedly, I’ve been forced by my nation’s response to a global crisis to take a deeper look at the question of ‘how to remain European’ than I ever anticipated when the UK left the EU at the beginning of 2020. One of the likely results is that my three cities will become four, and the book evolve into a more personal story about affinity with place.

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