Historians' Watch

‘Suspended between worlds’: Brexit and citizens of nowhere in the 17th and 21st centuries

In her book about Leo Africanus, or Al-Hasan al-Wazzan – a Berber Andalusian diplomat who was kidnapped by Christian pirates and later authored a famous history of Africa – Natalie Zemon Davis writes that she was interested in how an early modern individual could have ‘double vision, sustaining two cultural worlds, sometimes imagining two audiences, and using techniques taken from the Arabic and Islamic repertoire’. Awareness of such double vision has enabled scholars to cross borders, confident that they are accepted as valued citizens of the Republic of Letters and residents of countries in which these republics are found.

‘William Lithgow, the Wonderful Traveller and his Attendant’ (William Lithgow). after Unknown artist, etching, 18th century: NPG D7901 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Prior to August 2017 – when I was one of 106 EU citizens issued with a deportation letter by the Home Office – my own life too was spent like this: moving between two EU countries, with my intellectual work appreciated in both of ‘my countries’. Recent years have seen growing obstacles hindering free movement of people and ideas, including travel bans, Brexit and scholars denied visas to travel to conferences. For a historian who studies people travelling and crossing borders this has been depressing to witness. As news broke of the EU referendum result in June 2016, I had just been granted a major five-year research grant from the Academy of Finland to study descriptions of self and life-writing by seventeenth-century British travellers. After living in Finland for three years, my British husband and I had decided to move back to UK. Little did we know that this would bring such trouble our way.

On the morning of 19 October 2017, Theresa May sent the latest, though probably not last, email to those who have subscribed to the regular torment that is the Home Office newsletter to EU citizens. Individually addressed, it aimed to convince us that the Prime Minister has our best interests at heart. This tone flies in the face of the Home Office relentless work to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. As a historian, who reads sources closely in search of the ways knowledge is encoded within them, I easily identified gaps in the narrative offered. The letter was not even really intended for us. Rather, it had been left in the public domain for MEPs and negotiators and perhaps May’s own constituents. Me and three million other EU citizens living in the UK were neither impressed nor convinced. We spend our time online in Facebook groups and on Twitter, tracking her empty promises; of which the promise to reach an agreement about our rights before Christmas, was but the latest. We have been told that this ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ will not change much, that we are still welcome; even if the government plans to deport some of us without the right to appeal the decision. Those of us who are here ‘lawfully’ don’t have to worry about a thing; despite massive changes ahead in both laws and immigration practices. The deportation letters sent in late summer 2017 are still fresh in our minds; but we are supposed to shrug it off and accept May’s claims that it was an ‘unfortunate error’.

There was a time when Britons were made to feel like vulnerable strangers too. From the merchants’ inns of northern Germany to the highways of the Italian peninsula and all the way to the Ottoman Empire, it was often dangerous to be a ‘stranger’ in foreign lands in the early modern period. When visiting the Ottoman Empire, well-connected British travellers often carried fermans – that is, letters of safe conduct, or permissions to travel – issued by Ottoman officials. Several even employed a Janissary guard to keep them safe during their journey. When Western Christians crossed the border to Ottoman lands, they had to accept existential changes, adapting their speech, comportment and self-presentation. British travellers frequently complained in their travelogues about being spat upon, beaten up, charged extra tariffs and entry fees, called ‘Christian dogs’ and ‘infidels’ or denied entry to places close to Christian hearts.

Despite their beautiful calligraphies, fermans were sometimes ignored by outlaws in far-flung corners of the empire, who had never even heard of England. Seventeenth-century British visitors to the Ottoman Empire had to accept being seen as ‘Franks’ by the Ottomans, lumped together with other Western Christians no matter whether Catholic or Protestant. In British eyes, Franks were French or Italian Catholics, who had longer histories and stronger links to Ottomans and more privileged access to Eastern trade. Despite being latecomers, British merchants and diplomats eventually managed to convince Ottomans to grant them ‘capitulations’ (ahdnames): bilateral agreements that conferred certain rights and privileges when trading in Ottoman lands and exempted them from local taxation and prosecution. This enabled them to become better acquainted with the Ottomans and study their customs, religion and subject people, even if many age-old prejudices remained ingrained. Early modern Britons’ ‘imperial envy’ of the Ottoman Empire – as Gerald MacLean puts it – has interesting parallels to British views about the European Union today. Both were portrayed as the ‘scourge’ of Britain, meddling with its autonomy, and converting its people to foreign beliefs and supranational loyalties. May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ resemble the British Christians who ‘turned Turk’ or came home with foppish customs from Italy. If a country tells itself stories like these, it is likely to start believing that it must go forth alone and separate itself from ‘Franks’ or Europeans.

Maybe as an historian I am prone to believe in the powers of fermans; the protecting and safe-guarding qualities of a piece of paper. As Article 50 was triggered on 29 March 2017, I applied for a registration certificate. You might wonder why any sensible person would apply for a registration certificate in the first place: it is the poor cousin of a permanent residence card, has never been required of EU citizens in the UK and is soon likely to be worth less than the blue cardboard on which it is printed. I just wanted a document proving that I was ‘exercising Treaty rights’ and thus entitled to reside ‘lawfully’ in the UK. I thought it would be useful on that ominous day in 2019. It was after all supposed to be easy. An online application simply asked whether I was a ‘worker’, ‘self-sufficient’ person, student or self-employed.

I was shocked to learn that the ‘good immigrant’ I thought I was – a working academic with a PhD, paying taxes on income from a Finnish university, married to a Briton – did not qualify as a ‘Qualified Person’. Instead of holding my own Brexit ferman, I was forced to mobilize my MP Caroline Lucas, the EUs leading Brexit-negotiator Guy Verhofstadt and European newspapers from Der Spiegel to El Pais to correct a mistake committed by an ill-trained case worker in Sheffield. On the day the news about the deportation letters broke, journalists wanted to know ‘how this made me feel’. The first things that came to mind were material: deportation would have denied me access to British academic communities, archives and libraries, as well as the right to family life. For someone interested in the emotions, senses and perceptions in the past, it was sobering to realize how difficult such feelings were to put into words. Luckily, I did not have to fight alone. Friends both inside and outside academia, Heads of Departments that I work in and lawyers came to my aid: some drafted open letters of appeal, while others put me in touch with journalists who made the story explode on Twitter. The ordeal made me realize how vulnerable people are when faced with bureaucratic machineries which are rewarded for denying people their rights and meeting unachievable targets. It also made me see how privileged I was in having such a strong safety net of friends and colleagues.

After this unsettling experience, the government’s promise that the future application system for ‘settled status’ will be a ‘streamlined, low-cost, digital process’ gives cold comfort. The registration certificate was supposed to be a formality, granting peace of mind. When it finally arrived, in an expedited delivery precipitated by the media furore, I read with tired eyes the motto printed on its cover: ‘Home Office. Building a Safe, Just and Tolerant Society.’ As someone who studies historical perceptions of ethnic and religious difference, observing how EU citizens are currently spoken about in this country is chilling. The verbs are the most annoying, implying things that are going to be done to us and hinting at a worrying lack of agency. I don’t want to be ‘given amnesty’ as I have not committed a crime. I don’t want to be ‘processed’ quickly and efficiently. I don’t want to register myself to feel ‘settled’ and pay for it, again. I can already be found on the electoral register, the HMRC government gateway, NHS systems, and my bank. Just look me up.

One Comment

  1. Excellent article. I was impressed that the author identified her own privilege and noted that this gave her access to lawyers and the ear of her MP. This same access is far beyond the reach of those EU workers employed in the NHS who cannot afford lawyers on their low wage and whose MPs are often pro-Brexit and completely uninterested in their own constituents unless they happen to be wealthy.

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